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Fathers and Sons, Part 1

The cigar industry owes much of its creativity and longevity to the unique partnerships between father-and-son cigarmakers
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Camilo Villegas, July/August 2006

Like many father-and-son teams, Julio and Christian Eiroa work together to bring their family's business to life. Thanks to their diligent efforts, their Camacho brand is a fixture in cigar shops across the United States. But it's not the smoothest business relationship. The Eiroas butt heads often. And the arguments go beyond differences of opinion on basic strategy—they don't even like the same cigars. "We disagree all the time," says Julio, Christian's 67-year-old father. He's sporting the type of world-weary gaze worn by exasperated fathers the world over, men who are often flummoxed by the ideas of their sons. Across the desk, Christian smiles, more than a hint of mischief gleaming in his dark eyes.

The relationship between fathers and sons is one of the cornerstones of the cigar industry. The art of crafting great cigars by hand, the secrets of coaxing the impurities out of tobacco and the magic of trying to understand the delicate workings of nature aren't things that can be learned from a textbook. Knowledge is handed down person-to-person, from master to apprentice, and very often the father is the master teaching the lessons he has learned and passing them on to his own blood, most often his son. It's a practice steeped in tradition.

Many of the world's best-known premium cigar brands have a father-son team behind them, including Arturo Fuente, Padrón, Ashton, Davidoff, Camacho, C.A.O., Te-Amo and Cuesta-Rey.

"This industry is divided into two: the big two companies, and the rest are families. And in 90 percent of those families, historically it has been fathers and sons," says Carlos Toraño, who makes Toraño cigars with his son, Charlie. "It is beautiful."

We've profiled many of the great father-and-son teams in the past, but for the first time we've decided to focus not so much on how they make their cigars or grow their tobacco, but how they interact with each other. How does a son handle the pressure of walking in the footsteps of a legend? How does a father pass on what he knows to his son? And how do the two of them work together, day in and day out, often bringing very different perspectives to the same business?

The cigar world is vast, and there were too many people to cover in one story, so we broke it into two parts. The second part will appear in the next issue.

JULIO AND CHRISTIAN EIROA

Julio and Christian Eiroa aren't the first father-son team to disagree over how to run the family business. But the main players in Camacho Cigars Inc. and Tabacos Ranchos Jamastran are likely the only cigarmakers in the world rooting against their own products.

"We have a bet," says Christian, over the performance of two selections in the Camacho line. Julio likes the Camacho Select, a cigar made with a Cameroon wrapper that debuted in early May. His son's favorite is the more high-powered Camacho Corojo.

"In the first 12 months, whoever sells more, wins. That's the bet. Camacho Select versus Camacho Corojo," says Christian with a chuckle.

The two won't disclose the terms of the bet, but each is serious about the outcome. Pride is at stake. The elder Eiroa, who lives in Honduras and runs Camacho's tobacco growing and cigar-making operation, known as Tabacos Ranchos Jamastran, made the Camacho Select blend his way, kept the packaging Spartan and closed his ears to input from his son.

"When the old man first made a sample, I said, 'Dad'"—Christian makes a motion in the air, showing how his father cut him off. "He said, 'No. This is my baby.'"

The good-natured ribbing got a bit heated last Christmas. Julio left Miami angry and early, flying back to Honduras.

Julio is not apologetic about being at odds with his son on occasion. "I don't like full-bodied cigars," he says. "They're too strong for me. I always go for the cigar that you can smoke five or 10 cigars a day."

Julio is Camacho's patriarch, a 67-year-old with a stubborn personality honed by decades of doing things his own way. He used to own, a small plane, which he would fly around Honduras, but a crash in 1977 nearly ended his life. It robbed him of some of his freedom, leaving him partially paralyzed.

"When I got in the accident, I was by myself, and then everything went down. There was nobody to follow me," he says. Christian was only five years old. "I got out of tobacco for a few years. When I got back, I started hiring Cubans from Cuba. It was a disaster."

Upset with how others were running his operations, Julio eventually reduced the amount of tobacco he planted and took a greater role in the growing. He now says he is getting nearly the same yield from far fewer plants. And he continues to be a perfectionist when it comes to the quality of the leaf. "Two years ago, I burned $2 million worth of tobacco, bale by bale," says the elder Eiroa. He didn't like it, and wanted to rid himself of the temptation to turn it into cigars. Christian, 34, is stubborn in his own right. When he joined the family business in 1995, his father didn't want him buying tobacco from overseas, but he began buying it anyway, realizing it was the only way the company could grow. "I got lines of credit from the bank, and I just started buying tobacco. He didn't know what was going on," says Christian. "So there was always a difference in perception…there has always been a certain conflict."

Christian didn't want to work with his father. "Family businesses are always hard. It's never easy," he says. The situation proved too difficult for his older brother, Justo, who left the family business to work in the bottled-water industry. "They couldn't get along," says Christian. "Too many arguments."

