Transforming the Trade

When Sam S. Taylor (BS ’85) joined Oriental Trading Company as CEO in May 2008, he was able to see a recent Gallup poll of employee engagement in the business: Oriental Trading Company was in the bottom six percent. “I had never seen engagement this low,” Taylor says. “It was so low because we had a culture of fear, no communication, and no information.”

In July 2015, Taylor had Oriental Trading Company evaluated again. Gallup ranked the company in the top quartile, specifically the 77 percentile. “It has taken us seven years to get here, but we are going to stay here. Last year, we had phenomenal business results. Employee engagement and business results go hand in hand,” he says.

During those seven years, Oriental Trading Company went through the Great Recession, a bankruptcy, two rounds of layoffs, an episode of Undercover Boss, and multiple ownership changes. How were they able to do it?

Taylor started with focus groups with the managers. He remembers being told by some that “our mission is to make the world more fun, but this is not a fun place to work.” The managers felt that no one listened and their opinions didn’t count – they gave up. “It broke my heart,” Taylors says.

After leading Oriental Trading Company though bankruptcy, Taylor agreed to become an undercover boss. He did it to better understand what the warehouse employees were going through. “I learned that two-way communication is key,” Taylor says.

Many employees felt that their ideas were being ignored, when the company was actually reviewing the ideas and implementing many of the suggestions. “I would meet with the employees every three months and show a list of all the suggestions we implemented. When a suggestion was not taken, the employee was given an explanation.”

Oriental Trading Company had never ceased to be profitable, but the company possessed too much debt to survive the recession untouched. Under Taylor’s guidance, they emerged better positioned for the future. But the owners at the time either wanted out or to put more debt on the company. That is when Taylor’s CFO approached him and said, “We need to go approach Warren Buffett.”

In November 2012, Taylor met with Buffett for two hours, who then agreed to buy Oriental Trading Company. “Of all the hundreds of outcomes that could happen to the company, we got the very best possible outcome,” he says.

It is rare for a CEO to survive taking a company through bankruptcy. Taylor credits his wife and family for always supporting him through the process, and he realizes it was made possible through God. “I made a commitment that if I could get through this, I would do all I can to help build the kingdom in Omaha,” he says.

To do that, he has started recruiting BYU students to intern with Oriental Trading Company, aiming to bring more BYU alumni to Nebraska.

Oriental Trading Company also tries to serve the Omaha community. Last year, they donated almost 12,000 teddy bears to the children’s hospital. “When children come out of surgery and wake up, they have a bear waiting with them to help recovery.”

Reflecting on the recovery of Oriental Trading Company, Taylor says, “You never know where your journey is going to take you. I studied chemical engineering, and today, I sell rubber duckies.”

—Collin T. Mathias (BS ’16)

Full Name: 
Sam Taylor
Grad Year: 
Engineering and Technology
Marketing-International Business
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