Honoring Sam Taylor

Whitney Tilson (left) and Phil Terry (right) surround the wonderful Sam Taylor, who passed away December 29, 2017.

Sam We Are

Over the recent holiday break, amidst the Christmas decorations and New Year’s fireworks, one of our great lights went out. Sam Taylor passed away on December 29, 2017.

In the course of our lives, we count ourselves lucky if we meet someone who radiates love and goodwill, whose mere presence makes us better people, who are as warm, as friendly, as kind, and as smart as Sam Taylor. Ask those who knew him, they will tell you. Sam’s light was one of the brightest in the world.

I first met Sam at an industry conference called Shop.org in 2000 or 2001. He wore loud Hawaiian shirts, asked great questions, and was relentlessly positive. I recognized a fellow leader passionate about the customer experience and we became instant friends.

We did a lot of things together over the next 15 years. We hosted dinners, ran workshops in Omaha before the Buffett annual meeting, and promoted customer experience and humble leadership. He was always ready to help and always ready to live his principles.

As CEO of a Berkshire Hathaway company, Sam was one of the most senior members of my Councils. He was also among the most committed to the activity of asking for help, listening, and learning from peers, customers, colleagues, and others.

As I write this, I can hear his voice clearly laughing and downplaying my enthusiasm for him. He was humble and smart. Silly and serious. Deeply religious and loving of all.

He was unique.

And my life was made better because of Sam. Just knowing him made me want to keep giving and loving even more.

In this age of self-centered celebrity CEOs, Sam led with humility and cared deeply about his customers and employees.

I’ll never forget one demonstration of this at a dinner in Seattle several years ago.

Sam and I hosted a get-together for Internet retailers during the Shop.org conference in Seattle. Some of our longtime friends like Bill Bass, Angela Kapp, and Kevin Ertell joined us, as did many people we had just met. Companies like Walmart, Lululemon, Nike, Facebook, Amazon, and others were in the room.

In front of that group, Sam shared that in two days he himself would be moderating customer listening labs back in Omaha. He turned to me and said, “Phil, we are running listening labs and I’m not going to just attend, I’m going to moderate. I want everyone in my company to see how important I believe this is.”

That statement was impressive. Over 15 years, I’ve spoken to hundreds of companies. More than a few CEOs say they will spend time with customers, but almost none carry through with that commitment. Certainly none could match Sam.

Having said that, neither I nor the other executives present at that dinner in Seattle, knew what was going to happen next.

When Sam flew home to Omaha, his flight ran into bad weather and the pilot had to land in Denver.

Grounded there, Sam’s plan to be in Omaha the next morning at 8am had been foiled.

Or was it?

What did Sam do?

Did he cancel the customer listening labs?

Did he ask another team member to moderate?

No.

Sam rented a car in Denver and drove through the storm all night long. He arrived in Omaha at 7am, showered, dressed and got to the labs and for eight hours moderated sessions with customers.

Remarkable.

He may be the only CEO in the world to show that level of commitment to the customer and to his team.

Sam didn’t believe in obstacles.

When he was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a terminal brain cancer that my own mother died from five years ago, he not only sought every treatment he could find but he developed a video series that would share his philosophy about life, leadership, and cancer (watch the series here).

I’ll share one more example and then we’ll get to a series of testimonials about Sam starting with Warren Buffett and including bosses, friends, colleagues, and council members.

Two years ago in Omaha, as he stood in front of a group of CEOs explaining what it was like to sell his company to Warren Buffett, Sam did something few leaders do in such a context. He cried.

What were those tears for?

Prior to agreeing to the Berkshire acquisition, Sam’s board of directors had been pressuring him to outsource overseas many of his company’s customer service efforts. Sam didn’t want to do it. Then with the sale to Buffett, Sam was able to tell his employees through tears of joy that the Berkshire acquisition meant they would be able to keep their jobs. As he retold that story – and what it meant to his employees and their families – he cried again. All the CEOs in the room were unexpectedly touched.

Sam had a unique ability to connect with CEOs, customer service reps, warehouse employees – everyone and anyone. You can see Sam for yourself on an episode of Undercover Boss (you have to join Hulu or YouTube to see the full episode – and it’s worth it).

I knew Sam in his professional role as an Internet pioneer. He also was very active in his church and deeply committed to his family.

A reception at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Omaha will be held today, Thursday, Jan 4 from 6-9 pm. The funeral will be tomorrow, Friday at the same church, with burial at the Forest Lawn Cemetery. Some of our friends are going. If you decide to attend, then let me know.