Christian, a big, outspoken man with a sharp sense of humor, has the personality to match his father's confidence. "There are a lot of silent treatments before the launch of each brand," says Christian. Julio has been known to yank a product or change speed at the 11th hour, often spoiling Christian's distribution plans. He sometimes hides tobacco in Honduras, to throw Christian off when he visits.

"As competitive as our industry has become," says Christian, "speed to market is a big issue, and I think that causes a lot of our problems. He'll say it'll be ready in June, then I have to pull back the reins; everything has to come to a stop again. It drives me crazy."

Each Eiroa is confident he will win the bet. "My cigar is going to be selling 90 percent, and you're going to be 10 percent," says Julio.

Despite the good-natured ribbing, each sees the value of the other in the business. "He's a hell of a salesman," says Julio of his son. "We love the business, we work hard. But I tell him, he sells the first cigar, but then the cigar has to sell itself."

Christian tries to return the favor by describing his father's dedication to the craft of farming tobacco, sharing the story of how Julio was able to grow fine leaves on a patch of rocky, desolate soil that others had abandoned.

"There's this field, this patch of land we have on the farm that basically everybody had given up on. It's a…"

Julio cuts him off. "I always say," says Julio, "you need the climate, No. 1…" Christian smiles as his dad speaks. "Let me finish," he says with a grin.

CANO AND TIM OZGENER

The many brands that make up the C.A.O. International Inc. portfolio are named for founder Cano A. Ozgener, whose initials grace what has become one of the more familiar cigar brands in the world. Ozgener's son, Tim, is a major contributor to the company's identity, which revolves around hip marketing and a dedication to quality. The two work well together, in a convivial attitude of good humor and respect for the other's opinion, but it's a relationship that doesn't always follow the typical father-son dynamic.

"What's fun about the relationship is it sets the whole mood for the office," says Micky Pegg, the national sales manager of C.A.O. They have "three distinctly different relationships: father-son, boss-employee and brother-brother. The energy between all those, everyone sees it." The two are an unlikely pair of cigarmakers, headquartered in an unlikely place to find a cigar company: Nashville, Tennessee. Cano is a quiet, reserved man, a former DuPont engineer who entered the tobacco business by inventing a new way to craft meerschaum pipes. Tim is an outgoing funnyman—he once was a stand-up comic—who can easily entertain a room.

"We have very different backgrounds," says the elder Ozgener, sitting at his luxurious new conference table in his recently renovated offices, which features a Zen garden used for reflection. "I am a mechanical engineer, he is an actor. He comes from an artistic background, I come from a scientific background. That's a very good mix." The 69-year-old smiles, looking like a man who is happy with his life and at ease with his surroundings, despite having recently undergone a stem-cell procedure to treat non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which is now in remission. He is in high spirits.

Tim and his sister, Aylin (pronounced Eileen), started working with their father in a very humble way, helping out with his pipe business when he still worked full-time at DuPont. "My sister and I would come home from school, and [Dad] would say, 'Roll up your sleeves and dunk your hands in the Sweet and Clean,'" says Tim, 36, referring to a blue liquid Cano developed for cleaning pipes. Ozgener, always a pragmatist, found it much quicker to have his children dunk bottles directly into the solution rather than filling up each bottle from the tap at the bottom of the jar. The pipe business was the start of C.A.O., but it was an expansion into cigars that made the company boom. In the mid-1990s, when Tim was out in California trying to get his break in comedy, he needed a second job to pay the bills. "My dad said, 'Instead of waiting on tables, why don't you visit tobacconists?'" California was a major market, and Tim dropped in on shop owners to get feedback on the burgeoning C.A.O. cigar, at the time the company's only cigar brand.

"Back then we had a cigar that wasn't lighting the world on fire," says Tim of the Honduran smokes. "One box would be green, the other brown." As with many companies having cigars made under contract during the cigar boom, C.A.O. had consistency problems.

The Ozgeners built on that early cigar experience. "We don't come from a cigar background. We had to learn the hard way [and] we learned from the best," says Cano.

Key to their success was making themselves the face of their brands and turning their name into one that smokers recognized. "We stumbled into the family aspect for C.A.O.," says Cano. Chicago retailer Diana Silvius-Gits told them they should push the family angle, and the Ozgeners three now adorn the ads for C.A.O.

The ads are not typical. Devoid of factory or field shots, the only cigars shown are being smoked by the family members, and no one stands around tobacco bales. The Ozgeners are the focus, and they look hip. In one ad, Tim, who has a shaved dome and a grizzly goatee, is scowling over a C.A.O. that he is setting alight, his father smirking by his side, his 34-year-old sister decked out in Goth-style makeup. In another, the three are wearing leather jackets.

"I give a lot of credit to my son and daughter, who sometimes kick me in the shin to wake me up and take me in directions I wouldn't always go," says Cano.


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