Heart and Seoul
South Korea-born executive plays key role on talented team helping move Taylor Corporation forward.
Imagine being seven years old and permanently having to leave behind your mother, sister, and extended family, fearfully flying to an unfamiliar land, and beginning life anew with a foreign family you had never faced.
Deb Taylor was that prized girl.
Born in South Korea and adopted by Glen Taylor’s older brother Roger about 45 years ago, 52-year-old Deb Taylor now has a life story befitting a major motion picture. She began striding the hallowed halls of Taylor Corporation in 2011—after years out East climbing the Liberty Mutual corporate ladder—and today plays a role on the Taylor Corporation upper executive team of about 30. You could say she has become Glen Taylor’s trusted right hand.
A stark contrast exists between her poignant childhood, her sometimes chaotic life relocating from Minnesota to California to Maine to Minnesota, and her current Taylor Corporation work responsibilities, which makes her narrative all the more appealing. Like her uncle, Glen, she easily disarms with candor and laughter. She chose Connect Business Magazine as a safe spot to reveal to southern Minnesotans her personal life and her role in North Mankato-headquartered Taylor Corporation, which owns more than 80 companies scattered over an increasingly diverse world.
What a ride life has given Deb.
What’s your official title?
I don’t have an official title, which is by design. When I came into the organization in 2011, we didn’t know exactly what I’d be doing. Coming in without a title enabled me to look at everything and didn’t box me into a specific set of responsibilities. I quite liked it—and still, I’m title-less. (Laughter.)
In a way, it seems you’re like a free safety on defense in football. You get to roam where needed.
Yeah, that’s true. Not having a title has been helpful in getting to know the people at Taylor Corporation, the industry, the culture, and all without having to say I am head of or responsible for something. Not having a title has allowed me to go everywhere.
Why agree to be interviewed?
I wouldn’t typically, as a rule, say yes to interviews like yours. I tend to be more private and reserved. To be honest with you, I was encouraged to do it. But that said, I’m not here as an unwilling participant. The timing to “come out” and let people see more of me seems appropriate now.
I’ve heard you were adopted from South Korea.
Yes, I was seven. My (adoptive) father Roger (Glen’s older brother) and I, on occasion, meet here at Taylor Corporation in North Mankato for walks. Just the other day, I was kidding around with him about the fact I was their “second choice.” (Laughter.)
He and my mother had wanted a half-American, half-Korean child because they felt they might be more discriminated against in Korea. They were looking for a girl around six years old. Their first choice for adoption was a younger girl, but they found out that taking her also involved taking her brother. They did not want to adopt two children, so they couldn’t take this particular little girl.
So I kiddingly asked my father, “Did you get five more (options) before choosing me?” He said they had told the adoption agency just to give them one girl because they would never be able to choose one over another. It ended up being me.
Tell me about your birth mother.
We lived in Seoul and we were very poor. I think my sister (though in the paperwork she was noted as my cousin) and I lived in a hut near a cluster of other huts. A water pump was in the center of the huts. Our hut had a kitchen with a cement floor and I slept upstairs on the landing. Down the road was another circular set of huts, where my mother lived.
What was her first name?
I don’t know. Anytime someone asks me what I remember about my birth mother, I always say I remember her as being very beautiful. Probably because she sometimes wore a lot of makeup and as a young girl I might have found that to be pretty.
She gave you up for adoption.
Do you remember the day you left South Korea?
Yes, I remember it. I was adopted through a Lutheran adoption agency—and my recollection might be a little off on some of this—but before being adopted I had to go to an American school for a week to prepare me for living in the United States. At the school, I learned how to use basic things, such as a toothbrush, and other things I would encounter, such as American food. I have a snapshot of a memory of coming back from this school and seeing my mother, who was not expecting me. She lifted up her face and was very excited to see me.
Before the day (I left), though, I remember traveling across the city with my birth mother and sister. To me, as a young girl, it felt like we were going coast to coast, a very long trip. We brought a chicken along in a wire cage and had to take it while riding in a train and a cab. The chicken became a real pain in the butt on the journey because it got loose and wasn’t supposed to be in the cab. I remember the chicken. We ended up visiting extended family and at a bazaar bought gifts for my new family in America. Also, with the help of a translator, my mother wrote a letter to my new family.
When we were in the bazaar buying gifts for my new family, I saw a heart necklace with a key and fake stones. I begged for it, and my mother bought it for me. It would cost only $1.99 today, maybe, and is one of the more meaningful things I still have from her. I even have the gifts we gave my new family, such as rubber shoes. My birth mother bought me pajamas, a jacket, and a sweatshirt for the trip and I wore it all on the trip—so I was a bit thicker.
You still have the letter?
I do, and I go back occasionally to read it. My mother, sister, and extended family were at the airport in Seoul that day, and I remember a professional photographer was running around taking pictures. He took a picture of us, and instinctively I begged and begged for it, but didn’t get it. My birth mother kept it.
