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Taylor Guitars took a big risk by investing in an African sawmill — but according the CEO, it was a great move by the company



Tayor Ebony Project
Taylor cofounder and CEO Bob Taylor.

  • San Diego-based Taylor
    has made a substantial investment in a sawmill in
    Cameroon to provide the innovative company with a sustainable
    supply of an essential wood, ebony.
  • Under co-founder and CEO Bob Taylor’s leadership, the
    company upgraded the sawmill to a high level of
  • Acoustic guitar companies are at the leading edge of
    sustainability in this respect because they use so many exotic
    and monitored woods in their instruments. 
  • This article is part of Business Insider’s ongoing
    series on Better

It’s like something out of a movie: a seasoned entrepreneur and
environmentally conscious CEO decides to buy and transform a
sawmill in Cameroon. 

But if anybody was going to undertake such a daunting project, it
would Bob Taylor, who in 1974 decided that there was room for
another major American guitar manufacturer. His ambition back
then was considered by many to be quixotic at best and foolhardy
at worst. 

The American high-end acoustic guitar scene has long been
dominated by two companies: Pennsylvania-based C.F. Martin &
Co.; and Tennessee’s Gibson. Other US-based guitar brands came
and went, rose and fell. Names such as Guild and Ovation. But
until San Diego’s Taylor Guitars came on the scene, it was a
two-horse race.

For several decades now, Taylor has been the third and youngest
pony. Lacking Martin’s pre-Civil War legacy and Gibson’s iconic
and eye-catching designs, the company has
made its mark with innovation
. Among professional musicians,
Taylor’s reputation is stupendous.

Taylor Review
Taylor’s master guitar maker, Andy


Like all makers of expensive, high-end acoustic guitars (Taylor
also sells cheaper instruments), the company is up against a
fundamental constraint when it comes to raw materials. The
long-ago established Lacey Act prohibits the trade of endangered
natural materials, including exotic woods. Gibson ran afoul of
the law a few years ago. 

In Taylor’s case, the critical wood is ebony, sourced from the
West Africa’s Congo Basin. It goes into every guitar that Taylor
makes. Bob Taylor was determined to obtain it in a just and
sustainable manner, but he also saw an opportunity to embed his
company more deeply with the community in Cameroon. For him and
for Taylor, it was simply better capitalism, and they were
prepared to shoulder the risk.

A business opportunity presents itself

Enter the sawmill, called Crelicam, located in Cameroon’s
capital, Yaoundé. The mill is a jointly owned facility — Taylor
bought it together with a Spanish supplier, Madinter,
in 2011.

“We got a call from our colleagues in Madrid,” Taylor
recalled. “It was presented to me as 
a business

Ultimately, Taylor and Madinter would turn Crelicam into an
updated version of what Taylor characterized as an American
sawmill from the 1950s, focused on craftsmanship, right down to
vintage saws that had to be restored.

That was over seven years ago, and Taylor’s timing was perfect.
Issues around sustainability have only intensified, and Taylor
has documented its commitment to Cameroon in a series called
The Ebony

“The water heating up slowly, but it will soon boil,” Taylor
said. “In 2007, we made 100 guitars a day. But we make 750 now.
With ebony, we’re at the heart of the heart of the heart of the
matter. So we bought this business and decided to make it right
with all the pain and suffering involved. It’s turned out to be

One might reasonably ask it Taylor could have used something
other than ebony, but according to Bob Taylor, the company had to
find a solution with the favored material, which he said he’s
relied on for years to make premium instruments.

The guitar business has found itself understandably on the
leading edge of a pressure wave for sustainability. 

Making the most of ebony

Bob Taylor
Ebony goes into every guitar Taylor


“One of the first sectors to be affected was acoustic guitar
manufacturing,” said, Scott Paul, Taylor’s Director of
Natural Resource Sustainability since early 2017 and a veteran of
environmental organization, such as Greenpeace. “Guitars are a
composite of different species from all around the

One might logical ask if Taylor could use something other than
ebony, but Bob Taylor dismissed that idea.

“It’s the same circus, different tent,” he said (Taylor is
nothing if not a colorful and outspoken CEO — not exactly a
maverick, but a guy who knows his own mind and isn’t afraid to
speak it). “With ebony, it’s the favored wood. We’ve relied
on it for years to make good instruments.”

In terms of working with ebony in Cameroon, Taylor has updated
its sawmill to be both a throwback to the fifties and a model of
manufacturing, circa 2018. Seven years into the
project, Crelicam now keeps workers dry by preventing rain
from leaking in and the electricity is reliable. Wages for
workers are also up.

According to Bob Taylor, the company is also able to maximize its
ebony usage, as well, by using wood that has color in it (a
perfect ebony guitar fretboard, in the eyes of some, should be an
unbroken strip of black).

Some manufacturers could sell that rejected ebony for 75
cents per fretboard, but Taylor uses it, believing that it can
add a visual dimension to some instruments. It’s certainly better
than taking only the perfect ebony from felled trees and leaving
flawed material on the forest floor.

Why wealth is found in waste

“Your wealth is in your waste,” Bob Taylor said. 

Paul added that for the industry, the reality with ebony
from this part of Africa is that the resource has been exported
in an unprocessed form. But Taylor is doing the opposite.

“Our investment is in the country,” he said. “We’re bringing
more value-added processing to Cameroon.”

And for Bob Taylor, who turned 63 this year, the investment sends
a clear message. “This wood brings jobs,” he said. “Rather than
this wood is just extracted.”

Taylor’s reputation for innovation has in this case resisted
restlessness and settled into a long-term commitment to Cameroon.
Bob Taylor explained that when some company’s consider a 50-year
plan, they have no concept of what it will be. But in his
field, he make some sage predictions. 

I know what a guitar will be in 50 years,” he said.
“And by making this investment in wood, I believe that that our
company will still be here. I’m OK with delayed gratification.”

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