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The sixth generation to head the Martin Guitar company, Chris Martin, with a D-200 model, celebrating production of the company’s 2 millionth guitar.

Meet NAMM Chairman
C.F. “Chris” Martin IV

Martin Guitar CEO brings a steady hand and a proven record to his new post atop the industry’s leading association.

NEWLY ELECTED NAMM CHAIRMAN C.F. “Chris” Martin IV is the sixth generation family member to head Martin Guitar Company. While nepotism unquestionably played a role in his rise to the top, it would be a mistake to think that he’s had a challenge-free career. He began his career four decades ago when Martin was on the brink of bankruptcy. As he takes over leadership at NAMM, the company is producing more guitars than at any time in its 186-year history. Chris managed this turnaround with focus, a collaborative management style, and a “customer first” approach, strategies he hopes to bring to his new post at NAMM.

It’s hard to overstate the problems Martin Guitar faced in 1982, when Chris was promoted to the rank of vice president. From a peak of 22,637 guitars in 1971, guitar production had tumbled to just 3,182 in 1982, the lowest level since the Great Depression. Ill-fated acquisitions were hemorrhaging red ink. Most ominously, the company’s primary lender was threatening to call in loans that would have forced a sale or liquidation. The company’s bankers and board of directors were also skeptical about giving an untested 27-year-old broad responsibilities. They agreed only out of respect for Chris’s esteemed grandfather, C.F. Martin III, who urged the appointment.

At the time, the push to elevate Chris into the ranks of upper management was seen as a clear-cut case of nepotism: grandpa paving the way for a cherished grandson. With the benefit of hindsight, however, it looks like an inspired decision. Martin Guitar Company has grown and prospered beyond all expectations. From the nadir of 1982, production has surged to over 125,000 instruments annually, and the halo surrounding the Martin trademark has never shone brighter.

The NAMM Executive Committee: (l-r) Joel Menchey, Menchey Music Center, vice chair; Tom Sumner, Yamaha, treasurer; Chris Martin, Martin Guitar, chairman; Chris White, White House of Music, secretary; Joe Lamond, NAMM CEO.

If Chris’s stewardship of Martin has been exemplary, it has also been in keeping with a longstanding family tradition. Defying all odds, in the years since 1833, when Christian Frederick Martin I first began building guitars in the U.S., the Martin family has produced six generations of leaders who have consistently risen to the often daunting challenge of keeping the company solvent while building exquisite instruments. The transitions haven’t always been smooth or simple, but there’s no denying that the process has worked. As the company celebrates its 186th anniversary, this unbroken line of family succession is why the name “Martin” has become synonymous with superlative guitars around the world.

The company has benefited from a succession of able family leaders. Founder C.F. Martin I established core design principles, including the famed “X” bracing pattern, and the second C.F. Martin improved production methods, but both were essentially individual luthiers, content with making a comfortable living with their limited production. The third generation of family leadership in Frank Henry Martin transformed the business, infusing it with contemporary sales and marketing methods and codifying operating principles that continue to serve as a guide today. C.F. Martin III had the skill and discipline to keep the company solvent through the Great Depression of the 1930s and the production restrictions imposed during World War II.

Of all the Martin family members, Frank Herbert Martin, Chris’s father, was the most controversial. Where his forbearers had been circumspect, deliberate, and steeped in a code of personal restraint, Frank was flamboyant, impulsive, and indulgent. In his personal life, he drank too much, went through four wives, and squandered money on a variety of questionable ventures. At the guitar company, his missteps brought the company to the brink of disaster in the late ’70s. However, his belief in the untapped potential of the Martin name led to what was the boldest expansion in the company’s history. In 1964, he persuaded the board to borrow heavily to construct a new 64,000-square-foot plant a few blocks away from the original facility on North Street in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. The timing was perfect: the plant came online just as Beatlemania was taking hold, and Martin was perfectly poised to capitalize on the first guitar boom. Absent the ability to supply demand in the ’60s, it’s questionable whether Martin would enjoy the same market position it does today.

“If he had stopped with the bigger plant, things would have been great,” says Chris of his father. However, he didn’t. Like many other businessmen of the era, Frank Herbert Martin was convinced that diversification was the key to success, and he went on an acquisition spree. In 1970, he acquired the Darco String company from the D’Addario family and the venerable Vega Banjo Company of Boston. A year later he purchased Fibes Drum, which was marketing a line of fiberglass drums, and the Levin Guitar Company of Sweden.

Despite a thriving guitar market in the early ’70s, the acquisitions, with the sole exception of the Darco string business, began to drag down Martin results. A bitter eight month labor strike in 1977 further weakened the company. A sharp downturn in the acoustic guitar market in 1980, due to recession and the ascendancy of disco, was catastrophic.

