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Kurt's Corner

Hail to the Chief

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Kurt has complete confidence in Andy’s ability to lead the company forward as President and CEO.

In late May, we took the next step in implementing the company’s succession plan when Bob and I stepped down from our positions and the Taylor Guitars board (established as part of our transition to 100-percent employee ownership) appointed Andy Powers President and CEO in addition to his role as Chief Guitar Designer. Bob and I continue serving the company as Senior Advisors, and joint chairs of the board. Andy now heads the company along with leading our guitar design.

When Bob and I started the company as a couple of young guys, there was so much to learn and figure out. I don’t think there’s any way one person could have done it, as it was so overwhelming. But we were very excited, and we each focused on learning the parts of the business we were most interested in. While Bob learned how to make guitars, I learned how to sell them and turn a profit.

In recent years, as Bob and I thought about our succession and looked into the future, we projected it would be more of the same. Bob wanted a guitar maker to run the company, whom he found in Andy. I presumed I’d find someone with my skills, either from within or outside the company, to eventually replace me. I wasn’t actively searching, but in 2020, as we worked on our plan for selling the company to our employees (via an ESOP), I realized that Andy was very capable of assuming my management duties.

Andy cares about Taylor Guitars being an honest and well-run company, and staying focused on its mission of building instruments that inspire.


For starters, he wouldn’t have to establish sales, marketing, distribution, finance or human resources departments as I had — these were now well established and operated by highly skilled professionals. His role would be to oversee and direct them, as my role had evolved into. Andy and I had spent the past several years working together on budgets and reviewing financial statements together, and he’s worked closely with sales and marketing since he joined the company more than a decade ago. He’s well qualified. 

I’ve spent a lot of time with Andy since he came to Taylor in 2011. He’s a uniquely talented person, both an accomplished musician and a world-class instrument designer and builder. If you ask him what he cares about, he’ll talk about his family and friends, music and the people who make it, as well as designing and building musical instruments. He cares about Taylor Guitars being an honest and well-run company and staying focused on its mission of building instruments that inspire people to make music. He also wants to be a good steward of the resources we use. Bob’s approach to making guitars is arguably more of an engineer’s approach than Andy’s. My approach to the guitar business leans more into sales and marketing in addition to finance. Andy takes both of our talents and strengths and elevates them to a new level. I’m excited to see him lead the company into the future he envisions for it!

image of Taylor co-founder Kurt Listug

Kurt's Corner

Keeping It Real

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Our marketing efforts at Taylor are guided by a desire to preserve our authenticity as a company.

By Tim O'Brien

Ed. Note: This issue, Kurt Listug invited Taylor’s VP of Marketing, Tim O’Brien, to write a guest column.

In late May, we took the next step in implementing the company’s succession plan when Bob and I stepped down from our positions and the Taylor Guitars board (established as part of our transition to 100-percent employee ownership) appointed Andy Powers President and CEO in addition to his role as Chief Guitar Designer. Bob and I continue serving the company as Senior Advisors, and joint chairs of the board. Andy now heads the company along with leading our guitar design.

For good reason, marketing in general can have a mixed-at-best reputation. By design, marketing is often meant to make the ordinary sound fantastical. But here at Taylor, our role as marketers isn’t defined by how wildly appealing we can be. It’s defined by how honest we can be.

It’s a perspective that was reinforced by Kurt Listug (my boss), who oversaw our advertising for decades, and who always cautioned us to not make ads that distort the truth, but rather simply tell people what we believe or what we’re doing. If what we’re doing isn’t compelling enough, then that’s our fault.

One reason I love leading the marketing team at Taylor is because our storytelling is focused on taking what’s true about Taylor — about our guitars, our people, our initiatives — and sharing them with you, the guitar player, in a compelling and honest way. Don’t get me wrong — we love creative ideas. But those ideas are developed on top of something genuine within Taylor.

To our company and my marketing team, authenticity matters. It matters a lot.

Before the marketing team filmed our documentary series on West African ebony (The Ebony Project), Bob told me, “Tim, you can’t tell this story without first experiencing Cameroon yourself.” So a year before we brought a video crew to our Crelicam sawmill in Yaoundé, I spent two weeks there with Bob and the Crelicam employees, soaking in the culture, city and people. It was one of the highlights of my professional career. And the result was a series on Crelicam ebony that brings the story to life in a truly authentic way.

