by Cynthia Tintorri
April 30, 2014
C.F. "Chris" Martin IV knows what it takes to succeed in business. The sixth-generation Martin to run Martin Guitar took the company from selling around 3,000 guitars the year before he came aboard, to over 135,000 last year. He brought his knowledge, expertise and some really funny stories to Northampton Community College on April 29 as the Executive-in-Residence.
Martin began the day with breakfast with faculty and students, then gave an informal talk to students in the Business Practice Firm class. His advice to future executives? "Success is a marathon, not a sprint. Find a balance between your work life and your home life. Don't check your ambition at the door, but get the lay of the land" in your first job and then figure out how you can advance.
A more formal talk followed to a large audience of faculty, students and NCC community members. Martin gave a brief history of Martin Guitar, beginning with the story of how his great-great-great grandfather, C.F. Martin, went from being a cabinetmaker in Markneukirchen, Germany, to starting his own guitar-making company in New York City in 1833. That first Martin CEO saw sales skyrocket when he noticed that people wanted to play Spanish classical guitars, but the Spanish product didn't hold up well in America's colder climate. He captured the market, and the company took off, eventually allowing C.F. to buy acres of land in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, where Martin Guitar is located to this day.
Martin shed light on how events in history - both musical and political - affected production and sales in his company. The Great Depression, for example, spawned sad country music "that made people feel better because someone was feeling worse" and was a boon for sales of acoustic steel-string guitars.
The folk music era of the 1950s and early '60s further boosted sales, as did the collision of folk and rock that arose from the anti-Viet Nam war movement. "Artists like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Bob Dylan and even the Beatles were playing Martin Guitars. My dad said, 'I don't get it, but I don't care!'" Martin laughed.
Martin himself entered the company in 1978, when demand for the company's product "was falling off a cliff" for two reasons: advances in keyboard and synthesizer technology, and disco music. "Let's face it - disco music didn't do anyone any good," he said, eliciting laughter from the crowd. "We had a hard time selling even 3,000 guitars," Martin said. "So I called everyone together and said, 'Let's make the best 3,000 guitars we can, even if business isn't good.'" Today, Martin guitars are prized worldwide for their exceptional tone, design, craftsmanship and attention to detail.
Business eventually picked up, and Martin became a believer in luck, when MTV launched the series "Unplugged." The show featured popular artists playing their music without electronic instruments or enhancement. "These musicians played electric guitars - they didn't even own acoustics. So we would drive Martin guitars to New York City every Thursday, when the show taped."
Martin knows the value of making smart business decisions, cultivating loyal employees, and playing to one's strengths. But, he advised, "If luck passes your way, pay attention!"
Begun in 1985, NCC's Executive-in-Residence program is funded by Jack and Cecile Shaffer in memory of their son Hal Shaffer. The program allows students to spend time with the area's most successful business leaders.
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