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Lehigh Valley Suite Spot: Q&A with C.F. Martin & Co. CEO Thomas Ripsam

By Nicole Radzievich Mertz on January 6, 2023

Thomas Ripsam, C.F. Martin & Co.’s first CEO not descended from the 190-year-old company’s founder, talks about his career path, industry trends and music. (Photo/Glenn Koehler)

Editor’s Note: Lehigh Valley Suite Spot is  a monthly interview series featuring Lehigh Valley executives from a wide range of industries and company sizes.

Thomas Ripsam is the first CEO at C.F. Martin & Co. not descended from the 190-year-old company’s founder.

But his affection for the iconic guitar made in the Lehigh Valley runs deep.

Growing up in Germany, he would listen to his father’s records on which Elvis Presley strummed a Martin guitar, inspiring Ripsam’s love of music. He learned to play the guitar, even playing in a band, as a teen.

Ripsam went on to earn his MBA at Columbia University and become a business strategist, addressing challenges at companies ranging from startups to Fortune 500 companies. He was most recently a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Even as he ascended in business, Ripsam continued to develop an appreciation for music and guitars. He bought his first Martin, an MC-68, 23 years ago and has since amassed a modest fretted instrument collection. He worked with a luthier three years ago to learn about building a guitar in the style of Martin and played a Martin on his original album (“The Soul Shrine” by the band Seeds of Imagination) two years ago. He’s working on a second album.

“I bring to Martin an absolute passion for what this is all about,” said Ripsam, who succeeded Christian Frederick Martin IV as CEO in 2021. “I play guitars. I collect them. I write music. I record music. It’s a very, very deep passion for me.”

Now, Ripsam plans to apply his business acumen to his passion at Martin, among the world’s leading acoustic instrument makers.

Martin guitars are prized for their sound, the result of a 300-step process requiring skilled artisans working with carefully selected wood and other materials. They’ve been the instrument of choice for musicians ranging from Johnny Cash to Billy Strings. The company makes a variety of models from $399 (Little Martin) to more than $100,000 (D-200 Deluxe) and many price points in between. Among its world-famous innovations are Dreadnoughts, prized for their broad bodies and scalloped bracing that produce loud volume and exceptional tone.

The company makes the guitars (as well as ukuleles) in Nazareth, Pa., and Navojoa, Mexico. The company’s flagship factory in the Lehigh Valley, the long-time home of the storied brand, includes a museum where thousands visit annually for a peek into the history of the beloved instrument and the artists who made music from them.  Visitors can also take a factory tour and buy Martin-branded products from the store.

Martin recently opened a 200,000-square-foot distribution facility in the Lehigh Valley to keep up with the demand accelerated by the pandemic. Martin employs approximately 1,100 people, half of whom are in the Lehigh Valley.

Leading a company with such a rich history, Ripsam said he aims to build upon the craftsmanship that makes Martin guitars so special while innovating for a new generation and taking on issues like sustainability.

Ripsam recently sat down with the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation to talk about his career path that led him to Martin, industry trends and his music.

What sort of work did you do as a management and strategy consultant?

I worked with companies in high tech, telecom, consumer goods and specialty retail.

My work involved big issues or questions these companies had to figure out. Topics such as ‘we need to find new ways to grow, be more profitable, get closer to the consumer, do more with less’.  And I always loved the challenge. The companies knew they had a problem to solve that was impacting their near- and long-term future. And in many cases, they had tried internally to solve it. But it was very hard. And that’s when they brought somebody like our company in to partner with the executive team and the broader organization to solve these problems.

What skills made you successful at this?

I am curious, love complex problem solving and working with people at all levels to do it.  And I was always very interested in taking an idea from concept to realization. I think you can apply this thinking to a business problem that needs to be solved. You can also apply it to a piece of music that you create.  When you think about some of the companies that I’ve been involved with, a big part of getting from idea to realization was the ability to work through the complexity of large and global organizations.

I have the ability to keep the vision in mind, but then also break it down into pieces. How do those pieces connect to the vision? And if we do something, are we actually getting closer to the vision or not? Some people are better on the vision or the strategy. Some people are much better on the execution. I think I bring a little bit both.

What is your leadership style?

A very collaborative leadership style. I don’t like to micromanage people. I like to enable people to be the best they can be and to accomplish great things together.  And I absolutely believe that every individual has something special and unique to bring that I like to draw out.

What about the Martin Guitar manufacturing process makes it so special?

It takes something like 300 steps. You really need skilled and experienced people that that are involved in every step of the process because it’s not just simply processing materials and then it spits out the perfect guitar.

We focus a lot on quality and consistency and that is embedded into every step of the process. But we strive to go beyond just having incredible quality: craftsmanship, the artistry, the sound. There’s personality. People put so much care throughout the whole process into creating something that actually has personality.

