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Meet Free Taylor of Pacific Office Interiors in Agoura Hills

Today we’d like to introduce you to Free Taylor, the President of Pacific Office Interiors.

Free, we’d love to hear about your journey. To start, who was your biggest influence in becoming a business owner?

I grew up in a farming family. My father, uncles, aunts and grandparents all worked together growing strawberries in Southern California.

I was 8 years old when my grandfather began taking me on his weekly commute to Orange County to visit the strawberry operations there. On these drives, he’d pepper me with business discussions, covering topics as diverse as mental math, managing operations, leading people, and effective communications. He loved business. More importantly, he loved what he’d built through his business. He described the hard work and sacrifice his employees made and the pride they felt sending their children to college. He beamed as he told stories about sons and daughters of long-time employees who also chose to build a future through the business. He felt he had a responsibility to do the best he could in life and the business was the perfect vehicle to do it.

He sold me on the plan and at 10 years old, it was decided I’d take over the business one day. As often happens in life, unexpected events occurred. As I graduated high school, my arranged path of strawberry farmer evaporated due to family complications within the business. I found myself at 18 years old with no college degree and no alternative plan. For the first time, in a very long time, I asked myself, what do I want to do? I realized I could do whatever I wanted, but I didn’t have an answer to the question at that time.

It sounds like after years of grooming to take over the business, the plan foiled.  How did you make the transition from farming to owning POI?

It was 1994 and after working in various sales positions, including selling gym memberships, I was presented with the opportunity to begin working for Pacific Office Interiors. My grandfather, had recently begun dating the woman who owned the company. Together they approached me about going to work for her, suggesting that if I brought the same tenacity I leveraged selling gym memberships, I’d no doubt be successful.  At the time, POI was very small and had a narrow focus of simply selling office furniture.

Not knowing anything about the industry, but confident in my grandfather’s recommendation and my ability to figure it out, I decided to give it a shot. My focus and drive, coupled with luck, helped me become the top salesperson, the year I was hired. I was having success, but felt like I could’ve done more. I identified some easily implementable changes, but there was organizational resistance towards them, which left me feeling uninspired and demotivated.  I was questioning whether I was where I was supposed to be.  My dream at that time was to open my own martial arts studio.  I was absolutely obsessed with my second martial art, one that very few people had heard of, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

A couple of values martial arts instilled in me were perseverance and hard work.  Two years later, in 1996, our sales manager confided in me that the business was for sale. He asked me if I’d be willing to buy it with him.  I found myself at a crossroad, follow my passion and open the martial arts studio or take the more practical road.  After much thought, I agreed and at 24 years old, became a 50% owner of POI.

How did you come to this decision?  Wasn’t martial arts where your heart was?

Having recently started a family, failure wasn’t an option. As I mentioned previously, my grandfather was a huge influence in my life.  My perspective was, that first and foremost, a man took care of his family.  So, I invested my entire life savings in the business, and a home and committed to do whatever it took to succeed.

Not knowing the first thing about running a company, I felt my best course for success was doing anything and everything I could to build a team, that could help me win and be profitable, on every project we could find. I implemented the ideas I’d previously shared and gained confidence as each process helped propel our organization forward.

Within these first few years, determination, luck and timing coincided again to help rapidly grow our revenue 300%. Leveraging this success and my long-term vision for the company, I negotiated the purchase of the remaining shares in the business and became the sole owner at 29 years old.

That’s an incredible story.  You started in a career you knew nothing about at 22, bought it with a partner at 24 and became the sole owner by 29!  What were some challenges you faced? 

The company was growing, we were doing great work and our people were making money. We had challenges, but the biggest among them was finding and growing people.

In 2001, I faced one of my biggest obstacles as a leader with the .com financial crisis. Like most companies, technology customers had fueled our growth. What so recently had been a strong and vibrant economy devolved into the slowest market I’d experienced professionally. During this recession, I realized for the first time that Pacific Office Interiors had an identity crisis which urgently needed solving.

Up until that point, we first and foremost, marketed ourselves as a Haworth furniture dealership. We had an idea that no one knew who Pacific Office Interiors was and felt that was a barrier for some reason. Lucky for us, people knew our manufacturing partner, Haworth. Armed with this knowledge we intentionally minimized who we were, instead trying to earn credibility by leveraging Haworth’s more widely known brand.

As the economy continued to contract, our historical approach pigeonholed us into being perceived as too simple. Customers would tell us they were going to first determine which manufacturer they were going to work with and then they would have multiple dealers from each manufacturer bid the project. I felt our prospects were going about it the wrong way. If anything, a great project was more about the dealership than the manufacturer. In trying to articulate this, I realized how much work we had to do to define who we were and why someone would want to work with us.

