February 14, 2016

Taylor Guitars: A Perpetual Approach to Embracing Change

I wrote this post originally as a part of one of my graduate class discussions after I was tasked to explore and examine a successful organization that has embraced change. I'm reposting here because I had originally planned to write about a nonprofit or organization providing services or self-advocacy for individuals with disabilities. However, I was reading about guitars (another passion of mine) and I simply could not write about another organization once I started reading more about Taylor-Listug, Inc. I found a news article from 2014, which included some beautiful discussions on the value of pursuing innovation and change even if something "isn't broken". I found the company's philosophy to really resonate with another book I love, Theory U (Schamer, 2009).

 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -  

Taylor Guitars:  A perpetual approach to embracing change

For this discussion I chose a business that stuck out because
of how much it embraces change compared with the other main players within this established industry, which is manufacturing guitars. The organization I chose as an example, is Taylor Guitars. Taylor is a guitar manufacturer started in 1974 by Bob Taylor and Kurt Listug in San Diego, California (Sanford, 2011). 

On the right is a Taylor T5z,  a unique and innovative guitar. After learning about it and watching videos of this acoustic/electric hybrid, I was so curious about this guitar that I went to many stores just asking if they stocked one so I could try playing it and simply feel it in my hands. It's an amazing instrument.

An Industry Stuck in Time

A leader in the guitar business, Gibson still relies on resisting change as much as possible. One of it’s biggest selling guitars, the Les Paul, was introduced in 1952 and most of the innovations and changes were introduced during the 1950’s and 1960’s.

While much of the guitar industry is moving to recreate or replicate classic versions of guitars and scrambling to find limited supplies of endangered wood. Gibson guitars was raided in 2011 by federal agents for importing poached wood from Madagascar in violation of the Lacey Act (Schelzig, 2014). After Gibson reached a settlement, they were able to get the seized wood back from the federal government and used the story to create the Government Series Gibson 335 using words from the constitution, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as a sales pitch for this limited edition, calling the Government Series“ An American original now an American icon of freedom” (Gibson.com, 2015).

Here Gibson brags about 20 years of doing things like it was 70 years ago.Even today one of the most sought after guitar models is the 1959 Gibson Les Paul. Since the 1959 models are hard to find and incredibly expensive, Gibson currently produces modern replicas of the exact guitars from years naming them a “reissue” (Musician’s Friend, 2014). For example, the 1959 Les Paul Standard Reissue is a very popular guitar model sold by Gibson, and a new ‘59 reissue retails at a starting price of $6,499 (Gibson.com, n.d.). If you visit Gibson’s website to look at the Les Paul Reissue guitars you will notice that what they are promoting is a 20-year celebration of putting out replicas of these old guitars, and working to make them as old and realistic as possible. This represents the ingrained resistance to change within the company and the broader industry that typifies the guitar industry. Despite the preconceived notions we might have about musicians or the rock music industry being progressive, the guitar industry as a whole is generally still operating in the past.

What Taylor does differently

Bob Taylor has been continually moving his company in the direction of exploring the possibilities of design, sustainability, better practices, and changing the way his guitars are made. Taylor Guitars is continually trying new design changes and working to improve and challenge different aspects of the guitar-making process and how they source their materials (Reverb, 2016). Taylor guitars are made from 100% sustainably harvested wood, and the company has taken an active role in either owning or managing the supply chain to ensure things are done in a sustainable way. Bob Taylor is frequently in the cooperatives in Honduras and Belize where workers are harvesting rosewood and Taylor strives to listen to the people in those areas, adapt to their needs, improve wages and to improve environmental standards at the same time. The company has been utilizing a GPS-based technology with their foresters to identify the source coordinates of every tree. The technology provides a supply chain management tracking system to ensure compliance with environmental laws (Kirlin, 2011). Bob Taylor embraces change and is continually looking to adapt and think about the future. Despite owning a company with a vested interest in being able to use and sell all wood-based products, Bob Taylor is focused on educating consumers on these issues and changing the consumers think and act.

Watch: The State of Ebony

In his video, The State of Ebony, Taylor describes the global scale of what we are doing to the rainforests, and areas of the world where these woods are sourced and he talks about the modern use of palm oil, mass deforestation, and guitar industry are wreaking havoc on the people and communities in those areas. Taylor says:  “Ebony has been a wood where we go into a country and we use the ebony until is is gone, literally. Then we move into another country and we take their ebony until it is all gone. Why do I say ‘we’? Because ebony isn’t cut in Africa for use by Africans, it’s being cut to be sold to people like us [speaking as an American] to make things like guitars out of. That’s the simple truth of the matter” (TaylorGuitars, 2012). Taylor Guitars was recognized in 2014 by Secretary of State John Kerry with the Award for Corporate Excellence because of the company’s positive changes in sustainable and ethical business practices in Cameroon (Middleton, 2015).