“For more than a century,
Martin built great flat top guitars.
Every time we tried something else,
we didn’t do very well.
Let’s do what we do best.”

Chris had limited exposure to the family business growing up. His parents had divorced when he was three, and his mother harbored such animosity towards his father that she did everything she could to keep him away from Nazareth and the entire Martin family. Growing up, his contact with the guitar making tradition was limited to a two-week summer visit to Nazareth where he spent most of the time with his grandparents.

Shy and solitary by nature, by the time Chris got ready for college, he envisioned a career as either a marine biologist or in his words, a “hermit somewhere.” However, the tug of family tradition was strong enough that when Fred Walecki of Westwood Music in Los Angeles offered him a job at his store, he accepted. In 1973, he loaded up his VW and moved to L.A. where he enrolled in UCLA and went to work at Westwood Music.

The experience at Westwood Music was humbling. Chris recalls, “Fred first put me on the sales floor and paraded me around as ‘C.F. Martin, member of the famous guitar making family.’ But I didn’t know anything about guitars, the Martin tradition...anything. I looked like a complete idiot. When the sales floor didn’t work, he put me in the repair shop where I caused even more problems. I almost sanded through the side of a few guitars. Finally, I decided that if I was going to be involved in the business, I had to learn what it was all about. As an East Coast kid, I wasn’t happy at UCLA, so I packed up the VW, headed east, and asked my grandfather if he would teach me the business.”

Although Chris hadn’t been immersed in the business from early childhood, he proved an apt student, absorbing lessons like a sponge. From his grandfather, he came to understand the importance of wood selection, and the subtle manufacturing touches that distinguish a passable instrument from a truly inspired one. He also acquired his grandfather’s deeply felt sense of responsibility to the workforce.

“We've told people that as long as
you’re willing to train for new jobs
within the factory, no one will
be put out of work by a machine.”

By the time he had been elevated to vice president, his resume included stints in various factory departments and work in the sales, marketing, and advertising departments. Despite his limited tenure, he came to the new post with a clearly focused sense of strategy. With bankers calling for liquidation and losses mounting, he argued for focusing on building the famous Martin instruments and shutting down everything else. “For more than a century, Martin built great flat top guitars. Every time we tried something else, we didn’t do very well. Let’s do what we do best,” he reasoned.

In the late ’70s, Chris had watched numerous failed attempts at factory automation. “We had a factory manager whose previous experience had been making lipstick containers,” he recalls. “He worked with a machine shop in Bethlehem to come up with sanding and finishing machines, but there was never any participation from the factory floor. It was always top down. They would put a poorly designed machine on the floor, all the workers would look at it suspiciously, thinking, ‘this is going to put me out of a job,’ the thing never ended up working, and we would buy more draw knives.”

Thinking back to a course he had taken on organizational behavior at Boston University, Chris concluded that to make automation work, you had to involve everyone on the factory floor while convincing them that their jobs were secure. With the active participation of the factory staff, Martin installed a battery of computer-controlled routers that improved efficiency and quality, while dramatically expanding production levels. Skilled craftsmen still do fret work, hand-sand lacquer finishes, and perform critical operations like setting the neck. However, in a separate woodworking department, banks of machines crank out ribs, bridges, endblocks, and other wooden components. The automation results in more consistent component parts, which enhances the assembly process. But equally important, Chris notes, “We couldn’t find enough people in Nazareth to do these jobs by hand, given our current production volumes.”

The automation effort also led to a participatory management style. “In the days of my grandfather, each foreman was like the king of his department, and the people under him did what they were told without asking questions,” says Chris. “We’ve found involving people creates better morale, better productivity, and ultimately, better guitars. We’ve also told people that as long as you’re willing to train for new jobs within the factory, no one will be put out of work by a machine.”

Although he’s presided over a three-decade period of exceptional progress, Chris Martin remains uncomfortable in the limelight, preferring to lavish praise on the company’s 1,000-plus employees. In conversation, he routinely emphasizes: “We have a great team.” And like his grandfather, he feels a tremendous responsibility to the hundreds who contributed to the revival of his family’s guitar making business.
Herewith, he discusses his thoughts about NAMM.

“Making new music makers is
the high calling of NAMM.
Our new mantra is,
‘more to start, fewer to quit.’”

What prompted to you take on the NAMM chairmanship? (it’s not as if you don’t have any other responsibilities.)

I didn’t really know what I was getting into. Larry Morton approached me over six years ago and said that my name had been considered and he gave me a rudimentary outline of what the chairman’s job entailed. It seemed like, “if not now, when?” It’s not the kind of job where you could say, “check with me in a couple of years,” so I said yes.

Unlike Martin Company, when you took over, NAMM doesn’t seem to need any fixing. The trade show is flourishing, the finances are strong. What would you like to accomplish? Have you set any goals?

