Avo Uvezian: The Man in the White Suit
The Dominair De Havilland Dash 8 bounces over the lush green of the Dominican Republic's Cordillera Septentrional mountain range. The twin propeller plane is making its way to the tiny airport on the outskirts of the town of Santiago. The ride has been bumpy the entire flight from San Juan, Puerto Rico, due to the tumultuous thunderclouds that have been drenching most of the Caribbean for the better part of a week. The pilot wrestles the plane like a seasoned cowboy on a bucking bronco as it rolls from side to side and then quickly jumps up and down. A few minutes of calm follow, and then the plane starts savagely kicking again. It's one of those moments when you start thinking about the fated flying experiences of Glenn Miller, Buddy Holly and Lynyrd Skynyrd. You're on the verge of defying the no smoking rules, since you figure it may be your last cigar.
Cigar supremo Avo Uvezian isn't looking nervous. His Mexican mimbre hat is in perfect order, seemingly glued to his friendly round head as the plane lurches from side to side. His freshly starched white Brioni suit is in impeccable order. The 71-year-old Armenian stares out the window at the rich countryside, almost in a trance as the plane makes a pass at the tiny runway. Uvezian makes this trip dozens of times each year and, apparently, rough rides are commonplace. He seems to be almost enjoying this particular flight, despite the handful of people in the back row with their heads in small white bags and the other two dozen passengers looking slightly queasy. Uvezian gazes down and smiles at the landscape as the small plane zooms by another set of hills and banks in its final approach to the runway. The plane first lands on one set of wheels and then ultimately the second set touches down before the nose's landing gear reaches the runway. Everyone--except Uvezian--nervously claps in elation to be on the ground.
Why should Uvezian applaud? He isn't a religious man despite exuding a powerful spiritual quality when you spend time with him. He openly admits to having just about everything he ever hoped for--perhaps even more. Most people who know him would say that Uvezian has lived the fullest of lives.
In just a few years, Uvezian has become a millionaire, thanks to his devotion to his Dominican cigar brand, Avo. In 1995, Davidoff, the well-known Swiss tobacco and luxury goods company, paid Uvezian an estimated $10 million for the distribution rights to his cigar brand, which last year sold more than 2 million cigars, mostly in the United States. With his success, it is difficult to believe that until fairly recently Uvezian was barely eking out a life playing the piano in the bar of a resort in Puerto Rico and selling cigars and real estate on the side. Today, he is one of the most visible men in the cigar world, one of the great ambassadors for premium smokes.
"I find it hard to take when someone says that I am 'Mr. Cigar,'" Uvezian says as he sits outside one of the luxurious bungalows of the opulent El San Juan Hotel & Casino in Puerto Rico, prior to his trip to the Dominican Republic. The resort is one of his favorite haunts when he's at home. He's more likely to be hanging out at the cigar bar in the ornate lobby holding court to a group of cigar smokers and a slew of gorgeous females than sitting at home or in his office. "Some people call me a cigar guru and other things like that. I am no guru. I am not a great cigar man, not like someone like Zino Davidoff. Now that was a great cigar man."
Uvezian--always playing the modest cigar lover--may not have the depth of knowledge of cigars that the late Davidoff had, but he is an equal showman in every sense of the word. Besides, Davidoff could never play the piano as well as Uvezian, who, as a young man, performed for the Shah of Iran, studied at New York City's Juilliard School and played with some of the best jazz pianists ever, including Teddy Wilson. Uvezian's impromptu piano gigs are almost as well known among U.S. cigar cognoscenti as his Avo pyramids and belicosos.
"There are a lot of similarities between Avo and Zino," says Hendrik Kelner, one of the most respected figures in the Dominican Republic's cigar business and the man who makes Uvezian's cigars in one of his factories near the town of Villa González. Kelner also runs and partially owns the Davidoff cigar factory in Santiago. "Just like Zino, Avo knows the good life. He is a bohemian, an agreeable personality who has a passion for cigars."
Adds David Kurland, the general manager of El San Juan Hotel & Casino and a good friend of Uvezian's: "The man is amazing. He not only loves cigars; he loves life to the fullest. He is twice my age but I can barely keep up with him. He is wonderful."
