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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

Jonathan S. Linen never leaves home without two things: his American Express card (he's vice chairman of the company) and a cigar.

"I started smoking cigars in Vietnam in 1968. I found that I could get very good Philippine cigars in the PX. They helped make the long treks in the underbrush bearable," he says. "They kept the bugs away." As a first lieutenant in the Army's 1st Infantry Division, Linen was a forward observer for an artillery batallion, calling in coordinates to the big guns in the rear. Enjoying good cigars helped ease a bad experience. "They tasted good to me out in the middle of nowhere," he says.

Linen dropped the cigars when he returned home but resumed smoking when he joined the American Express Co. in 1970. As Linen recalls, cigar smokers were far more numerous and welcome in corporate America at that time. "In the old days, you could smoke anywhere, at any meeting and anytime," he says. It was common to see people walking through the halls with an unlit cigar in their mouth, getting ready to smoke in an office or a conference room. Both cigar and cigarette smokers were abundant. "There was no distinction," he says. "The previous chairman, Howard L. Clark Sr., set the example."

Cigars and CEOs go together like wine and cheese, hardware and software or aces and kings. The image of the executive cigar smoker is a classic one. When cartoonists want to depict a character as the boss they give him a cigar. Film directors do the same: No movie about a big-shot executive would be complete without a cigar propped in the man's mouth. Te-Amo even makes an 8 1/2-inch-long cigar called the CEO.

In the 1987 movie Wall Street, Charlie Sheen plays an ambitious young stockbroker who uses a birthday box of Cuban cigars to gain an audience with corporate raider Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas. The cigars impress the man who says "greed is good," and he introduces the youngster to the big time.

Although cigars are not as common in the executive suite today as they were 30 years ago, there are many corner offices where the fragrant aroma of a burning corona still can be detected. Today, cigar smokers sit in the upper offices of many of the world's largest and most well-known companies.

IBM chairman and CEO Louis V. Gerstner Jr. is a cigar smoker. So are NBC President and CEO Bob Wright, New York Daily News Chairman and Co-Publisher Mort Zuckerman, Bernd Pischetsrieder, chairman of the Board of Management of BMW AG (who prefers Davidoff Dom Perignons and Romeo y Julieta Belicosos), and Chairman Richard B. (Dick) Fisher of Morgan Stanley & Co., Inc. Even President Clinton, America's CEO, has been known to light up on occasion.

In the early 1980s, a friend sent Phil Guarascio a box of Nat Sherman cigars packaged in a fine humidor. "It's been a love affair [ever] since then," says the General Motors vice president and general manager of marketing and advertising for North America. He calls himself "an eclectic cigar smoker;" he smokes Cuban cigars, Davidoffs and Avos, preferring thicker cigars. Guarascio has a special cigar for celebrations: Cuban-made Davidoff Dom Perignons, which he bought for about $60 apiece. He has one left.

While Guarascio will keep that one for himself, he is very generous with his other cigars. Walking through New York's La Guardia Airport one day, he saw a very frustrated cigar smoker haggling with a clerk at a shop. The store had no cigars, and the man was distraught. Guarascio overheard the man complain about how he had been traveling eight hours, had been subjected to two canceled flights and was now on his way to a business meeting with no cigars. Guarascio handed him two, including a Cohiba robusto. Although he enjoys giving them away, he likes smoking them even more. "My son once said to me, 'Dad, I've never seen anybody enjoy anything more than you enjoying a cigar on the golf course or in your study.' "

And enjoying cigars, of course, is what smoking is all about. Citicorp Vice-Chairman Christopher J. Steffen says cigars are cerebral enhancers. "There's nothing quite like playing golf and having a cigar, or having a cigar and playing bridge or just sitting on the beach and watching a sunset," he says, reflecting in his spacious Park Avenue office early one morning. "This is an accent on life."

He smoked cigarettes as a teenager, and began buying cheap cigars as cigarette supplements. He eventually dropped the cigarettes and took up cigars seriously when he became vice president and controller of Chrysler Corp. He smoked cigars with Robert A. Lutz, Chrysler's president and COO. "Bob gave me my first Cohiba," he recalls.

Steffen now smokes cigars regularly. Rather than stick to a favorite brand, Steffen delights in experimenting with new cigars. Every morning he selects a handful of smokes from his personal humidor or from his wine cellar, and brings his daily selections to work in a leather carrying case. He typically begins his smoking day with a mild choice, such as a Davidoff 4000 or 5000, and works upward. "As the day goes on, I like the cigar to get stronger," he says.

Gene Pressman, Co-chairman and Co-COO of Barneys New York, began smoking cigars 15 years ago. "Like anything else, you find your niche in what you like and you go with it. Unfortunately, the kind of cigar I ended up liking was a Cuban Davidoff 1000," he says. "It was strong, but it was small." Pressman smoked those cigars for about 10 years, buying them in Hong Kong and London, until they became scarce. Three years ago, he flew to Geneva and visited Davidoff's main store to search for more of his beloved smokes.

"I found they had about 15 boxes left of the 1000s. I took 'em all," he says. He paid $5 per cigar, a bargain considering the price that those irreplaceable boxes would bring today. "I have one left that I'll never smoke; [I keep it] as a memento at the bottom of one of my humidors," Pressman says. That prized cigar sits in the bottom tray of his three-tiered home humidor, joined by a handful of pre-Castro Cuban cigars, including a few Partagas rolled in 1957, along with some old Montecristos.

