Under CEO Taylor Safford, San Francisco’s PIER 39 continues to draw millions of visitors and record sales
ALCATRAZ RISES ABOVE A SLIVER OF FOG stretched across the sunlit San Francisco Bay. Sailboats bob in the marina below. To the south, the sweeping silver lines of the Bay Bridge frame a tall white passenger liner.
“The view is clearly one of the perks of the job,” says Taylor Safford (B.A., ’84; M.B.A., ’95), gazing out the curving window of his office at PIER 39. He became CEO in 2012 after mastering a number of jobs at San Francisco’s top attraction, where he has worked since 1979. His first job was in the pier’s arcade, making change and running the shooting gallery, for $3.10 an hour.
“Yes, I was a carny,” Safford says with a laugh. “I’m kind of the poster boy for opportunity for this company. I’ve risen through the ranks and worked in many of the divisions here. I know a lot of the employees, I know where they come from and what they do every day. That gives me some street cred with them.”
A lively, direct gent with blue eyes and a silvery beard, Safford has a rich knowledge of San Francisco and the workings of everything from finance, city politics and sustainable seafood to sea lions and ferry routes. (For six years he served as CEO of the Blue & Gold Fleet, a PIER 39 affiliate and the West Coast’s largest private water transportation company.) When he arrived in 1979 to pursue his ambition to be a folk-rock guitarist, Safford fell in love with both the city and the 45-acre waterfront shopping and entertainment mall, which had just opened.
“Nothing like this existed where I came from – Richfield, Connecticut,” says Safford, who lives in Mill Valley with his wife, Kathleen, an antenatal nurse at University of California, San Francisco. “This was my first experience with something boardwalk-ish. I loved the energy. And I loved the fact – and this is one of the things I still enjoy – that people are on vacation. They’re here to have fun. Our job is to get out of the way and make sure we provide the opportunity for them to do so.”
That means making customer service paramount, says Safford, whose firm welcomes an annual 10 million tourists and locals who often come with out-of-town guests. PIER 39 may be the place “locals hate to love,” as Safford puts it, but one-in-five visitors is from the Bay Area. On any given day, a dozen languages ring through the salty air to the counterpoint of the pier’s famous sea lions, which took up residence after the 1989 quake for reasons scientists can’t fully explain. It probably has to do with herring runs and finding safe haven, says the CEO, proudly noting that you can’t get any closer to those honking mammals anywhere in the world.
Because many visitors are repeat customers, “it needs to be a new experience when they come,” says Safford, who manages the day-to-day operation of the pier, which has 105 tenants, including 13 full-service restaurants and 500 employees. He directs an executive staff of eight, meets with bankers, port officials and travel industry folk and often pops into shops and other pier venues. Last year, PIER 39 did a record $235 million in sales.
“We’re very conscious of keeping the property vibrant and fresh. Upgrading the food is part of it, and not having things that people can get in the mall near their homes.” His leasing staff suggests potential new tenants, but he makes the final decision with the owners of PIER 39, Robert Moor and Molly South, who bought the property from developer Warren Simmons in 1981.
“Taylor has been there longer than we’ve owned those assets. That speaks volumes about his loyalty and dedication to the company and the project,” Moor says. “Taylor is at heart a good guy. He’s honest. He understands the long view. He understands how others should be treated. It’s a difficult business with many facets, not just real-estate management or finances or marketing. Taylor puts it all together. We could not have made a better choice.”
Safford didn’t have business in mind when he enrolled at SF State, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies with a minor in criminal justice. His encounters with counterfeit money at PIER 39 spurred an interest in joining the Secret Service until he learned how often agents have to move and how little they earn.
“That was not exactly the lifestyle I was looking for,” says Safford, who plays guitar and rides his motorcycle for pleasure. While at SF State, he was promoted to manager in the arcade and, after getting his B.A., to the pier’s restaurant division, there he served as controller for many years.
“State gave me a chance to realize my full potential by giving me the opportunity to work and be grounded in a business while getting my education. Almost everybody was working while they went to school, or they were the first in their family to go to college. The school provided tremendous opportunities for a very diverse population.”
Safford fondly recalls Anthropology Professor Steve Gabow’s “eye-opening” class that connected many disciplines in the study of human development. While getting his M.B.A. at night, Safford developed a spreadsheet database as a class assignment that was used by PIER 39 restaurants for 17 years.
At SF State, “it’s not all theoretical. People bring their real-world experience. You get all of that insight.” Safford joined the SF State Foundation board this year and will assist the University in launching its first major fundraising campaign next month. Encouraging other alumni to support the school, he says, “is part of what I want to do to give back.”
By JESSE HAMLIN /// Photos by ERIC MILLETTE