With Sam’s light now out, I have decided to brighten my own. When I’m sad, I’m going to think of Sam. When bad weather or travel wears me out, I’m going to think of Sam. When I feel ashamed for crying in the workplace – because, paraphrasing Tom Hanks’ character in League of their Own, “there’s no crying in business” – I’m going to think of Sam.

Every morning I plan to say:

Sam I am.

Sam I am.

Sam we are.

Join me.

With love and tears,

Phil

P.S. Below please read some of the statements by a few of the others who knew and loved Sam beginning with his most recent boss, Warren Buffett.

Testimonials for Sam


He was a wonderful manager and a wonderful human being.
Warren Buffett, Chairman and CEO, Berkshire Hathaway

I randomly sat next to Sam at a conference luncheon in 1999 when he ran Disney’s European ecomm operation. He turned out to be smart, and a great guy, and I immediately knew I wanted to work with him. Best marketing job I ever did was convincing Sam to move from Paris to Wisconsin so we could work together at Lands’ End. Everyone who talks about Sam uses the same words to describe him: “great guy”. That wasn’t just his external persona, that was the core of who he was. We will miss him.
– Bill Bass, Chairman, Black Wolf Group…and former SVP Ecommerce at Lands’ End

Sam, as we all know, was a highly respected, adored, and humble digital pioneer leader along as a very dedicated family patriarch.  Sam and I were joined at the hip in the 90s where I was tasked to develop Disneystore.com’s presence and Sam, at his own initiative, took it upon himself to launch the same URL business internationally when it was hard enough to figure out how to do so with one domestic site. He has always been a warm and fond pioneer and will be remembered for his leadership, entrepreneurial spirit, and for helping our industry lay the brick and mortar in so many places for hundreds of millions shoppers forever more.
– 
Chuck Davis, CEO, Prodege LLC (Swagbucks, MyPoints, Shop At Home)…and former President of Ecommerce at Disney

I sat on the same council with Sam for many years. He was always curious, ready to learn, ready to apply his learning, and ready to tell his story enthusiastically. He loved his family, spoke a lot about his daughters, and was so proud of them. He was a bright light in every room he was in – I am sure he will remain that way in the hearts of people who have encountered him.
– Secil Watson, EVP, Digital Solutions for Business at Wells Fargo Bank

I am still mourning the loss of our friend. He was special and touched so many lives. It is trite to say a departed one “left the world a better place” but Sam had a positive impact on so many lives. Sam taught me that you can be a successful executive while being compassionate towards your family, community and employees. Sam could light up a room with his smile and fun and laughter were always in his wake.
– Peter Cobb, Co-Founder, eBags and former Chairman of the Board Shop.org

In the Coast Guard we honor those who “cross the bar” with a remembrance of what they have done to make us better in life. Upon meeting Sam shortly after becoming CEO, I was immediately impressed by his passion to learn the new business, but also his humble desire to listen, learn, and ask for help from his colleagues. It was clear to me that his humility, passion for people, and desire to have fun in life, would make him the perfect servant leader for the Oriental Trading family. I will miss his big heart, personal advice, and perspective, but his memory will always be a role model for me on how I want to be a better servant leader.
– Craig Hopkins, Chief Information Officer, City of San Antonio, Texas

Sam was gracious and humble. I admired his willingness to share his experiences, both the ups and downs, and his lessons learned from them so I could become a better leader. That was the gift he gave me. He also loved to banter. I’ll miss ringing him up to talk shop.
– Sean Murphy, VP Product, Target

I had the privilege of being on a council with Sam. It was a small group which allowed for plenty of conversation. From my council experience and also years of being associated with Sam through Shop.org, it was Sam’s enthusiastic curiosity and unreserved willingness to share that stand out the most. He was always 90 miles an hour in terms of enthusiasm. I loved listening to him share a win, a failure or a family story. He smiled throughout, no matter how large or small the group. He was not shy. He was warm and inviting. He wanted to listen. He always was learning. He will be missed.
– John Seebeck, VP and GM eCommerce, CDW LLC

Sam was a special man – the thing I took away from our time together was that he was always a human being first, and businessman second. He had a vibrant, generous, warm spirit that I will remember. And I think it is wonderful that he had an opportunity to complete his career working for Warren Buffet, someone he so admired and shared so many values with.
– David Bolotsky, Co-Founder and CEO, Uncommon Goods

