Chris Martin is the current CEO of Martin Guitars. This interview takes some wild turns as we talk about everything from a day in the life of CEO of Martin to his succession plan to his devil pop art infatuation.
As you know, I love Martin guitars so this was an enthralling interview for me:)
What are your favorite takeaways from Chris? Leave a comment below!
Chris: I was standing there in full regalia naked as the day is long, is the devil, and Debbie takes one look at this and she says, “Take that home right now.”
Tony: Hey there, Tony Polecastro and it’s a very great day. I’m honored to be sitting next to Chris Martin. I want to thank you for being here.
Chris: Sure, my pleasure.
Tony: As I understand it, this is your first time out in Montana.
Chris: No, actually, when I was in college a friend of mine and I, two times, but the one time I remember we went on a 6 week around the country odyssey, and we hightailed it from Pennsylvania across the Midwest until we got across the mountains and then we slowed down. I remember, I distinctly remember stopping in Custer State Park and camping and that was the first time I’d ever seen a big horned sheep. Then we ended up in Livingston.
Tony: Yeah, yeah.
Chris: There was a rodeo going on. They had this spit going with hunks of beef, like 20 of them on this spit with fire. We spent the night camping, and we went to the rodeo. I remember going through the chow line, and these older women they were like, “Where are you boys from?” “We’re from Pennsylvania.” They took such good care of us. It was so much fun, and then we went down into the park from there and then continued on ended up further west Washington down the California coast and back. But yeah, it’s been a long time.
Tony: So, this is actually, this would be Claire’s first time here.
Chris: Yes, and Diane.
Tony: Awesome! Oh cool, so that’s great. I think it’s awesome that you guys are here. I’m excited to be here. I had a chance about a year and a half, almost 2 years ago now to go back and visit the factory in Nazareth, and it was beyond awe inspiring. It was inspirational. It was historical. It was as a Martin guitar lover I was wide eyed. I was like a kid in a candy store, to be honest with you.
Chris: Well, that’s why we give tours. We want people to see these things are expensive. There’s a reason these things are expensive.
Chris: Come on in and we’ll show you around.
Tony: And I was amazed at the team that is there. Everybody that I talked to from neck fitters to cutting down mahogany necks from blanks. I mean every body I talked to was just into it.
Chris: And that was one of my first jobs. I would come, my parents were divorced, but I would come and visit and stay with my grandparents in the summer. I’d get a chance to work out in the shop. Which I don’t know today if Clair would even be allowed to do some of the things that I did but I would work with a gentleman named Donald, I can’t remember his last name, and he ran the tanawitz band saw. He would take the – They were already cut into the trapezoidal shapes, the long mahogany boards and he would allow me to use the template to mark out the necks that we nest. I wasn’t allowed to cut them but my job was, he gave me a stick and he would cut the necks out of that big trapezoidal piece of mahogany and I got to push the fall off, into the bin. That was pretty cool. Here I am, in the shop you know, at age 13.
Chris: You know, beginning to help make a Martin Guitar.
Tony: That is so cool. So that leads me to my next, total curiosity. I walked through the shop and I’m floored. First of all, above all, I love guitars. I love seeing them be made and I have a deep, this is funny to say to you, I have a deep family tie to Martin Guitars because my dad loved Martin Guitars.
Chris: Okay, yeah.
Tony: And I’m saying this to you Chris Martin who also has an incredibly deep, very very intimate knowledge of Martin Guitars. So as you walk through the factory on your day to day basis, what does that feel like for you? As a part of this being.
Chris: Honestly it’s overwhelming. It really is, it’s that we’ve been able to maintain the standard that C.F. Senior set one hundred eighty some years ago and generate the volume of output that we do today. That’s the real testament to my colleagues, that anyone can make one good guitar.
Tony: Sure, sure.
Chris: It’s hard but it’s not that hard but to make 2, or 3, or 30 or 300 ray, that’s hard work and that’s what we do so well. I’ve said this and hopefully people get a kick out of it, I am dangerous with a chisel. I learned early on that my job is to work the front of the house and let the cooks cook the meal while I’m the maitre d. I tried and I did a rotation in the shop and some of the jobs I could do and some of them to this day befuddled me. Neck fit, dove tail neck fit, I never could figure that out, and yet, you’ve seen it done.
