Below is the full interview between Mike Lessiter, editor of Farm Equipment, and Steve Martin, president of Martin Industries. Martin discusses his company’s experience with product innovation, prioritizing customer service and living up to the legacy and standards of his father, Howard Martin.
Mike Lessiter: I've heard the Martin name. I was three years old when dad started No-Till Farmer.
Steve Martin: Okay.
Mike Lessiter: So I've kinda grown up in this, but the Martin name has been on that—
Steve Martin: Yeah.
Mike Lessiter: That coffee table newsletter for the—
Steve Martin: It sure has.
Mike Lessiter: As long as I can remember it.
Steve Martin: We used to keep every one of those. We kept them, kept them all, and, I'm sure, they're... We still do, you know. That's not filed away like we did back then, but we make a point to scan through. Each dealer reads his newsletter, you know. He still does that and spends a lot of time on, on some of the forms, you know, and kinda listening and, and we make a point not to get on there like some of our other competitors do and break the rule and start doing marketing, but we watch, we listen, and we learn, and, it's very educational.
Back years and years ago when... I was telling Darren earlier that I grew up watching Dad read that newsletter, you know, and when we first started building them, I was in my early twenties, I guess, so I made a comment, “We should advertise in there,” and he said, “They won't. They don't take ads in this newsletter thing,” so that made a definite impact, you know, on what your dad was trying to do.
Mike Lessiter: Yeah.
Steve Martin: You know, spread the, spread the gospel, so to speak.
Mike Lessiter: That's, that's interesting. Out of college I went to work for my dad for a short period of time— before I... He, he was going to kick me out of the, out of the nest. There was a Colter report that I was working on in like ‘91— you guys were such a big part of that that I thought you had this long history, and as I was researching it, that was about the time things really got off the ground commercially for you.
Steve Martin: It was one of those God things, you know, because had we come out with that 10 years earlier, you know, the market wasn't there, you know, and it came... It hit about the same time the government were, was talking about taking away subsidies if you weren't, you know, no tilling certain soil types and it was just, a good fit. Just everything just kind of fell in place, and the floods in ‘93, as unfortunate as they were, we had a vendor in central Illinois, and the business just exploded between us and our competitors. I mean, we were all struggling to get product out, and we got hooked up with this vendor in central Illinois there, around Havana, and due to the floods delaying planting, you know, we got to send out bunch more product than we would of if it hadn't a been for the flood. So, that was one of those situations where, had the weather been normal, we would’ve probably had a very much diminished sales that year compared to what it was, so.
I watched dad, you know, build the first one, and then the subsequent patents and then the Deere execs coming down and buying it, and we'd never planned, or he never planned to be a manufacturer. We planned to collect the royalty and keep farmin' and raisin' tobacco and such as we did, but they decided to put it on the shelf, so then a couple of years went by and they didn't build it, so he calls them up and asks for them to, uh, license somebody to build it, and that. When he saw the version they were building, he realized that there was probably a good chance that one that light duty might affect the market if somebody didn't build one that actually worked, and he was the one that knew what would work and what wouldn't.
He said, “You want to ... What do you think about building some of these?” And that's kind of how we got started, so, I tell the joke, and it's really true, that had we have known what we were getting into, we would have known that we had no business trying, you know? But once you get your feet in it, you know, and you got money tied up here and there and all these problems start arising, because we had no experiencing in manufacturing, you know. We were too dumb to know we weren't supposed to be able to do it, is the way I put it. We made it work.
Mike Lessiter: This will be fun. I've been looking forward to this and capturing your story.
Steve Martin: Okay, sounds good. I'll try to do my best.
Mike Lessiter: How do you define what it is that Martin Industries does?
Steve Martin: I'll try not to drag that out too long, but basically we try to make no-till farming work for our own purposes and our own operations, and then see a need for some of our innovations and across the country and even into other countries, so we focus on designing planter attachments, specifically for no-till use, that will improve farmers yields and stands and whatnot.
Mike Lessiter: Very specific niche. You're gonna go deep in the no-till attachments.
Steve Martin: Very specific niche, yep.
Mike Lessiter: At the same time, tell us about the farming operation — you’ve got a brother and dad in the business.
Steve Martin: Right. Yep. We grew up, my dad farmed a couple thousand acres. We raised tobacco, corn, wheat, and soybeans, and in the late eighties, when he developed the first one, we were trying to get back in to no-tilling, so, my brother and dad and I kind of worked together on this, and then later on my sister, who was a teacher, she came over to run the office after things kinda took off some, so it's been a family involvement from the get-go, and my mom even, when we’re filling orders during the rush time after the UPS truck comes by and picks up, we would still be filling orders and taking calls, so she had a deal worked out with the local hub where she would just show up in her truck and just back in, and anything we had packed after they picked up, they would just unload it. She didn't have to handle the packages, so it's been a true family organization from day one.
Mike Lessiter: It was about ‘90 or ‘91?
Steve Martin: Yes. I would have been 21. I kind of got bit by this row cleaner bug early on, and it's really… I do farm a little, but my brother, he's the big farmer, and, you know, I kinda do this, but I still farm a little just to stay engaged, but I got bit pretty hard by the row cleaner bug, I call it, so.
Mike Lessiter: What were you planning on doing at age 15 or so, before the company took off?