I really recommend watching this video because Bob Taylor tells the story of how he spent a year living in Cameroon, after buying a wood mill along with a Spanish company and this business acquisition changed his life. He also shares a compelling story about how western consumer expectations were creating horrible waste and environmental damage. On this story and the powerful change created by implementing a new practice, Taylor says: “We no longer live in a world of new frontiers and wasteful use of our natural resources. The people of Cameroon can’t afford the luxury for us to be this picky and so things are going to change. The nature of what we thought was beautiful for 100 years is simply going to change” (TaylorGuitars, 2012). Bob Taylor then asks the viewers of the video to also embrace this change.

Pursuing change beyond one owner

In 2014, and Bob Taylor decided begin the process of finding a successor to keep pushing Taylor Guitars far into the future. Taylor listed many specific qualities he’d seek in a candidate and found Andy Powers, a luthier with his own line of custom acoustic instruments. In his brief time at Taylor, Powers has significantly improved the iconic 600 and 800 series guitars. Powers is taking on more responsibility at the company, freeing Bob Taylor to devote more of his attention to his passionate concern about wood and forest conservationism (Reverb, 2016).

Why it works

I think what makes Taylor Guitars so successful is that the willingness to experiment and desire to innovate from the beginning. In the article “Why Large Companies Struggle with Business Model Innovations” by Girotra and Netessine (2013), the authors talk about the importance of having top management invested in the process of change. Taylor Guitars has an owner who is so fully-invested that he spends a year at at time living in the places where the wood is forested and he is passionate about looking into the future as he works towards change (2013). He is also open-minded and frequently talks about experimenting with new designs, new types of wood that are typically discarded and he collaborates with other people who bring skills and innovation to the company. I believe that the passion for experimentation, the desire to do things a better way and the fact that Bob Taylor has maintained enough control of the company in order to implement the progressive approaches have all been crucial to the company’s success. 

Lastly, by experimenting and working to improve the process, Taylor Guitars play differently and are differentiated from the other competitors in the saturated market of acoustic and electric guitars. Like my own journey learning about the T5z, consuming videos and articles only provides partial information on the essence of what Taylor does. In order to really know what the differences are and what they mean, you need personal experience. What makes the Taylor T5z come alive is to hold it in your own hands and try playing it.

Photo from Wood & Steel Magazine, Kirlin, J. (2011)


Gibson.com (2015) ES-335 Government Series. An American original now an American icon of freedom. Retrieved from:  

Gibson.com (n.d.) 1959 Les Paul Standard Reissue. Gibson Guitars. Retrieved from: http://www.gibson.com/Products/Electric-Guitars/Les-Paul/Gibson-Custom/1959-Les-Paul-Standard-VOS.aspx

Girotra, K. and Netessine, S. (2013, September 27) Why Large Companies Struggle with Business Model Innovations. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from​: https://hbr.org/2013/09/why-large-companies-struggle-with-business-model-innovation/

Kirlin, J. (2011) Forest Friends. A decade after a pioneering mahogany harvesting program paired Taylor with a community in Honduras, a model of sustainable social forestry is thriving and spreading. Wood & Steel Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.taylorguitars.com/sites/default/files/ws_summer_2011.pd​f 
Middleton, A. (2015, July 1) Fine-tuning sustainable buildings at Taylor Guitars headquarters. Sustainability Matters. Retrieved from: http://sustainabilitymatters.us/2015/07/fine-tuning-sustainable-buildings-at-taylor-guitar-headquarters/

Musician’s Friend (2014, January 8) The Les Paul Buying Guide. Musician’s Friend.com. The Hub. Retrieved from: http://thehub.musiciansfriend.com/guitar-buying-guides/the-les-paul-buying-guide
Sanford, J. (2011, May 16) Taylor Guitars: The Inside Story. The San Diego Reader. Retrieved from: http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs/jam-session/2011/may/16/taylor-guitars-the-inside-story/# 
Scharmer, O. (2009). Theory U: Leading from the future as it emerges. San Francisco.​ Barrett-Koehler.

Schelzig, E. (2014, October 2) Gibson Guitar Settles Exotic Wood Violation With Federal Government. Huffington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/06/gibson-guitars-exotic-wood_n_1747507.html

Taylor Guitars (2012, May 12) Taylor Guitars "The State of Ebony"- Bob Taylor ​[​Video​].​ YouTube.com Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/anCGvfsBoFY

Thompson, C. (2016, January 27) A Brief History of Taylor Guitar Innovations. Reverb.com.​ Retrieved from: https://reverb.com/blog/a-brief-history-of-taylor-guitar-innovations 
Varga, G. (2014, January 22) Taylor Guitars Turns 40 with a Bang. San Diego Union Tribune. Retrieved from: http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/2014/jan/22/taylor-guitars-bold-move-for-fortieth-anniversary/