Chris: You’ve seen it done by my colleagues that get it right when they do it. Bending sides, I had the opportunity to hand bend sides and I got really good at burning them or breaking them. That’s when I was like, I got to get up in the office.
Tony: When we were there, I believe it was in March a couple of years ago, Larry had taken us to the old shop and to see not only the historically significant original homestead and shop that grew out of that but also the technology change. It was literally like walking through history. Now you sit at the fore front of that.
Chris: What happened, I remember this, because I would come back and visit, I remember when I was very little, we moved into the new plant in 64 so if I came to visit before age nine, I got a chance to go through the old shop. When we moved over to Sycamore Street, we didn’t really change the technology we just moved what we had into a new building. Then over time we began to evolve the way that we built the Martin Guitar. Initially it was, take everything we did at North Street and just do it in this building that was on one floor rather than multiple floors.
Tony: It’s really fascinating, and the deeper question lies. This is hard because nobody can really, truly accurately predict the future, but there has been so many developments I would say even the last, gosh, even the last ten years. Where do you see Martin Guitar as a company going in ten, twenty, thirty years?
Chris: I don’t have that kind of vision. My feeling about it is, you go into work and you figure out what you have to do that day, and if you can look out a couple of months, maybe, to the end of the year. Beyond a couple of years it gets a little fuzzy.
Tony: Sure, sure.
Chris: I have said to my colleagues. I said, look lets given the fact that the demand seems to be increasing lets reinforce the partnerships we have with everyone that helps us outside our facility; helps supply the raw materials, helps supply the tuning machines, the finish, things like that. So that we aren’t stuck by their inability to move this product into the future.
Tony: Very interesting. Very interesting perspective. I never even though of that.
Chris: A lot the stuff that’s in this guitar comes from multiple vendors. There is a very tragic story. The V neck on the X Series that came from one facility in New England, and they had a terrible tragic fire. All of a sudden we could not get the wood for the necks for the X Series.
Chris: Yeah, because we relied on one vendor who was wonderful; did a great job, supplied us, good price, good product, and all of a sudden we got a phone call. They said we’re very sorry we can’t supply you for the foreseeable future.
Tony: I’m really glad you brought that up, because when I think about it. I think about Martin makes guitars. Well, you guys obviously depend on – I mean you guys aren’t managing –
Chris: We don’t make tuning machines.
Tony: Yeah, right, right. So that’s fascinating.
Chris: That’s the other thing, in some cases the vendors are either very specialized or we are a very small customer of a very big company. We are a very good account. We’re a prestigious account. We pay our bills. Vendors love to say they sell to Martin because of the standards, nut for example the finish comes from a company that’s a multi, multi billion dollar company. We buy about this much of the product that they makes for the world’s market for a variety of uses.
Tony: It’s interesting to hear you put that in perspective, as a guitar lover, a self proclaimed guitar geek I kind of like to think that this little world revolves around just guitar makers.
Chris: And in many cases it does. The tuning machines, the frets, things like that, the inlay are very guitar specific. The vendors are very specific to that small world, but not everything. Some of the products, the plastic binding, that’s a product that’s universally used for many other uses besides guitars.
Tony: So speaking of universally used products. I’ve had the opportunity to read through some questions that people are very curious for me to ask you.
Chris: Okay, okay.
Tony: And one of which is probably what I would assume is the most universally used product.
Chris: Who’s going to be the next President? Too early to tell, too early to tell.
Tony: Tone woods. Can you shed a little bit of light on the use of mahogany, rose wood?
Chris: There you go. We have done a wonderful job of convincing, and not just Martin, that the best woods are rose wood, mahogany, ebony and spruce.
Chris: There is a reason that those woods are called rare and exotic. They are rare and exotic, and they are getting even more so.
Chris: Shame on us for pigeon holding the product to that is the only wood you can use. However, I think it does need to be said that whoever figured that out, figured it out before C.F. Senior got in the business and they seem to have done a good job.
Chris: But they didn’t ever anticipate that this monster that was created in terms of these rare exotic timbers are getting scarcer, and what are we going to do about it. I would say there is light at the end of the tunnel. There is a lot more realization that these resources are valuable, and if we treat them with respect it’s very possible that if we have the patience mother nature will cooperate, and allow trees to regenerate. It takes a while. I did some calculations in my head, and some of the projects that are starting now when they come to fruition that those woods will be available for Claire when she is my age.