Steve Martin: I thought I would be a mechanic, as I, I seemed to do a lot of that, and made some spending money doing that, you know, throughout high school. I also really liked computers, and did some minor coding, you know, back in the... When Tandy had their own brand and stuff, so all these electronics and mechanical things have always kind of been an almost God-given talent maybe, if I could be so brave to say that, but it comes easy to me compared to some people, you know. So, hands on type stuff.
Mike Lessiter: Okay. Talk about a touch chapter— here was when the farming operation had some dark days. In the early eighties, correct?
Steve Martin: Correct. Yeah, that was a pretty tough time. I was a senior in high school. We had to let go of some ground, you know, and, and some equipment, and kind of restructure and that was about the time dad really just kind of buckled down and honed in on this row cleaner, and I remember he didn't have a pickup truck. What farmer, you know, doesn't have a pickup truck, but that's the kind of man he is, you know? He puts everybody else in front, so I learned a lot.
Mike Lessiter: So, Howard developed this and sold it to —
Steve Martin: To Deere.
Mike Lessiter: Yeah. Can you walk me through that?
Steve Martin: Sure, yeah. Eugene Keeton, whom everybody knows this is a neighbor of ours, and he had sold Deere finger pickup mechanism and some other things, I guess, so he was always comin' by and chatting and visiting, and dad showed him, you know, what he was working on, and he, in turn, you know, we get a patent, and Eugene connects us, and those guys come down and end up buying it, so to speak, and then promising a royalty, of course, for each one they sold. Of course, this is in that bad economic farming time, and they… The word we got back was they decided they didn't want another $300 a row attachment on the shelf, so they just kind of put his idea on the shelf. Well then along about ‘90, ‘91, he calls them up and says, “Hey, I need some income out of my patent. Could you license another company to make it?” And they did. Then when he saw that, he was like, “Oh my gosh. We need to show them one that is heavy built and that I know will work.” So, I was working as a mechanic at the John Deere dealer, Roeder Implement over in Hopkinsville at this time. So his farming had cut way back, so—
Mike Lessiter: You needed to be working in town?
Steve Martin: I needed to, yeah, be working in town, and then I helped, you know, on the farm, and we raised tobacco at the same time, so I was really ready to make something work to get out of— I hated the tobacco, you know? I was just ... I hated raisin' tobacco, you know? It provided... It was a good cash crop. I felt like there was a better way to, to make a living, and this turned out, you know, to be... It's like I was born for it. You know? And I never considered college, because I didn't see myself in a position where I thought I could use. It turns out, you know, that's been a hang up at times. But there's no faster way, I mean, to learn as is on the job, you know, as you need it, and I had the — I felt obligated, not only for my success, but for my family, so I I took it very serious, you know, about getting orders out and the quality, so. Yeah, it's been a, been a long road, but I learned a lot.
Mike Lessiter: Yeah, yeah. That's sort of a fulfilling rewarding experience from being there from the day one and—
Steve Martin: Yes, yes.
Mike Lessiter: Plow through a, a rough, rough start to—
Steve Martin: We had a very rough start, and I think some of the.. We didn't, couldn't get an operating loan for this business, so I think the cash that we used and some of it was from, my brother and I doing some custom spraying. Some of that was there. And then when we got to Louisville, Billy Joe Miles got us in at the National Farm Machinery Show on the second day. I think it was in ‘91. It might have been ‘92. But all I remember is the only one that we had built our way was sitting on that card table with that little wooden frame holdin' it up, and dad and I come up and we set it up and, you know, we're just overwhelmed with people, you know, and I see him over there and people passing checks and stuff, and I'm getting more and more nervous because I know when I get home, I gotta make that happen.
You know? So, I remember on the drive home he told me how much he had... Guys had paid him, you know, and I was just blown away that, that they would trust a stranger, you know, with a check for something that... From an unheard of company, so we dug in and my brother and I, it was not uncommon for us to work... We were used to it in farming, particularly harvest and planting, you know, working around the clock, and we did the same thing in this, and put in a lot of hours.
Mike Lessiter: So, what was the drive home after? What did you guys talk about on the drive home after he'd collected all those checks.
Steve Martin: I gotta get to work. You gotta get these parts made, and very excited, because it looked like, you know, God was providing and just a real, a real strong sense of appreciation.
Mike Lessiter: Mm-hmm. What was your manufacturing capability like? Walk us through what the, the shop looked like.
Steve Martin: That's a good one there. We had a bandsaw, one wire welder, which we had just bought and I had tried to get a job at one of the factories and had went through their welding class while I was still working at the dealership. It was a new factory, building truck frames and paying good, and all this, so I had just went through all of their classes about the same time this happened, so I had that going for me. I knew how a wire welder was supposed to run.
I don't know if you've ever seen any of the antique old drill presses that run on the big, wide, flat leather belts? We had one of those. I mean, it was way back there, and we'd rigged up a motor on it, and our neighbor, who had a little machine shop, and he was our cousin, he had it mounted on an old hay baler wheel, like the flywheel? That was the base, and had this table and then that old drill head, and that's what we used to drill the holes for the mounting plates, you know. And then I built some little fixtures to hold that, and then all this starts to kinda rolling in my mind, and, and then I start thinking, “Well, golly, how does, how does GM build that fender, you know, or that wheel, and things just, you know. I really became interested in manufacturing.