She had a memory of you.
Yes. Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, someone grabbed my hand and put me on the plane along with other children going to America to live with their adopted families. I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. Back then, airport visitors were allowed to go all the way to the gate to see people off. I was seated on the plane where I could see my mother and she could see me—we could see each other and were sobbing. The separation was awful. Someone took me and put me on the other side of the plane where we couldn’t see each other.
I can’t imagine what that would have been like, to be seven and torn away from your mother like that.
But what a gift she gave. It takes strength to recognize you can’t care for someone you love. For that, I’m eternally grateful.
It wasn’t just that you were leaving everything behind that was so traumatic, but you also had to face everything new, too—the unknown.
Yes, I guess so. I flew into Minneapolis in the middle of the night and was lugging around all these trinkets we had bought in Korea. My entire adoptive family was there and I had never seen them before. They gave me a doll. Even today, the smell of jet fuel often will bring me back to that time.
When we reached their home in Rosemount, I just cried. I put all my clothes on and started walking back home to Korea. My (adoptive) parents were probably wondering what they had done. To be honest, it was probably a traumatic time. I never really sat down and deeply thought about it, but it turned out to be a gift. My mother couldn’t have done any more. Fortunately, I went into a lovely family. I was really lucky, blessed.
I’m sure your adoptive family would have preferred you coming off the plane and giving them hugs, and skipping along happily.
(Laughter.) It didn’t happen. They finally flipped on the television set that first night and eventually I fell asleep.
What did you learn from your adoptive mom and dad?
Most notably, I learned the sense of giving, and giving back, and caring about others. For example, we took in and housed a family from Laos for a period of time. Also, my father had met a Vietnamese serviceman and when the serviceman came to this country, we took him in, too. I grew up in a family that was thoughtful of the plight of others, myself included.
What did your parents do for a living?
My father was a teacher and coach, and my mother a medical technologist. My dad taught calculus and other things I wasn’t so good at. (Laughter.) Teaching was his passion, and he loves teaching to this day. It was your average American middle-class family. I have an older sister and two younger brothers.
I did have a very rebellious stage in which I wasn’t doing alcohol or drugs, but I was just really mouthy. I used to complain a lot to a couple I babysat for, about how at home I had to go to bed at eight every night and could wear jeans only one day a week to school. They sympathized with me and told me that was terrible. They said once I turned 18, I could live with them. Today I know they shouldn’t have made such an offer. I told my parents that I would be living with these people when I turned 18. I don’t think my parents believed me, but they didn’t realize how stubborn I was. This couple was transferred to California, and while there said the offer still stood. So when turning 18 my senior year in high school, I took them up on their offer.
Your parents must have flipped out.
Oh yeah. I had been telling them every day, but they didn’t believe me. That move shaped who I am and my life would be different today if not for it. I’m one of those people who doesn’t have regrets.
When you left, it was a bit like when you were seven, except in reverse. You were leaving your family once again.
Yes. When in college later, I took a psychology course. Part of the requirement was to do an autobiography, which was the first time I had taken time to chronologically detail my life. I’m not anyone special and everyone has a story. I guess I’ve gone through the process of leaving and separation several times in my life.
In southern California, I lived with the couple and eventually I met Tom and we’ve been together ever since. Tom’s father had an electrical contracting business in Maine (where Tom is from), and his father asked him to come run and ultimately own it. So I went from California to Maine where we started our family. We have two children: a daughter 27, and a son, 24.
I wanted to be the one to raise my children, and waited for our son to be in first grade before starting full-time work. In September 1997, I went to a temp agency and told them I wanted to work at Liberty Mutual (the biggest employer in the area), which was 20 miles or so away in New Hampshire. I didn’t have much business experience, but had confidence if I could get in as a temp, Liberty Mutual would eventually hire me. I was hired in January with a starting pay of $18,900, and by year’s end I had been promoted several times and my salary was $50,000.
With Liberty Mutual, I didn’t have a grand plan for my career. I just loved everything and was terribly curious about making everything I did better. I didn’t have a position there that was the same at the end as when I started. I shaped my jobs in a way that interested me.
For example, in my second or third job with them, I was responsible for tax filings. We had this software we never used—opting instead to do everything manually. I asked to go to a conference and eventually automated the process. Little by little, I started getting recognized. It was an excellent training ground for coming here and a phenomenal company. Through the years, I rose up in the organization.
A lot of my job just before coming here was spent looking at how we planned out the future, and how we could rationalize our technology spend, which was significant because we had many processes and cultures as a strategic business unit made up of numerous acquisitions.
When did you leave?
In 2011. Not in my wildest dreams did I think we would end up in Minnesota. Glen and I had talked throughout the years—he is my uncle and in the business world. I would say the turning point came when I was offered a position at a healthcare insurance company as their financial officer for the state of New Hampshire.