Chris: Claire’s ten. I just turned 60, so when Claire turns 60 some of the projects now in terms of sustainable forestry those woods will be ready to harvest. Yeah, that’s the beginning. That 50 years is the beginning of, okay, the tree is just barely big enough to harvest to make a dreadnought guitar out of, but people are beginning to understand. We’ve got to be more enlightened about treating this resource with respect.
Tony: Which and I give a ton of credit to manufacturers, you guys Martin.
Chris: And some of our colleagues.
Tony: To recognize that, and realize that this is something that we should probably nurture and think about.
Chris: In my case, I have the ability to look backwards, and say I don’t want to be the C.F. that says game over there is no more rose wood; there is no more mahogany. In the case of some of my other colleagues, I think, they are just seeing that given the volume and given the demand we’ve got to look out further in terms of is this business going to be viable in 5, 10, 15, 20 years from now.
Tony: I find it fascinating. I always think the guitar business is big, or at least I should I thought it was. I thought it was huge. Then I went to [inaudible 00:13:24], I used to work for Weber Mandolins, and realized very quickly how close everybody worked. To a degree, here we are making instruments for the music playing public. Is there a lot of communication between different companies about major issues such as forestry, availability if raw product.
Chris: You know, it’s painted with a very broad brush generally it is a very collegial industry. You hate to say as far as the industry, but you’re right it is an industry. It is not just, it wouldn’t just be me and Bob, or me and John Laravay, or me and Richard Droover, or me and Bill Callings. It’s the people down in the trenches doing the work are encouraged to call their counter part at a competitor and say hey we’re struggling with finish have you guys encountered this? Do you have any inside into that? Everyone, I would say, is willing to share. There isn’t this sort of –
Chris: I have some colleagues who joined us as executives from other industries and they are amazed. They said in our previous lives when we would go to a trade show we wouldn’t even go and visit the competitors booth. We were never invited to their factories. We would never have dinner with them. It was, like, this is our camp and that’s your camp and we are at war, and we don’t talk. It is a wonderful thing because you run into things; particularly when you’re making guitars in any kind of volume, and you’re scratching your head, and it’s nice to know that somebody else might have encountered that and they found a fix for it. They are willing to share it.
Tony: Sure, sure. Again, I think of this guitar, again industry as a really weird word to pair with it as this big thing, but it seems like a fairly tight knit family.
Chris: I would say that’s true not just with guitar builders, but anyone who displays at the damn show is generally open to talking about what they do with people who do the same kind of thing. It’s a fun product. There’s not a lot of proprietary information about it. I guess maybe in keyboards you might want to product. Your mad scientist in your keyboard, nut this dang thing has been around forever. The origins of this go back to Mesopotamia. Which ironically there are people in Mesopotamia today that don’t want us to make music. And they invented the damn thing. What’s that all about?
Tony: That’s crazy.
Chris: Yeah, it is crazy.
Tony: So you just triggered a question, I had it while we were at the museum. Okay, and it’s kind of related to a product you guys just released recently, but really more of your personal folk art collection.
Chris: Oh yeah, yeah.
Tony: I’m walking through the museum, and I’m seeing histories of guitars, and I’m seeing all this great stuff then I walk in and I got devil figures.
Tony: And I’m like what –
Chris: And I don’t know when that started. I guess I travel a lot. Part of it is I like art, and folk art is affordable. Some, some is very valuable. By in large, folk art is affordable, and a lot of the stuff in that room, I have to say, Diane, my wife, is thrilled to death that the stuff is no longer at home and it’s actually in that room at work. No, I still have a lot of stuff at home, but in my travels I could buy something. It was affordable, and I could put it in my carry on and bring it home.
Chris: I’ve traveled around the world, so there is a lot of Asian art, most of which I’ve bought in America. That came to America years, and years, and years ago. I’ve actually heard that a lot of that art is going back to Asia because as the Asians become more prosperous they want it. I’ve got my little stash, and I like folk art that makes you scratch your head. I do not like cutesy folk art at all. That doesn’t do anything for me. I like folk art that people look at.
