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- Chris Martin is the CEO of C. F. Martin & Co., the most famous maker of acoustic guitars in the world.
- The company was founded by his great-great-great-grandfather, a German immigrant, in 1833.
- Martin has been steering the company into its third century, tackling numerous challenges while remaining focused on the brand’s core value: quality.
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Christian Frederick Martin IV is a genial, mellow raconteur who shouldn’t be mistaken for a man who doesn’t know his business.
The 64-year-old CEO has to. It’s his job to ensure that the company that bears his name, founded in 1833 by his great-great-great-grandfather, remains the best acoustic-guitar maker in the world.
“It’s my obligation to continue to reach for the perfect guitar,” he said in an interview at C. F. Martin & Co.’s factory and headquarters in Nazareth, Pennsylvania.
He’s not kidding around. For well over a century, the company’s acoustic guitars have defined the sound of essentially every musical genre, but particularly country and bluegrass, folk, and rock ‘n’ roll. Willie Nelson plays a Martin (an especially battered example named “Trigger”). Dolly Parton played a Martin. Joni Mitchell played a Martin. Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page played a Martin. Hank Williams. Johnny Cash. Eric Clapton. Neil Young. John Mayer. Coldplay’s Chris Martin (no relation). Kurt Cobain. Ed Sheeran. Elvis Presley!
And that’s just the tip of a vast iceberg that strummed and plucked what Martin has been crafting from wire and wood since before the Civil War. I could occupy your time for many more paragraphs simply reviewing the bluegrass kings who have favored Martin’s groundbreaking dreadnought design, which has become the default shape and style of pretty much every inexpensive starter acoustic one can buy. (A modern version of the original, first sold in 1931, can be had for $3,600 as a D-28 model, vintage examples of which from before World War II go for nearly $100,000.)
A brand with a history deeper than almost anyone else’s
If there were ever a company that could rest on its considerable laurels, it’s C. F. Martin & Co. With annual revenue of about $120 million and reliable profits, the privately held company operates its famous factory in Pennsylvania, about two hours west of New York City, as well as a plant in Navojoa, Mexico. Its core product is the acoustic guitar, though Martin also manufactures strings, ukuleles, and accessories like straps.
While there’s considerable variety in Martin’s offerings, what the company is really selling is quality, quality, and more quality. There likely isn’t a guitarist on earth who hasn’t coveted a Martin at some point.
Chris Martin credits the founder, Christian Frederick Martin (the first), with establishing the brand’s astoundingly durable reputation.
“We don’t know what possessed him to be a guitar builder,” Martin said, adding that C. F.’s family might have been happier had he entered the family furniture business and not been seduced by musical instruments.
C. F. “developed his own style,” Martin said, and would take quality as far as he could, always with the musician in mind.
Chris Martin summed up a typical player’s attitude toward the company’s guitars as “These things aren’t cheap, but I need a good tool.”
Or, as Clapton put it when discussing several new signature models in 2013, it was Martin that had “the seal of approval from the master musicians.”
Avoiding the curse of being just for wealthy guitar players
That summarizes the Martin philosophy. The priciest guitars are essentially handcrafted by master luthiers in Martin’s custom shop, while the least-expensive models, at less than $500, are renowned for their value. And the heart of the lineup is reasonably priced, given the predictable level of performance delivered.
Musicians might prefer Gibson or Taylor or Collings guitars, but they know that if they pick up a Martin, at any price point, it will do more than get the job done.
In that context, Martin’s yearly output of about 100,000 instruments is a testament to how effective it’s been at pursuing quality in the US and Mexico. And while production in Mexico is now politically complicated, Martin has been committed to it since 1989, when it experimented by shifting string production south of the border. In 2014, the company celebrated 25 years in Navojoa by creating a special commemorative dreadnought model adorned with regional graphics.
Mexico and Asia are the main alternatives to US-based manufacturing, and while the uptick in quality from China and Indonesia in recent years has been stunning, the experience of Martin and others — including Fender, in California — has been that Mexico can deliver a consistently superb guitar at a competitive price.