I think a lot of people, whether it’s a famous artist or somebody like me, have a real emotional connection to their Martin guitars.

What did the pandemic do to the demand for guitars?

People couldn’t travel. People couldn’t necessarily go out. With fewer choices, how do you spend your time? This pandemic has also led many people to think about the quality of time spent — whether it’s playing music or picking up art or spending more time connected with a family. Music is also such an inherent part of who we are, and I think it led many people to basically say I want to pick up a guitar or spend more time with my guitar and make music.

So there was an unprecedented boom for guitars.  I think it was a surprise probably to most people in the industry. There have been a few booms over the 190-year history, in Martin’s case, and probably not as big as the one that we experienced with this pandemic.

How big was the boom and how did the company adapt?

(Photo/Glenn Koehler)

In the last couple of decades, the growth rate for the guitar industry was probably low- to mid- single digits. During the pandemic, it was more like high double digits. We’re talking about 20% to 30% growth for some categories.

In our case, given the extensive process we’re going through to make the instruments, and the time it takes to train people, it’s not so easy for us to just ramp up production.  We focused a lot on hiring and training. But we also asked ourselves other questions like how long is this boom going to last?

I think everybody knew it’s not going to last forever. You don’t just want to hire, hire, hire and then in the end, have way too many people.

But we also started to ask a broader set of questions, given the fact that the music industry is going through massive change. If you take out the pandemic, the music industry is still changing big time at all levels from manufacturing to the channels to the consumers. What does that mean for us? How do we embrace our past, but also embrace the future?

Is Martin still amid the pandemic boom?

I think  with all the challenges at a macro-environment level it’s fair to say the boom is over  now.  What we experienced over the last few years because of the pandemic, we don’t think that’s going to repeat itself going forward.

There’s still a big question of the influx of a lot of new players, people who picked up instruments the first time. Will the market just go back to normal pre COVID growth or whether there’s actually more opportunity there?

How could there be more opportunity in the industry?

I think that relates to us maybe more so than companies that focus on the lower end of guitars, price-point wise.

Historically, guitar players would start with the lower priced model and then migrate over time to a premium Martin guitar. It’s not that way anymore. You just have a lot of people at all ages that have the desire and money available, and they want premium stuff.

I think that phenomenon is not just for musical instruments. You also see it for jewelry, you see it in many premium categories. The spending demographics, they have become much more diverse, which is opportunity.

What sort of skills and occupations are critical to Martin’s operations?

We are always interested in people who bring R&D skills and manufacturing and operations experiences. But we’re also looking for people who bring digital skills and analytics.

In the context of the pandemic, we had to hire a lot of people for the factory.

What role does creativity play in business and leadership?

(Photo/Glenn Koehler)

We live in a world that is changing at an accelerated pace and that change is presenting many opportunities and challenges.  In that context, I believe creativity plays a very important role for business and leadership, to remain successful now and in the future.  There are many examples that come to mind.  Leaders have to be able to reimagine the role their business can play, how to generate value, the future of work for their business, how to keep co-workers energized and engaged, how to use technology to do business, how to be more sustainable, how to work with external and internal stakeholders and the like.  To tackle many of these issues requires creativity.  Being creative though doesn’t mean you should constantly change who you are or your values or take short cuts on things like quality.

What does sustainability mean at Martin Guitar?

Sustainability for us is focused on three areas:

One is our people — thinking about diversity, equity, inclusion, and about health and safety. So being responsible toward our people, and our communities is really important for us.

We’re part of Lehigh Valley. So having a positive impact in the community is a part of being a sustainable company.  This includes working through the Martin Foundation to do good.

The third area is the environment — responsible sourcing and utilization of our resources. The three R’s are important for us: reduce, reuse, recycle.

Our partnership with Shawn Mendes is a great example. It involved a Triple O Junior Guitar, which is a comfortable guitar for all kinds of players. Shawn Mendes and his organization wanted to make it sustainable. So we used 100% Forest Stewardship Council-certified tonewoods. And then the gig bag [soft, padded guitar case] was made from  recycled plastic, including some ocean plastic. Basically, the whole guitar fits our definition of sustainable and also met external standards.

And it’s something that is totally part of how we work. We work with artists, we make guitars, and we want to do it sustainably. There is definitely a lot more to come.

What kind of music did you like growing up?

It started with Elvis Presley — rock and roll, but then branched out to blues, folk, classic rock. I also listened to a lot of progressive music – Yes, Pink Floyd and Genesis in that genre.  Now I listen to all kinds of music and always find new stuff.

Who is your favorite guitarist?

Steve Howe [from the rock band Yes] is still probably my favorite guitar player and he inspired me as a musician throughout my life.

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