Cano Aret Ozgener, the founder of C.A.O. International Inc. and its C.A.O. cigar brands, passed away on June 9 at his home in Nashville, Tennessee, of pancreatic cancer. Ozgener, who was 81, had also fought a long battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Ozgener owned and operated C.A.O. with his son Tim (Murat) and daughter Ayleen from their hometown of Nashville before selling the brand to Henry Wintermans (a division of ST Tobacco) in 2007. After the sale, CAO became part of General Cigar Co. and its parent STI, and was relocated to General’s U.S. headquarters in Richmond, Virginia.
“He was a great father, businessman and philosopher,” said Tim today during a phone interview with Cigar Aficionado. “And he was a fighter. My father was first diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2002. Thanks to modern medicine, I got nearly 20 more years with him. That’s how I look at it—like a gift. He lived much longer than expected and was my best friend.”
Born on January 19, 1937, Ozgener was raised in Istanbul, Turkey, by Armenian parents. He studied at a Jesuit French grammar school before being accepted into the American-run Roberts College in Istanbul, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1960. As a student in Turkey, Ozgener enjoyed smoking pipes, especially those made from meerschaum, a white, clay-like magnesium silicate. But it wasn't until he came to the U.S. to study mechanical engineering in 1961 as a Columbia University graduate student that he started smoking cigars, which he and his friends would smoke in movie theaters in New York City.
“Of course, they were Cuban cigars, pre-embargo Cubans,” recalled Ozgener in a Cigar Aficionado interview. “At that point we took the cigars and went to the theater and smoked our cigars while watching the movies. Nobody objected. Things have changed so much since that time.”
Graduating from Columbia in 1964 with an engineering degree, Ozgener got a job with DuPont to work in the company’s Kinston, North Carolina, plant. It was during this time, at the age of 27, that he came across some flawed Turkish meerschaum pipes. He applied his engineering abilities to improving them.
“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 said. He got into the pipe business full-time in 1977, and in 1993, he entered the cigar market, spending two years creating the first C.A.O. brand with tobacco grower and cigarmaker Nestor Plasencia and Carlos Toraño. The first C.A.O. cigar, which was made in Honduras, was introduced in 1995.
Ozgener and C.AO. would add many more cigars, and by 2004, the company made seven brands: Gold, Brazilia, Criollo, Double Maduro (or MX2) and three versions of L’Anniversaire: Maduro, Cameroon and eXtreme. The company also marketed flavored cigars and several specialty lines, including the reincarnated Black and a 65th Anniversary Cigar made to honor Cano Ozgener’s 65th birthday. Pipes became a very small percentage of C.A.O., which focused mainly on premium cigars.
As the company was growing, Ozgener had given more responsibilities to his son and daughter, and by the time he was 67 years old, he had survived a bout with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, which went into remission.
By 2007, C.A.O. was acquired by Henri Wintermans, a division of ST Tobacco Group. At that point, Ozgener had retired. His son remained with the company and signed on as company president before leaving in 2010.
In 2012, Cano and Tim founded OZ Arts Nashville, a nonprofit, performing and visual arts center.
“After we sold C.A.O., he said we should start a nonprofit, contemporary arts center,” Tim said. “So we converted our cigar headquarters into a center for performing and visual arts. My Dad believed that art has the power to inspire people and make them want to live.”
C.A.O. cigars continue to be sold and manufactured by General Cigar, which is owned by Scandinavian Tobacco Group.
“Cano Ozgener was a creative force and a visionary who left an indelible mark on the premium cigar category,” said Regis Broersma, president of Scandinavian Tobacco Group. “We will continue to be inspired by his motto: ‘If you can dream it, you can do it.’ Our deepest sympathies are with his family and all of those whose lives he touched.”
Ozgener is survived by his wife of 54 years, Esen; children Tim Ozgener and Aylin Ozgener; sister Esperanz Minassian; and four grandchildren Aloe Franke, Sean Franke, Cano Evan Ozgener, and Aidan Ozgener.
A ceremony will be held at OZ Arts Nashville on Sunday, June 24, at 3:14 p.m. OZ Arts is located at 6172 Cockrill Bend Circle.
In lieu of flowers, Cano and his family have requested donations may be made to OZ Arts Nashville at ozartsnashville.org.
Click to watch this video of Cano Ozgener speaking with executive editor David Savona.