So, that's how we started, and we bought a handheld plasma cutter, like a 100-amp plasma. Once we exhausted the supply of wheels that Deere had, and we had the wheel blanks cut and used that hand plasma to bevel the ends, and that got us through the second year, and then third year, I borrowed money to get a plasma table and a CNC milling machine to make the wheels and kind of just took off from there. But I, I sold that old drill press to one of my neighbors, and I'm gonna try to go back and get it some time. Because that's where it all started.
Mike Lessiter: Your dad, Howard, wasn't really a manufacturing guy. He was just a farmer with an inventive mind.
Steve Martin: Yes. A very, very creative, inventive mind. I mean, I can just, seeing back, how I took for granted, you know, how his mind worked, and he was always trying stuff, different, unconventional, you know. We used to have conversations about that term, thinking outside the box, and he would make the comment, “Well, if you were never taught what the box is, you don't know that you're not thinking outside of it.” So, we’re similar, you know. Neither one had any formal training, you know, in this, but out of problems and necessity to solve, you know, is what drives innovation — at least for us it was.
Mike Lessiter: Yeah. So he was lucky that he had a son who was gifted in this, design and manufacturing right?
Steve Martin: You know, you said that, I didn't. And, no, I feel like I had a very great teacher and someone to learn from, and I just… It's like I said before, it's what I was born to do. You know. I can't imagine myself doing anything else. Other than farming.
Mike Lessiter: That's a theme with these stories, that if we don't have the right people in place, that these businesses don't go. And, you know. He sent me an email.
Steve Martin: Oh, did he?
Mike Lessiter: Bragging on ya.
Steve Martin: Oh.
Mike Lessiter: And I'll have to tell you a couple things that he said there, but—
Steve Martin: Okay.
Mike Lessiter: Yeah. I mean it. So, you were, he got this thing going and he said, “Are you ready to do this with me?”
Steve Martin: That's kinda what it was. I mean, that's his way of telling me we're gonna do it.
Mike Lessiter: Do you remember that conversation?
Steve Martin: I do. I do. I remember it.
Mike Lessiter: Tell us about it.
Steve Martin: Yeah, well, we were stripping tobacco — we were still raising tobacco — so that's what we would do after that job or after we quit that, that was back full time, so we were in there strippin' tobacco, and he's telling me about what he saw and what he thinks we need to do, and you know, wanted to know if I was interested, and I'm like, “Yeah, I'm interested.” So, I don't remember the exact words, but I remember it feeling like, you know, that he wanted my help. And I was definitely down for that.
And my brother, too, you know? It just... People have different talents, you know, and this seemed to be the road I was supposed to take, and, you know, for... I wasted some years not driving innovation in the company, but, that's all in the past and we've got several new products out recently and we're, we have some more planned to release in ‘18, and some maybe in ‘19, depending on how backed up the engineering guys are, you know.
Mike Lessiter: So, if we were describing what Martin is like today, you know, the size of the company, what people would see if they, they drove up… Tell us about what they'd see at, at your place today.
Steve Martin: Okay. Well, right now we're running around 30 employees on two shifts. We try to do as much manufacturing in house as possible. This style of manufacturing I call batch-type manufacturing, I read in a magazine one time, it's like trying to organize mass chaos, so, you know, our best effort can lead to one component that we don't have, and we can't ship an order for that, so in the early days when I depended on outside shops, this was very frustrating.
So today we have, just this year, upgraded all of our manufacturing equipment and replaced three robot welders with just one. So, we've got some of the most up to date, world class manufacturing machines, you know, that are out there, and that includes a new five-axis milling machine. It was a pallet changer, so like our new little Razor Wheels, we can change styles of that by just uploading a program, and not have to do a lot of hard fix strings, so we're really enjoying that. We can change around, back and forth, and then we just put in a pair of 400 millimeter horizontal machining centers and then a pair of verticals that are comparable in size and our turning centers, we've got three turning centers. The one that makes the axles has a bar feeder and a parts conveyor on it and a measuring probe, so we load up the bar feeder and go home, and it'll sit there and run and spit parts out.
And then the fabrication bay where the plasma table is, we just upgraded it to the latest high definition plasma, so our cut quality is a lot better. It'll burn 8x24 foot long sheets, and with two heads, so it's setting over there running by itself. What I hope people would say when they come in and walk through, and we do a lot of tours and we welcome that, is it's clean, it's well organized, and the employees... I'm very picky about, about my guys, you know, and we go through a 90-day probationary period on, in the first 90 — attendance, attitude, you know.
Then, you know, if they don't make the cut, it's their attitude about their, their work. There's a scripture, and I should have remembered it, that we're planning to use in our quality manual, and it basically says, “Do all your work like you are doing it for God rather than for man.” And I look for that in the guys, and not all of them have it, but the ones that, that come up, like my production manager. He's been with me 20 years. He came in, he had dropped out of school. He just wanted a job, and so I put him on the worst job we had, and that would usually ... A couple weeks and guys were gone, you know. It was a revolving door, and next thing I knew he had been back there about a year, and he was wanting to learn about programming the machines and stuff, so just a really good attitude, and this was a good example of what I look for in guys. And now, I mean, he does the whole thing.