This month, we’re releasing several new Hawaiian koa guitars. The koa story, rooted in Hawaii’s unique culture and history, is one the marketing team has wanted to tell for years. But like my experience with ebony, as a business, we didn’t want to begin to tell the story until several of us experienced it firsthand.

Over two years ago, a team of Taylor employees, including people from marketing, sales, engineering, production and even finance, joined Bob Taylor and Steve McMinn from Pacific Rim Tonewoods (our partner with Siglo Tonewoods, featured in this issue) for a few days of koa immersion. We explored several koa forests and saw the damage that wild cattle can have on koa trees unprotected by fencing. We met with experts working on breakthrough techniques to propagate hearty, instrument-grade koa trees. And we got to tour Siglo Forest — 564 acres of rolling pastureland bought by Bob Taylor in 2018 to grow koa and other native trees. We even got to plant the first koa trees on the Siglo property.

With the current planting schedule in place (150,000 koa trees planted there by 2030), when fully matured and with trees being properly harvested and replanted, the plan is to have enough koa annually to supply all of Taylor’s needs plus a healthy portion to supply other instrument makers as well.

Tim-OBrien
Tim O’Brien

After 10 years of leading marketing at Taylor, I’d like to replace Bob’s adage with one of my own. How about, “The only story worth telling is one that’s true.” That feels about right.

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Kurt's Corner

Another Grand Design

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A decade after the Grand Concert put Taylor on the map, the Grand Auditorium was born. The rest is history.

In late May, we took the next step in implementing the company’s succession plan when Bob and I stepped down from our positions and the Taylor Guitars board (established as part of our transition to 100-percent employee ownership) appointed Andy Powers President and CEO in addition to his role as Chief Guitar Designer. Bob and I continue serving the company as Senior Advisors, and joint chairs of the board. Andy now heads the company along with leading our guitar design.

One of the artists who had discovered and was playing our Grand Concerts was country music star Kathy Mattea, who visited the factory in 1993 while she was on tour and in San Diego. Bob had been thinking about designing a new guitar, one that would be very balanced, like our Grand Concerts, but would be a little larger and louder, with more bass. While visiting with Kathy, Bob told her about his vision for a new guitar and offered to build her the first one. It was to become our Grand Auditorium.

Our Grand Auditorium was the right guitar at the right time.

In 1994 we introduced our Grand Auditorium in two different limited-edition 20th Anniversary models: the XX-RS, featuring rosewood with a spruce top, and the XX-MC, which paired mahogany with a cedar top. We followed these up the following year with six limited-edition Grand Auditorium models: the GA-RS (rosewood/spruce), GA-MC (mahogany/cedar), GA-WS (walnut/spruce), GA-BE (Brazilian rosewood/Engelmann spruce), GA-KC (koa/cedar) and GA-KS (koa/spruce). In the years that followed, the Grand Auditorium made its way into different series within our guitar line as standard models, including what’s considered by many to be the iconic Taylor guitar, the rosewood/spruce 814ce.

Our Grand Auditorium was the right guitar at the right time. A more comfortable body shape with modern styling, more balanced tone, an easier-to-play neck, with a cutaway and built-in pickup/preamp for amplification. All were innovations we had introduced in response to the market. The Grand Auditorium was instantly popular. It sold in huge numbers, helping propel our growth through the next 10 years, and remains our best-selling body shape. The Grand Auditorium is what most people think of when they think of Taylor guitars. I look forward to sharing more reflections in future columns about important developments that have helped build our company.

Speaking of reflections, 2021 was the greatest year so far in the history of Taylor Guitars. It was the first year of 100% employee ownership. We experienced the largest increase of business we’ve ever seen, the highest level of sales we’ve ever seen, the most Taylor employees the company has ever had, the most guitars we’ve ever made, the most guitars we’ve ever written new orders for, and the most guitars we’ve ever shipped in a day. I want to thank all our dedicated employee-owners for their hard work. The company is in good hands, for now and for the future.

I also want to thank all the Taylor guitar owners around the world for being such an important part of our growth over the years. We know that a lot of people have taken up the guitar for the first time recently, and we hope that all the new Taylor owners out there are enjoying their guitar experience. One of the goals of Taylor employee ownership is to remain focused on making the best possible guitars well into the future and continue to inspire people to express themselves through music.

image of Taylor co-founder Kurt Listug

Kurt's Corner

Concert Overture

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Kurt reflects on developing the guitar shape that put Taylor on the map.

