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CAO--A Family Affair

CAO Offers Pipes, Humidors and Cigars. But Founder Cano A. Ozgener's Most Important Product is His Children
Shandana A. Durrani
From the Print Edition:
Michael Douglas, May/Jun 98

"Number seven, gentlemen, number seven," she calls out, trying to be heard over the din of voices and music. It is a November night at New York's Marriott Marquis hotel and Aylin Ozgener-Sherman of CAO International Inc. is handing out the company's signature cigars at the Cigar Aficionado Big Smoke. She appears at ease, but Ozgener-Sherman is anything but relaxed.

"I think I work harder for him than I would anywhere else. I have to keep on my toes constantly because I would feel very guilty if I slacked off," she says, as she hands a CAO Gold Robusto to a cigar aficionado with a No. 7 ticket. "It is a joy to work with him. I don't want to give him an ego, but he is a genius. He is an incredible entrepreneur. I go to him for as much advice as possible. I've learned how to work with people from him."

The "him" is her father, Cano (pronounced JOHN-no) Aret Ozgener, the founder of CAO, a Nashville-based company that is known in the tobacco industry for its cigars, meerschaum pipes and handcrafted humidors. The 26-year-old Ozgener-Sherman is the national sales manager for the company, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.Cano Ozgener's home office is a testament to his Turkish background and his company's history: handwoven Turkish carpets grace the floors, and glass and wood cabinets display his collection of vintage meerschaum pipes. Seated behind his seventeenth-century French desk, Ozgener leans forward, steeples his fingers and discusses the past three decades and the close working rapport that he has with his two children, Aylin and Murat, his 28-year-old son, who is CAO's national marketing manager and a stand-up comic in Los Angeles.

"I am very happy that my children are working in this," Ozgener says, "[However,] I would not suggest to anybody that they take their daughter or son and make them work for them. It is the wrong thing to do. In our case, it is working because of the chemistry. I employed Aylin because she can do the job. The fact that she is in the family made it better. The same thing [goes] for Murat."

It is obvious that the Ozgeners share a special bond. They constantly tease one another and laugh with each other, especially when Murat imitates his father. But don't be misled by the carefree attitude: when it comes to the company, the trio is serious.

"Business is business; CAO is my business. It is another one of my children," Ozgener says. "We don't feature any product that has problems. I am not after numbers. We don't have stockholders to satisfy, so that takes a lot of pressure off. An important thing is longevity and CAO has shown that. It is really important to a consumer and tobacconist. But it takes time and money."

It was those ingredients, as well as dedication and hard work, that catapulted CAO from a small-town player in the tobacco business to a global company, distributing products from Canada to Malaysia.

"It is critical for us to have long-range views and to remain strong in the industry," says Aylin. "We haven't been around like Davidoff and some of the other companies have. It is your product and you are trying to get people to try it; that is why we work so hard on PR and promotions."

Ozgener's interest in tobacco began on the banks of the Bosphorus. Born on January 19, 1937, Ozgener was raised in his birthplace of Istanbul, Turkey, by his Armenian parents. His father was a jeweler, his mother a homemaker. He studied at a Jesuit French grammar school before being accepted into the American-run Roberts College in Istanbul, from which he received a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1960.

As a student in Turkey, Ozgener enjoyed smoking pipes, especially those made from meerschaum, a white, clay-like magnesium silicate. But it wasn't until he came to the States to study mechanical engineering in 1961 as a Columbia University graduate student that he enjoyed the pleasures of a cigar. He and his friends would go to the movies in New York's Times Square, but first they would stop at a tobacconist to pick up cigars. "Of course, they were Cuban cigars, pre-embargo Cubans," recalls Ozgener. "At that point we took the cigars and went to the theater and smoked our cigars while watching the movies. Nobody objected. Things have changed so much since that time."

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