Mike Lessiter: Yeah. What's your square footage there?
Steve Martin: We're 48,000.
Mike Lessiter: Where'd you discover your love of manufacturing?
Steve Martin: That's a good question, and we had… There was a shop in the county that had CNC machines that made or axles and hubs for us in the second year, and Fred Roberts was his name, and he should have been a vocational schoolteacher, because he loved to teach, and he took me under his wing. I mean, we spent night after night. He'd come over and we'd just sit and talk, and he taught me how to cut metal, and what this does and what that steel does, and all, and I owe him. And I tell him every time I see him. I say, “Fred, I wouldn't, we wouldn't be here without you,” but he saw something and, and wanted to... I owe him a lot. Yeah. He was kind of a mentor, you know, to me.
I remember sitting at nights with these books that... where you'd buy cutting tools and different things like that, and this was when we were just getting started, and I'm flipping page by page, and I'm trying to figure out what I would do if I had that tool, you know. What does that tool do? And just learning how, how the world manufactures, you know. I owe a lot of that to him, and he's been a very positive influence on me.
Mike Lessiter: For someone who doesn't know Howard, how would you describe your dad? Tell us a bit of a look into his world.
Steve Martin: He’s very humble. He's not a drama type, you know. He's a man of few words, and when he says something, you can pretty well take it for the gospel, you know. And he expects the men, you know, that work for him to have a certain attitude about their work and care about what they do.
Some of the farmhands I've heard say that when I was a kid they were his helpers, you know, and I was talking to one them just awhile back, and he said, “You know, your dad was the best man I ever worked for,” and he'd been a farmhand his whole life, and he said, “he would always do more of the work than me.” Like if it was a physical job, dad wasn't one to stand to the side and point. He's not a pointer. He's a doer. He's a hands on and I have just a tremendous amount of respect for him.
Mike Lessiter: Mm-hmm. So early on he must have been in there doing a lot of the interchange with the, the dealers.
Steve Martin: Yes.
Mike Lessiter: Not just in the back shop all day.
Steve Martin: Right, right, yeah. I was in the shop, and occasionally, you know, on the phone, but he was... He caught most of the calls. One of, you know, one of the things he drove into me, and you know kids when they get a little bit of success maybe, or in my case, we get to thinking we know more than our parents do, you know?
Funny how that works. When the older I get, the smarter I seem, but for a while, you know how kids are, but anyway, so he would be writing these orders up and sending them out, and they'd have NC on the bottom of it. I'm like, “No charge,” you know, and we would go fuss at him, and say, “Dad, why are you giving these parts away?” And he said, he would say it over and over again until it finally stuck in me, he said, “I do not want anybody to buy my parts and for whatever reason they can't make it work and they go to the coffee shop and they complain.” He said, “So, we're gonna warranty them, even in some cases if they're out of warranty, and if they can't make it work for whatever reason, and that includes in some cases me driving all night to get to western Iowa to help a guy who our product's not workin' out for. We'll exhaust our resources and then we'll just write him a check.” And that was hard for me, when we were struggling financially, to understand. But that built our name, you know.
And one year, I have to take part of the blame for this, we had... We weren't familiar with Case IH row units. I'd never been around one, but we had a neighbor that wanted a set of row cleaners for his Case IH planter, and he was a very well respected man, and he tells me where the tool shed is, and dad and I go over there, and I've got my ruler and measure, and we produce a bracket and he buys them, puts them on. We never go to the field. He reports back they work great. So we put it in the catalog. We sold four or five hundred rows of them, and when they got scattered around through the corn belt, the phone starts ringing. We didn't... They were not... In a no-till situation they worked fine, but that large diameter wheel when they would add in the till, the minimum till ground, they couldn't get it up high enough, and they were mad, and I was... This whole treating customers right thing was just really starting to settle in.
So dad let me design one that actually works for that planter, and let's get them, let's swap out with them. Let's have them send them back and we'll send them a new one. And I'm not saying I'm the one that made that decision, but it was a conversation going back and forth, and I wanted to make a row planter for that planter that fit that planter and we did subsequently, and that year we just barely broke even in. And over time we've found uses for those that came back, but that just sealed our name, you know, that we would take back that much product and, and send them a totally new one.
Mike Lessiter: Word got out fast on that, I take it.
Steve Martin: Yeah, it did. We've always known we would never be the top guy, and we're okay with that, but we want to be the best, you know, and I think in a lot of situations — not all — that we have that name, you know, with our products. And that's something that's always been real important to me. I make the joke that if I can't do it right, I'm not gonna try, you know. It gets frustrating with people around me because I have trouble finally signing off and saying, “Okay, that's close enough or that's good enough.” And I've taken that approach to this.
And things that we learned about how much you can intersect and when that's good and when that's not, you know, and with first glance it's a simple attachment, but there's a lot of ways you can screw that thing up, you know… And it's through the trial and error ordeal, so.
Mike Lessiter: Describe what the first five years were like and how long it took to get into the black ink, you know. Tell us what the early years were like.