Chris: In fact, I have a piece at home, and what I would do if I couldn’t carry it home I would have it shipped. I would have it shipped to work because there was always some one there to receive it, rather than at home. Diane and I aren’t home and I get a notice from UPS, you have got to be here. They received this piece and it comes up to my office, and I ask my colleague Debbie Collawich the HR director to come over. I said, “Debbie, you’ve got to see this thing.” It was an old bingo wheel, the round one that you turn on a board devil folk art. So there is Eve naked as the day is long, and inside the bingo wheel is Adam naked. I forget what the title of the work is, but you would turn it and Adam would just bang around inside the wheel, and standing there in full regalia naked as the day is long is the devil, and Debbie takes one look at this and she says, “Take that home, right now.”So that one spend about an hour at work, and it’s in my den at home.
Tony: I really want to see that now. I have a picture.
Chris: You will have to come to my house. I’m not allowed to bring it back to work.
Tony: Fast forward this last year, I come into work, Larry our Martin rep is very excited about this the Louvin Brothers 28.
Chris: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Tony: As soon as I saw that I thought well of course why wouldn’t that be.
Chris: I’m in Nashville for the trade show. It was 2 or 3 years ago, and I love visiting all the little shops. I go into this one store, and they’ve got that album cover on a t-shirt. I buy it. I sad thing is, it’s famous in terms of it’s considered one of the top 100 worst album covers ever. I didn’t see it that way at all. I saw it as folk art. I knew nothing about the Louvin Brothers. I had the t-shirt on and I said Larry. He said Louvin Brothers. I’m like, yeah this is cool. I want to do something. He said do you know who they are? I said Larry I don’t have a clue, so I started to do some research. Louvin Brothers if you harmonize and you have any interest harmonize, and you have any interest in music history you know who the Louvin Brothers are. You know. There is a book written, and Ira in particular, I believe, he lived the life of the hard luck country artist.
Tony: Yeah, yeah.
Chris: So, talked to Dick Bouge, and we got in touch with Charlie’s son. Charlie said I have the rights to that, and I think it would thrilled because Charlie played a Martin. I said lets do it. I was talking Larry, and Larry said Chris if you do this don’t make fun of them. I didn’t do it to make fun of them. I did it because I love folk art, and the more I learned about the Louvin Brothers I was like oh my God. I mean these guys were the real deal.
Tony: Yeah, oh yeah. It’s striking. You look at it, and you are like it is so cool.
Chris: It was a gospel album.
Tony: Yeah, yeah.
Chris: What was the title of it?
Tony: Satan is real.
Chris: There point was if you don’t toe the line you are going to get to meet this guy, and he’s not fun to hang out with.
Tony: I got another question from one of the members at my website, and the question is –
Chris: You’re pretty famous I hear. As a celebrity in your own right. We have to get you and Dave Ball together and you and Dave can do a little thing like this.
Tony: Well, we can talk talk about our beards.
Chris: There you go.
Tony: Because he has a pretty lengthy.
Chris: Dave’s got the whole, you know, thing on the internet, the YouTube thing going too.
Tony: That’s right because he’s got the Pro Tips by Dave Ball
Chris: Right, we got to get the two of you together.
Tony: Larry says he’s a hell of a racket ball player.
Chris: Okay. He’s a car buff, foodie, there’s lots to talk about.
Tony: So, one of the questions is “What’s a day in the life of Chris Martin like?”
Chris: It varies, I’m actually, now that I’ve turned 60, I don’t want to say that I’m slowing down but I’m picking my shots.
Chris: You know, when I first took over I was scared and I really ran hard to keep the business upright. Recently I’ve been very fortunate to hire someone as the President of the company, to help me run it.
Chris: I’ll go back maybe fifteen years, business was getting bigger than I ever imagined, ever imagined even fifteen years ago. I began to see myself, and I’m dating myself now as that guy on the Ed Sullivan show that tried to keep the plates going, on the sticks, running back and forth and I thought, “one of these plates is going to fall, and I don’t know which one and I don’t know how loud the explosion is going to be but I don’t want it.” So in working with my Board of Directors I said, “I need someone to help me run the business.” Great, go look. I found a fellow, a recruiter, I liked his style, very holistic. He said, “I don’t know you, I don’t know the company. My wife is an executive coach, would you spend some time with her and I can get a debrief from her in terms of what kind of individual would complement you.” So she put me through a rift of psychological profiles and interviews and we get to the end of that experience and she said, “Oh this is fascinating, sixth generation.” I said, “yeah.” Usually businesses don’t make it through six generations.
