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Guitar makers story strikes a chord

Book Review: Perseverance in the face of bad odds has lessons for bankers and borrowers

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  • Written by  Charlie Moon
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  • Comments:   DISQUS_COMMENTS
Guitar Lessons: A life’s journey turning passion into business, by Bob Taylor, John Wiley and Sons, 230 pp. Guitar Lessons: A life’s journey turning passion into business, by Bob Taylor, John Wiley and Sons, 230 pp.

When I received this book for review, I thought “bankers like to ask questions,” and the first question someone will ask is: “Why would a banking website review a book about guitars and passion”?

I have read the book, so let me explain.

My bank requires that branch managers call on small business customers. While these managers are bright, responsible, and educated bankers—bankers who can balance a vault—most likely they have never been self-employed, owned a business, or grown up in a household that owns a business.

Taylor, head of the guitar company that bears his name, has. The stories that Taylor tells are presented in an interesting, easy-to-read manner. Helping your small business customers by relaying the lessons in this book will help them, and you.

Why Taylor made guitars

Taylor begins by telling the reader how he answers the frequent question,  “How’d you know what your life’s passion was?” His inspiration wasn’t actually playing guitar or even listening to music—it was about figuring out how things work.

This often entailed tearing things apart so he could figure out how they work.

For example, the alarm clock he received for Christmas was not working the day after he opened it, because he had dismantled it.

While trying to fix his bicycle brake, it sprung into pieces on the floor. When he took his friend’s brake apart to figure out how to fix his brake, he approached it more slowly, more deliberately, and more thoughtfully and was able to fix his brake.

Then came the guitar.

He bought his first guitar from a neighbor for $3. After days of studying the procedure, he performed a “neckectomy,” sawing the neck off the instrument so he could attach it to an electric guitar body he had made.  Admittedly the scope of the project was beyond him at the time; he was in fourth grade.

The book contains photos of the first acoustic guitar he made. Unfortunately a year after completing the project he put a cherry bomb in it and blew it apart. An early eye for quality was forming.

Early success and early failure

It was a long roller coaster ride for Taylor and his partner Kurt Listug (current CEO), figuring out how to manufacture guitars at a profit.

They were located in California, it was the 1970s, and there were a lot of guitar shops that would buy their guitars and there were players who loved their guitars. Yet when things would seem to be turning the corner, it wouldn’t be a corner they were turning, it would be the bottom they were hitting. 

Early on, there were problems with the finish on the guitars not drying.  Or the finish would dry but then crack. Then the guitars would be returned, the finish would be removed and reapplied. And when manufacturing went well, sales would drag.

New craftsman, new company, no money, no reputation, makes it hard for a dealer to have the confidence to reorder. Years into the effort, the fire department called late one night to tell Taylor that the factory was on fire.

The duo’s ride was up and down and round and round—a story of persistence. Taylor’s story of how they marketed their brand and figured out how to recoup the money they were going to spend on advertising will help your small business owners understand the dilemma of moving to the next level.

The roller coaster ride continued when disco music scene arrived and acoustic guitar sales plummeted. Then there was the purple guitar that Prince bought—and paid for (which was important at the time). Guitar manufacturers can’t ship guitars without cases and when case manufacturers were not shipping due to the reduction of product demand Taylor had to figure out what to do so the firm could ship guitars.

A turning point came when a fellow guitar maker asked, “Would you rather have one done guitar or ten half-done?” This changed their manufacturing process and led to better days.  Finally the partners sat down and figured out how to pay themselves $15. 00 per week—although unfortunately there were still times they couldn’t cash the checks.

Such stories will provide an arsenal of information for small business owners to see that other entrepreneurs struggle with the same issues that face them. 

Practical business lessons, set to music

“They were liked” is a chapter about Taylor building their brand. “It’s not about creating a clever ad, though that helped us along the way,” Taylor explains. “Everything you do should enhance your reputation and your brand. ” 

Taylor points out that the bankers who financed the firm’s growth liked the company because it met its budgets. The marketing community liked the partners because they conceived a branding plan and executed it one year at a time. The dealers liked them because they gave them good products on time, with high quality, and helped to deliver buyers that had heard of Taylor’s good reputation. The music magazines, the employees, the vendors, the government, the celebrity artists, all liked them because Taylor delivers what each one of those respective groups needs, and in turn that helps Taylor.

Oh, and that sparkly guitar that Taylor Swift plays—it’s a Taylor guitar with Swarovski Crystals. That relationship was started when Bob Taylor was called by Scott Swift and was told, “My 12 year-old daughter really is special.”

Swift mailed a CD, Taylor listened to the first song, and then the next song and then gave it to their Artist Relations Director who called the Swifts.

Wood and Steel is a magazine the Taylor Guitar Company produces for their followers—they publish 250,000 per run. They ran an article about Taylor Swift in it and invited her to be in their promotional material and the Swift family has been appreciative ever since.  It worked for Swift and it worked for Taylor.

The business of guitar making

The chapter, “We’re all in this together,” addresses the difference between an owner and an employee, and meeting the needs of both groups is necessary. When the culture of the organization isn’t aligned for the benefit of both groups the culture must be realigned.

Towards the end of the book Taylor brings the reader to the current state of their organization. They embrace technology, hire outside consultants for strategic planning, and built an additional factory in Mexico. They currently employ around 400 workers (they are hiring) and have surpassed 500 guitars a day.

Other chapter titles that will draw you in include: “In Ten Years We’ll Be Glad We Did,” and “The Third Owner.” These chapters speak to small business owners that walk into your bank everyday needing answers to their questions. Questions you can answer from a bank perspective and after reading this book you’ll have some real-world small business stories to help make your point. Go to Taylor’s website (www. taylorguitars. com) and you’ll see the quality and dedication of their organization, their vision, and a long list of players of their guitars of which some you will recognize.

In the Epilogue Taylor reflects that he doesn’t know who is going to read his book or what they will learn by reading it, but he believes that someone will learn something useful from his story, just as he learned when Augostino Loprinzi asked if he really wanted to make half-done guitars.

Here’s an opportunity to look like a hero in the eyes of your small business customers. When your customers are busy building their businesses they may not take the time to read a book. Do them a favor, read the book, tell them the stories, and help them persevere to build their vision, deliver their product, and repay their loan.

How basketball and guitarmaking connect
The Foreword of the book was written by the author’s cousin, Phil Jackson. (Yes, that Phil Jackson, coach of the LA Lakers, named to the top ten basketball coaches of all time by the National Basketball Association.) Jackson writes “There is a professional pride in knowing we’re both working the same way at a different game.” Whether you are teaching Jackson’s “triangle offense” or teaching a new worker to carve a guitar neck, there are similar skills, disciplines, and talents that apply to both games. Taylor had an “a-ha” moment when he figured out the way to teach a new employee how to build guitars was “one at a time,” through repetition of skill. In Jackson’s own book, Sacred Hoops, he states “the repetition of skills that is required of players is what makes the execution of our triangle offense possible.” Taylor refines basic guitar-making techniques to the easiest possible denominator. Jackson does the same with basketball offense. Both are quality individuals “working the same way at a different game.”
If you'd like to review books for our online book column, or have recently read a book that you found helpful that we haven't already reviewed, please e-mail [email protected]

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