At the time, I had asked Liberty Mutual to give me a demotion so I could work part-time to get my MBA and spend more time with my daughter, who was in her final year of high school. It was then I moved to our Boston corporate office. I had this demotion for only a few months after which they put me back into the management level I was at before and allowed me to work part-time.
I was struggling with this job decision and calling everyone I knew. It was a great problem to have. So I called Glen. He was very helpful, and asked, “What turns you on most?” I had been making the issue complex and he had boiled everything down to a comment that encapsulated everything. After I decided to stay on at Liberty Mutual, Glen and I talked more. Then I visited the Mankato area over Labor Day 2010, after Glen had just returned to run Taylor Corporation. He asked if I wanted to help him. I said no because I loved my life in Maine and was commuting to Boston every day to the home office of Liberty Mutual—to a job I loved.
We talked again in October for 90 minutes and at the end of the conversation he said he still had that job open for me. I said I would think about it. Then I suggested I do a project (for him) to see if I would be interested (in the job). But I ended up having to look at (this project) on the weekends and was thinking then how stupid my suggestion had been. I was already commuting to Boston 90 minutes each way and had a big job. I couldn’t fit more in. So, I thought I needed to make a decision on this opportunity.
I flew out in February 2011 and Glen and I spent a day talking about the business, but more importantly about what our relationship would be like should I work for him. I made the final decision in March and started at the end of April.
Give examples of what you do.
A large portion of my time at Liberty Mutual was in finance and accounting. I know that and IT well. When returning to the company, Glen thought Taylor Corporation was under-invested in sales and technology, and he asked me to look at the technology component for all of Taylor Corporation. I also took an interest in the finance area because that was a comfort area for me. Slowly, I started to assume responsibilities in finance, HR, legal, and IT—all corporate centers of excellence functions, and began becoming better acquainted with the organization and industry. I assumed more and more responsibility that way.
A former colleague and friend thought my new job was completely different from my old one. I said it was completely different in terms of the industry I was in before sold promises. Here (at Taylor Corporation) we sell things, which is the part of working here I really quite like. I love going on plant floors and watching machines run. Annually, I choose a different plant and work the equipment on the production floor—and as a result have brought productivity down a substantial amount. (Laughter.) But I love it.
Do you work with Taylor Corporation and Glen’s private businesses?
Largely with Taylor Corporation but I do join Glen for board meetings with his egg company, Rembrandt. We also talk about his holdings. Ultimately—and I think he’s said this publicly—his holdings will go to a foundation and in that way I’m helping.
What do you see as Glen’s weaknesses and strengths?
For me, personally, he is someone with a unique charisma and magnetism. It’s a gift. If you’re in a meeting, and he’s talking, you see everyone sucked in by his stories. He is wonderful to be around and his stories never get boring.
He’s a brilliant businessperson and an amazing human being. He has the ability to see goodness in most everyone. Under the worst of conditions, you might see someone in the worst light, but he sees them in the best light. He finds those slivers of good. He’s taught me that. I can’t consistently say I do what he does. He has helped me to see everyone struggles, everyone has a bad day, and everyone makes mistakes. He has the ability to assess risk and people, and many other strengths too numerous to mention.
What about his weaknesses?
That’s a hard question—and yes, I am thinking about it. I will only say that everyone’s strength can also be a weakness.
Were you involved with the Star Tribune purchase?
There were people on our team heavily involved in terms of the acquisition. I was involved because of that process and the conversations Glen and I had.
One thing I could see being a challenge: it’s one thing having about 85 companies under your umbrella, but yet another having different company cultures in different parts of the country and world. If in your position, I would be just as overwhelmed as you were, perhaps, on the day you came to America as a child.
I tell this story a lot, but when I was trying to make this decision about whether to take this financial position with the healthcare insurer in New Hampshire, the CFO of Liberty Mutual wanted to know why I wanted to leave their company. I told him I’d been there my entire professional career and it was time for something different. I felt I would leave and probably come back. I needed to experience a different culture in a different place. The CFO started laughing, and said, “Deb, if you want to experience a different culture, just go to the fifth floor.” (Laughter.)
I want to believe I’m very methodical and careful in my thinking. I spent my first year here listening and learning about the company cultures and opportunities. Within an organization the size of ours, you want an underlying theme running through all the companies. The mission we have here is one Glen thought of when starting the company years ago, one of providing opportunity and security for our employees.
The notion of taking care of all employees is very important to me. Sure it’s true that when you talk about opportunity and security, it’s everyone’s responsibility. But I would also say there are only a few people that get to make the decisions that drive that opportunity and security. So, it’s important if we’re privileged to be one of those people we make the right decisions.
What is your main role?