Steve Martin: They were pretty tough, and we didn't see any return for at least the first three. We took what…The first year we sold 1000 units, and we took that money, and the next year we built 4000, and you know, we just kept flipping, and I remember when dad was the... I think my monthly salary back then was like $850 a month or something. Just, barely, you know, that was... Not that he was underpaying me. I don't mean that. I'm just saying, that was the way we lived.
Mike Lessiter: Yeah.
Steve Martin: We were very —
Mike Lessiter: By your bootstrap.
Steve Martin: Bootstrapped, yeah. When we finally got ahead enough and he formed his partnership and I got a check, I was like, “Wow.” So, you know, that felt really good… And it didn't happen overnight, but I think deep down, and I've said this before, I don't think I was ever doing it for the money, you know. It was the thought of us designing and making something that somebody else would appreciate and like, and hopefully we wouldn't go broke doing it, although there was another bad period where we got in a lawsuit, and that was a pretty frightening time, but it took about three years for it to change our living, you know, the way we lived.
Mike Lessiter: Yeah. What would... When we were going back, when we were talking about the early days, so you had, I mean, you kind of had a mix of... You had to convince a number of people. You had farmers, you had dealers. You had other manufacturers that you were counting on to get you off the ground, huh? How did you go to market in that early chapter?
Steve Martin: You know, that's all dad. That's all I can say. And, and God, 'cause we did not market. We did not know, you know... We knew no-till farmer was the kind of people we wanted to read, but you couldn't get an ad in a newsletter, you know, so. Well, that was out, so, you know, it... I say it time and time again, you know, God just lined everything up just right. You know. It's just nothin' short of a miracle. And the publicity he got for being a farmer/inventor/manufacturer carried us. You know, it was, he was always in a magazine about this or that, and then selective, a little bit of advertising in select areas, and word of mouth. It takes a while, but word of mouth eventually works. And, two, you gotta consider this, there was no capital, so the worst thing we could do is spend a hundred grand advertising something that we couldn't then supply. So it, it grew based... Our marketing grew as our numbers increased and, and profit was available, you know, to spend that. And early on there was no literally no marketing. It was just free publicity.
Mike Lessiter: Being available.
Steve Martin: Being available, yeah.
Mike Lessiter: You had a product people were willing to talk about.
Steve Martin: Right. And making sure that it worked, you know. Dad... It's finally sunk it, but, you know, as my twenties to mid-thirties I thought of all these great ideas and I would build one or draw it up and present it to him and he's like, “Well, does it work?” I'd say, “I don't know, but it looks good and it fits on that planter,” you know. And he said, “No.” He said, "You need to get it out and put it in the dirt," and 9 out of 10 of those ended up in the scrap pile. You know, so making sure we didn't put something out that wasn't gonna work and that's very hard — to do as a younger, you know, very driven, wantin' to succeed.
Mike Lessiter: What was your, your, you know, you look back and we're talking, boy, how many years is it now, 20? '91, that's —
Steve Martin: '91. 28.
Mike Lessiter: Okay. What was your best day?
Steve Martin: You know, I think that ride home from the show, you know, that's up there at the top. That just was really impressed upon me. And then, in later years, you know, approval from my dad on a design or an improvement. You know, that was something that I would wake up in the night and just have stuff hit me, and in one case I actually got up and dressed and went and made one, you know. And then to be able to present something that was proved and functioned and that we actually sold, that's hard to beat that feeling.
Mike Lessiter: Yeah.
Steve Martin: You know?
Mike Lessiter: Yeah. And conversely in, I know something about the suit and how you guys won it, but didn't see anything out of it.
Steve Martin: Right.
Mike Lessiter: Was that one of the worst days, or was there something —
Steve Martin: Yes. That drive home from Rockford, the three of us, it was mom and myself and dad, and we probably didn't say six words. It was…
Mike Lessiter: And that's it. Very costly, set you back. You had to come, you know, bootstrap again, I take it —
Steve Martin: Mm-hmm.
Mike Lessiter: Right? Was there ever any thought of not doing what you did? You know, put your head down, just get it again?
Steve Martin: No. I don't think there was a... If you're thinking... If you're asking did we consider just shutting the doors? No. We weren't. And that was never in any of our minds. You know? Just, it's like, the whole industry I feel, we feel connected to, you know? And though we had this one guy, you know, nearly break us through this frivolous lawsuit… We had enough loyal customers that believed in us, you know, to, to know we just had to bootstrap up and get it done, so.
When it was later reversed, that would have been one of the top days. You could call a number and listen to a recording, 'cause this was in Washington on the seventh panel. It was on the docket and you got to call later and hear a recording with the results, and that was a pretty good day. Lesson learned, lived and won't be forgotten, and I'm just glad we survived it.
Mike Lessiter: Mm-hmm.
Steve Martin: That was a pretty good day. Kinze came along, I think ‘93 maybe, ‘94? I'm not sure exactly, but that was another really good day and I watched my dad negotiate with Harry Deckler, and they looked at our facility. I mean, John Kinsenball and Harry Deckler, I have to give them a tremendous amount of credit for our success, because they let us build their row cleaner, because we had a license, you know, to build it. Their work carried us through the summers, you know. We had a... It was a Godsend, you know. So we were able to tool up, keep the same guys year 'round and just keep on rollin'.
But, yeah that drive home from Rockford, that was pretty rough. It took a while, but it, it was finally reversed, and it's still done a lot of damage.