Pressman likes corona-sized cigars, but on rare occasions he'll try a larger cigar, such as a double corona. And he likes to smoke on a full stomach. He is confounded when friends light up a big cigar at 6:30 a.m. on the first tee. While Pressman occasionally smokes at work, he keeps his office humidor empty to reduce the temptation of smoking more than his limit of one or two a day. He's a runner and marathoner (he completed last fall's New York City marathon) and an enthusiastic collector of Bordeaux.

Pressman sees cigar smoking as a natural evolution of his wine collecting. "If you have a good meal and you have a great wine, you need a cigar," he says. "There are a lot of times when the wine is better than the meal, and there are times when the cigar is better than everything."

With his beloved Cuban Davidoffs no longer being made, he now smokes Cohibas. "I started smoking Cohibas a few years ago, and I didn't really like them that much," he says, "but now I really think they're one of the best cigars in the world." His wife, Bonnie, also enjoys Cohibas, although the ones she smokes are very thin, the size of cigarettes.

The only non-Cuban cigar that Pressman enjoys is La Gloria Cubana, which he says is superbly made: "There are only two things about a cigar: taste and how it draws. They really know how to roll a cigar."

Well, maybe three things. Fashion, of course, is Pressman's business. So the way a cigar looks in his mouth undeniably influences his choice in cigars. "The robusto is a nice cigar, but I think it's an ugly cigar," he says. "It really doesn't do it for me."

Alan "Ace" Greenberg is chairman of the board and executive committee of the investment banking firm of Bear Stearns & Co. Inc., but that's not evident upon first glance. His cluttered PC station looks nearly identical to the rows of stations that fill the floor at company headquarters. His phone receiver sits on his desk, off the hook, ready for action. His eyes are constantly moving, scanning the floor and the computer screen in front of him, and he uses words quickly and sparingly.

A cluttered ashtray is at his left side, a few half-smoked cigars propped up in various positions. He began smoking cigars when he joined Bear Stearns as a clerk in 1949; back then, Montecristos were passed out in the dining room. Bear Stearns still passes out cigars, but when the Cuban embargo began it switched to Dominican, Honduran or Jamaican brands.

Greenberg rose through the ranks, becoming a general partner in 1958, CEO in 1978 and chairman in 1985. In 1993 he dropped the CEO title. Over the years, he has cut deals for luminaries such as Donald Trump and Ron Perelman. Working with the billionaire owner of Consolidated Cigar was good for Greenberg's cigar supply.

"Ron kept me in cigars for quite a while," he says. He hasn't had to buy a cigar in years. He smokes about three a day, and when he's not running the frantic show at Bear Stearns he plays bridge, hunts or does magic. But he never calls them tricks. "I do miracles," he quips. "Dogs do tricks." Despite his success, Greenberg still refers to himself as "a simple salesman from Oklahoma."

But cigar-smoking executives aren't all big shots. Andrew L. Tepper is only 28, but he runs IronSoft, Ltd., a tiny Pittsburgh software company. Tepper smokes one or two cigars a week, a practice he picked up at Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts.

"When I was in prep school, smoking was strictly prohibited, except once a year when we had something called casino night. It might have been a cruel joke, but they told all these kids, 'Well, you can smoke cigars that one night, but you have to do it downstairs.' And it had about seven-foot ceilings. So, it was packed shoulder to shoulder with high school kids all smoking bad cigars," he says with a laugh. "The air was practically liquid."

Traveling to the pharmacy to pick out cheap cigars was a ritual for Tepper back then, but today he relishes sampling a variety of Honduran, Dominican and Cuban cigars. Romeo y Julieta Churchills are his favorite. When he smokes he does it outside, either while walking or reading. "I like the larger cigars, so I spend a couple of hours, and I just enjoy that," he says. "I just drop everything and have a cigar."

Many cigar smokers trace their roots back to cheap smokes bought in drugstores. Not Stephen L. Ruzow, president and COO of stylish clothing manufacturer The Donna Karan Co. His first puff was first-class: His grandfather gave him a Cuban cigar at his bar mitzvah when he was 13 years old. Today, Cuban cigars are his regular smoke. Ruzow smoked Cuban-made Davidoffs until the company shifted production to the Dominican Republic, and now he smokes Cohibas.

He can't smoke at the office, so Ruzow takes his cigars on vacation, where he found that they can help strike up a friendship. While visiting Anguilla, he met Cigar Aficionado editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken. "I was the only one smoking a cigar on the beach at 8:30 a.m.," Ruzow explains.

When Ruzow tried to duplicate his grandfather's generous gift at his son's bar mitzvah, his son declined. But recently, his son, now 23, asked for a cigar to smoke while playing poker with his friends. And Ruzow's 30-year-old son-in-law likes to share a cigar with him.

For John A. Balch, cigars and success go well together. Eight years ago, he was struggling to find space on store shelves for his new product, a handheld vacuum cleaner called the Dirt Devil. His company, Royal Appliance Manufacturing Co., had sales of $28 million, and it was searching for the break that would open up the U.S. market and introduce Royal to the big time. Then he got the phone call. K-Mart was going to carry his product. "That was the day we popped a bottle of Champagne here in the office and lit up," recalls Balch. "Sales really took off."

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."

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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