Cigar Interview: Jon Huber – Part Two

Cigar Interview: Jon Huber – Part Two

Today we continue our three part interview with Jon Huber. To view part one, please click here.

Part Two: Your Departure from CAO


The Merger

In 2007, the climate at CAO began to shift. How did the 2007 merger with Scandinavian Tobacco Group affect the daily operations at CAO?
Let’s just say that it became less and less about creating and innovating, and more and more about cold, hard numbers and profit. Nothing more.

Were you included in any of the discussions around merging with STG in 2007?
Allow me to clarify here. CAO did not merge with STG in 2007. CAO was acquired by Henri Wintermans in January of 2007, and no I was not included in any of the discussions leading up to that acquisition.

So you never offered an opinion on how such a decision would affect CAO’s product or brand?
No I did not. At that point, I could see and understand why the Ozgener family agreed to the deal and I never begrudged them that decision one iota. Truth be told, initially things remained largely the same after the Wintermans acquisition.

If you were to speculate, what would you say was the motivation on CAO’s part to complete the 2007 merger with STG?
Again, CAO did not merge with STG in 2007. That said, I feel that Cano (Ozgener) felt that it was the right decision not only for himself and his family, but for the brand, as well. He believed that by selling to Henri Wintermans, he could secure the future for not only his family, but for CAO as a brand, and for the employees of CAO, as well. At the end of the day, the reality is that when you sell your brand you sacrifice the security of the future of that brand. It was a classic case of a small fish being swallowed by a larger fish being swallowed by a larger fish.

There was another merger in January of 2010, this time between Swedish Match and Scandinavian Tobacco Group. When this merger took place, did you immediately begin considering a departure?
When that happened, the writing was on the wall. You’d have been a fool to have thought that the end result would’ve been anything other than what it ended up being. All the while, ST did their best to keep everyone at CAO ‘in the dark’ about what the final outcome would be. Did I immediately consider a departure? Not necessarily. I wanted to stay loyal to my CAO family and ride the wave all the way to the shore. I figured that God’s plan for me would unveil itself when the time was right. I never got nervous about my future.

How did your role and responsibilities at CAO begin to change?
It was pretty much ‘business as usual’ all the way up until the end. That said, it didn’t take long to realize that my business philosophies did not line up with those of the new regime. I’m not putting down their business principles; however, as I’ve said before, if I had wanted to work for corporate America I would’ve gone off and sold copy machines somewhere.

Prior to the merger, did you ever envision not being employed by CAO?
No. I was loyal to CAO and the Ozgener family for life. My big 3 values I live by are loyalty, honesty, and integrity. Could I have made more money playing the corporate game and going to another company? Maybe. But what I wanted to demonstrate to my son was that life isn’t all about money; it’s about being loyal and having the integrity to stay true to your path and those that brought you to the dance.

You chose not to relocate to Richmond and take a job at General Cigar. Was that a difficult decision?
I paused for about 3 seconds. Then I said, “no.”

Looking Beyond

When looking back at your 14 years at CAO, what are you most proud of?
For me, it wasn’t about any one cigar or any one event or any one rating. What makes me proud is that I was part of a team of individuals who stayed together and built something out of nothing; we took a business from a basement to a global brand. And to this day, I look upon those people as my family.

What were the final months at CAO like for you?
Let’s just say it wasn’t a barrel of laughs. Honestly though, I had no problems with turning over the keys to General Cigars. I understood that this wasn’t something that they signed up for either; they were trying to make the best of the situation, as well. By the time it was time to clear out my office and say my good-byes, I was more than ready for it. It was less like the tearful good-bye scenes you would envision and more of a “FREE AT LAST” feeling of complete and utter liberation; I just about danced out the front door.

If you could give one piece of advice to the new “owners” of CAO, what would it be?
I would say what I said to them before I left. That is, don’t try to “live up” to CAO–instead, take the brand and make it your own. CAO was more about the people that comprised the company than it was about cigars, and all of those people are gone. CAO is over–it’s done. Make a ‘new’ CAO because you will never replicate or duplicate the former CAO. I saw a message on twitter the other day where someone said that a General rep told them (about CAO), “We have the recipes and the cooks…we just don’t have the guys that came up with the recipes.” My reply to that was that if all it took was good recipes and good cooks, then why do the vast majority of restaurants fail? It’s about people and heart–that’s what built CAO, and that’s what walked away from CAO. I wish the new regime the utmost success; however, I would caution them against trying to “be” like CAO.

Did you immediately know who you wanted to team up with when you resigned?
Despite the fact that the official “company word” from STG was that the future of CAO was undetermined, I knew–we all knew–in my heart of hearts that CAO was not destined to be in Nashville much longer. Why they couldn’t just come out and share that with us early on is still a mystery. Nonetheless, when that happened I thought about what my ideal scenario would look like. At that point, I realized that part of what made my time at CAO so rewarding was the people I was working with on a daily basis. So I knew that–given my druthers–I would prefer to stay with those that “brought me to the dance.”

How did those conversations begin?
“Hey, when this is over and done do you wanna start something up again?” That was pretty much it….and then I said, “I’m in.”

To read Part Three please click here.