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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 3)

Today, Cleveland-based Royal has sales of $280 million, and Dirt Devil vacuums are everywhere. Chairman and CEO of the company, Balch is even semifamous, known for his TV spots with his Golden Retriever named Sam (and, more recently, a pack of puppies), his gleaming red vacuums and his ever-present cigar, usually a Dominican H. Upmann.

Smokers are well received at Royal. The company not only has a separate section in the cafeteria for smokers, Balch also has an open-humidor policy. Cigar lovers can come into his office (equipped with a special ventilation system) and help themselves to the treasures in his 200-cigar Davidoff humidor. "It's a great big sucker," he says. "I think my wife paid almost as much for my humidor as my mother paid for her house in 1941."

The boss's smoking has influenced some of his younger lieutenants. On a company trip a few years ago to the Virgin Islands, some 30 Royal employees gathered around Balch with cigars in their mouths, mugging for the camera. The photo hangs in company headquarters. Two of his sales executives, men in their late 20s, are regular cigar smokers who help themselves to Balch's cigars. "They come in the office and say, 'A cigar sure would taste good'," says Balch. "I say, 'Help yourself.' "

Perhaps few people are as married to a cigar as Gene McGovern, chairman of the construction firm GMO International, Inc. in New York City. As he explodes from an elevator with its bright red NO SMOKING sign, a lit Churchill is pointing the way. The stogie sticks out from beneath his black cowboy hat that trails a feather, his cowboy boots beating a quick, steady rhythm on the carpet as he chugs into his sanctum.

His trademark cigar and shaved head have traveled the world. He has managed the construction of London's Canary Wharf, the Ampang Tower Project in Malaysia and the high-profile--and high-stress--renovation of the Statue of Liberty.

"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."

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