July 30, 2008, 12:00 AM

Tiki Torch Bearer

Sam Taylor’s vision for Oriental Trading: Build a global brand on an online strategy

At Hewlett-Packard Co., where Sam Taylor oversaw HP.com and the computer manufacturer’s global direct-to-consumer business, his stock in trade was some of the most advanced home and home office digital equipment on the market. At Oriental Trading Co., where he signed on as chief executive officer May 5, Taylor heads a company where some of the best-selling merchandise includes raffia hula skirts for luau parties at $4.49 and rolls of make-your-own-funny face stickers for just under $6.

That may seem like a disconnect. But in a working life that has spanned continents and planted him in locales as disparate as Paris and Minneapolis, Taylor’s career path has been guided by a couple of constants. Under this approach, it makes the same sense to move from $100 billion Hewlett Packard in San Diego to $600 million Oriental Trading in Omaha, Neb., as it did to leave a gig with The Walt Disney Co. in Paris for life at Lands’ End in Dodgeville, Wis. Here’s one of the constants: He looks for opportunities with the leading brands in their category. Here’s another: It’s not just the size of the company but its culture that matters.

“Some people are product-focused; Sam is customer-focused,” offers Bill Bass, now CEO of online retailer Fair Indigo, with whom Taylor worked at Lands’ End earlier in their careers. “If you are building a good customer experience, every customer appreciates that, no matter what the product.”

Though he’s devoted the last several years of his career to e-commerce, Internet retailing wasn’t yet on the horizon when the California native landed at Exxon in 1985 after graduating from Brigham Young University with a degree in chemical engineering. But a year in the field was enough to signal that business, not engineering, was where his true interests lay.

Taylor approached Bain Consulting, where he’d interviewed as an undergraduate, seeking a training ground to learn about business operations and to prepare for business school. Joining the firm as an associate consultant, he got all that and more.

On one of his first assignments, he viewed customer focus groups reacting to new product ideas from a Bain client, a consumer product company. “I’d never seen customers talking about their ideas like that. I was hooked,” he recalls. The importance of listening to and understanding the customer was a key concept he would carry forward.

Two other practices at Bain generated two other takeaways that figured into his subsequent career choices. The firm’s retail practice was his first exposure to the category. Later, in the firm’s customer retention practice, he learned how not just meeting customers’ needs and expectations but exceeding them could drive loyalty, which in turn led to customer retention and business results.

After nine years with Bain, including two at Harvard University business school, an executive recruiter called with an opportunity that not only met his criteria for working with a market-leading firm, but fulfilled a secret wish held by many a Southern California kid: to work for the Big Mouse.

Taylor joined The Walt Disney Co. as director of strategic planning and business development for its consumer product division, including Disney’s U.S. catalog business. When the opportunity arose three years later to run Disney’s catalog business in Europe, he jumped at it, relocating to Paris to take the job and at the same time packing an agenda of his own.

“It was 1998, and really, my eye was on the Disney Store online,” he says. The launch of Amazon.com three years earlier had convinced him that the Internet would redefine retail. “I knew it was going to be the next big thing and I wanted to be a part of it,” he says.

A fateful lunch

With the European catalog business squared away, Taylor turned his energies toward developing a business plan for a European Disney e-commerce site to complement one Disney had launched at home. Disney, however, had other Internet priorities. Its struggling Go.com portal, launched in 1999, was intended to be a general portal, but facing stiff competition from incumbents like Yahoo, Disney was trying to recast it as an entertainment-specific Internet gateway.

“I understood that the focus was on trying to improve Go.com in the U.S.,” Taylor says. “But it was a little frustrating because there wasn’t the focus on Europe.” Disney closed Go.com in 2001.

Frustration and opportunity crossed paths at a Forrester Research conference in Amsterdam, where Taylor shared a table with Bass, then senior vice president of e-commerce at Lands’ End, which was independent then but is now part of Sears Holdings Corp. A week after a lengthy post-lunch conversation, Taylor boarded a plane for Lands’ End headquarters in Dodgeville, later accepting a position with the company as vice president of international.

With his sights originally on an e-commerce role, that title wasn’t his first choice, but at the time, Lands’ End was losing money on its subsidiaries in Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan, and it wanted to tap Taylor’s international catalog experience. That meant he’d have to initially reduce the role he’d hoped to play with the Internet and increase his responsibilities in the catalog arena.

Taylor had become vice president of e-commerce when Best Buy Co. Inc. recruited him to BestBuy.com in 2004. As senior vice president of online stores and marketing, he found at Best Buy the chance to gain experience with a bricks-and-mortar retail organization.

A bigger stage

Best Buy’s online business was growing when the Hewlett-Packard Co. called in 2006. It was an opportunity to play on an even bigger global stage. HP’s Internet business at that time had already topped $1 billion. And as senior vice president of HP.com and HP consumer direct, Taylor would be in charge of web sites in 70 countries, representing 35 languages. “I couldn’t say no to that type of opportunity,” he says,

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