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The 2002-03 CIRCLE Entrepreneurship series organized by Lafayette students continues with a talk by Chris Martin, chairman and CEO of Martin Guitar Company in Nazareth, Pa., on “Family Businesses: Planning for Succession” 7:30 p.m. today in Oechsle Hall.

Free and open to the public, CIRCLE events are supported by the Hunsicker Fund, which promotes the study of entrepreneurship at Lafayette.

“The featured speaker is the sixth-generation continuant of the family business,” says Kelly Maiers of Telford, Pa., one of four senior economics and business majors organizing this year’s series. “We are excited to hear about how such a small family business can grow to become the number one guitar maker in the world while still maintaining its small size.”

The other organizers of CIRCLE, now in its third year, are Kathy Ferretti of Easton, Pa.; Shivani Malhotra of Bangalore, India; and Kate Dickie of Swampscott, Mass. They are advised by Rosie Bukics, Thomas Roy and Lura Forrest Jones Professor of Economics and Business, and Sheila Handy, assistant professor of economics and business.

Previous CIRCLE talks this school year were given by local business consultant Dale F. Falcinelli Oct. 22 and Reading Bakery Systems owner E. Terry Groff ’68 Nov. 19. A scheduled Feb. 17 talk by venture capitalist Dave Leyrer ’89 was canceled because of snow. One additional lecture is planned.

Although his awareness of the family business was minimal while growing up in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, Martin served an apprenticeship at Westwood Music in Los Angeles, building a classical guitar and familiarizing himself with the retail end of the business while taking classes at UCLA. Returning to the East, he worked in the family’s guitar factory and completed his bachelor’s degree at Boston University’s School of Management in 1978.

Martin moved to Nazareth and served roles in the company as assistant to the president, then as vice president of marketing. When C. F. Martin III passed away in 1986 at the age of 93, Chris Martin was 30 years old — still learning about Martin Guitar Company and inexperienced in running a business. However, after a short transition, the somewhat hesitant members of the board named him chairman.

Martin took over a company that had been in decline for the previous decade. An expensive factory expansion was followed by a severe economic recession and a strike by Martin employees. The effect of the economic downturn was compounded by a change in popular taste from folk music to electric guitars, disco, and digital keyboards. In an effort to keep up with the times, the company had diversified aggressively, acquiring a drum company, a banjo manufacturing firm, a guitar string company, and a guitar factory in Sweden. Of all its acquisitions, only the string company was to survive.

Shortly before Chris Martin became chairman, Martin Guitar Company cut its work force. In 1982, production had dropped to just 3,153 instruments, the lowest since World War II. Following C. F. Martin III’s death, serious consideration was given to either selling or liquidating the company.

Martin refocused the company on its primary strengths: steel-stringed acoustic guitars and strings. Last year was Martin Guitar Company’s most successful in its 170-year history. Eric Clapton and Paul Simon are among the artists involved in designing new limited edition guitars, and Martin once again makes more acoustic guitars than any other company in the U.S.

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