The Music & Sound Retailer: Let’s start with the genesis of having three partners at the company and what your roles are now.
Kurt Listug: If you go way back to when Bob and I were kids, before we started this company, we were at a little shop called The American Dream in 1974. The owner wanted to sell it after a year. So, he left it up to us who would buy the shop from him. I’m not a guitar maker. I am a businessman. Bob is the guitar maker. But I asked my dad if he and my mom would help buy the shop and start a guitar company. He said, “Do you know how to make guitars?” I said, “Not really.” So, he asked, “Who is the best guitar maker [at The American Dream]?” I said, “Bob Taylor.” He said, “If you can get Bob to be your partner, your mother and I will consider helping you financially to buy the shop.” I wouldn’t have gone very far without Bob Taylor.
Now, Bob and I are in our 60s and looking into the future. The same thing holds true. The company needs a guitar maker to lead it into the future. The company can’t end up in the hands of sales and marketing people or finance people. That’s why we brought Andy on board.
Bob Taylor: I echo what Kurt said. As I look at companies around the world that have grown and are on their second or third owner, it’s kind of impossible to name who the guitar maker is there. I believe the company needs a person who is the wellspring of the guitars they make. For many years, it was me and employee/collaborator Larry Breedlove. I asked Andy if he was able to name the guitar builders at large companies. Small companies you can, although you don’t know what is going to happen when they have a succession at some point.
I often noticed that, at guitar companies, the people who build guitars often don’t have a seat at the table. They are often instructed what to make by the marketing or sales department. That’s something I hoped would never happen at Taylor. Kurt didn’t know Andy when he came [to Taylor]. I barely knew Andy, but I knew he was the right person. Kurt ended up loving Andy as much as I do. The two of them have a great rapport. It just makes sense to bring him on as a partner.
Andy Powers: I want to extend my thanks [to Bob and Kurt]. I love building guitars. It is all I’ve ever done since the time I was a little boy. Bob did ask me if I could name any other guitar makers. That’s the way our industry tends to go. The idea we could work together and be a guitar manufacturer driven by guitar making was a really exciting thought. I love the prospect of what that means for our musicians, our own employees and the future of the guitar. I am really thrilled to get to continue doing this work in this particular context. I think a whole lot of good can come out of it.
Taylor: I think it’s important a guitar maker has power. He has to be able to say, “This is my intuition. This is where I think we should go.” And people will listen to him because he is an owner. If it’s just the latest person you hired who has guitar-making experience, it’s too easy to brush off their ideas. We feel really great Taylor will go on with a guitar maker at the helm.
The Retailer: You mentioned you don’t want to have a company run by a marketing department. When you have an iconic business, others want a piece of it. How tough is it to not give in and sell the company?
Taylor: Well, other companies have sure wanted [to buy] Taylor over the years. But it is not tough. If we sold the business, you couldn’t replace what me and Kurt have. We always felt owning this company is the best thing we have. Selling it to another company outside the industry for money doesn’t seem right to us.
Listug: It is not tough. We are doing our own thing. We are following our dream. Whoever else would own the company would have their own ideas about what to do with it. So, it would basically be over for us.
The Retailer: Bob and Kurt, you have been together a long time, and now you’ve added a third partner. But what happens when you disagree?
Listug: It’s just like a marriage. You want to talk things through. At times, you need to compromise. At times, others need to compromise. But we have basically been in agreement on the big things. So, it’s not really a matter of overruling everyone else. Bob and I have often agreed on most things. So has Andy.
Powers: There is a large amount of respect that goes in each direction. Bob and I have a huge amount of respect for the work Kurt has put into the business, in terms of sales and marketing, distribution and growing a business I know Kurt has a huge respect for the work Bob has done building a factory, as well as the forestry projects he is involved in. So, with respect, there is an acknowledgement of each of our fields of expertise. We listen to each other’s opinions, because these opinions have a lot of value.
Taylor: In choosing Andy, Kurt and I lucked out. We chose each other when we were just kids, and it worked out. We had good chemistry. We did have to work out our own salvation, so to speak. We had to learn to work together because we think differently. But mostly, we are going in the same direction. So, it has been an easy partnership because we do for each other what we can’t do for ourselves. We both recognize that. That is the secret to our company.