Tony: Right, right.
Chris: If they do, the ownership is held widely by many family members, none of whom work in the business. They aren’t running it anymore and they are cashing dividend checks. She said, “you’re kind of entrepreneurial, you like envisioning the possibility of the future.” Then she looked me in the eye and said, “but you know what? You are not really good at running this business everyday.” And I said, “I KNOW THAT! THAT’S WHY WE’RE HERE!” So I ended up hiring a fellow, we had a good ten year run, he left a couple of years ago and now I’ve brought a woman, Jackie Renner in to help me run the company. She loves that day to day stuff.
Chris: So now as I get to that point as in middle age, I guess. I like doing things like this, I like meeting the public. It really depends, I attend way too many meetings at work but it’s still a family business, I’m the majority share holder. I find myself in situations where people look to me because they’re not sure, they’re not sure what decision is right. I’ve never been hesitant when I sense this sort of, “We’re not sure, Chris.” That’s when I know, okay, I need to make a decision. Because if I say, “You know what I agree, I’m not sure either.” Then everyone is like, “Oh man, even the big guy isn’t sure. What the hell is going on?” That’s where I’ll go, “I think this is the way to go.”
Chris: I have to tell you because I’m still a big fan of this. When I took over, I went out on outward bound and that changed my life. I went to Ledville, Colorado for a week in a professional development program and I now share that experience with my colleagues, I’ve done it for about thirty years. In fact I’m going to go in September for a week. That taught me leadership, team building and sharing, sharing leadership. One of the things you do on outward bound that I think comes in very handy back at work, we take people from across the organization and we rotate through different roles. So someone who may be an hourly worker on the bench gets to play at being the leader for a day. They get to see, wow, because I love to promote from within. As you work your way up the food chain you become more of a leader. So I want you to have a chance to try it out. Try this on for size to see if you like the cut of the tailoring or not.
Tony: I think, I truly think it shows. Both in the end product and again walking though the.
Chris: Exactly, when you get in the plant you get a sense of, every one feels like this is a really cool thing we’re doing.
Tony: The moment I walk in and hit the front desk.
Chris: Yeah, I know.
Tony: Every spot. I just, you know, I personally and on behalf of the many Martin fans out there, I want to thank you kind of carrying the torch.
Chris: I hear stories of people saying this environment at Martin is different than other companies and I scratch my head and I go, “why, why aren’t those companies like my company” and I’ve never laid anybody off. I’ve been CEO of the Martin Guitar Company for 29 years, never laid anybody off. You know what? Very selfishly, it’s because my fear is, if I lay them off, if I need to hire them back, they may not want to come back, so I’ve lost someone with an incredible amount of skill and I’ve got to start all over. Plus I also have this concern that if you begin that “Oh times are tough, we got to lay you off.” Everyone is going to go, “I’m next.” Keep your head down, don’t make any waves, hopefully the boss doesn’t notice you are here. It’s like, No. I hope that when you came to visit, you saw people hustling, that they were like, yeah, lets get this done today.
Tony: Really from re-saw, from the custom shop it was an all around, I don’t even know if enthusiasm is the right word.
Chris: Yes it is the right word. That is the word. Exactly, yeah.
Tony: Here’s people that have been here for, who’s parents have been at the company.
Chris: Or grandparents.
Chris: Yeah. I know.
Tony: Who are there, day in and day out and they’re still excited and there’s this feeling that they’re a part of almost a movement.
Chris: I look at companies that make a commodity and I say, that’s got to be hard work. We are blessed with a brand and as long as we respect that brand and do right by it, that separates us from everybody else. This is not a commodity, this is the real thing. I mean there’s copies of the real thing but you can still buy the real thing.
Tony: Well I think you’ve done a great job and I want to thank you.
Chris: Thanks so much.
Tony: For being here. This was really fun chat.
Chris: Well Larry’s been after me for a while, we finally made it happen, the moon and the stars aligned.
Tony: Thank you very much Chris.
Chris: My pleasure.
Tony: I really appreciate it.