Standing about 5 foot 10 inches with a round and cuddly physique, Uvezian is a lovable father figure with a subtle wit and infectious warmth. His round, tanned face and kindly smile make even the iciest personality melt. Whether he's attending a cigar dinner or simply walking in an airport to catch a plane, Uvezian is someone people take notice of. He has the aura of an entertainer or a celebrity who should be recognized.
Strangely, it's Uvezian's extroverted character and personal marketing skills that finally led him to sell his brand to Davidoff. "My forte is that I like meeting people and I am good in PR," he admits. "I am not getting any younger and I am no good at paperwork and following up. It's the image of Avo that I am good at."
Uvezian is right in many ways. He is one of the masters of public relations in the cigar trade. However, his efforts often go to waste since consumers have always had a difficult time finding his cigars in the marketplace. It's still a problem, even with the distribution clout of Davidoff. Supplies of Avo cigars, especially in the United States, have been variable at best since an August 1996 fire destroyed Davidoff's cigar factory in Santiago; a few hundred thousand Avo cigars were lost in the blaze. Some of Avo's supply problems could be attributed to a subsequent change in venue: Davidoff shifted production to Kelner's cigar factory in Villa González while a new factory was built to replace the old one. However, the main problem is that there just aren't enough Avos to keep up with the consumer demand, despite an eightfold increase in production since 1990.
The spectacular rise in output may have a downside, however. Avo cigars have been less consistent in quality than before, although they seem to be improving. In the past year or so, some Avo cigars have not had the richness or the flavor they once did. Some cigar merchants have even received complaints from customers about Avo cigars. "We have had some problems with the cigars," says one well-known Davidoff merchant in a major U.S. city who wished to remain anonymous. "They just don't seem to be as good as they once were. Moreover, their construction is less good."
Kelner and Uvezian admit that there have been problems this past year with producing Avo cigars, contending that the main difficulty has been the variable quality of olor tobacco used in the blend. They argue that the lapse in quality had nothing to do with the rapid growth or the change in ownership of the brand, and they emphasize that any problems--if they existed at all--have been rectified. Nonetheless, the annual sales growth of Avo cigars has been nothing short of extraordinary, begging the question of how the brand can maintain its quality. Look at the figures: Avo sold about one quarter of a million cigars in 1990 and skyrocketed to almost six times that size in five years. Avo hit the 2 million mark last year and the brand should continue to grow, although not in such geometric proportions.
Avo cigars have generally scored in the high 80s in Cigar Aficionado tastings, indicative of very good to excellent, though not outstanding, quality. Of the range, the figurados or torpedos are usually rated among the best, cigars such as the Avo Belicoso and the Avo XO Pyramid. In a recent blind tasting of the Avo line in Marvin Shanken's Cigar Insider, the monthly newsletter from the publisher of Cigar Aficionado, nine of 15 sizes tested scored an 87 or above, with four receiving 89s.
In general, Avo cigars are divided into two sub-brands: original and XO. The latter is the richer of the two, with slightly spicier character. Uvezian says that more ligero (the strongest tobacco in blends) is used for XO and that the filler is aged a bit differently than his traditional cigars, although he would not elaborate on the process. The traditional cigars have the light orange-gold band and come in 12 sizes, while XO cigars, which have a darker orange band, the same gold-leaf lettering and "XO" printed on the side of the band, comprise three sizes. They range in price from $5.30 to $7.60 for the traditional cigars to $7.60 to $9.55 for the XO smokes. Uvezian had hoped to introduce other sizes as well as some special blends (including one for women), but his plans were postponed due to the fire. He also hopes to have a limited-edition cigar for the brand's 10th anniversary in 1998.
Uvezian always seems to be cooking up new ideas for cigars, whether he's buying additional acreage for growing tobacco or opening a new factory. In conversation with him it almost seems that he spent his entire life in cigar factories and on tobacco plantations. Yet cigars are relatively new for Uvezian. For years, he was an aspiring musician. Born in 1926 and raised in a Christian family in Beirut, Lebanon, Uvezian had always dreamed of making it big in music, particularly at the keys of a piano.