We’ve known Andy for eight years now. We find him to be smart. And smart people listen to other smart people. He respects what we have to say. We respect what he has to say. He has proven himself to be a person who loves making guitars and has a great sense for what players would want. He is a great inventor. And he also understands we are in the business of being in business. He is not someone who will be dogmatic about making something. We have a product-development meeting every week with the stakeholders. There are a lot of people here with great ideas. Sometimes, Andy has a wonderful idea for a guitar, but the timing is not right. Or, we have to make it in more colors than he would originally like. Or, he might say, “This is the way I want to go.” I’ll say, “Well, help me figure out how to make it, because it is hard to make.” We collaborate. There are times we want to make a guitar and Kurt says, “I don’t think that is the right guitar for the market right now.” We respect this because we know [Kurt] has a good feel for that.
The Retailer: Andy, tell us what you thought about Taylor before you came to the company, what you think now and how you see Taylor in the future.
Powers: I had a lot of respect for what Bob and Kurt started because I had experience working on those guitars. In addition to building new custom guitars for folks, I would do repairs and restorations on a lot of working musicians’ guitars. Some guitars would come through the door and you would say, “This is just a basket case.” Ninety percent of the work I was doing was correcting mistakes that were made back in the ‘60s or ‘70s, or even earlier. But when Taylor guitars walked through the doors, they were well thought out. You could tell they knew what they were doing when they put guitars together. I would do simple things like a refret and see there were no issues with the guitar. I knew somebody smart was building the guitar.
I also had that experience seeing the Taylor factory. You take one look around and it made perfect sense why the guitar functioned as well as it does. You see how it’s built. You see how it’s designed. It works great. So, I had a lot of respect [for Taylor] to begin with. I also knew Bob and Kurt had this history of building what a lot of people said was not buildable. They have arguably the best factory in the world for building guitars. They have the most technological knowhow. They have the most forward-thinking outlook on things. This is the only place in the world where you can build some of the things we are designing. It can’t be done in other places, because not only do most factories not have the ability, they have no way to acquire that ability. It is something to build from the ground up. You need to build the infrastructure, tooling and manufacturing techniques. You need the ability to create your marketing and distribution channels to produce the instruments we are making.
Taylor: I spent a few days with George Gruhn [owner of Gruhn Guitars in Nashville]. We spent the whole day touring our factory, and it was about supper time, when the second shift was working. We were 90 percent of the way through a really in-depth tour. George just spoke up and said, “Bob, I don’t know how anyone can catch you. Do you know why?” I said, “Tell me George.” He said, “Because they don’t have what you have, and they don’t have any way to get it.” He has been in a lot of factories. He has seen how people make guitars. This factory really is the only place I know that can make Andy’s designs. People don’t realize how incredibly tough it is to make the designs he makes. We see on forums how we are doing things to save money. [Laughs] We are definitely not. We wish we were saving money. We are poised to make Andy’s designs as he intends, instead of dumbing them down.
I also wanted to comment that Andy came here as an employee. He was here for seven years. There was no promise, talk or discussion that he would become partner. I think it’s a great story. We never said, “Hey, if you do well, you can become partner.” He just straight up deserves it.
The Retailer: Andy, you had to be surprised and thrilled to be named a partner then, right?
Powers: I have lived my life through a funny set of conversations I didn’t see coming. A lot of things come out of what feels like left field. My whole desire was for the instrument. I love the guitar. I love musicians. I love the music we make. I wanted to do good with that. I want to make the lives of musicians better. I want to make the lives of our employees better. Whatever path that was required to get here, I was interested in. When Bob and Kurt approached me about being partner, I thought, This is good. There is a lot of good that can come out of this. There is good that can be done with forests. There is good that can be done for our employees, musicians and dealers around the world. So, I am thrilled about what our future looks like.
The Retailer: How about the guitar industry as a whole? Are you optimistic economically about the company and overall market?
Listug: We had a good . I tell people here the same thing every year: “We don’t know what the next year will be. We do our best planning and best forecasting. But you don’t know what will happen.” We had a good year. It was a challenging year in different ways. For example, we didn’t foresee what has happened politically in China and Hong Kong. That has impacted our sales to a small degree in that part of the world. We have an election coming [this year]. In 2016, all hell broke loose with the last election year. It was really hard to predict business in 2016. So, we are guarded. It all comes down to developing new instruments that people love and getting them out in the marketplace. That’s what we are focused on. That’s what we have always been focused on. We feel we will prosper [this] year and in the coming years.