When Bob and I first started Taylor Guitars, we’d had very little exposure to the world of guitars. We just knew what we knew, which were the guitars that came through our shop for repair and the few guitars that we made. We’d inherited Sam Radding’s designs from the American Dream shop where we met, which were basically his interpretations of Martin dreadnoughts and Gibson jumbos. Bob’s first high school woodshop guitars were based on a Yamaha.

So the first guitars we started making after we bought Sam’s shop were dreadnoughts and jumbos. It was many years later, after many trials and tribulations, that we designed and introduced our first unique Taylor body shape — the Grand Concert. This was in 1984, and Jim Kirlin’s feature in this issue, “Small Guitars, Big Appeal,” tells more of the story of its development.

By the time we introduced the Grand Concert, we had designed our first Taylor models starting with the 810 dreadnought, established a few music stores as Taylor dealers, worked with a distributor for a few years to expand our dealer network, gone deeply into debt and mostly paid it off, and bought out our partner. Along the way, we got feedback and suggestions from dealers and musicians alike about how we could improve our guitars to better fit their needs and had made several improvements.

Not long after we introduced our Grand Concert, the trends of cutaways, pickups and smaller-body guitars converged.

Probably the earliest suggestion came from Fred Walecki of Westwood Music, who asked for a little brighter and “less dark” sound from our dreadnought. Bob addressed this in short order, and tweaked the bracing to make the guitar more balanced. The next suggestion came from Jack MacKenzie of McCabe’s Guitar Shop, who mentioned that some of his customers were asking for guitars with a cutaway. In response, Bob designed our Florentine cutaway, which became popular particularly on our jumbo guitars. McCabe’s was also responsible for suggesting we start offering our guitars with pickups factory-installed, as their customers were requesting them. We quickly began offering a Barcus-Berry under-saddle pickup.

Not long after we introduced our Grand Concert body shape, the trends of cutaways, pickups and smaller-body guitars converged. Coupled with our easy playability, the demand for our Grand Concerts exploded. We’d developed the right guitar to meet the needs of the modern fingerstyle player. In fact, sales of our Grand Concert guitars were largely responsible for our growth over the next 10 years. We’d designed a guitar that was uniquely our own, aligned with trends in the marketplace, and filled a need that our guitars addressed really well. I’ve met many artists who began playing our guitars in the late 1980s or early 1990s and who gravitated toward our Grand Concerts because they did so many things well for so many players.

The Grand Concert is the guitar that put Taylor Guitars on the map. It took us from a small company that could barely pay its bills to a sizable, prosperous guitar company, well known in the industry. Although our next guitar, the Grand Auditorium, launched us into the realm of a famous guitar brand and major guitar manufacturer, the Grand Concert cemented our status as a  popular guitar maker.

image of Taylor co-founder Kurt Listug

Kurt's Corner

Smooth Transition

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Why employee ownership is the best recipe for Taylor’s continued success.

If you’ve started a business, eventually you face the dilemma of what’s going to happen with it when you’re gone. Really, to continue, any business needs new ownership to carry it into the future. And there aren’t that many choices if you don’t have family you wish to pass it down to. You’re faced with a sale, and with making the best decision you can that balances maintaining what you’ve built, honoring your values, rewarding your employees, and providing a fair financial exchange for the owners.

Over the years, I’ve been horrified by some of the stories of businesses that were bought by financial firms and basically gutted, career employees fired, plants closed, and jobs shipped overseas. Granted, some of these were old companies that were potentially way overdue for an overhaul, and then decades of drastically needed changes were carried out over a very short time frame. But still…. 

We didn’t want to become part of another musical instrument company because we’d lose a lot of our individuality and culture. 

Bob and I have thought and worried about the future of Taylor Guitars for many years. Selling was inevitable. But how, and to whom? This came into focus over the past 10 years, culminating in our creating an ESOP (employee stock ownership plan) and transitioning our ownership to our employees by means of the ESOP at the end of 2020. 

From the outside, it’s easy to think guitar companies are pretty similar. They are, but they’re not. They each have their own distinct personality, with their unique culture and set of values. We didn’t want to become part of another musical instrument company because we’d lose a lot of our individuality and culture. It always happens. We like what we’ve created, and we want it to continue.  

