Cigar Weekly Interview with C.A.O Vice President, Tim Ozgener
CigarWeekly: Please give us a little background, how did you get started in the cigar business? How long have you been in the cigar business?
Tim Ozgener: My father started our business in 1968 with meerschaum pipes from Turkey. He's an Armenian who was born & raised in Istanbul. Therefore, he had an appreciation for the art of meerschaum. He smoked them as a hobby & always liked the finest quality (which he likes the highest quality in most everything). At the time he was a mechanical engineer working for DuPont in Nashville, involved in micro-fiber analysis, among other things. He didn't like the stems of the meerschaums he smoked, specifically the bit (which is the fitting that connects the stem to the shank of the pipe). So he invented his own bit: one where you screw the stem into the pipe (with the aid of micro-fibers). After he did this, during a break at an engineering conference in North Carolina, he visited an influential tobacconist at the time and asked for pipe tobacco & a pipe cleaner. When my Dad unscrewed the stem of his pipe the tobacconist asked: "Where'd you get that pipe with that shank?"
Dad: "I made it!"
Tobacconist: "Can I get some from you?"
(My Dad's so funny- when he recounts the story nowadays he says "Being Armenian, you never refuse an order!")
Dad: "How many you want?"
They made him put his initials next to the stem, which are C.A.O. That's how we got the name. We got into cigars in 1995. I was an actor in L.A. (I went to college out there) and I moved back to Nashville in 1999 when I really was seduced by the cigar industry.
CW: We know that you have been influential in developing the new cigar lines, how did you come up with the Brazilia Line and what separates it from your others?
TO: One of the things that we look at when thinking about what type of cigar we want to come up with is: what do we not have in our portfolio? It makes no sense for us to have two different Cameroon blends, for example. So we looked at what our line up was at the time and said: "Hey, y'know, we've always liked Brazilian wrappers and we think that they get an unfair rap. Let's do it & make it the best way that we can make it!" Then I noticed that the Brazilian flag, if you turn it sideways, the yellow diamond looks just like the shape of the C.A.O. diamond. I wanted the box to really scream from the shelf. I wanted the packaging to reflect the positive, festive, sexy images that one automatically thinks of when they think of Brazil. So I said, why not make the whole package in the same colors as the flag? There were a lot of old timers who said to me: 'Oh, I would not call attention to the fact that it's got Brazilian tobacco in it!' 'Oh, that box is green. Green is not a good color to use with cigars…uh…it could make the cigars LOOK green!!' (all true). I said: 'You know what, enough of this boring middle-earth nonsense, we called a line CAO Cameroon, why shouldn't we call this CAO Brazilia and have the guts to be leaders rather than scared sheep! And as far as Brazilian tobacco not being good, nonsense! The whole cigar has to be good. Hell, we could come out with our next cigar in a box that looks like the Argentinian flag & call it Argentinia w/ an Argentinian wrapper. People still would try it & buy it if it tastes great! The Brazilia blend is medium to medium full in flavor with some floral notes. It's got a textured, springy flavor and the aroma is excellent.
CW: What cigars do you smoke other than C.A.O.?
TO: Perdomo, Padron, Torano, Arturo Fuente. I try to sample every brand out there.
CW: What do you say to someone that says they do not like C.A.O. cigars?
TO: I ask if they've tried all of our different lines. If they say: 'Yes, and I still don't like them' (which is rare) then I ask what they like & why. Then I say: 'Yes, that's a good cigar.' (Not sarcastically). Hey, look, taste is subjective. I think that people are re-discovering Nicaraguan cigars. Nicaragua is hands down the hottest country for imports into the U.S. (I think that it just passed Honduras recently as far as units imported into this country). Once your palate gets used to the flavor of Nicaraguan tobaccos, there's really nothing like it.
CW: The Box Pressed Tubo has gathered quite a bit of press, do you have plans for anything else as interesting as that?
TO: This year we will have more interesting items on our plate.