Powers: To add to that, I’ve noticed people still like playing the guitar, so if you work backwards from that fact, if people are playing music, they are going to want guitars to play. From my perspective, the guitar industry is in healthier shape than it has been in years. There are great instruments being made. There are a lot of great musical styles developing involving the guitar.
The Retailer: To switch gears, this is a NAMM issue, so we have to ask you what we might see if we were to come upstairs to your booth at The NAMM Show this month.
Powers: This is going to be an exciting year for us. We launched the V-Class in the beginning of 2018, and we followed our Builder’s Edition guitars with the introduction of the Grand Pacific designs. This year, we are taking this entire idea of a Builder’s Edition design, and it is almost like a director’s-cut version of our guitars. We have our typical lineup, which is really understandable, with a lot of different options and flavors. We have a couple of unique guitars: the K14 Builder’s Edition, the 517 and 717. We extract those guitars into what we see as guitar making in the future. This year, we are going to produce a number of new guitars that follow that same initiative. The philosophy behind these guitars is, you can make them sound better and make them feel better. From a musician’s perspective, those are the qualities they want. We want it to function well in the hands of a musician. So, we’ve built a number of new, really interesting guitars that fill different musical needs in the world right now.
Taylor: Those guitars are hard to build [laughs]. That’s why we call them Builder’s Edition. They are ideas Andy has to make guitars sound better, feel better and play better. When people play them, they really notice those things. The finish is the most difficult we’ve done. The woodworking is the most difficult we’ve done. We have our own tooling/engineering department here. They have really put their best foot forward. And the people in the factory buckled down to learn new things. It’s like a musician who plays a certain kind of music for a really long time and all of a sudden has to learn some brand-new chops to keep up.
We are really fortunate to have Andy, but Andy is really fortunate to have this team that he works with. The people in engineering, tooling and machinists and our best workers in the factory are capable of sitting down and saying, “We are going to figure out how to make that. It is not easy, but we will do it.” The techniques they have to accomplish things boggle my mind and Andy’s mind. We say, “Wow, how are they doing this?” And to do it at scale is hard. It takes a lot of effort and investment. So, we spend a solid year with a team of 30 people working on tooling to come out with one of these models. We have stretched and stretched our abilities to make these guitars. This is really exciting for us, because for several companies, they come up with a flagship guitar, and for the next 50 years, try to make a cheaper version of it. To make a guitar with a new tonal and ergonomic design, is amazing.
For example, the Silent Satin finish is the most difficult finish we make. It takes so much more time than a gloss finish. But these are things players really love, especially when we get the guitars in the hands of professional players in studios and bands. They play it for 15 minutes and say, “Man, I don’t have a guitar that does this.” It is really pleasing for Andy to design it at a factory level and [have it] turn out the way he wanted it to.
Powers: It is really exciting. I know full well I can build one of these guitars. I can build one by hand as a prototype. I can build two guitars; even five of them. But to think we could figure out a way to produce some of these designs so that everyone can have one, or at least 1,000 people can have one, is mind-boggling. That’s more than a lifetime’s worth of guitar-making work. To be able to produce some of these designs on a large scale puts us in a really fortunate position.
Taylor: We live in a world where people want stuff to be better, and they want stuff to be cheaper. We all, as consumers, come to expect that. Having this year’s model better than last year’s model is hard to do with guitars. Consumers can look at a guitar and say it is really nice, or the way it is contoured is cool, but it is hard to explain all the effort we had to do to get there. Andy and I, as builders, love to be proud of our work. It is really satisfying to make good stuff. And for Kurt and the sales and marketing team to go out and tell the story of it is amazing. We all just love what we do.
The Retailer: We always can expect great artist appearances at the booth as well. But I am assuming Taylor Swift, who was playing at your booth in the mid-2000s, will not be on hand this year?
Listug: [Laughs] I think she has outgrown us by now. The first time she played at our booth, she just sat on a stool and played by herself. Then, when her first album was out a year or two later, she performed with her band on our stage.
Taylor: She is now popular enough that she would shut down The NAMM Show.
The Retailer: Anything you would like to add?
Powers: [I heard you have an interview with Bernie Williams in this issue]. I remember after I started working with Taylor, I heard a guy playing guitar in the corner of our booth. I thought, Man, he is really good. So, I struck up a conversation. I don’t follow any sports, so I didn’t realize he had been a ballplayer. I met him as a guitar player and musician. In the years since, we have played together a bunch of times and keep in good touch. He has been playing Taylor guitars for quite some time.