We really didn’t want to become a portfolio company of a financial firm, though that likely would have yielded the highest price. We didn’t want the motivation of the company to morph from making the best possible instruments that inspire people to create music to aligning our decision-making around return on investment and growth goals. We didn’t feel that would be a healthy transition for our business, our employees, our dealers and vendors, or the people that buy and play our guitars.  

We started learning about employee ownership in 2013, and we got pretty excited. The more we learned, the more we could see that it checked all the boxes for us. Bob and I could keep our jobs and continue working into the future, which we wanted to do. Andy could continue leading our guitar design for decades into the future. We could retain our employees, many of whom have been with us for years and years. And perhaps most importantly, our employees would be the ones to benefit financially from the company’s future growth and prosperity. 

Employee ownership is a unique opportunity to address wealth inequality. It provides another means for people to create wealth for themselves and their families, by putting company ownership in their hands. We felt that was more important and a better decision than selling to another company, or a financial firm, and letting them reap the financial benefits of Taylor Guitars. We couldn’t be happier with our decision.  

image of Taylor co-founder Kurt Listug

Kurt's Corner

Future-Proofing

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Closing out a year unlike any other, Taylor looks ahead to new challenges and opportunities.

I’d like to start by wishing everyone a healthy and happy year in 2021. So much has been out of our control, and everyone else’s control, during this pandemic. Here at Taylor, we were fortunate to have a healthy year in 2020, and lucky to be in a business that was well-aligned with people spending more time working from and being at home, and turning to music during that time. With the recent news of several vaccines proving effective and nearing approval, I’m hopeful we’ll all turn the corner, get back to more normal conditions, and have a positive year.

As I’ve written many times before, we don’t know what each year will bring or what challenges we’ll be presented with, and 2020 was certainly no exception! 

If we’re lucky, life is long, yet it only lasts decades. But businesses can last centuries, depending on the industry. Bob, Andy and I were talking recently, and Bob said somewhat provocatively that Taylor Guitars could outlive Apple. That’s a fairly outrageous statement to make, but I think he made an interesting point. Musical instruments evolve fairly slowly. The best instruments produced by some manufacturers were made 60 or more years ago. Musical instrument technology doesn’t easily become outdated.  

Some of the oldest companies in America make musical instruments. 

Martin Guitars has been in business since 1833. Steinway since 1853. Gibson since 1902. Each for more than a hundred years, making pretty traditional musical instruments. Making and enjoying music fulfills a human need, as it’s creative and aesthetic. It’s an art form, and it makes life better. It’s remarkable to me that some of the oldest companies in America are companies that make musical instruments — instruments that haven’t changed much throughout the years. 

By contrast, technology can evolve so rapidly that products become obsolete, and companies get relegated to the dustbin in just a few years. A company needs to be on the cutting edge to remain relevant. We’re all aware of technology companies that were once dominant but now no longer exist. The world of technology changes quickly. 

I can’t imagine Apple going away because their products make life better. If they stopped improving the ways their products enhance people’s lives, would the company continue to thrive? Maybe that’s the appropriate question, because musical instruments do continue to improve and enhance people’s lives, even as the instruments become quite old. Their inherent technology doesn’t become outdated and useless. 

For me, the question is, where do I want technology to help improve and simplify my life, and where do I not want more technology? Some people like the idea of a self-driving car. Not me, I really enjoy driving. I want technology to help me enjoy doing the things I really love doing, not do them for me. I don’t want technology to take the skill or enjoyment out of them for me. 

Our job as instrument builders and designers is to make instruments that are more fun and more inspiring for you to play, and that brighten your day whenever you pick one up. That will remain our focus and purpose from now into the future. If we do a good job at this, and if we’re a little lucky, hopefully Taylor Guitars will continue to thrive and inspire people to create music for generations to come.    

Kurt's Corner

Fighting the Good Fight

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It’s anything but business as usual at Taylor, as we continue to adapt to a changing world.

This has been a year of extremes, and the last six months have felt more like six years have passed! These have been the most disruptive and uncertain times we’ve experienced since 9/11. Our El Cajon facilities were forced to close in March, followed a few weeks later by our facilities in Tecate. We were facing the fight of our lives, a fight for our survival.

We brainstormed, and Bob had the bright idea to speak with our local government officials and seek their blessings to keep skeleton crews in place in order to continue shipping guitars and developing new products. They enthusiastically supported us. We felt it was important to fast-track the development and release of new guitars we’d planned because we would definitely need them as soon as we were able to resume production. And it was imperative that we continue shipping guitars as they were ordered, so we would have future income.