I met Sam in 2013 through the Councils. I quickly realized how experienced and successful he was, yet he was also incredibly humble and generous with his time and insights. I continued to stay in touch with Sam, and he became a source of inspiration and knowledge as my career grew. I am so grateful for his time and his mentorship. One specific story he told me has become my benchmark for success. Sam conveyed that over his entire career, he always had a nagging thought in the back of his head regarding “what’s next?” What is his next role or company? At Oriental Trading he found a job that he stopped having that thought. He knew, when still quite healthy, that this would be the job he retired from. And he was genuinely happy about that. His focus then shifted from himself to making sure he could create “what’s next” opportunities for his directs, especially since he wasn’t going anywhere. THAT is the model for success that I aspire to. I never really understood the goal, until Sam both lived it, and so eloquently articulated it. I’ll miss you, Sam.
– Joe Megibow, Operations Advisor, Advent International…and former SVP, Ecommerce, American Eagle Outfitters 

It is with deep sadness and regret to hear about Sam’s passing with the New Year. Sam and I were colleagues during our Sears+Lands End era working for Bill Bass. From there are our paths continue to cross as our career progressed on a similar path. Along the journey, he has been a great source of insights and inspiration for me (and I hope I was to him). He was always generous with his time with me, always returning my calls and replying to my emails promptly. I still remember the fun I had meeting him for dinner at a Shop.org event hearing him give me the play-by-play from his Undercover Boss taping. He was a true gentleman, and I shall miss him dearly.
– Chris Shimojima, Founder, C5 Advisory…and former CEO at Provide Commerce

Sam was always a bright spot and will remain so in my memories. He was always upbeat, incredibly smart, and completely generous. I will always carry his optimism with me as a reminder to see the bright side of life. His impact on this world will be felt for a long time.
– Kevin Ertell, Global Digital Business Lead – Running, Nike

While it was an honor to spend time with Sam on the board of Shop.org where his point of view was always sage and his presence festive, the highest compliment to Sam came from those who have worked with him—All are quick to speak of his strong leadership, intelligence, caring and joyous demeanor.
– Steven Kahn, Principal Consultant, KahnFluence…and former VP, Internet at Victoria’s Secret

Sam was a warm and special person and i feel lucky to have shared so many learning experiences and adventures with him. He was both a guide and a student at all times.
– 
Ken Seiff, Managing Partner, Beanstalk Ventures

Sam made time for everyone who was passionate about the ecommerce industry. He was my mentor and will be truly missed.
– Alison Stiefel, Head of Marketing, ShopStyle 

How heartbreaking to hear the sad news of Sam’s passing…I feel honored to have had the chance to have meet him at last year’s Berkshire workshop….Sam was so inspiring with a deep sense of faith and purpose..he seemed fearless and accepted his illness with grace…his sense of calm and strength in the face of such tragedy left an indelible impression on me.
– Caroline Fabrigas, Scent Marketing Inc.

My thoughts on Sam are simple: Sam empowered his ecommerce team to make decisions that would drive the business forward. He simply blessed what they believed” OTC has been a long time customer and our deepest condolences to his family and team.
– Paul Matker, CEO, Thanx Media, Inc.

He fought the good fight with his own brand of Sam. By sharing his sharing his story and his vision of hope and strength with so many others he has left an indelible, positive mark on our community. And, as I can attest first hand, hearing how others make it through the day when faced with such burdens surely helps all those who will listen.
– Patti Freeman Evans…former VP, Research Director at Forrester Research

I had the privilege to meet Sam in Omaha at the annual Berkshire shareholder meeting in 2016.  He shared his stories about Berkshire, working for Warren Buffet and most important opening his heart and soul about Oriental Trading Co and his connection to the people there.  It was one of the most heartfelt, riveting hours I have spent listening to a business leader share their experiences. Although I spent little time with Sam since that time I can say that he had a great impact on my leadership and engagement practices.  I will be forever grateful for his emotional openness and love for those he connected with.
– Steve Schlesinger, CEO, Schlesinger Associates

I narrated Sam’s story to many after our trip to Berkshire Hathaway. God Bless Him.
– Munir Mashooqullah, President, Synergies Worldwide

Sam was passionate about the business and our digital retailing industry …. but he was able to balance that passion so well with his love for his family, his faith, fun, and the fight to eradicate the terrible disease of cancer.
– Rich Last, Founding Partner, Axcelora…and former Chairman Emeritus at Shop.org

Reception and Service

The family will receive friends, today, Thursday, Jan. 4th from 6pm to 9pm at Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 14680 California Street, Omaha.

SERVICES Friday, Jan. 5th at 10am, Church of Jesus Christ Latter-Day Saints, Interment Forest Lawn.

Memorials to Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center at Duke Medical Center (https://www.gifts.duke.edu/dukehealth/?designation=3912597)

The family asks people to send their memories of Taylor to memoriesofsamtaylor@gmail.com