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Martin chairman tells students to vet ideas for success and failure

At Muhlenberg College last week, Chris Martin IV (left) says he walks a fine line between encouraging entrepreneurship and trying not to dampen enthusiasm for ideas that previously failed. - (Photo / Wendy Solomon)

Chris Martin IV, chairman and CEO of his family-owned C.F. Martin Guitar & Co. based in Upper Nazareth Township, begins his class on entrepreneurship with a bold con-fession.

“I would not have the faintest idea how to start a business,” Martin tells the small group of Muhlenberg College students who have gathered on this late afternoon to talk about the very topic at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on the Allentown campus.

Martin, who may not know how to start a business, certainly knows how to run a company that has been around since 1833. Under Martin, his company, which makes high-end acoustic guitars used by world-famous musicians such as Bob Dylan and Neil Young, reached a reported $100 million in revenue in 2013.

Finishing the last of his two days as executive-in-residence at Muhlenberg, Martin, relaxed and voluble, drew from a deep well of institutional knowledge gained over 30 years leading his family’s storied company.

“I was very fortunate I ended up joining an enterprise that had a pretty robust back office,” he said.

It is support from all those essential operations, from accounting to human resources, which contributes to a well-run company.

Without them, Martin laughed, “We’d be in court because I’d forget to pay the bills.”


Martin said companies, particularly at tradition-bound Martin Guitar, need to be careful not to hang onto an obsolete product or an idea that doesn’t work. He said Martin Guitar lost the mandolin market to Gibson because it had the wrong sound for bluegrass bands and didn’t update the instrument.

Taylor Guitar, another leading acoustic guitar maker, took advantage of Martin Guitar’s Achilles’ heel, by copying the Martin sound but on a more comfortable instrument, he said.

“We are bound by our tradition,” he said.

“We represent the Amish wing of the instrument – folky, quaint and cute.”

Martin said he’s discovered that outdated ideas sometimes remain intact because employees erroneously assume Martin supports them.


Roland Kushner, associate professor of business at Muhlenberg, asked Martin what steps his company goes through when presented with new ideas.

Martin said while the company conducts some research and development, people from outside the company present ideas to them.

“It’s an industry that attracts wacky inventors,” Martin said.

Often, those inventors have made only one prototype for their instrument.

Martin met a man at the Philadelphia Folk Festival who invented what would become Martin’s famous Backpacker guitar.


Martin told the students it’s essential to consider ways an idea could fail before going through with it.

Because he has spent so many years in the business, Martin said he has seen products come and go.

He often has to walk a fine line between encouraging entrepreneurship and trying not to dampen enthusiasm for ideas that previously failed.

“Often when things fail, they fail slowly,” he added.


Martin spoke on a range of topics, from the advent of women working in the company’s factory to the pride his employees have in the Martin brand.

“We make the best guitar in the world,” he said. “We make the real deal here. It’s not a copy.”

Martin spoke about his frustration with successful companies in the Lehigh Valley, particularly where the principals operate outside the region, that don’t contribute to the community.

“If you are successful, I think you have an obligation to give back.”

Wendy Solomon

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