Oriental Trading’s new chief

What does a guy whose strengths are high-tech product lines, Website savvy and international marketing know about running a low-end gifts and novelties catalog? We’ll soon find out, now that Sam Taylor has taken over as CEO of Oriental Trading Co.

The company’s board of directors appointed Taylor to replace Stephen Frary, who resigned Nov. 30. Taylor, who started his new post on May 5, most recently led Hewlett-Packard Co.’s global consumer direct business and the HP.com Website, which is present in more than 70 countries and 35 languages.

Prior to Hewlett-Packard, Taylor served as senior vice president, online stores and marketing for Best Buy Co. He’s also held positions at Lands’ End and The Walt Disney Co.

And then there’s Oriental Trading Co. Founded in 1932 by Harry Watanabe, the cataloger sells party supplies, novelties, toys, and arts and crafts supplies to consumers and businesses. The company, which has more than 18 million customers on file and mails 300 million catalogs a year, was acquired by private equity firm The Carlyle Group in 2006.

So what in the world attracted Taylor to Oriental Trading? A few reasons, he says, but the firm’s employees played a big part. “OTC’s employees are passionate about our customers and passionate about our business,” he says.

The mailer’s Midwest location was another selling point: “I’m excited to be in Omaha, because my experience has been that people in the Midwest are friendly, customer-focused, hard-working, and have good values,” he says. “Those are exactly the type of people you want taking care of your customers, and that’s exactly the type of employees we have at OTC.”

Taylor cites Oriental Trading’s loyal customer base as another good reason to come aboard. “Our customers are passionate about OTC,” Taylor explains. “I interviewed several busy moms and school teachers — two of OTC’s core customer groups — before joining the company, and these customers just raved about how much they love OTC.”

But the clincher was when Taylor found out that in the Holiday 2007 Foresee Results survey of online customer satisfaction, Oriental Trading had the second highest customer satisfaction score. “Only Netflix scored higher — OTC had better online customer satisfaction scores than everyone else,” he says.

Taylor is excited to lead the transformation of Oriental Trading from a traditional cataloger to a truly Internet-driven merchant. “E-commerce accounts for over half of our revenue, and the Internet will be the most powerful growth engine to drive OTC going forward.”

The voice of experience

Taylor has plenty of Internet-driven experience to draw upon. Take his role at Hewlett-Packard, for instance. “The consumer direct business comprised both Internet and catalog sales, and I had responsibility for all functional areas of the business,” Taylor says. “This experience gave me the opportunity to lead a very large, extremely complex global business for the largest technology company in the world.”

At HP, Taylor learned the power of Web 2.0 technologies, online communities, and user-generated content. Under his leadership, HP became the first technology manufacturer to offer unedited customer reviews and ratings of its core products on its Website.

And at Walt Disney Co., Taylor worked with the management team of The Disney Catalog in the U.S., helping develop its strategic plan and operational improvements. “Then I had the opportunity to live in Paris for two years as I ran The Disney Catalog in Europe and laid the groundwork for the launch of The Disney Store Online in Europe,” he says. “I gained a great appreciation for how challenging it can be to do business internationally and how customers are different in every country, a fact sometimes we Americans tend to forget.”

That experience served Taylor well at Lands’ End. He was charged with guiding Lands’ End International, which consisted of catalog and e-commerce businesses in the U.K., Germany and Japan, plus the U.S. export business. “In that role I had responsibility for all functional areas, including merchandising, marketing, creative, call centers, distribution centers, inventory, IT, finance, and human resources,” he says.

Later, Taylor led Lands’ End’s global e-commerce business, including a business-to-business Website. At that time Lands’ End was the largest seller of apparel online in the U.S. “I learned how to use the Internet to innovate and improve the customer experience through ground breaking technologies such as My Virtual Model (a 3-D virtual model) and Lands’ End Custom (a made-to-order custom apparel offering).”

After Taylor gained soft lines experience at Lands’ End, Best Buy provided him with hard goods experience. “I learned the value of tailoring product offerings and shopping experiences, both online and offline, to key customer groups through Best Buy’s customer centricity initiatives,” he says.

A trusted brand

It’s clear from his past experience that Taylor makes it a priority to work for companies with strong brands, and he contends that Oriental Trading is no exception. “I was surprised to find out that the Oriental Trading brand has been around for over 75 years,” he notes.

That’s a credit to the merchant’s strong business model of offering a wide assortment of products at an outstanding value with great customer service, he says. “Brand equals trust,” he notes, “and OTC’s customers trust the brand to take care of their needs.”

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