CW: Do you have any regrets about joining the family business and not becoming an Actor?
TO: Sometimes. It's tough watching the Oscars. I saw an actor that I went to school with on a commercial during the telecast. I like the guy, but also, part of you says: "I know that I'm a better than this guy. Why did I leave it?" But then after some time passes, you remember why you left it. Life as an actor is not consistent. It's up & down -- unless you're 5% of those that have 'made it'. And to make it, you gotta know the right people or get real lucky and probably both. I also wanted to be my own boss. I didn't want to be at the mercy of casting people or producers. I actually had great promise as a stand-up. I'd say I was successful 80% of the time (which is good, considering the really different crowds I'd perform for, at times). I performed at the Improv & Comedy Store. Then I remember talking to a guy one day who was the manager of Jeff Foxworthy. He said that I should either: A) Hit the road & be a traveling stand up for 10 years & then come back to L.A. & maybe get a shot on TV or B) Stay in L.A. & showcase around & see what happens. Neither of those appealed to me. I was reading a bunch of junky cop & murder books at the time. After I'd finish them I'd give them to my Dad to read. Finally, he said, why don't you stop reading this junk & start reading some classics. I went out & bought David Copperfield. 800 pages! It was tough at times to read, but I came across a passage that was enlightening for me, in which Copperfield discovers that he's good at being a writer: "Having some foundation for believing, by this time, that nature and accident had made me an author, I pursued my vocation with confidence. Without such assurance I should certainly have left it alone, and bestowed my energy on some other endeavor. I should have tried to find out what nature and accident really had made me, and to be that, and nothing else." That's how I feel about me w/ the cigar business.
CW: What's next on the horizon for C.A.O ?
TO: Keep your eyes & ears open. I can't spill the beans on everything!
CW: Everyone concerned with the cigar industry feels that the Cuban Embargo will be lifted upon Castro's death, what impact do you see that having on C.A.O.?
TO: Positive, in the long run. At first, Americans, out of curiosity will buy a lot of Cuban cigars. Then, after a few times of getting plugged cigars or running to kiss the porecalin bowl they'll say: 'Was this really worth the money?' In Germany, already Connecticut shade smokes are more popular than Cubans. Most people can't or don't enjoy smoking them. What we'll do is combine Cuban tobaccos with other tobaccos & see what magic emerges.
CW: C.A.O. does a great job of marketing cigars made by other manufactures and has a well received reputation in the industry, but is there a compelling reason to purchase a C.A.O. over say a Perdomo or Toraño?
TO: Perdomo & Torano make wonderful cigars for themselves, absolutely. And we enjoy working with both of them. But we're not chopped liver ourselves. In fact, we bust our ass on each cigar project. We are very picky. We have a small, exclusive group of tasters that I send out samples (for new blends) to w/ evaluation sheets. It's like our own little secret society. I also like to think that my Dad, my sister, Jon Huber, and I along with the rest of our office smokers have good taste. And that has to do with experience, sensory memory, and instinct. I've visited a ton of tobacconists & met a lot of consumers. I ask questions. I listen & I respond. I think I know what people like. I try to think of what isn't out there that we can bring to market that will bring pleasure to people. Something unique. Some niche that isn't filled or that needs to be. Something that will awaken people's palates as well as excite visually. All of these factors are part of what makes a C.A.O. cigar a very compelling cigar. So, even if it comes from the same manufacturer, it will be unique because of all that we put into it.
Smokestack Jack: 1. Who makes your cigar boxes? They are beautifully finished.
2. Any chance of putting out a video about cigar rolling, box making, and a factory tour?
TO: 1) Perdomo makes L'Anniversaire, Odyssey, Box Pressed Tubo Boxes in Nicaragua. The Toranos make C.A.O. Gold in the same country. Brazilia is made in Holland by the same people who make Godiva packaging.2) Possibly. Good idea.
Broker: How involved are the Ozgeners in the development of the blends for each line?
