King of the Luxury Cigar: CAO

Nashville, the home of American country music, is almost burning because of the hot weather. Driving from the airport, the silhouette of the city emerges. The Bell South Building which became very famous with the movie Batman is one of the buildings that are often pointed out to tourists.
On the streets there are a lot of singers with their guitars, which are almost synonymous with country music. Nashville is a city which is known for its cosmopolitan and democratic population as well as its music. Another interesting detail is, this is a city where most of the Kurdish people in the United States live. Especially after the Iraq war a lot of Kurdish people have moved here.

Cano, Murat and Aylin Ozgener.

Well, our main subject is not country music or the ethnic structure of Nashville of course. Our main goal is to meet with the heirs of the C.A.O. International which has been using the city as their headquarters since 1968. Although the company was established by Cano Ozgener, his son Murat’s (everybody knows him as Tim) and his daughter Aylin’s roles have been very important in enlarging the company and turning it into a brand. C.A.O.’s new building looks like a museum more than a business place.

Even though the exterior gives you the feeling that this is a big storage facility, there is a different world inside. The building has been designed according to the Feng Shui philosophy. There are paintings of the lands in Nicaragua on which the tobacco grows that is used in C.A.O cigars on the right side of the hallway in the entrance. On the left side, old Eskisehir meerschaums, pipe boxes, the first C.A.O cigars which are a part of the company’s history are exhibited. The father’s, Cano Ozgener’s, name started to be known in the industry first by the meerschaums that he imported from Eskisehir and marketed. The pipe which ranks as the most expensive meerschaum ever made and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records still belongs to Cano Ozgener. It is worth around $50.000.
When we are writing an article for this magazine, there is something we encounter a lot. Sometimes you have to speak in English even with the interviewees who can actually speak Turkish. Even in Turkey some people prefer to speak in English. But with Murat and Aylin Ozgener it is completely the opposite. Although both were born in Nashville, they insist on speaking in Turkish. Aylin’s Turkish is poorer than Murat’s, yet she is able to put all her thoughts in Turkish words. Murat tells us that he owes his Turkish to his maternal grandmother.

There is a glass room in the middle of the company building. There are various kinds of cigars in this room, maybe thousands of them. There is a different kind of cigar stored in every drawer. And they keep the very special cigars that are offered to the visitors of C.A.O. in a special section.

Ozgener started his business in 1960's.

Cano A. Ozgener’s work experience, which started with the meerschaum and continued with cigar boxes, shifted to cigar business in 1995.  “How many meerschaum pipes can a man buy in a life time? Or how many cigar boxes can he have?” and he started working on creating a cigar label. C.A.O. made its rise with the label Maduro in 1998. Since it was rated very high in the cigar lovers’ magazine, Cigar Aficionado, it got the attention of everybody instantly.

Murat Ozgener tells us that, with the advantage of being a family business the relations are much more sincere. In the interview, he also mentions C.A.O Italia, which is the company’s latest popular brand. This cigar is made of Italian tobacco and is the first of its kind. It became successful despite the people who kept saying “Italian tobacco is no good for a cigar.” C.A.O. Italia also made the cover of Robb Report magazine that was put on the shelves a few months ago, which lists the best quality brands in the U.S.A. Also one of the Tennessee politicians who was actually in a scandal in the recent months and had his picture on the cover of a local newspaper had a C.A.O. cigar in his mouth. Well, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Aylin Ozgener attracts a lot of attention as a cigar smoker and an executive in the male dominated cigar world. She has been smoking cigars for 10 years and she mostly prefers the flavored ones. She is now the head of the flavored cigar department as a result of the latest changes in the company. She is also responsible for the financial and promotional activities of the company. Aylin, who studied journalism and political science at Indiana University, worked as a sales representative at Samsonite for a while. Then since her father insisted she start working for C.A.O.

Aylin Ozgener.

C.A.O., which employs a total of 400 people at two factories in Nicaragua and Honduras, sells around 8 million cigars a year. They are planning to open stores of their own brands.

Murat Ozgener says: “We have a creative marketing strategy and we are being imitated a lot.” Murat, who stayed away from the company during the years his father established it had the dream of becoming an actor. During our interview he was never shy about exhibiting his talent by imitating his friends and family members. He achieves the feat of bringing tears to ones’ eyes by laughing in the environment he is in.

