I've interviewed Chris Martin several times - and over rather more years than either of us likes to recall. He's always good company and has insights into the business of making fine acoustic guitars that you'd expect of the man bearing the legacy of the world's most famous name in this field. It's always good when Chris brings his wife, Diane, along too as she is also great company, but this time they excelled themselves by introducing Claire, their young daughter - and already the recipient of an exquisite handmade Martin (picture included, courtesy of C.F. Martin). This article was written for Music Trade News, the new UK MI industry trade magazine and appeared in the May 2006 issue. It's an unashamedly 'family' story, because much of Martin's marketing relies on the company's tremendous heritage and it was the marketing of Martin that was the brief at that time. A second interview (with more about developments in the guitars themselves) is scheduled to appear in the superb new UK magazine Acoustic Guitar in a couple of months time. I'll post that on here, a while after publication.
 

INTERVIEW: CHRIS MARTIN -- CF MARTIN GUITARS

When you're the seventh generation of C.F. Martins, preparing for the day when you take the reins of the world's most prestigious acoustic guitar manufacturer, it probably pays to get in a little early experience handling the press. At around 18 months old, however, it's likely that Claire Frances Martin was a little more interested in the cake and fruit juice when she gave her first interview to the UK media, over tea at a Park Lane hotel a few weeks ago. Fortunately, her dad, the ever-affable Chris Martin was on hand to field the questions and Claire's mother, Diane, was able to prevent the future boss from giving away too many plans.

And if all that sounds a little too cute to be true, bear in mind the hard-headed business reality that Martin isn't just a family business in the MI industry - it is probably the family business in the MI industry. The name and that family feel matters. Martin is about American history and heritage almost as much as it is about fine guitars, and the significance of Claire Martin's arrival as already been marked by the birth of her own guitar.

Managing a brand with a the legacy values of CF Martin isn't like running most other businesses and it's something that Chris Martin has more time to control these days, since he stepped down as President of the business, a couple of years ago, passing the day to day running to Keith Lombardi, taking the role of Chairman for himself, so as to concentrate on the blue sky and creative work which is going to be vital to the company's future. He has also had some serious health issues to contend with, due to problems with his eyesight, not to mention spending time with his wife and new daughter.

But however illustrious a brand, it still faces some of the same pressures as the rest. For example, China. While it's hard to imagine a luxury brand like Martin or Bollinger challenged by a Chinese rival, who would dare say "never"? Is it something Chris Martin looses sleep worrying about?

'What I've seen is the fastest transformation from junk to real guitars from an Asian manufacturer, yet. We don't play in the low end where they are now, but they are in the middle market. But I can't predict the future. Even being on Denmark St earlier, I got the sense, even in terms of North American guitars, that we had kind of been differentiated from everybody else. It's as if to say, "If you want to spend £2,000 on a guitar, you buy a Martin. If you want to spend £1,000, here's a whole bunch of others to look at. I think that's where we're really blessed and that's why we opened the museum. We always gave tours but we always did a terrible job telling people about the history of the company. I do resent a little bit that we have all these people out there claiming they've reinvented the guitar and what they really have is a Dreadnought. I'm sorry - it's a copy and no matter what you do to it, all you're doing is copying the original. Go make your own shape!'

The museum is a big deal for Martin, to the extent that Chris Martin actually takes parties of visitors around it, himself. It isn't being snobbish to suggest that in a country whose heritage stretches back only a few hundred years, history matters a lot more than it does to blasť Brits. Properly capitalising on this is a marketing necessity for CF Martin.

The acoustic guitar business has been surfing a wave of success in the past decade or two - a far cry from the dark days of the 1970s and '80s. Does he fear a possible return to the dark days?

'This has been quite a run, yes. Again, I can't predict the future, I'm in the game. I'll play it as long as I can as best I can and if we have to tighten our belts again, we'll do that. We've had a couple of blips, but none that has really taken the wind out of our sails, like in the '70s - that was something!'

