I made a left at a Pizza Hut, drove maybe a mile, turned right at another pizza shop and there it was, in the sleepy town of Nazareth, Pa., the building that houses C.F. Martin & Co., the manufacturer of the most esteemed acoustic guitars in the world.
Eric Clapton loves his Martin, and Willie Nelson has played his so much that he's worn a hole through it. Some musicians buy extra seats on their airline flights so that they don't have to risk their Martins getting damaged by baggage handlers.
The Japanese, no slouches when it comes to producing high-quality musical instruments, import them by the thousand, and makers all over the world, small and large alike, have produced copies of the most popular Martins by the millions. It's one of the most solid and secure brands in the world, although not among the most widely known.
I'm not sure how many businesses there are like this in the world. To be like C.F. Martin, a company would have to be the most imitated in its field and owned and led by the sixth generation of the founding family. It would have to consistently walk the fine line between tradition and innovation that allows a brand to hold onto its venerable past while leading a competitive industry into the future.
Moreover, it would have to be at the top of a business that has some of the most demanding customers in the world. Tell me the pressure isn't on these guys.
C.F. Martin does this with little in the way of proprietary secrets. Legions of guitar builders have examined Martins from every angle, studied the woods and the construction and finish and just about every detail to try to figure out what makes them so great. Anyone can take a tour of the factory and see for himself every operation that goes into building a Martin.
The secret is that there is no secret. They simply pay tireless attention to their product so that they can preserve their most valuable possession: their reputation.
In a business in which "hand-crafted" is synonymous with quality, Martin introduced CNC machining to its factory a few years ago not simply to produce instruments faster and reduce costs but to manufacture parts to closer tolerances and ensure consistency. While mechanization and assembly line techniques are employed, many of the operations are still performed by hand.
In one part of the building, modern machines whir and spin to turn out stacks of uniform wood components while skilled workers stationed at workbenches perform the most demanding of tasks, like the critical fitting of a neck to a body. Miss this one by a degree or two and it will noticeably affect the instrument's playability. If a guitar comes through the manufacturing process and can't meet the quality guys' standards, they don't sell it as a second. They cut it up into little pieces.
That doesn't happen often, but they are so protective of their name that they won't risk an inferior product getting into the hands of a customer.
There are some important lessons to be learned here. First, brand loyalty follows only brand excellence. You can't tell people how great you are without actually being great. You have to know when to change with the times, but you have to be sure that those changes don't undermine the fundamental value of what you do.
And you have to be willing to trash something that you know won't meet a customer's requirements before it has a chance to get out of the shop. Do that and you might have a chance to be around for 167 years, too. Ray Marano (email@example.com), who may not make it for 167 years in spite of his award-winning columns, is associate editor of SBN magazine when he's not away touring guitar factories.