Martin guitars hit 1 million on high note

By CRYSTAL CAVINESS  |  Oct. 14, 2003 at 4:01 PM
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NASHVILLE, Oct. 14 (UPI) -- Christian F. Martin IV was born into his destiny. Part of the sixth generation of the Martin family that had already made its name by building high-quality acoustic guitars, Chris Martin took over the company in 1986 when his grandfather died at age 92.

It was a tough time for the company, which today is the oldest acoustic guitar maker in the world. That year, the company built less than 4,000 guitars and considered folding. In 2002, Martin Guitar Co., based in Nazareth, Penn., sold 77,000 guitars, earning $77 million in revenue. A new book, "Martin Guitar Masterpieces," written by Dick Boak, head of artist relations at Martin, captures in anecdotal form the relationship between Martin guitars and hundreds of celebrities through the years.

In January 2004, the one-millionth Martin will make its debut at the annual NAMM Show in Anaheim, Calif. As Martin Guitar celebrates its 170th anniversary, Martin, 48, recently discussed why the company continues to grow despite a tough economy, what having a family-owned business means for the integrity and the future of the Martin guitar, and his passion for finding alternatives to the rare woods that have made Martin guitars famous.

UPI. Of the many different Martin models, if you had to pick one, which would you choose?

Chris Martin: I would say the HD-28 with scalloped bracing. We've done a great job convincing people that rosewood, mahogany, ebony and spruce make great sounding guitars. Those materials are getting harder to get. Now we need to convince people that walnut works, cherry works, maple works.

Q. How is Martin addressing that issue?

A. We have several models now that come with independent certification that the wood for that guitar came from a tree farm. Once I realized those woods are out there, I felt it was imperative that we get them to the market quickly. Ironically, none of our competitors have yet done that. Shame on them! Shame on them for not having at least one model that came from a tree farm. Unfortunately, you can't get tree-farmed rosewood, you can't get tree-farmed ebony. They should have planted the trees 50 years ago and harvested them judiciously. Even though people are planting now, for our purposes, I'll be much grayer before those trees are cut.

Q. Because you are a family-owned operation, tell me about the work environment at Martin.

A. More and more today, I'm just appalled at the way bigger, non-family run, particularly publicly traded companies, treat their employees. Because it's a family business, not only does the consumer feel good about it, my co-workers feel good about it. When they see how I agonize over issues they read about in the paper, where other companies just do it. ... I try very hard not to put my co-workers in a place where they fear me or the company or its motives.

Q. How does that, in the end, affect the product?

A. We are quality-driven. My colleagues love the fact that we make the best of its kind. They help get me there. We occasionally, as managers, struggle with how do we bring them back to earth, in terms of "You've done enough sanding; it's shiny enough." It's never an issue of could you bring the quality up? It's like, "OK, bring them back to earth. We're trying to run a business here."

Q. How do you balance caring passionately about the employees, about the product, and yet, as the company president and a businessman, there are time when you must make hard decisions?

A. I have to say that sometimes I put the hard decisions off as long as possible. I enter into a dialogue with as many managers as I can, saying this is where we might have to go, give me your opinion. I think that gives them a heads-up. I think all too often upper management thinks middle management knows what's going on. ... So by having this dialogue, even if we have to make this decision, we're bringing them along. So when the decision comes down, they go "OK, Chris told us this was coming."

Q. How does Martin not only survive, but thrive, in what has been tough economic times?

A. It's challenging, I'll tell you. Fortunately, we've been through these before. There were times when my ancestors had to cut back. We had to cut back in the late seventies and eighties. This time around, we saw it coming. We didn't want to believe it. But we stopped hiring last November, even though we were getting pressure from manufacturing that said we need some more. We said "Look, there's a lot of uncertainty out there. If we bring on another mouth, we have to feed it."

This year, in particular, we're becoming part of the problem. We've cut back significantly on capital expenditures, so now we're not fueling the economy. You read a lot in the business press about capital investment. Through the nineties, we re-invested over $20 million in the business, profits that were filed back in to expand to put in better climate control, more accurate retooling and fixtures. This year, our capital budget has been gutted, so that we can preserve cash.

Q. What's in the future for Martin guitars, or perhaps the guitar industry, in general?

A. There has certainly been a quick migration to China for the beginner level, student, cheap guitar. That happened very quickly. ... China went quickly from making junk to guitars that function, more or less. It doesn't affect us a lot, except that I'm always happy to know that there are functional, affordable guitars out there for the person who's not going to start at a Martin. I wish they would, but they are going to start on a cheap guitar. If they get a cheap guitar that works, I think they might stick with it.

My biggest fear about the guitar, and fortunately for the past couple thousand years this hasn't played itself out, but so much of life has gotten so simple. When I was younger, my mom got me a used 35mm camera and I had to read the book and run off several rolls of film before I figured out all that stuff that it did. You buy a camera today, point and shoot. The guitar is as complicated to learn how to play as it's ever been. And here is an example of an individual who never got it.

Q. You don't play?

A. No. I took lessons. I didn't practice much. I get home from work now, I've got to do something else. I'm living, eating, breathing guitars all day long, plus. And if I was anywhere, people would ask me to play. And if I wasn't at least as good as Eric Clapton, they'd be very disappointed.

What excites me is guitar physics, guitar construction, design. That's what I think about. We are trying to make the perfect guitar. We have been trying for 170 years and we're closer than we've ever been.

Q. What's changing that's getting you closer?

A. Just the refinements of the extraordinary designs that my ancestors created. My ancestors developed these designs. It's all plus or minus in manufacturing. We're building closer to that design than we ever were. We are more consistent to the ultimate shape, the shape that's more ideal, as we see it. As scarce as the wood itself is getting, the quality of the cut is better. There again, you've got some of those old hippies who are out in the forests saying "If you're going to sell this wood to a guitar maker, then you've got to cut it this way." That's really helped. All throughout the chain, everybody is more passionate, more knowledgeable about guitars and guitar history and refining some of the classical designs.

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