You know, but it taught me so much about patent law, you know. It was invaluable. I think one of the few conversations we had on the drive home was, “Well, son, you just got a crash course in patent litigation, you know, and what a patent is good for and what it's not,” and so I would have sure liked to have paid for that lesson, that education in another way.
Mike Lessiter: Right, right.
Steve Martin: You know, but it did have a plus side to it. Personally, I think it made me more driven to, maybe out-engineer or out-think those guys on some, in some other areas — if there is such a thing.
Mike Lessiter: Day to day, tell us what Howard's role is with the company and what yours is with the company.
Steve Martin: Dad is pretty well retired at this point. I still talk to him daily through text, email. I bounce most all significant decisions, you know, off of him, but, he's the LLC manager. I'm the president of Martin Industries and one of the LLC members, along with my other family members, but he's at home, kinda retired type, and I run new product ideas by him… We've built literally dozens of things that we thought were marketable and, you know, we would present them to dad. We'd do a demo or something, and he's like, “Yeah, but, you know, let's not get out so many models that things, becomes unclear on which parts our dealers need to stock,” and we're already kinda strugglin' in that area, so he's played a big role in the financial and business management side of things, and he's taught me a lot.
I had the drive and to do the legwork on the manufacturing side, but his... One of his other genius areas was in the marketing or our business model, which was non-traditional, I think. Magazines such as yourself and different ones picked him up and did articles, interviews, word of mouth, and we always made sure we took care of that customer, whatever that meant. And later on we would start buying some ads and stuff, and not really the way you see an ag company grow from a regional to an international as we are now with stayin' at home type thing, but in the last year I've, I've hired two outside guys, Michael Mussleman, I think you've met. He's a VP of Sales and Marketing based out of Goodfield. He's out knocking on doors. Tom Patterson, he stays out on the road. He's sometimes gone 20 or 30 days, you know, at a stretch. Do a show in this part of the country and then drive here and do that.
Until we had some new products, we didn't see the need in doin' a lot of that, but now that we've got a few new products, we felt like... I feel like the business model that he put together worked really well getting us to where we're at. And I feel like if I'm not being a good steward of what God has provided me, if I don't go out and push and I owe it to employees, my community, customers, and whatnot…
Mike Lessiter: Right. How do you fill your time? Are you on the floor, are you in the solid works or CAD or salespeople?
Steve Martin: Yep. It's all of the above. Unfortunately, I don't get to spend as much time on the floor as I used to. And I really enjoy programming machines and, of course, now we've got so many and there's so much we're doin' them offline with master cam, but we will, I still like getting out there and getting, cutting. I like to cut chips, you know. We've got my little prototype corner about the size of half of this room, and I like to get out there and tinker with stuff, but anymore —traditionally we would fabricate prototypes and then go to CAD and maybe do some 2D CAD to burn a shape, but fabricate everything else. Now we start in there. We've got most of the row units modeled and the… Osgar, or my engineer and myself, we spend a lot of time in solid works workin' out some of this.
And going back to the first plasma machine I bought, I ordered that thing and I understood that, drew something and it, you know, followed it, and I had a, what they called Auto Sketch, you know, auto CAD that everybody hears about, and it's very expensive. Auto Sketch was $100, you know, and I could run it was... I went through the tutorial, you know, and learned how to do the different lines and arcs and whatnot and that was a turning point, you know, seeing that and making that work. And from there, you know, now we're full D, 3D. And everything, and the sales guys talk... I spend a lot of time on emails. It seems like that's all I do is email and talk on the phone anymore, and some days I just get frustrated and I... When it's farming season I get to escape and go do that, and it's kinda ... When I start getting irritable they know in the office. They say, “Why don't you go do something?” Go sell. So, I can't take but so much of that type work.
Mike Lessiter: Yeah.
Steve Martin: But yeah, it's solid modeling, emailing. I catch the overflow sales calls and tough sales calls.
Mike Lessiter: Yep, 'cause as business has grown it's requiring more of you.
Steve Martin: Yes.
Mike Lessiter: Than even a few years ago.
Steve Martin: You're right. Exactly. Before I didn't have to do so much of that. The new products, it's amazing, you know. When I conceived like the Razor Wheel, I think, “Yeah, that's a... No, that's not an assembly,” and I'd just... We'd get the model just right and my engineer, he tweaked that, you know, from my concept, and we burn it, and you think that's the end of it, but golly, especially with ISO 9001, we're trying to get that certification, the document trail, you know, that follows that, even that simple part, is overwhelming to me at some time, so I find myself tied up more and more with marketing materials, even though we use a great firm out of St. Louis, Steve Engle — and I think you're familiar with them.
Mike Lessiter: Mm-hmm. Yep.
Steve Martin: They've really took us to another level with our ads and stuff. But supplying him with the information and the images is takin' quite a bit of my time, but it's some of the best time I've spent in the last 5, 6 years, is steppin' our game up in that department.
Mike Lessiter: Yeah. So, 1991, you come back full time. You're rolling up the sleeves and doing this. What did you think the business would be capable of? What was your dream at that point?