His big break came in 1945, just after the Second World War had ended, when Uvezian left Beirut with two other musicians and formed a group called the Liban Boys. They had a contract to play in a hotel in Baghdad, where they lasted a year before moving on to a hotel in Teheran. "Baghdad was a hellhole," he recalls. "We had seen a month before going there the movie Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. It was nothing like that--no golden covers [tablecloths] or beautiful minarets. It was like going back in time."
Luckily, the situation was very different in Iran. At the Park Hotel in Teheran, Uvezian, only 21 at the time, was already fine-tuning his public relations skills. Not only did the young man quickly become known in the city for his talent on the keyboards, but his social graces were also greatly appreciated. He soon re-ceived an invitation from then Shah Reza Pahlevi to play at his palace, where Uvezian and his crew were warmly welcomed. "I spoke Farsi, so it sort of broke the ice with the Shah," he says. "I remember they were trying to dance the jitterbug and I said, 'You don't know how to dance that right. Let me show you.' We were invited back for two or three more events and finally I became the Shah's pianist. The hotel didn't care since the Shah owned it."
Uvezian lasted about a year in Teheran before becoming homesick. He yearned for the beautiful beaches, chic restaurants, smart casinos and fast nightlife of Beirut, not to mention his family. However, the Shah warned Uvezian that the atmosphere in Beirut had become dangerous because of the unrest in Palestine. The royal recommended that Uvezian visit America instead--and offered to get him there, complete with visa.
Uvezian arrived in New York City in 1947. He had relatives there and had earlier thought about settling in America. How-ever, what he really hoped for was the opportunity to study at the famous Juilliard School of Music. "When I lived at home in Beirut, I practiced the piano three or four hours a day, but I hadn't practiced at all after I left," he recalls. "I was very rusty. Nonetheless, I went to Juilliard and asked for an audition. They granted it and I was terrible. They wouldn't accept me. But I asked them for another two weeks to try again, and they gave me a month. I practiced 10 hours a day for a month and then I went back to audition. The teacher could not believe the difference. I was accepted on the spot."
Uvezian played in various bands in New York while studying at Juilliard. During the summer of 1951, he was playing at a resort in New York's Catskill Mountains, where he met his first wife, Marie. They were soon married. Uvezian continued his career as a budding musician until the Korean War interrupted his plans. "They drafted me and I said, 'Well, what can I do?' " he says with a huge grin. "I want to stay in America. I'm married now. So they put me in basic training, going through all the training obstacle courses. It might as well have been in Siberia. It was a cold, cold winter. I said to myself, 'What the hell am I doing here? I'm not even a citizen.' "
Being a musician paid dividends again for Uvezian. Instead of being sent to Korea, he was assigned to a marching band in New York. Unfortunately, he was told to first play the trombone and then the bells. He couldn't play either. He couldn't even march. Luckily, a few months later the Army found him a pianist position; he succeeded Burt Bacharach, who had just finished his tour of duty. Uvezian played mostly in New York for the Army, but toured on occasion. He was happy to miss the war in Asia. He left the Army in 1953.
Uvezian and his wife had started a family the year before when Marie gave birth to a son, Jeffrey. Two others sons were to follow, Robert and Ronald. Uvezian knew he had to make some money after his tour of duty. He soon joined his wife's family jewelry business, a career he stayed with for more than two decades. His job eventually brought him to Puerto Rico, where his in-laws owned a jewelry factory. "It was a waste of time. If I had stayed in music, I don't know," he says, slightly embarrassed. "Life was easy, shall we say. You never think otherwise. You have your priorities and you just keep doing the same thing."
In the early 1970s, Uvezian's marriage ended in divorce. He remained in Puerto Rico, still working with the jewelry company, living a bachelor's life in San Juan with plenty of friends. He often played the piano for fun in various bars on the island. "Some friends were developing the Palmas del Mar resort, which was next to my cabana in Puerto Rico," he says. "Every weekend they used to come to my house here and we would always have one hell of a party. And one night they said to me, 'Why don't you come to Palmas del Mar and do the opening for us at the resort?' That was January 10, 1974. I said, 'OK, I'll go there for a time,' and I resigned from my jewelry company."
