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.