This is the second of a five-part series by Team One chief strategy officer Mark Miller on long-term brand building in contemporary marketing, and balancing long-term thinking with the urgent necessity of short-term action (check out the first installment on The Ritz-Carlton). Here, Miller talks to Taylor Guitars co-founder Kurt Listug.
Launched in 1974, Taylor Guitars is America’s leading manufacturer of acoustic guitars. While sales and profits are strong, how Taylor achieves and maintains its success is through challenging every major convention in the guitar-making industry. In my conversation with Kurt Listug, Taylor’s co-founder, he spoke about unlearning and relearning how to manufacture guitars, embracing unconventional designs from the start, making hard decisions by thinking 10 years ahead, mentoring tomorrow’s successors today, and aiming higher to go further. In a world filled with short-term success stories, Kurt speaks with conviction about achieving a rarer kind of success with Taylor Guitars—a lasting success achieved by leading, and never following.
Mark Miller: After only 42 years, Taylor Guitars has leapfrogged past some storied competitors to become the number-one manufacturer of acoustic guitars in America. What one lesson did you learn along the way that most contributed to your brand’s sustained success?
Kurt Listug: Common wisdom is often wrong. When we started, common wisdom said that it was more efficient to manufacture guitars in batches. We tried that and it was wrong. Bob met a guitar maker named Augie LoPrinzi who taught him that it is better to have a done guitar than 10 half-done guitars. This approach to making guitars is called ‘lean manufacturing.’
When we did things by convention, we started off making batches of 10 guitars. Six would get done, and four would get wrecked. It would take two months. Instead of having 10 done guitars in a month, we had six done every two months. Over time, we worked on improving every step of the process. Now, 700 get started every day; 700 get shipped every day. Checks come in the mail for 700 guitars a day, and they get deposited every day. This is how our business is structured.
We had to learn that the batch system didn’t work. We needed to think less conventionally. Learning to apply uncommon wisdom was an important lesson for our ongoing success.
While there were manufacturing lessons learned along the way, was there any one decision you made right from the start that best positioned Taylor Guitars for an enduring success?
When it came to manufacturing, we had to learn how to be less conventional as we went along. When it came to guitar repairs and designs, particularly as it related to playability, we were less conventional in our thinking from the start.
I remember Bob working on a friend’s Maple Guild. It didn’t play well and needed the neck reset. Bob took the 14th fret out, where the neck joins the body. He sawed through the fretboard, and popped the end of the fretboard off where it had been glued onto the body. He reworked the heel of the neck, changed the angle and bolted it back onto the body. It is not that he didn’t honor the old ways, it is that the guitar needed the neck angle adjusted, and he required a better way to do it.
In Bob’s way of thinking, the old solutions were a function of the tools that were available years ago. And he did not want to limit himself based on the tools that were available a long time ago if he could wind up making a better-playing instrument for today’s players.
Your brand operates in a very competitive retail space. Given this context, how does Taylor Guitars view long-term thinking versus short-term action? How far down the road do you look?
I always ask, ‘In 10 years’ time, will we be glad that we made each decision?’ If the answer is yes, that usually means making an investment in personal energy and capital today because I know, down the road, the business will be better off.
One of the projects I’ve been working on is growing international sales. Europe is an opportunity market for us. In the past, the way Europe has been handled by Taylor Guitars and our competitors has been to find a distributor in France, in Germany, and the U.K. to import and market the products that we all make. In looking ahead, the problem we could foresee was that too few distributors would be representing too many brands. In turn, they would not have enough resources to uniquely apply to our brand. That would limit our growth. So how would we maximize the opportunity? The way to do it was to invest in creating our own sales and distribution solution, which is a big undertaking. It entails constructing a business plan, terminating old distributors, cleaning up old inventory and past pricing schemes, finding a location, recruiting people, and learning about HR in every country—because labor laws are different in every country.
Even if a long-term decision requires us to go out of our comfort zone, if it’s for the sustained success of the business, we’ll do it. We’ve grown very comfortable with the idea of going outside of our comfort zone.
Under the heading of looking far ahead, I understand that while you and Bob still remain vital in running your business, you are doing succession planning in real time. Can you share a little bit about your approach to leading today while, concurrently, readying tomorrow’s brand leadership?
Every company gets started by somebody. Their company, if successful, will outlive them—it will get sold or the founders will pass on—and so it needs to go through succession. Ours is a business born of passion. It was important for us to find a guitar maker who could bring our passion forward.
When we look at most other guitar companies, leadership has often been passed to sales, marketing and finance people. Even though these great companies were started by an inventor, a tinkerer, a guitar maker—they ended up being led by people without creative or manufacturing skills. They have a harder time than we do in creating new or modern legacy because they don’t have the leadership of someone capable of creating new instruments.
Bob thought a lot about what is going to happen to the making of guitars when he is gone because, like me, he wants our company to continue as a vital one. Bob wanted somebody who could take the mantle of leadership in creating new instruments to help carry Taylor Guitars into the future. Bob handpicked Andy Powers, now our master builder.
Before joining us, Andy was involved in carpentry. He was a guitar maker, and he was, and is, a pro-level guitar player. Andy has a lot of the same passions, interests, and values as Bob and me. He’s been with us for five years now and is only around 35 years old. Andy can carry this brand into the future. When he is in his 50s, it will be his responsibility to find the next person to mentor, as his protégé, to carry Taylor Guitars into the future. Andy shares our purpose. He has made a long-term commitment to carry the flame forward and pass it on again to protect and grow that purpose.
What advice do you have for other leaders aiming to create an enduring brand legacy?
Find something you’re passionate about, that you believe in, that you’ll keep at no matter what. Find something where you’re going to feel rewarded by the work, not just the successes. There are going to be really hard times, so make sure you’re working at something that you care about more than anything in order to compel you to keep going on your journey.
Pursue what you love. Don’t chase someone else’s measures of success. Work through the hard times, overcome obstacles and always think about the long-term goal, not just the short-term result. When you climb that mountain and you get to the top, get ready to climb to the next higher mountain.
Taylor Guitars was our dream. For us, we always believed that no matter how tough things got, things were never going to be better if we worked for someone else helping them to work on their dream. From the very start, we were determined to never give up on our dream.
Mark Miller is the chief strategy officer at Team One, and the founder of The Legacy Lab, Team One's thought-leadership platform and consulting practice.