I report directly to and work very closely with Glen. Most of the time when he’s in the office, we connect. But we have dedicated time on our calendar to spend about an hour and a half together each week.
It sounds like you’re his right-hand woman, in a way.
Well, let’s just say he’s my right-hand guy. (Laughter.) Just teasing. (Uproarious laughter.) He’s just so much fun and we have become such good friends.
Glen and I have this little shtick when meeting with customers. Glen says, “Now I’m going to let my niece talk for a little bit.” Then everyone around the table is wondering whom he’s talking about because, quite obviously, we don’t look anything alike. So I say, “Thank you, Glen.” Then I say, “Yeah, he’s adopted.” It’s always funny to us.
I’m so grateful for the relationship we have. It is healthy for each of us and really healthy for the organization that we have a good relationship. We discuss and argue behind closed doors, but come out with the same message—and that’s important.
Let’s take a most recent deal, when you closed on MentorMate.
The deal was negotiated by our mergers and acquisition group. MentorMate was a key acquisition for Taylor Corporation because it really is about the future of our organization, i.e., rounding that corner from print to technology and being known as a print and communication company with beautiful, elegant technology solutions that are contemporary for today’s world.
MentorMate had about 75 suitors. Why did they choose Taylor Corporation?
We have access to very large corporations as our current and potential customers, and they liked our culture and team. We are asking them to focus more externally for sales than internally inside Taylor Corporation. They have a couple hundred developers in Bulgaria, and about thirty stateside.
How much of Taylor Corporation is outside the U.S.?
We have a presence in Monterrey, Mexico, making products on our behalf and shipping them to the U.S. We also sell internally into Mexico. We have a technology company in China with about 200 developers and down the street from that company is a printing business selling into China. We have a couple hundred employees in the Philippines doing development and BPO (business process outsourcing) for our companies. We just opened a technology company in India, and have printing companies in France, the UK, and Canada.
You have talked about a lot of countries, but haven’t mentioned South Korea.
(Laughter.) Well, the only decision I’ve helped make—and I’ve been here only three and a half years—in terms of where we will go next from a global perspective, is India. India is important because of its population size, and for a while, the rate of people rising to the middle class was substantive. Certainly its economy has slowed, but won’t forever. It’s still growing. That’s a place we want to be. I don’t know if South Korea is that place for us at this time. However, we do sell powdered eggs into Korea.
What would you call your title if you had one? Special assistant to the president? What would it be?
Seriously, you can’t just keep going around telling people you are the person without a title.
(Laughter.) We are trying to create a team environment. There are about 30 or so of us on the (upper executive) team, a group that includes presidents of key companies. I’m not any more special than any of them. Slapping a title on me defines me in a certain way and right now we are working to build a team. On our team, each person has a gift, and if your gift applies to a particular situation, you go do that job. By not having a title, I can talk to everyone as part of a team. I have a very strong desire to work as a team. No single person has the answer to everything.
Will there come a time when Glen decides I should have a title or when I decide? The answer is yes. He said once that at some future meeting he was just going to blurt out a title. (Laughter.)
But there are disadvantages of not having a title, too. Truth be told, it can be confusing internally. We probably have work to do there to lessen the confusion. But when people see my actions and decisions, and see how I participate and what I participate in—that should give everyone enough of a flavor for what I do.
You were mentioning before about Glen’s strengths and weaknesses. What about your own?
I know for a fact I’m my biggest critic. I don’t cut myself any slack, which is my biggest weakness. I’m always thinking about ways I can do things better—and I probably let those thoughts stay around too long. I always think I could have done a little better until I make the same mistake the very next day. (Laughter.)
People who are hard on themselves often have difficulty describing their strengths. Is that the case with you?
Someone recently asked me what my gift was and I immediately responded that I’m trustworthy. People can trust me. That’s my greatest gift. I say what I say and mean what I say. There isn’t any time when a hidden meaning exists. When people walk out of a conversation with me they aren’t wondering what I meant. Again, I want to believe that I am clear and concise in my messaging.
What if an opportunity came for you to go back to Korea. Have you been there since?
While on my way to China once we had a four-hour layover in Korea. I asked if we had time to take a cab into the city and make it back for our connecting flight. The traffic was too busy to risk it. Before leaving on that trip, I had told someone that I thought I’d get into that airport and suddenly have a flood of memories. And there was nothing.
Ever thought about seeing your mom?
My birth mother has probably died. One of my uncles was stationed there for a time and tried to find her. He couldn’t. She lived a life that wasn’t a good one. It would be a strange thing—it would be a strange thing if she were alive. We wouldn’t speak the same language. If the opportunity presented itself today, then perhaps, yes.
I think when people go and search they are missing something. There is a hole that needs filling. I don’t feel as if I have that hole because my life is rich and very good. I don’t feel anything is missing. That’s probably a testament to how I was raised and the people in my life today.
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