With the help of the “Taylor Days” promotion we launched in March, we had a strong April and May in terms of shipping guitars, though our factory operations remained suspended until late May. As of early June, we had no idea what would happen next. This successful promotion had ended and we’d depleted our inventory. We had just started making guitars again, but at a greatly reduced level.

The biggest positive from living through this has been the incredible teamwork from us all pulling together.”

Then as we got into June, we saw how the world was changing. People were working from home if they were able to, and taking up healthy hobbies like playing the guitar. We started having bigger and bigger weeks in terms of the strength of the orders we received from our dealers, as our guitars were selling so quickly. Our manufacturing folks pulled out all the stops and worked their magic to make as many of the guitars being ordered as possible. This continued right through June and July, and we had the two biggest months in a row, in terms of orders received, in the history of the company! By the time we got into August, we had sold out much of our production well into Q1 of 2021. The future is looking bright again, in terms of having a healthy guitar market.

Our work itself has changed dramatically, and I don’t foresee it returning to how it was pre-pandemic. Most of our sales, marketing and finance staff has been working from home since March, although people are starting to go back in the office a few days per week. We’ve made great use of online meeting applications to have virtual meetings that used to be in person. We’ve definitely become more productive with our time, and we’re not traveling to conduct business meetings either. This has really changed how we see our ability to stay connected with the business but not be tied to our work locations. On the other hand, we miss the social aspects of seeing our co-workers.

Making guitars while maintaining a clean, safe environment and providing for social distancing is a much bigger challenge, but we’re having success. We’ve recently reorganized work shifts at our factory in Tecate to maintain safety protocols, keeping people more spread out. It will take some time before we’re able to reach our pre-pandemic production levels, but we’re on a good path with a solid plan.

Undoubtedly the biggest positive we’ve gained from living through this has been the incredible teamwork from us all pulling together and working hard to survive and succeed. We’re all tremendously grateful for each other’s efforts and contributions, and of course the enthusiastic support of the extended Taylor community around the world. We wish you a safe remainder of the year. Thank you!

Kurt's Corner

Catalyst for Creativity

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The disruption of recent events has spurred Taylor to respond with an outpouring of creative ideas.

This has been a year of extremes, and the last six months have felt more like six years have passed! These have been the most disruptive and uncertain times we’ve experienced since 9/11. Our El Cajon facilities were forced to close in March, followed a few weeks later by our facilities in Tecate. We were facing the fight of our lives, a fight for our survival.

When I think of highly creative people, I think of artists. I love it when artists continue to create new ideas and break new ground. That’s hard. It’s not as safe as staying in the vein of what’s been successful for them. But that can risk becoming formulaic. 

I think businesses, in particular, have a tendency to become formulaic and operate as though once the creative part is done, they just need to market and sell myriad variations of what’s been created. Business people look for what has worked well and want to repeat it. There’s nothing wrong with that, as they want to maximize the returns from the creative efforts. After all, not everything created is met with the same level of success. So when an idea or product is really well received and enjoys huge popularity, you want to get the best return you can for as long as you can. But unless you’re continuing to encourage and support creativity, and introducing new art, new ideas and new products, the world will eventually move on, and the business will decline.

I am proud of our team’s dedication, ingenuity and willingness to dig deep to steer the company through this difficult time.”

The world can also change dramatically overnight, as it has recently. Those products and plans that have worked so well for you for so many years suddenly get tossed out the window. You have to get really resourceful immediately, and invent and create your way through the disruption and uncertainty. The days of putting things on automatic are over. You have to fight your way through it, if you hope to survive. We’re in one of those times. And our team has been unbelievably creative and responsive, producing an abundance of new products and solutions to get us through these times.

I am so proud of how quickly and effectively our team has met this challenge head-on, in so many different ways: developing new sales and marketing promotions at near light speed; fast-tracking the development of new products so we can release them sooner; productively coordinating team members working from home; finding ways to get guitars delivered to stores; maintaining good communication with our employees; and retrofitting the facility for safe operation and safe distancing. I am proud of their dedication, ingenuity and willingness to work hard and dig deep to steer the company through this difficult time.

I occasionally hear from other business people that it’s difficult to be away from their business for any length of time, because their business doesn’t run without them. I’m always surprised when I hear that. I guess they haven’t seen a company like Taylor Guitars.