One of the issues we have to deal with at NAMM is succession planning. Many of the team members are senior and have a wealth of knowledge. It’s time to start talking about how to keep that institutional memory alive in anticipation of the fact that at some point, these individuals may retire. Someone like Mary Luerhsen, for example, (NAMM director of public affairs) has a wealth of knowledge about where to give the money, how to ensure that it’s well spent, and how to drag us down to Washington to fight the fight for music education. These aren’t easy skills to replace.

Now that NAMM has become both a commercial and retailer organization, you often have fierce competitors sitting across from each other at board meetings. How do you navigate that?

We have had so much training in the aftermath of the FTC investigation that all of us on the executive committee know what we should and should not discuss. Occasionally a freshman on the board may say something inappropriate and our attorney will call for a time-out. By steering clear of these issues, we avoid the possibility of the FTC coming back and reopening an investigation. They never found anything, but they have this “We’re watching you” stance.

With the embrace of audio products and the “crossroads” theme of the Anaheim show, the NAMM constituency is growing beyond instrument manufacturers and retailers. How do you see this altering the association’s role?

It’s a slow process. The associations and entities that have joined us at the Crossroads are independent. We’re in the “get to know you” phase right now, and we’ll see how these partnerships play out. It might be that some grow and become stronger, and others may not prove to be a good fit. Part of the decision was motivated by the additional space that became available in Anaheim. Joe Lamond and his team smartly decided to find other tangential organizations to fill that space.

The rationale for the Crossroads really hit through my wife Diane and daughter Clare. They both love the theater, and we go to New York several times a year to see a show. Usually there’s a band with very sophisticated electronics, audio, and lighting. In the midst of it there’s someone playing an acoustic guitar. When I saw this, I said to myself, “this is where it all comes together.” You can find all these products at a NAMM show. From that standpoint, NAMM has grown to serve everyone who makes, records, and performs music. NAMM is bringing everyone together in one place at one time so they can do their business. Exhibitors appreciate the “one-stop-shopping” aspect and not having to attend two or three other niche shows.

Most of the organizations that NAMM has partnered with were also run by volunteers and lack the organizational strength of NAMM. They have benefited from the NAMM team’s skill in running a show.

Why do you think NAMM is valuable, and how does it serve the industry?

NAMM is in a unique position to give back because the trade show is successful. People notice that they have a lot of money in the bank, but it’s there to backstop the association in the event of a natural disaster, like an earthquake in Southern California that could disrupt the show and interrupt our revenue stream. Because the organization is so well run, it throws off excess cash that goes to the NAMM Foundation, which is charged with making more music makers. That’s the high calling of NAMM. Our new mantra is, ‘more to start, fewer to quit.’

We are also acknowledging that the association needs to take more of a leadership role in identifying issues that may not affect the entire industry, but impact enough of our members that we should be addressing them in Washington D.C. They’re not universal, like music education, so we have to pick our spots. But, there is a role for NAMM to play in trying to get laws and regulations re-written to remove unnecessary barriers and make commerce smoother. We’ve always provided our members with updates on relevant issues. Now, we’d like to gather opinions in the industry so we can go to Washington and ask for relief. We’re also learning that we can teach the membership to do the same kind of lobbying in their state and local communities to great benefit.

How does NAMM move the legislative needle in Washington?

We might be a small industry, but making music is a good story, and Congress looks forward to hearing it because it’s not controversial. We have had success in getting legislators from both parties to vote to provide funding for music education.
I started going to the NAMM Fly In six years ago. What we try and do now is get representation from all 50 states. In an ideal world, we would have 100 people in total, two from every state. In reality, we get most of the turnout from the bigger states. Most of the presentations are about band and orchestra, but guitar and ukulele are playing a bigger role.

How do you juggle responsibilities between your role at Martin and your new responsibilities at NAMM?

I have a great team at Martin. They know we have to stay competitive, we have to stay relevant, but we’re also not doing wild and crazy stuff. We’re a “stick-to-our-knitting” kind of company, making guitars and strings.

At NAMM, I see my role as listening to as many people as possible and taking suggestions back to the board and management for consideration. I don’t have a magic wand that I can wave to make everyone happy, but I think I can be a useful ambassador.

Any final thoughts?

Fred Walecki had persuaded me to come to work at his retail store in Los Angeles while I was a freshman at UCLA. I was a total idiot at the store and it didn’t work out. But one day when I was in L.A., my dad contacted me and said, “Would you mind going down the airport and checking out the first Winter NAMM show.” I said sure. I drove down to a hotel parking lot in my little VW, and went to the first NAMM show. For me it’s come full circle. Here I am 46 years after having visited the first Winter NAMM show, chairman of NAMM.


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