Uvezian admits that "it was rough" after quitting his job. He was hustling at the bar for everything from tips to real estate and found it difficult to make ends meet. But he discovered something important while playing piano at the Palmas del Mar: people not only came to hear his music, but they also liked smoking cigars that he had purchased for himself, which he would place on top of the piano for anyone who cared to indulge. "Well, nearly everybody who used to come from the States to Palmas used to come to be at Paolo's bar where I performed. I was there for seven, eight years playing piano, but the hotel guests would come and say, 'Is Avo still at the bar? OK, then we are coming.' I became a very big draw, you know. I was Palmas del Mar; I was their secret weapon for selling, so to speak."
Uvezian remarried in 1975, to a woman named Nivia; they later had a daughter, Karin. He began selling more and more real estate and soon accumulated enough money to start an Italian restaurant in the early 1980s in Puerto Rico. The eatery did very well, but he found it to be too much work and went back to the piano bar. At the time, he began to think about making and marketing cigars. "I was getting a great response from Americans about the cigars I had to offer in my bar," which were made locally and not up to the quality that Avo would attain. "Customers and friends used to write me and ask me for the cigars. That's when I said to myself that I better look at getting serious about this."
A small incident involving Karin, who was five at the time, reinforced Uvezian's idea of going into the cigar trade. A customer was walking by them at the pool at Palmas del Mar, Uvezian recalls, and he saw the pianist and asked for a cigar. Uvezian, of course, gave it to him. "My daughter was shaking her head and making negative gestures at me," he says. "After he had gone, I said, 'Karin, why are doing that, going like that?' She said, 'Dad, if he likes your first cigar and he wants another one, let him buy it.' It was incredible, I can never forget it."
His wife was less positive than his daughter, however. "My wife said, 'Are you crazy? You know nothing about cigars. It's not your business. Why you?' I told her that some day this will be a good deal: 'Don't worry about it. I know what I'm doing.' "
Uvezian had a friend in Geneva who soon put him in touch with Henrik Kelner, who had just opened his cigar factory in the Dominican Republic after years with a government tobacco company. In 1987, Uvezian's first cigars from Kelner were sold under the Bolero label in San Juan, and later as Avo in New York City. The brand was created exclusively for the Davidoff shop. Uvezian launched Avo in the United States in 1988. It was way ahead of its time: a full-bodied blend, selected Connecticut shade wrappers ranging from claro to colorado, and packed in cedar cabinet-style boxes with no cellophane and contemporary original artwork on the packaging.
Uvezian had changed the name of his cigar to Avo after running into problems with another cigar manufacturer that had already registered the Bolero name. Uvezian modeled the packaging for the Avo cigar after the cigars that were being produced for Knockando single malt whisky and Absolut Vodka. The Avo packaging still slightly resembles the now defunct Knockando cigar brand. The marketing man for Absolut in the United States, Michel Roux, had become a friend of Uvezian's, and Roux emphasized that he should focus on the top end of the market. "He told me if I made cigars, that I had to do what he did with Absolut Vodka: come out with the best possible quality, give it the best packaging and always pay your supplier the most you can afford."
The brand's success suggests that Uvezian has achieved much of that plan. Although many premium cigar brands in the U.S. market have grown quickly, very few can match the growth of Avo. It was one of the first small premium brands to become a huge success story when the cigar boom in the United States began three years ago. Uvezian has seen his brand grow from about about 5,000 cigars in 1987 to an expected 3.2 million this year. Not bad for a decade's work.
Back at the airport in Santiago, Uvezian has picked up his small overnight case from the tiny baggage claim area of the airport, which looks more like a small outdoor market than anything else. He walks through the exit and starts looking for a driver from Kelner's factory who is supposed to pick him up. A Dominican military officer who manages the airport notices Uvezian and strikes up a conversation.
"Are you over here again?" asks the military man.
"I am just over again to visit my cigars," Uvezian says in a slightly joking manner.
"I forgot that you make cigars," says the officer, perhaps hoping for a handout. "But I thought the best cigars come from Cuba?"
Uvezian gives the officer a dirty look and pauses for a moment. "Cuba?" questions Uvezian. "Where's Cuba? There's only one place that makes serious cigars, and we are both standing in that country."