Freed from the day to day concerns of running a factory has given Chris Martin time to pursue some interesting angles that might easily have been overlooked. For example, when discussing why so many potential Martin buyers still believe all Martins cost $3,000 (you can actually buy on for $600 in the USA), he points to an interesting statistic - if one that should engender some humility among guitar journalists.

'On our warranty one of the questions we ask is, what music related music magazines do you read? Last time I checked, over 40 per cent that answered that question don't read any of them! So they're living from what they remember, not from what is really happening. You know, I wrote a letter to all the magazines we advertise in and told them. Some of them wrote back and said "My God, I had no idea". A couple of them wrote back and said "That's something we both have to work at". And some of them never wrote back at all...."

That said, there is also good news for UK hacks.

'I have so much more respect for reviews in British magazines. You take no prisoners. In America, because of the relationship between editorial and advertising it's very different, they are more politically correct about it'.

From a UK perspective, the biggest change in Martin's affairs in recent years was the uncomfortable (not to say acrimonious) switch from distribution by Philip York's Dreadnought Guitars, to Glasgow-based Westside Distribution. Westside might have seemed an unlikely choice to some - but it has proved to have been a shrewd move. Phil Hay and his team appear, at least to an outsider, to have got it exactly right. Presumably Martin is happy with the choice he made?

'It's been even better than I'd thought. Because of my long-standing relationship with Philip York, it was difficult, but Westside were willing to focus on us as their premier acoustic line and I think they also realise that competition for the franchise doesn't go away. Just because they're doing a good job doesn't mean people aren't knocking on our door. We go to shows and people from all over the world are there trying to get the business. We've had occasions where people have come onto the booth and say: "we'll buy, right now, as much as they bought all this past year" to get the line. And people like Westside know their competitors are nipping at their heels.'

Presumably, some of those doing a bit of heel-nipping must have proposed pan-EU distribution. Does that have any appeal?

'Not to me. We've talked about it, but I'm fortunate to work with people who are willing to take contrary views to my own and they've raised this. But I've said: "You know, I've spent enough time in Europe that I know that if you speak French, the chances of you getting paid by a French music store are better than if you speak German."

Chris Martin is a couple of years into his more ambassadorial role for Martin Guitars. What had spurred the decision and is it proving as rewarding as he had hoped?

'The business was growing and I was ... well, you remember the jugglers on TV shows, with the spinning plates? I felt like that guy. I would talk to the Board and say, "I'm breathless. I'm not sure what's going on here, but I'm feeling like the world is collapsing in on me."

'I'd come across a gentleman who was a head-hunter and who came in to propose doing a head-hunt for president of a local bank. He didn't get the job but he had a very holistic view and I said to the board that I wanted to explore the idea of hiring a president, so I contacted this guy and he suggested I talked to his wife, who is an industrial psychologist. So I sat down with his wife and she ran me through a bank of tests and she said, '"Despite the fact that this is a sixth generation business, you're very entrepreneurial and because the business has grown beyond what your family ever imagined, your entrepreneurial nature is being shoved aside. And guess what? You're not good at it". I said "Thank you! I knew something was wrong but I just didn't know what it was"'.

Did he find it hard to let go? 'Keith's father was a Martin nut - he'd visited the factory several times and he said he wanted to do this because he knew what it was all about. But I found it hard, trusting that he understands how precious it is. He came from businesses like a big medical company and a venture fund and it took us a year or so of me saying "Keith, the money's important, because that's how we grow, but it's as much about the people and making sure we don't lay people off unless we have to, as it is about the money". He said "I never came from a place like this. I've never experienced this. In my old job you just made money and if you needed to do something you just did it." It took him a while to learn to trust the people he had in the company to do what needed to be done and I've never gone into him and said why aren't you making more money?'

Asked for her view on how it was going, the next CFM said she'd get back to us. Probably in about 20 years time.

Ends.

© 2006 Gary Cooper