TO: Very. C.A.O. is my family's name. Any cigar that has that name on it, you bet your life that we're 100% involved. See question #9.
TOJE: Tim, which is your "GO TO" C.A.O. cigar?TO: C.A.O. L'Anniversaire Churchill Cameroon
croozertoo: In CA's article on strong cigars, Frank Llaneza thinks the current trend toward more powerful cigars is just a fad and the market will eventually swing back to milder smokes. Do you agree or disagree, and why?
TO: I agree in a sense. I see it as being somewhat akin to the 'cigar boom' phase. In that, due to more people trying cigars during the height of the boom ('96-'97), after the boom subsided we still had won over new cigar smokers to increase the average base number. Now, the fashion seems to be stronger cigars and/or big ring gauges. People will try them, but most won't smoke them as much as they would a milder smoke. However, as you try stronger blends your palate will be exposed to more flavorful cigars. So when you decide to settle back to a mild smoke again, you may find that what you once liked and considered 'mild' now tastes like air. So I think that the bar will be raised on "milder" cigars. When I first started I liked mild Dominican cigars. Now I can't smoke them. Which is why I like C.A.O. Gold (I know this sounds like a sales pitch, but, really, just hang with me for a second). It looks like a mild Dominican. It's not. It's a mild Nicaraguan. It has a Connecticut seed Ecuadorian wrapper with Nicaraguan fillers. Now I consider cigars like our Gold and Cameroon to be mild. CAO eXtreme is actually medium bodied with a boatload of flavor (thus, eXtreme = extremely flavorful).
nivek: I would like to know CAO's version on what happened to cause the break up with Donald Douglas and tobacco tambor!
TO: This is really a tired subject. It reminds me of that song by Linkin Park that goes "In the end, it doesn't even matter." Things in life sometimes happen for a reason. That break-up led to C.A.O. L'Anniversaire Cameroon, which led to C.A.O. eXtreme, which led to C.A.O. Box Pressed Tubos, which enabled us to do C.A.O. Brazilia. In retrospect, that break up was the best thing that could have happened to us! For the record, I like Douglas Pueringer (which is his correct name) and wish him nothing but the best.
AmbassadorP: 1)With the 1999 CAO business distribution of 50%-40%-10% in cigars, humidors and pipes, what is the current ratio after your cigar production increased?
2)Mr. Cano has mentioned seven steps in cigar quality control plus a draw test. What are they?
TO: 1) 92% cigars, 8% pipes & pipe tobaccos. We are no longer into humidors.
2) 17)After all CAO cigars are bunched they are draw tested. Then they are weighed in bundles of 20. The weight of a bundle per size has to be a certain number, otherwise something may be over or under filled and each individual cigar is tested for draw quality again. Then, before they are packed, we have another random draw testing that a cigar could undergo. As far as the 'seven steps,' I am really not sure what he has documented. We stand by all of our products and if something is sub-standard please inform us so that we can take action to correct the problem.
BobbyVee: Why do you think more cigar manufacturers don't offer the type of promotions for their products that your company does? i.e. hats
TO: We have a good team at C.A.O. We have progressive thinkers who LOVE what they do. All of the employees at C.A.O. make a difference and can make a positive impact if the so choose. People here know their strengths and weaknesses. I have to give credit to Jon Huber, who keeps up with the cigar chat rooms more than I do, on the hat promotion. He & I like to work together & oftentimes we bounce ideas off each other. He chooses to make a positive impact. There are other cigar companies who offer promotions for their products as well. We just like to do things differently.
MetsFan: 1)What is your favorite baseball team?
2)What was the last good book you read?
3)If you could have dinner with any three people (dead or alive), who would they be?
TO: 1)Don't have one. Used to be the Braves (although, I like the Mets, too), but I just got tired of watching them choke all the time.
2)Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
3)My Mom, my Dad, and my sister.
CW: Thanks to Tim Ozgener for answering our questions.