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Smoking in the Boardroom

Many corporate executives still enjoy a great cigar.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Jack Nicholson, Summer 95

(continued from page 1)

"If I haven't got a cigar, there's something wrong," he says. "If you're not doing it, it's a distraction. I mean, it's like you're sitting and you don't have your pants on." Every day, he smokes six or seven Churchill cigars that he buys from a Cuban shop in New York City. The cigar makers there roll them in front of customers, using Dominican tobacco. He also smokes a few dried cigars from Europe.

"I just always liked a big cigar," says McGovern, who started smoking them at age 13. "Back in those days I used to buy the big El Productos. I think they were cardboard." Walk into McGovern's office and odds are you'll be handed a cigar. He passes them around to celebrate deals, when meeting clients or just when shooting the breeze. He says he hands them to everybody. "People all of a sudden start smoking again when you pass them out. A guy puts his cigarette out and says 'Oh yeah, I'm a cigar smoker,' " he laughs. He frequently shares a cigar with his 34-year-old son Eric, executive vice president of the company.

McGovern is a fairly imposing fellow, with his booming voice, large frame, gleaming head and flamboyant dress, and people who object to his smoking rarely confront him directly. "You know you're being talked about. And you know that the women are looking at you kind of squint-eyed, like you just grew the devil's tail. And you get a lot of whisperings. And then you always get those subtle moves where a couple gets up and moves to the other end of the restaurant," he says. Does this annoy him? "No, I love it!" he roars. "You can just keep smoking.

"I've always enjoyed a cigar. And, I'll tell you, it was a shock when I moved back from Europe," says McGovern. "Every once in a while I walk out, go down the elevator, and somebody says you can't smoke. It's not like it used to be."

All the businessmen interviewed for this story lament the dramatic decline of smoking freedom that they once enjoyed. Balch used to smoke in his home, until his wife renovated and declared cigars off-limits. He tore down his garage and created a smoking den, complete with heat, cable TV, hot water and a sofa. Chrysler COO Lutz was once married to a woman who hated cigar smoke. "I finally would lie with my head half in the open fireplace," he says. "Smoke would be extracted up the chimney."

The advent of antismoking laws in the 1980s changed the smoking atmosphere at American Express, but Linen still smokes everyday in his Manhattan office. He'll either pick a suitable cigar from his office humidor, or trek to his local J.R. Tobacco or Nat Sherman store and ask for a recommendation. When he lights up in his office, he makes sure to close his door and turn on his air purifier. No one complains. "My staff has been with me long enough, so they put up with me," he jokes.

Linen enjoys a variety of cigars. "I smoke half a dozen brands," he says, naming Dunhill, Davidoff, Partagas, H. Upmann and Punch among his favorites. He also smokes Cuban cigars on occasion. "I like a medium-sized cigar, and sometimes I like a robusto. I tend to savor a mild, aromatic brand, and I smoke one or two a day in the office and one or two on the golf course," he says. Linen is a nine handicapper, and the cigars taste even better when he's on the links. "I rarely smoke at home, unless we have a dinner party," he says. "A good cigar after dinner is always appropriate."

Philip H. Geier Jr., chairman and CEO of the Interpublic Group of Companies, Inc., a $2 billion advertising and communications holding company, can't smoke at home, so he smokes in his midtown Manhattan office. He lobbies fiercely for the rights of his fellow cigar smokers. In 1986 he wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times entitled "Where Smokers Can Breathe Free," opposing restricted smoking in public areas.

"It's a lot easier for the chairman of a company to enjoy a cigar and for other people having to put up with it, than somebody who's fourth or fifth in the company and loves cigars," he admits. But Geier is not immune to antismoking fervor--even in his own office.

"One time we had somebody at the company complaining to the health department about the smoke," he says, savoring a Montecristo in his spacious conference room overlooking the Avenue of the Americas. "I said it's harassment. If I could have found out who it was, you could be sure they weren't going to be around."

Geier began smoking Cuban cigars 20 years ago when he attended a business dinner in England. "It was one of those long English dinners where everybody started smoking cigars, so I tried one, and I enjoyed it. There was Port, and it was just the perfect combination."

He smokes two or three cigars a day, usually Montecristos. He has a robusto at around 11 a.m. and follows his lunch with a Churchill for the afternoon. For him, cigars are the perfect tool to help him think over a problem or ease tension.

"You can sit back and enjoy it, take two or three minutes and savor it, and you think through whatever problems or situations. It's a nice relaxer when you've got some tension going. And in our business there's tension every minute of the day."

He spends around 30 percent of his time outside the United States, where the smoking environment is far more open. Since he can no longer smoke on most flights, he likes to light up right when he hits the airport, which can make taking a cab a problem. "If the cab driver says, 'No smoking,' I immediately say I'll take the next cab. Other times I'll say, 'Do you want a big tip?' The guy says yes. Then I'm going to smoke the cigar. No problem. Even with the No Smoking sign inside the cab."

