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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."

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