10 Questions with CAO’s Ed McKenna

1. How did you get into the cigar industry?

I joined General Cigar after being on the marketing team for Bacardi’s tequila portfolio.  Since I’ve been with General Cigar, my focus has been on Punch, Hoyo de Monterrey and Excalibur cigars.  Together with Rick Chandler, director of our Honduran portfolio, and with the new product development team at HATSA (our factory in Danli, Honduras), I’ve launched Upper Cut by Punch, Hoyo de Monterrey Reposado en Cedros, and Punch Rare Corojo 10th Anniversary. I’m now managing the CAO business full time along with Rick Rodriguez, who’s heading up all of our new product development for the brand.

2. Jon Huber was very active in social networking especially with new media like cigar bloggers.  Do you plan to continue that?

Yes, I am very active in social media – though I will say it is difficult to stay as active as Jon was in terms of Twitter.  I monitor our page every day to see what people are saying about CAO, I post updates and am running contests to keep people interested in the feed.  Rick uses it occasionally, but I’m mostly taking the lead in keeping CAO fans updated.  I’ve setup my own account as well to monitor what else is going on in the world of cigars. It’s amazing how the premium cigar business has embraced Twitter. I’m more familiar with Facebook, and I’m working to make the CAO page more interactive place for fans of the brand.

3.  Will any of the blends change in the currently CAO line up?

There are no plans to change any of the blends in the CAO line up.  I’m going to get a shirt made that says that, and I may put a sign on my car as well.  Seriously though, I understand that when a company changes hands, the immediate thought is that there will be changes. In this case however, we picked up an amazing lineup of products that we would be foolish to tweak.  On the flip side, with CAO under General Cigar, we are able to control quality and avoid backorders by using our factories, like HATSA (Honduras American Tobacco, S.A.). We also have the benefit of working with our talented cigar making team to review procedures at STG-Esteli to ensure that the highest level of quality assurances are in place.  Having worked with the folks at HATSA for the last few years, I’m not at all surprised at how quickly they’re making this happen.

4. Will any CAO cigars be discontinued?

We have no current plans to discontinue any lines.  CAO did a good job in the past of removing slow moving lines, so we’re keeping the portfolio intact.

5. Will CAO be introducing any new lines this year?

Yes, we just launched a new line at this year’s IPCPR show. It’s called CAO OSA Sol and it’s a flavorful medium bodied smoke featuring an incredible San Agustin wrapper Rick Rodriguez found earlier this year.  We worked hard on the packaging as well – rustic yet modern.  We came out with three sizes – Lot 50 (5” x 50); Lot 54 (6” x 54), and Lot 58 (6 ½” x 58) – all traditional sizes and ring gauges.  Price will fall in the $5 – $7 range and the cigars will hit retail next month (September 2011). These are great, affordable smokes and based on the feedback we received at IPCPR, these cigars have all the makings of a great new line.

6. Recently, CAO has moved it production from STG Danli to STG Esteli and, ultimately, to Honduras American Tabaco S.A. factory.  Why is that and what does that mean to the cigar smoker?

Before we acquired CAO, the brand had gone through several factories and manufacturers, which can create issues year over year in terms of quality. To fix this, we decided to move the production to HATSA to ensure better quality control, and to give us access to more kinds of tobacco, while also allowing us to take advantage of our vast tobacco processing knowledge in Honduras.  HATSA is one of the oldest and most respected cigar factories in Honduras, so we’re confident that the move will be great for the brand.  Now that CAO is being made in HATSA and STG-Esteli, CAO fans are already seeing an improvement in quality.

7. CAO was for many years known for their edgy packaging, but towards the end (of the old regime) we saw a move towards a more traditional approach with the La Traviata.  Where do you see the new regime taking things?

La Traviata was packaged in a plain wooden box, a far cry from some of the more edgy packages over the years like Brazilia or Criollo.  So to CAO smokers, a plain box was edgy because there had been so many unique boxes before that.  Moving forward, we have a great box factory in Honduras with some extremely talented carpenters that can create just about anything we can dream up.  The OSA Sol box was something Rick had sketched out while we were in Honduras earlier this year, and the box factory was able to get us a prototype within hours.  That’s what I love about working on this brand – we’re free to do just about anything we want with packaging, and we have the resources to experiment with all kinds of different ideas.

8. How do you make the transition from General Cigars to CAO?  CAO was more people orientated than General Cigars, as General Cigars are more large scale, market orientated cigar company.

General Cigar is sometimes viewed within the category as being more marketing oriented because we are dedicated to marketing our products, but to say we’re not a people-focused company isn’t accurate.

With CAO, it’s me and Rick Rodriguez taking the lead on the brand, and while we’re the people you’ll see most, there are a lot of people working behind the scenes, like our entire team of cigar experts in Honduras and Nicaragua. We can always tap into the knowledge of people like Benji Menendez and our cigar masters in the Dominican Republic.

We’ve also got a strong sales team that covers the country and does literally hundreds of events interacting with our customers and consumers.  Plus, we have a dedicated events group that goes from brick and mortar shops to huge lifestyle events like Memphis in May or the Sturgis Rally getting the word out about General Cigar brands.  So with CAO and also with Team La Gloria which is led by Michael Giannini, you’re starting to see more of the people behind the brands. Moving forward, we as a company are going to continue to bring some of our other experts to the forefront so that consumers can really get to know the people behind our products.

9. CAO held many events and tours at local cigar shops to bring the product directly to the consumer and give direct interaction with the consumer.  Will that continue?

Yes, Sir.  You can expect us to be hitting the road in earnest starting in September to share the new brand with cigar lovers across the U.S.

10.  What does the future hold for CAO?

It’s an exciting time for us, and the future is wide open.  Rick and I are loving the freedom that Dan Carr (president of General Cigar) has given us in running this brand. We can go anywhere with packaging, blends, tobacco, shapes, and on the marketing front, we’re able to make our mark on this brand.  So keep an eye on CAO because you will definitely see a lot more from us in the way of innovative products and packaging.

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Thanks for posting this interview; it’s great to get an inside look at the transformation of CAO.

Great interview! Looking forward to trying the OSA SOL and catching a CAO event soon!

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