Geier's 1986 article is even more relevant today. The antismoking fervor has reached such a peak that Geier no longer poses with a cigar for his photo in the annual report. And when a business magazine takes a picture of him, he leaves his cigar in the humidor. "I changed because of the possible irritation," he explains.

Some cigar-smoking executives don't even care to discuss their habit. Michel David-Weill, senior partner of Lazard Frères & Co., enjoys cigars, but a spokesperson says he doesn't feel comfortable being interviewed about smoking.

Geier speaks freely about his beloved cigars, although he doesn't smoke at home. Like many smokers, his wife does not enjoy the smell of smoke. To keep her and other "cigar widows" happy, he offers a tip: He administers a healthy dose of Polo Sport before he leaves the office. "It works," he says.

Geier has a system of vents and blowers in his office and boardroom, like many smoking executives. Steve Florio, president of The Condé Nast Publications Inc., goes even further to avoid bothering nonsmokers in his office--a habit that seems uncharacteristic of a man who has a reputation for being a tough boss. Florio has the whole range of blowers and vents in his office, but before he lights up, he closes his door and cracks a window to keep his secretary happy. He enjoys La Gloria Cubanas and Hoyo de Monterrey Excaliburs, and he smokes Cubans on special occasions.

Florio began smoking in his late 20s with his Ivy League pals. His fondest cigar memory was a night 20 years ago when his wife and best friend took him to a French restaurant in the British Virgin Islands. The meal ended with a fine cigar. "Smoking cigars has a warm, calming effect on me," he says. He saves his heavy-duty smoking for when he's out of the office, especially when he's sailing. "I always smoke when I'm out on the water."

Chrysler's Lutz had his first great cigar experience on the water, when he was in the Marine Corps stationed off the Philippines on a helicopter carrier. "A friend of mine--a fellow officer--and I used to go up onto the flight bridge after dinner and sit [watching] the sunset, smoking Alhambra Philippine cigars," he says. "I found it just an unbelievably restful, blissful experience, smoking a cigar on these very warm summer evenings, floating there off the Philippine coast, with the sun setting, with the big leather captain's chair and my feet up on the footrest tilted back, and sort of philosophizing about nothing."

Lutz comes from a long line of passionate cigar smokers. He has an oil portrait of his Swiss great-great-grandfather, posing with a cigar in his hand. Lutz's 87-year-old father gave up cigars when he turned 80, but he still buys smokes for his son. And he gets the first taste.

"He still enjoys buying cigars for me, and he does so with great love and with great pleasure. And when he gives me an unopened box, he watches me take out a cigar, cut the end, light it, then he says, 'Wait a minute, pass it over please.' He puffs and says, 'Ah! Not bad, not bad.' "

In 1966, Lutz worked in Europe for GM. While there, he began sampling Cuban cigars. He met Charlie Ritz of the Ritz Hotel chain, and the two struck up a friendship over cigars. "He used to invite me to lunch at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, and that was always accompanied by the ceremonial rolling out of the fine specimens from his private collection," Lutz says. "Charlie Ritz had this tool kit, in this little black suede leather roll. These were all special instruments that he had had made for the occasional cigar that's badly rolled and burns on one side and so forth. And he had these miniature augers, little drills and punches, and if the cigar wasn't burning on one side he would punch a little hole in that side."

Cigar smoking is a time-honored tradition at Chrysler. Historic photos of Chrysler executives show many with cigars in their hands. Lutz smokes cigars with Chrysler chairman and CEO Robert J. Eaton. Chrysler's most famous boss, the retired Lee Iacocca, also smoked fine cigars while at the company. One day, Iacocca offered one to Lutz.

"He had these green things," says Lutz. "One day he presented one to me ceremonially and said: 'Here, try one of these, Bob. These are genuine Havanas from Efrem Zimbalist Jr.' And I said wow, thanks. And I looked at it, because I had never seen that type of wrapped Cuban cigar before. So I slipped it out of the cellophane, clipped the end off and started smoking it. And it was absolutely foul. A really bad cigar." Lutz removed the band and scrutinized the writing. There he saw the words: 'Printed in USA.' "I said I don't know, Lee. This little band says: 'Printed in USA.' And he says, 'No, they're real Cubans! Zimbalist Jr., god damn it!' That was as mad as I've ever seen him get."

Lutz jokingly dubs that incident "Reasons I didn't make chairman, No. 77 in a series." He quickly adds that Iacocca once handed him a Ziplock baggie containing five of the best cigars he has ever smoked.

On special occasions, Lutz celebrates with special cigars, such as a Cuban Partagas Lusitania. But even at a place like Chrysler, where cigar smoke christened the walls when the building was young, there are times and places where he can't smoke. He used to light up at the annual meetings, until the day he was smoking a Montecristo on the dais while a shareholder was giving a speech about the evils of smoking in the workplace. Annual meetings are now nonsmoking events.

Lutz's office is one of the few havens left for him and his fellow smokers to enjoy a good smoke. "My office is a sanctuary for the few people who do like to smoke," he says. "They can even have their cigarettes when they're in my office. And I say, well, let's break out the Please Refrain from Breathing While I Smoke sign."

 


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