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An Interview with Tim Ozgener

C.A.O. International Inc. has now been in business for 40 years, evolving from making pipes to producing cigars.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Daniel Craig, November/December 2008

(continued from page 1)

Q: That was a big deal for you—I remember when that cigar came out. What was the result at the trade show? A: The reaction was immediate, and we got very good ratings in Cigar Aficionado and Cigar Insider. That's what got us in the game. I also had made a friendship with Nick Perdomo, and later we decided to do L'Anniversaire Cameroon. That got even more accolades, and that just exploded. People are always looking for what's new, what's different. Look at the wine industry—look at how many new wines come out. Every year, we try to come up with [something new]. That's been our m.o. since 1998.

Q: There are definitely two schools of thought in the industry on this. Some say keep it the same, don't change, and then there are people who always want something new. You obviously believe in the latter. A: If you're not moving forward, you're moving backwards. If you're releasing new stuff every year, if you have some stuff that's not performing, what do you do?

Q: You have to whittle some things out. Have you ever dropped a full brand? A: Knock on wood, not that much. We've only phased out one full brand, C.A.O. eXtreme, and that's because there were inconsistencies in the product, and we couldn't tolerate it. That's just a decision we made on it. We did that in a very quiet manner.

Q: You've had some very bold product launches, and nontraditional ones. When you came out with C.A.O. Brazilia, C.A.O. Italia, Italian tobacco has been used in the industry, but you were the first to brag about it. What were your thoughts about those launches? A: Most everybody was going down the same path, playing it safe. Wooden boxes. If you stain them, it's chestnut brown or red. We had this blend that everybody put their heads together and came up with, which had a Brazilian wrapper. At the time the famous Brazilian wrapper was Mata Fina. This was Arapiraca. I had noticed that in the humidor, everything blended together. I said, why not roll the dice to have a box that pops. People told me, "You're crazy." Fortunately, it worked out for us. Another reason we went with that packaging, whenever I went down to Nicaragua and Honduras, there would be all these cigars ready to go, but the boxes weren't ready, for they had to be kiln dried. Then I would see boxes—even famous Cuban boxes—they're wood, and they're putting paper over them. What a waste. They're chopping down trees, and they're going to cover the inside and outside lid with paper. Why not get boxes that are very stiff and don't use wood?

Q: What's the Brazilia box made of? A: It was made from a very rigid, stiff cardboard, and now it's an MDF [medium density fiberboard]. Now we don't have to wait for the boxes, and we're not contributing to this wild deforestation. I don't want people to think when they're buying C.A.O., they're paying for the box. We can get boxes that are beautiful and the price is the same. For example, our Sopranos box. Beautiful box. That's basically sawdust that's been compressed. You're not paying for the box. We look at the cigar at the end of the day—but we want it presented in an elegant manner.

Q: Was C.A.O. Italia a bigger risk than Brazilia? Italian tobacco is obscure. I know people use it, but people don't talk about using it. Was that a more risky move? A: We're interested in improving the quality in whatever medium, but we're also interested in breaking down myths. We try to be fearless in that arena. Going back to L'Anniversaire Maduro, there was a strip of Italian ligero used in that blend, which we didn't publicly market.

Q: You never told me. [Laughs.] A: [Laughs.] It was kind of our secret—like a little dash of cayenne. When we didn't have it in there, it wasn't the same. And it was amazing, it was just a strip. So I remember my dad talking about how the Italian ligero is key. And I noticed that people in different factories have it—kind of an underdog kind of thing. Traditionally a lot of that Italian tobacco was ground up for cheap cigars. I spoke to leaf suppliers, and they said what Fidel [Olivas] and the guys were doing in the factory was magic. Taking compressed tobacco with a crusted look, moistening it—they're finding diamonds in the rough.

Q: So it took a lot of work? A: Yeah. It took a lot of work. And that's the talent of our organization at the factory level, and I have to give credit to Fidel Olivas and his sons. We used Italian tobacco in there and the marketing of it was a bit of a risk. We blended around it by adding some nice earthiness of Peruvian and some Jalapa [Nicaraguan] to give it some sweetness. That was a big learning curve for me on how much detail was spent on the preparation of the tobacco.

Q: What's your No. 1-selling cigar? A: Right now C.A.O. Gold is our No. 1 seller. It flip-flops between Brazilia and C.A.O. Gold.

Q: How many cigars do you make a year? A: Well, since we're not a public company, we don't get in the numbers that much. Our focus with the cigars is not quantity, but quality.

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