When most tobacco enthusiasts hear the name CAO, they probably think about extraordinary cigars at the top of most connoisseurs’ lists of premium smokes. Not surprising, as this enormously popular brand has taken the stogies world by storm. Without a doubt, CAO International is one of the foremost manufacturers of premium cigars today.
But do you know that CAO began its long and successful journey as the one of the finest pipe manufacturers in the world?
IT ALL STARTED WITH PIPES
The CAO company was founded in 1968 in Nashville, Tennessee, where it remains to this day, and where tobacco legend Cano (pronounced john-no) Ozgener still resides alongside the many superstars that have made the town the country music capital of the world. Rumor has it that, while Cano cannot carry a tune (though he enjoys singing in the shower), his contributions to the tobacco industry have earned him a rightful place in Nashville’s glorious history.
In 1961, Cano left his home to continue studying mechanical engineering in the United States at Columbia University, from which he was graduated with a prestigious master’s degree. Further, in 1964, he earned a professional engineering degree and was subsequently hired by the DuPont firm to work in its Kinston, North Carolina, plant. Still an avid meerschaum fan, he decided to use his education to make advancements upon the pipes he loved to smoke.
“I wanted to improve the artistic aspects and the functionality of the meerschaum pipes from turkey. As an engineer doing research for DuPont, I was always interested in making improvements,” he explains. My brother-in-law in Turkey had good contacts in Eskisehir, where the meerschaum pipe industry is. It was a good combination”.
Not only was Ozgener dissatisfied with the quality of the meerschaum pipes that different manufacturers had in inventory, it seemed that tobacconists were not happy with them either. “I would take the prototypes and change the stems, make modifications, and work with the carvers,” he says. “One day, Chauncey Dean Jr. (of Beehive Tobacconist in Wilmington, Delaware) told me that he had never seen such quality and workmanship on a meerschaum pipe,” Ozgener recalls. “He ordered a dozen or two from me.” Ozgener was then introduced by Dean to Bill Fader, a Baltimore tobacconist and former executive director of the Retail Tobacco Dealers of America (now called the International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association, or ICPCR) and Bill Martin, the late owner of the W. Curtis Draper tobacconist shop in Washington, DC. The two tobacco veterans helped Cano make contacts in the industry and sell these improved products along with his very own creations, for which he later became well known. “And that is how CAO was formed,” he says.
CAO then took it a step further and began producing high-quality, custom-blended pipe tobaccos offering 26 different styles to accommodate the discriminating tastes of all smokers.
Ozgener emphasizes that starting a new business is never easy, and that a large percentage fail due to being under-capitalized. After making sure all bases were covered, and that he had the credit he needed from the banks, he opened for business. “Soon I realized that I had made the right decision,” he succinctly notes.
At the beginning, Cano basically ran the company by himself, though he did have some reluctant assistance from his children, Tim and Aylin, who were in high school. In time, however, the kids were glad they were given the opportunity to work with their father, who taught them a tremendous amount of business ethics and savvy that they still carry with them today. In order to get the company off the ground, Cano used the distributorship of Cadogan Industries, which was, at the time, distributing Chacom GBD pipes and joya de Nicaragua cigars.
Ozgener kept his full-time engineering job as he built his company, holding the position of DuPont’s senior research engineer from 1968 through 1977, the year he left to devote more attention to his growing enterprise and his true passion. Even though the tobacco business was slow then, he certainly doesn’t regret his decision. “I couldn’t handle both of them as the same time,” he says. Back then, the pipe business was still a small one but Ozgener’s decision to devote his to the tobacco industry was very well planed and thought out, and he knew that the key to making a classic meerschaum pipe was simply finding the best carvers. To start, he hired his brother-in-law, Erdil Sever, who was placed in charge of CAO’s meerschaum pipe operations in Turkey. Sever maintained contact with the carvers, purchased the pipes, and made the necessary artistic and technical modifications. In doing so, he became instrumental in the success and quality of CAO pipes. Still, all was not perfect.
We learned from our mistakes. We had some carvers who were not good, who couldn’t make changes as we wanted to,” he elaborates. Under Erdil Sever’s leadership, CAO built nine workshops that employed between 30 and 40 of the best carvers in the world. ” And we still have Ismet Bekler, who has been with us since 1973. He is one of the best carvers in the history of Turkish meerschaum!”
Bekler carved exclusively for CAO from high-quality, solid-block meerschaum. Each pipe was autographed and hand-fitted with a gorgeous leather case. The variety of carving themes chosen by the now-retired Mr. Bekler (who continues to serve CAO in a consulting capacity) was astounding. Each and every pipe is an extremely detailed work of art, highly collectible, and will exceed any pipe fan’s expectations once he holds one of these beauties in his hand. Today Mr. Bekler carves pipes for his own enjoyment, and has gifted many of his latest creations to Cano in recognition of his loyalty to his craft.
CAO continued to make pipes exclusively until 1992. Along with inventory geared toward pipe collectors, the company produced custom-made styles for many notables personalities “Over the years, we have given a lot of gifts to presidents, politicians, athletes,” explains Cano. Since smoking is a no-no subject today, we want to repect their privacy. But I can say Sherlock Holmes did not smoke our pipes.”
CAO hit the pinnacle of perfection with the production of one particular meerschaum piece hand-carved by the celebrated Mr. Bekler. “The Flying Horseman, which was in the GuinnessBook of World Records in the 1970s,” Ozgener notes with a smile. “The pipe, which ranks as the most expensive meerschaum ever made, still belongs to me personally.” Today , this extremely fine work of art is worth around $50,000 and is proudly displayed in Cano’s impressive collection.
While Cano Ozgener will always be a fan of fine pipes, he seems to have gravitated toward cigars of late. “I like both. But please don’t tell my doctors!” he jokes. Through the years, he has amassed over 2,000 pipes in his collection, which includes not only his own work, but many elegantly crafted pipes made by Savinelli, Ashton, Butera, and Dunhill.You might be wondering if Cano Ozgener’s timeless and beautiful pipes are still being sold today, and the answer is yes- but they are becoming harder to find, which may be frustrating for the average consumer. However , true pipe connoisseurs are enjoying the fact that these rare pieces are now becoming genuine collectors’ items. And, for those of you hoping that Cano Ozgener will return to his pipe-making roots in the future… quite frankly, he is doubtful. But like any good businessman, he’ll keep the doors open due to the constant changes in the industry, while keeping a watchful eye on consumer demand.
by Steve Nathan.