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
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In 1961, he met a fellow Columbia student and Turkish immigrant, Esen Sever. They fell in love and married in New York City three years later.
After receiving his master's degree in 1962, Ozgener worked for two years as an assistant to Columbia engineering professor Theodore Baumeister, who was a cigar and pipe smoker. While cowriting a mechanical engineering handbook, Baumeister and his young apprentice would savor cigars. Ozgener began to love the aroma and flavor of the tobacco.
Graduating from Columbia in 1964 with a professional engineering degree, Ozgener was recruited by DuPont to work in the firm's Kinston, North Carolina, plant. It was during his stint in the textile division at the age of 27 that he came across some imperfect Turkish meerschaum pipes. In his spare time, he decided to use his engineering abilities to improve the pipes.
"I was not happy with the quality of Turkish meerschaum. The tobacconists were not happy with them. So I used to take the meerschaums and change the stems, make modifications and work with the carvers to improve them," Ozgener says. "One day, Chauncey Dean Jr. [of Beehive Tobacconist] in Wilmington, Delaware, asked me where I got the meerschaum, that he had never seen such quality, and I told him that I had modified them. So he ordered a dozen or two from me. Then he introduced me to Bill Fader [owner of Fader's tobacconist in Baltimore and now executive director of the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America (RTDA)] and Bill Martin [the late owner of W. Curtis Draper tobacconist in Washington, D.C.], and that was how CAO was formed." The two tobacco veterans helped him make contacts in the industry and sell his products.
Ozgener kept his engineering job as he built his company. He worked constantly; his vacations from DuPont were spent attending tobacco conventions, which left little time to relax with his wife and two young children. Finally, in 1977, he left his engineering position to devote more attention to his growing business and to spend more time with his family. The tobacco business was slow then, but he doesn't regret his decision. "I couldn't handle both of them at the same time. At the time the pipe business was still a small business and I was making a beautiful salary at DuPont," he says. "Then in 1980, the tobacco business started to decline. We were not really making money. We went into a dormant situation. Then we just waited for the market to come back again."
In the meantime, the cigar industry came back with a bang. To capitalize on the increasing popularity of cigars in the early 1990s and because he believed a market for quality humidors existed, Ozgener launched his own line. In 1992, he purchased several dozen nineteenth-century wooden jewelry and writing boxes at an antiques convention and converted them into humidors, lining them with Spanish cedar and installing his own state-of-the-art humidification system. The humidors were an instant hit at the RTDA convention.
Because well-maintained antique boxes were rare and expensive, Ozgener began to create humidors from scratch. Employing Nashville-based artisans Todd Boyce and Lanie Gannon, Ozgener introduced his Boyce and Lanie humidor collections in 1993 and 1997, respectively.
"My commitment [with the humidors] was to bring up artisans who live in this country," he says. "I didn't want to go to another country, because these people [here] need employment and if my generation doesn't provide that for them, then who will?"
In 1993, Ozgener entered the cigar market. After learning the art of cigar making from books, people in the industry and trade shows, Ozgener enlisted the help of Honduran cigarmaker Nestor Plasencia and Nicaraguan tobacco grower Carlos Toraño. The trio worked for more than two years developing and modifying a cigar that would bear the CAO initials. The company introduced its Honduran cigar line to tobacco retailers at the RTDA convention in 1995.
"I was one of the first people to go to Honduras [for cigars]. Everybody was trying to [set up] production [in] the Dominican Republic and there were really good rollers in Honduras," Ozgener says. "We were getting samples from Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic and we were testing these on what I call my 'young Turks,' people between the ages of 25 and 40. The cigar movement is generated by the young people, therefore, I wanted to make a cigar that was acceptable to them. We tried different cigars; we modified them and we found that the taste of the cigar from Honduras was the one that everybody agreed on."
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