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The Change at C.A.O.

Now among the hottest of cigar brands, Nashville's C.A.O. began life as a pipe maker
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Andy Garcia, Mar/April 2004

A waitress brings another round of beers to the big table at El Torito, the best restaurant in Danlí, Honduras. The churrasco steak dinner is a recent memory, and the men reach for dark cigars as they continue talking about tobacco. The snap of several lighters is heard, then cigar smoke begins to rise as raindrops sneak through the leaky roof, plopping to the green tablecloth.

The party includes three career tobacco men, two with decades of experience, but the star of the table is one of the youngest men at the dinner—34-year-old Tim Ozgener. The wide-eyed, energetic former comedian comes to life in the dark of the room, bringing some of the men to tears with his jokes.

Ozgener once called the comedy clubs of California his home, but today he spends increasing time in Central America as a vice president of C.A.O. International Inc., the Nashville, Tennessee, company that owns some of the hotter brands on the American cigar market. Once a sleepy company that made most of its money from pipes and humidors, C.A.O. has redefined itself over the past decade, abandoning the humidor industry, pushing pipes to the back burner and immersing itself in the cigar business. The reason was simple economics.

“We started out with pipes, but pipes are now two percent of our business. If we were just pipes, I wouldn’t be here. As my dad says,” Ozgener explains, slipping effortlessly into an exaggerated version of his father’s accented voice, “‘Humidors don’t burn. Cigars burn, and then you have to replace them.’”

Replacing them has kept the small, family-owned company busy. C.A.O. is privately held and doesn’t disclose sales figures, but Ozgener says cigar sales have quadrupled since 1998.

C.A.O. was created by Tim’s father, Cano (pronounced Johnno), an Armenian Turk with a penchant for smoking cigars and pipes. He favored meerschaums, the white pipes made from a claylike material called magnesium silicate. These porous pipes are often carved into shapes, some of them extremely ornate; the carvers of Ozgener’s native Turkey are particularly gifted at turning the pipes into works of art.

Cano, who emigrated to America in 1961, graduated from Columbia University as an engineering major and wished to stay in New York City, but that changed when he met Esen, his wife-to-be. “I love New York,” he says. “When you follow a woman in life, many strange things happen to you. She wanted to raise her family in a quiet place.”

That quiet place was the South. Ozgener moved to North Carolina in 1964, then to Nashville in 1968, working as an engineer at DuPont. A natural tinkerer, he began modifying the stems of pipes to improve their performance, sold a few to friends and tobacconists, and created a business in 1968. “My father basically started C.A.O. from the basement of his house,” says Tim. In 1977, he left his high-paying job at DuPont to form his own company, naming it after his initials.

C.A.O. made a first attempt at the cigar business, in 1980, with a brand called Casa de Manuel. “We learned everything not to do,” says Cano. Consistency problems compounded the difficulties of a dying market, and Cano retreated to pipes and the company’s fledgling humidor business. C.A.O.’s first humidors were antique boxes that the company retrofitted with humidification devices, and later it had humidors made specifically for C.A.O. by local Nashville artisans. The company even had its own humidification system. In 1995, C.A.O. began to sell cigars again, a Honduran smoke made by Nestor Plasencia called simply C.A.O.

The cigar boom was in full swing, and getting a consistent product wasn’t easy. The early C.A.O.s didn’t light the world on fire. Tim remembers being embarrassed during his visits to retailers. “The guys would say, ‘Tim, we like you, but look at this box of C.A.O. cigars.’ One would be chestnut-brown, the other would be yellow.”

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