Steve Martin: You know, I never saw it where it sat. You know, we were... We started out just tryin' to save the market for it, because we wanted at least a few people to see one that worked. It wasn't until probably around '99 or 2000 that I ever considered spending any significant money, like on a building or something. And that's a good point to bring up. We were marveled at the beginning of this on how one of our competitors who, the founder's a very good background in manufacturing and in engineering could spend what we thought it took to have a mold or a die made to make something that we could fabricate and it might not have been as pretty, but we didn't have that money tied up in that mold. We didn't have any money to tie up in a mold or a die, so we... Hard tooling of having other shops build fixtures and dies, that was out of the way. I did all that.
Mike Lessiter: That's one of the things your dad mentioned in the email…
Steve Martin: Oh, did he? Yeah. So, keepin' our costs down, and we've built all of that, and it's not until we switched over to some castings in the last, I don't know, 10 or 15 years, that we've paid for any molds. I made a mold for one of our aluminum parts, and the plant next door, who I did work for, they ran it and they kinda told me what they wanted out of the mold and, you know, so.That was our first one, but I didn't pay for it. I made it myself. But, the volumes that we're at now, it, you just can't not, you know, do some of that.
Mike Lessiter: In 2000 was when you made the significant facility.
Steve Martin: Right, yeah.
Mike Lessiter: What was the day that you realized this is gonna be a significant business?
Steve Martin: Well, when I realized that we were still shipping a little bit of product even in the middle of the summer, and the phone was still ringing, you know.
Mike Lessiter: What year would that have been?
Steve Martin: That would have been in the mid to late nineties. We were working out of two 40x100 buildings. The first one was a pole barn. It started out a 40x60, and I ordered that cutting machine and I had to build 40 feet onto it for it, and then we literally fabricated another 40x100 after we got the plasma table set up and, no joke, we would forklift machines in and out and tarp them when they were out as we needed to run parts. That's how cramped for room we were.
Mike Lessiter: Wow.
Steve Martin: And to get material into the bandsaw, the truck couldn't back in. We would set it off on the ground, and this is some farmer ingenuity right here, and we'd take a forklift and chain it around one end, and then the other one on the other end, and we'd snake that into the building you know, to get it in there to lay it down. So we were pretty cramped and we needed room, and we had some capital, and I had gotten my machines paid off.
Dad said, “I don't want anymore buildings out here that are gonna be worthless basically,” you know. From the size structure we needed you just wouldn't do it out there, so a friend of mine who had a successful tool and die shop helped us make some parts early on, he was tellin' me about the Kentucky economic development office, and they had supplied him the money to build his building at a very low interest rate. Well, in this case we had the money by this time, so what they offered was a tax incentive on the first structure, the state tax breaks basically paid for it, and then we doubled it and they kicked in again, so our facility pretty well, the state of Kentucky paid for. Yeah, we definitely didn't want to tie up any capital in something that was not gonna have any resale potential. Such as another building out on the farm.
And I thought, too, at, at that time I was doin' a lot of work for other facilities in the area, you know, because I always in the back of mind, every time I'd buy a machine, I'd think, “Now, if a better mousetrap comes out and our business goes to nothing, am I good enough with this machine? Am I gonna be good enough to go out and compete and do world-class machine work?” And I had to tell myself that I was.
Or that I had that ability if I chose to. So, that drove every financial decision, you know. Especially after that drive back from Rockford. You know, we had to really think things through and have a plan B if somebody come out with something that made our product obsolete.
Mike Lessiter: Another theme that I'm, as I'm getting into this, and the multi-generational. People here, one of the interesting observations is that the two generations generally complement each other in a big way.
Steve Martin: Yes.
Mike Lessiter: And they're not... We don't have two parties that are identical to one another, right?
Steve Martin: Right.
Mike Lessiter: So, how are you and your approach different than Howard's?
Steve Martin: I guess, uh, we're, we're, we're similar in a lot of ways. We're very similar in a lot of ways. I think I have trouble letting go or saying something is acceptable. You know, like when we were building the Kinsey Row Cleaners and we had a little problem on the first batch, and I was out there, you know, pulling my hair out. Dad was like, “It's good enough. I'll call them,” you know. He was always, he was always there to look at the big picture, where I can get so... I'm such a perfectionist, you know. I can hone in and see this, and he was able to pull me back, you know, to reality on that, and say, “It's no big deal. I'm sure they'll accept that revision.” So, stuff like that.
And to see him under pressure and how well he handles it, you know, is always something I wish that I had, you know. We are very similar, and I think maybe the biggest difference is that he sees that things don't have to be exactly perfect sometimes, and I'm determined —
Mike Lessiter: To get them there.
Steve Martin: To get them there, yeah.
Mike Lessiter: Yeah. What words that I've heard about Howard and I want to ask and see if, you know, you agree with this. I've heard the word genius —
Steve Martin: Mmm.
Mike Lessiter: Brilliant.
Steve Martin: Mm-hmm
Mike Lessiter: Brilliance.
Steve Martin: Mm-hmm.
Mike Lessiter: The inventor and tinkerer and, doing things in the middle of the night.
Steve Martin: Right. Yep.
Mike Lessiter: And all that. Are those accurate words?