How did you tackle this?

My first iteration at Branding was a great learning experience. I thought branding was a clever tag line and convincing people that you were, who they wanted you to be. With the help of the team, we launched our first tag line and brand concept. Pacific Office Interiors – Environments that Enable Performance.

It was a start, at least we were leading with ourselves. Yet, when presenting who we were, the message wasn’t focused. We were essentially saying the same stuff everyone else was, and most importantly it didn’t feel authentic.

After a couple of years of trying to tweak the company to more closely resemble who we were saying we were, I had an epiphany. Our brand needed to be an inside-out story. It needed to start with who we authentically were. What it was that really made us special.

As I thought more about the inside-out concept, I recognized the story began with each employee in the company. What was our collective story and key differentiator. “Building transformations” came to me almost effortlessly. When I wrote it down, I knew it was right. It spoke to the opportunity we each have to do powerful work, becoming a change agent for good. I saw the passion and the purpose of our team, our desire to build something better and again the constantly recurring nature of our inside-out story as the key element to that.

That’s a powerful purpose, how do you explain it to your team and customers?

Building Transformations is first and foremost a personal (inside) journey. We want to know that what we do is worthwhile and has meaning. We want to be better, but true transformation requires commitment and is seldom easy. We have to be clear on why change is important or the barriers along the way can prevent us from achieving our goals.

Building Transformations is also an external (outside) journey. It’s about the mark we leave on the world. It’s about building for the joy of making something better. It’s about design and community and moving from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Identifying this purpose is perhaps the greatest epiphany I’ve had in my 20+ years owning Pacific Office Interiors.

Building Transformations has become my mantra for the way I live my life. Much like my grandfather, I feel compelled to build something better and I see our business as the perfect vehicle.

What does POI do exactly?

We’re commercial interiors consultants. We design, supply and service products for commercial spaces. We help organizations create environments people want to be in.  We see design and the prospect of doing meaningful work as a way to leave the world a better place.

We complete hundreds of projects each year, from startups to global enterprises, building transformations daily with people, space and business.

Tell us a little more about your childhood, what were you like growing up?

I was born a flower child, to hippie parents, in upstate New York in 1971.  That’s also the simple story behind my name.  My parents were divorced when I was a year old and I lived with my mother until I was 9. We traveled across the country staying in buses and communes, eventually settling in Gainesville, Florida. The time spent with my Mom was fantastic, but far from typical.

At 9, I moved to St. Augustine, Florida to live with my father and to “get a taste of the real world and a normal life.” Shortly after moving in with him, we relocated to Southern California, where he joined the family Strawberry business.

My humble hippie beginnings, with my mom, contrasted against my grandfather’s success.  The financial scarcity I experienced in my younger years attracted me to the abundance I found in California.  This certainly contributed to me starting my first job at 13 and my first business, a lawn care service, at 16. While the business was small,  I employed several high school friends, serviced about 30 homes and produced more than $50,000.00 in annual revenue.

This was also around the time I got heavily involved in Martial Arts.  Though I never ended up opening a Martial Arts Studio, I continue to learn, train and teach Martial Arts today and it remains one of the most rewarding and transformational accomplishments of my life.

Which Martial Arts have you studied and have you regretted not opening up your own studio?

I’ve taught and trained in Kenpo Karate, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Kickboxing.  After doing martial arts for nearly 30 years I’ve been blessed to teach and coach hundreds of people.  I have students who have earned their black belts and I feel grateful that I’ve been able to make a positive difference in their lives and the lives of their students.

Early on I did have regrets about not starting my own school.  I felt like I could make such a difference in the world by pursuing that path.  Conversely, I didn’t see how I could make the same impact with Pacific Office Interiors.  My epiphany around Building Transformations was a complete perspective shift for me.

I saw how big the opportunity in front of me really was.  The reality that hundreds of thousands of people were impacted by our work on a daily basis.  The fact that the energy and intention we put into making these spaces and human experiences exceptional, resulted in an exponential return.  That how people felt while they’re working, living or learning in spaces we helped build, would carry over into the rest of their lives in countless ways.

I continue to be renewed through learning and leading. To that effect, I have to give a shout out to all my friends in YPO, an executive organization that I joined in 2006.  My experience with YPO has been another catalyst for growth in my life.  I’ve built some tremendous friendships while expanding my personal and professional abilities.  I currently serve as YPO Pacific U.S. Regional Chair.

Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us Free.  We wish you all the best!

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