For Chris Martin, who became CEO in 1986, the move to Mexico was all about making sure his company didn’t become so elite that it lost musicians at the beginning of their journey.
“I saw us becoming a brand that people decided they weren’t wealthy enough to own,” he recalled. “That was never my family’s intent. But we can’t compromise, and that’s an ongoing conversation.”
Martin is a trim, witty man who is constantly seeking to keep the family business relevant, and that requires some innovative thinking. For example, when string production moved to Mexico, string makers in Pennsylvania were confronted with job losses. Martin offered them a deal: Learn to build guitars, and stay with us. Some employees chose to retire, but many took him up on the offer.
Martin quality at lower prices has been a boon for the company — and its dealers.
“They say, ‘Thank you for giving me a range of guitars,'” Martin said. “Now we can take you from $500 to your heart’s desire, and the dealers like that. We need the dealers to make this work.”
Managing the challenges and opportunities of e-commerce and sustainability
That’s a bold stance to take as the music business shifts from brick-and-mortar sales to e-commerce. And Martin isn’t ignoring the opportunity. He knows the company could enjoy robust online guitar sales, if it chose to go that way. But it prefers to work with authorized Martin dealers. (Martin fans can buy accessories, branded clothing, and other modest items via the company’s website.)
“It allows you to use the internet as a tool,” Martin said, adding that it’s critical for retailers to emulate their physical presence in the digital world.
But beyond that, Martin wants customers to put their hands on what they hope to buy, especially if they choose to invest in a limited-edition or custom-made guitar. Chris Martin is a Porsche aficionado — he owns several 911s, the German automaker’s iconic sports car — and was inspired by the factory-delivery model. Martin’s “Buy from Factory” program enables customers to order a guitar and then visit the factory in Nazareth to collect it, or to select an instrument from the stock on hand.
A more pressing challenge for Martin is literally fundamental. Environmental regulations have restricted manufacturers from importing endangered woods, making it difficult for Martin to continue business as usual in an age of climate change and sustainability.
But Chris Martin isn’t backing away from that one either.
“We can take the circuitous route to explain why it matters to us — or I can just say that it’s purely selfish,” he quipped. “If we don’t pursue sustainability, I can tell my daughter to sell this thing as fast as you can.”
Martin has embraced Forest Stewardship Council standards for some of its all-solid-wood guitars, and for other models it’s blended solid-wood tops made from abundant Sitka spruce with high-pressure laminated body materials and fretboards made of paper-like materials. A few Martins effectively use no solid woods whatsoever. Again, these guitars sound as good as a Martin should, though for the purists the company has to come up with ways to build all-wood versions of its stalwarts and the reproductions of classics that the vintage-guitar market has created a demand for.
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Interestingly, Martin’s most sustainable guitars are also popular with performing musicians, who appreciate their value, durability, and lack of susceptibility to the temperature and humidity changes that affect all-wood instruments.
Defying the gloom and doom around the guitar business
Observers of the guitar market have argued that the instrument’s popularity is in terminal decline, an argument bolstered by a 2017 Washington Post article that lamented the six-string’s twilight. But Chris Martin doesn’t buy it.
“If you look at very commercial music, sometimes it’s hard to find a guitar,” he said. “But if you go below that, there’s lots of guitars.”
He said that for one of Martin’s key customer groups — acoustic-only musicians who play house concerts and small venues — there remains abundant grassroots activity.
“The electric-guitar companies are more reliant on a superhero,” he said.
So the Martin proposition is no less appealing now than it was 100 years ago. The business renews itself, thanks to the founder’s great-great-great-grandson remaining true to the company’s principles.
“There’s always been a fantastic pool of people who’ve wanted to work here,” said the CEO, whose name is on the headstock of every instrument the company makes.
“The brand has never been as strong as it is today. How many people, when you ask them what they do for a living, they can say, ‘I make the best of its kind’?”