Steve Martin: Yes, they are. They're, very accurate, and it's just been something to really marvel at, you know, to see the way his mind works and I hope he passed on a little bit of that to me, but he sure left an awful big pair of shoes for me, you know, to try to fill up, so, I don't…
Mike Lessiter: I'm just going to ask a question, and these guys will laugh at this because I'm just going to ask the question, well — what's it like to have to work for and follow a guy who's essentially a genius?
Steve Martin: Right.
Mike Lessiter: My dad's listening to this. He goes, “You already know that.”
Steve Martin: You know it's... I think it leaves... As we want our dad's approval, you know, and it leaves such a high bar to reach, you know, that it can be very frustrating, you know, to think, “well, I'm never gonna measure up,” or I made this mistake and, you know, I've put a scar on his legacy or whatever, but, I finally have gotten okay with just being glad to have witnessed it and to have learned from it and hope that someday I'll be able to do something similar, you know, for the industry, but I think the only world-changing mind in the family is him, you know, and I just hope to be able to continue it and keep our name... We protect our name, you know. A slightest little problem and we don't want to hear a guy's unhappy. Now, you're gonna... My phone will probably start ringing, you know, after this, and then, in all honesty, we like to know that while you're planting, you know, and we'll make a decision then, you know — if we can't make it work, we'll buy it back, but in some cases it, to me, it's very personal that I can't make an attachment that satisfies him for that situation on that planter, and I think that connection is because of Dad's innovation and it's so much easier if I was one of my competitors. I could just say, “Okay. Sorry. Send it back,” you know, but I just have that drive. I want to make it work, and I think I'm successful sometimes at that. And other times you get a guy that he's not gonna be happy, you know, and so we just, you know, write the check and put them back and sell them for used or rework them or something. Then he can go say all he wants about how crappy the attachment was for his situation, but he can't say we didn't take care of him. We take a lot of pride in that.
So, standing in the footsteps of a genius, it's not something that's easily done, I don't think, you know. I was hoping, that I could shine some light on some of the people that have been part of our success, like Phil Needham, you know. He's helped shape some of our products and does a great job out promoting them. We've got David Moeller, Moeller Ag, same thing. We don't always hit the nail right on the head, and we send something out and they're like, “No, it needs to be like this,” and as a younger man I would say, “No, it doesn't,” but now we're like, “Yeah, okay. You're the expert.” We listen to those guys, the leaders, the innovators, the game changers, and one of my neighbors, Brandon Hunt, he made the comment when we were going to, preparin' for a meeting at one of the OEMs about possibly partnering with OEM, and he said, “You need to be sure and drive home the fact that you listen to us and you make changes as needed,” and the other guys are so big and arrogant maybe in his mind that, you know, they won't listen, they won't budge. They have the H+R AgriPower stores in West Kentucky and —
Mike Lessiter: Part of the HNR?
Steve Martin: Yes, HNR. Steve Hunt's son. Wayne Hunt's grandson, yeah. We worked with him on several projects and —
Mike Lessiter: You guys were all kind of ground zero at no-till.
Steve Martin: Right, yeah, yeah. Mr. Keeton and Harry Young over in the next county, his son John's a good customer of ours. He had the second Smart Clean system, beta second clean system, and there's a big plaque out there that says, you know, Harry Young, Father of No-Till, or whatever. We didn't invent no-till farming, you know. I was like, “Well, let's show this and say our neighbor did.”
Mike Lessiter: Right. One county over, right?
Steve Martin: One county over, yeah. So, one of the John Deere engineers that, you know, I used to love when they would come down to prototype stuff, you know. That was just... I couldn't sleep at night I was so excited, you know, to be involved with changing something and designing something for our corn planter, but we were sitting around talking one day, and he said, “You know, between your dad, Eugene Keeton, and Harry Young, more changes, more innovations to planters and no-till farming has come out of this little area than anywhere else in the world, you know.” And, you've got precision with all the innovations they've made, but you know, that really stuck with me, you know. And, I think that's when I really started, lookin' at Dad with awe, you know, and realizing what I had gotten myself into, you know.
Mike Lessiter: Right. Yep. Your Dad said a number of really cool things here. I'll have to, I'll have to kick this to you, but he's clearly very proud of the technical skills — self-taught, I mean, he made a big list here. He did talk about how the support through that suit, you know, the injustice — it did a big lesson for, you know, your whole family —
Steve Martin: Right.
Mike Lessiter: You said it very well, you'd prefer not to have gone through those times, but you — we get tested and that's how we grow, I think.
Steve Martin: Exactly. They say that iron sharpens iron, and that's exactly what that was, yeah.
Mike Lessiter: I was at a farm equipment manufacturer’s dinner, and it was really well put by a guy… the successor generation, you know, a guy about our age was talking about his, either it was his dad or his father-in-law, I can't remember exactly what it was, but he said, “You know, I couldn't have done what he did, but this next generation… I don't think he could have done what —
Steve Martin: You did, what he did.
Mike Lessiter: What he did, as the guy who came in next and took this small genius invention, but brought it out to the world and did something bigger and better.
Steve Martin: There you go. Yeah, that's very interesting, and I think that's probably somewhat true, you know, in our situation, and it's been a great ride and I'm very thankful. You just can't do what we did without the hand of God. Just no way, you know. And he was there through the bad times, you know, through that ride home, and it definitely, because I was raised by a very humble man, but it definitely kept me in check and still does today, you know.
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