Murat’s father’s first reaction to his son, who studied fine arts at the University of Southern California was: “Go study engineering, what are you going to do being an actor?” (Father Cano Ozgener is a graduate of Columbia University’s Engineering Department). However he gave in since Murat insisted a lot and passed the talent test he had taken.

Murat joined C.A.O.’s team in 1993, the summer he graduated from school, when he was called to be in charge of the company at a time the family was on a summer vacation. Murat, who was a comedian in Los Angeles till then, became as the head of the company as serious as he could be. His father, Cano Ozgener, says that Murat has a big role in making C.A.O. a label. He says: “Since he knows the American mentality better, we encountered many changes through him.”

Having colorful cigar boxes, which previously were of one color, and paying a lot of attention to the packaging has made the company catch an important trend in the product sales department. Murat is still responsible for product development and he is the Vice President. In C.A.O., which started with only three people in 1995, there are 28 people in total today, 18 of them at the headquarters and 10 of them in different states. Aylin talks about the basement in which Cano Ozgener started his business in the 1960’s as a nice memory today, as she stands in the company’s new 20 thousand square foot building. She says: “It was a dark, small place with a low ceiling.” Meerschaums, the sale of which provided the main income in the beginning make up only a 1% of a share of the company’s income today. Cano Ozgener tells that he contributed to the welfare of many families in Eskisehir through the sale of meerschaums.

High school student, Cano Ozgener.


C.A.O. cigars are being sold in around 70 countries today. There are also three other family companies in the market like C.A.O. Mr. Ozgener says: “The cigar lovers want to support the family businesses, and this quality makes the customer have special bonds with the label.” C.A.O., which filmed the process of making a cigar in the factory in Nicaragua as a documentary, sends this to its customers and shows all the steps of making a cigar, from collecting the tobacco off the land and rolling it into cigars to packing. These handmade cigars are made with tobacco which is still cultivated by ox-drawn plows. The boxes in which the cigars are kept are made in Holland. Murat says that people are asking if Turkish cigars of Turkish tobacco are next after the Brazilian and Italian varieties. Despite the fact that all the tobacco enterprises in Turkey are still under Tekel’s control and Tekel does not allow it, Murat asks: “Why not one day?”

C.A.O. brings its fans together at the private parties they throw once a while. They host cigar nights during NBA Players Association summer meetings, the world-famous Palms Casino Resort annual parties in Las Vegas, and gatherings for the Super Bowl and Country Music Awards. A lot of celebrity names from the art, sports and jet set worlds are among C.A.O. cigar smokers. California Governor and former actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, some former basketball players such as Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Dennis Rodman, actor George Clooney, boxer Sugar Lay Leonard, Paris Hilton, director Steven Spielberg, James Gandolfini, who plays Tony Soprano in the TV series Sopranos and many others are known to be dedicated C.A.O. cigar smokers. C.A.O., which presented its new cigar selection under the name of “C.A.O. The Sopranos Edition” in New Orleans also owns the brand “C.A.O. Criollo Mancha” which was named the best cigar brand produced in Nicaragua by the European Cigar Cult Journal.

Cano Ozgener who was born in Moda, one of the best neighborhoods of the Anatolian side of Istanbul, in 1937, went to Saint Joseph and Robert College. He studied engineering at Columbia in New York, to which he came in 1961. He met his wife Esen at school. In 1964, leaving New York, first he went to North Carolina and then to Nashville in 1968, to work at DuPont as an engineer. Leaving his job in 1977, he turned his own name into a brand (Cano Aret Özgener). He started his adventure with meerschaum, and then continued it by producing cigar boxes. In 1995, he finally started cigar production.

His favorite thing is still to escape to New York with his wife, whenever he feels bored and wants to touch base with life. He would never go back to Nashville without seeing an opera in the Metropolitan or a play on Broadway. Cano, who was a ping-pong champion in his high school years, has named the cigars that were marketed for his 65th birthday Moda, the neighborhood he was born in. Profits from the sale of these cigars are being donated to cancer research institutions.

Main Brands: Cameroon, Maduro, Brazilia, Extreme, Gold Churchill, Churchill, Mx2, İtalia.
Flavored Brands: Moontrance, Earth Vector, Gold Honey, Eileen’s Dream, Bella Vanilla.
Special Selections: Conmemorativo, 65th Anniversary Cigar, CRS (cigars ready-to smoke), CAO Black.

(August 2005, 18th Issue)
Last modified onSaturday, 06 May 2017 10:07