When Thomas Ripsam strummed his first chords as a young teenager in Germany, he could have scarcely imagined that he would someday lead America’s oldest guitar company. And while you might argue that few of today’s business leaders would have pictured themselves in their roles at age 13, Ripsam’s path to C.F. Martin & Co.’s Nazareth, Pennsylvania, headquarters is even more unlikely than most—for two reasons.
First, although music never stopped being part of his life—the 54-year-old writes and plays a number of instruments and released an album of original material in 2020—his education (Columbia Business School MBA) and career (international consulting) never previously focused on the music business. Second, and perhaps more revealing, is that when Ripsam took the reins from Chris Martin IV in mid-2021, he became the company’s first-ever leader not directly descended from founder C.F. Martin, ending a family reign dating back to 1833.
When we connected via Zoom in February, Ripsam had yet to work a day at Martin in non-pandemic times. And as he would explain, the Covid crisis has not only required a balancing act between pandemic-specific short-term challenges and more general long-term goals, it has also amplified the importance of building musical instruments at a time when people are finding comfort, solace, and hope in making music for themselves.
The recent revival of guitar playing has brought new potential customers to the marketplace, and with them comes an opportunity for growth. But to grow, even iconic brands will have to compete in a changing arena with new rules about technology, artisanry, materials, and consumer expectations. How can a relative outsider help a nearly 200-year-old company thrive in this fast-changing arena while maintaining its traditions and identity? Ripsam shares his thoughts on this and more in our conversation.
As a music lover whose professional life has been outside the industry, what can you bring to an organization as established as Martin?
Before joining Martin, I spent my whole career—over 25 years—in strategy consulting. I worked with companies specializing in retail, high tech, and other industries on identifying and solving problems based on the needs of each individual company. Sometimes it was growth, sometimes it was profitability. Very often it was, “How can we better leverage technology in a changing world to better engage with our consumers and channels?”
I’ve worked with companies from family-owned to Fortune 500, iconic brands with long histories. So I’ve seen what can happen to businesses that have had a successful history, but lose it and then regain it. I’ve seen companies that took too long to change, and I’ve also seen companies that were all about transforming—and lost their way by doing that. These experiences are quite relevant to a company like Martin. Other than being an absolute guitar geek and very passionate about Martin as a company, what excites me about this role is that I do believe this industry is in the midst of massive change.
What are the main challenges for Martin and the guitar industry in general?
There’s a short-term challenge—and that’s the biggest one right now—dealing with the hopefully late stages of a pandemic. It has brought challenges around keeping our workforce engaged, hiring new people, etc., as well as dealing with the supply chain. Raw materials and transportation continue to be massive challenges.
And then there’s the huge demand for guitars, which I think was a surprise for everybody. It has been a big increase in a very short time. While these are short-term challenges, they’re very real and make for a volatile business. It feels like an Indiana Jones movie, where you go through a jungle, these challenges are thrown at you, and you just have to respond as quickly as you can.
Martin brings very specific images to guitarists and even many non-players who may be aware of the instruments. How do you avoid diluting that while changing with the times?
My philosophy has always centered on what makes a company special. And I think that’s more critical now than ever. It would be easy to say, “Let’s just go with the flow and expand into new categories, invest here, invest there…” Frankly, you lose your way along the way. My approach to Martin—and I think that’s very much aligned with Chris [Martin IV], the board, and the senior team—is we’re always going to embrace our history and legacy. Most important, we’re going to focus on what made us so special—and then think about opportunities that are consistent with that, where we can really take advantage of everything we’re good at.
I visited the factory a few years ago and saw instruments being built and restored using traditional materials and methods, while another section of the factory had the latest CNC machinery. Is it difficult to maintain that artisanal side in a world of increasing technology, and how do you develop the next generation of hand builders?
Martin has evolved over time, but it has always been a combination of tools and people. It’s critical that even though we use machines, people touch every step of the process—that is the secret sauce. I believe that the passion, the love that you put in, ultimately comes out through the instrument. It’s the craft, the eye for whether something looks good, the ear for if it sounds good. We work with organic materials and strongly believe that it makes a difference. And I don’t think it’s going to go away; we will never fully automate the process.
But at the same time, we continuously look to where we can use technology to better utilize scarce resources. And the more experienced our coworkers are—the more they are the artisans—the scarcer those [human] resources are, too. So it’s a mix. We think about the people first, and then technology, as opposed to the other way around. We don’t focus on efficiency for the for the sake of efficiency. For us, there is the ideal of what creates the best-sounding, best-looking guitars at different price points. And then how we can complement our coworkers’ skills with technology.
I understand you learned guitar building. Was that before you joined Martin?
I always wanted to better understand what goes into building a guitar. Three years ago I took a sabbatical, and as part of that worked with a luthier in Delaware to build a triple-0 in the style of Martin from scratch. I think that experience made me appreciate the craftsmanship, artisanship, problem-solving, and love and passion necessary to create something from organic materials that sounds, looks, and feels great, and has personality.
Is it difficult to sustainably acquire the materials you need? And are you developing products that use more readily available or sustainable materials?
It’s definitely a big part of our plan going forward. One of our strategic priorities is sustainability. And that’s a broad term, but the way we approach it is not just about materials; it’s companywide. We’re trying to understand our carbon footprint and incorporate sustainability in every aspect of what we do. It can get complicated when you think about the downstream and the upstream as well, but it’s really important. Every year, we have a number of projects in different areas to make progress.
When it comes to materials, we definitely think about the long term. Ebony is a good example. We and others have started to move away from this expectation that you have one grade that goes on all high-end guitars. But it takes time, and it definitely takes market education. It’s not something that we can just march forward with by ourselves; it’s a task for the industry as a whole.
On a lighter note, what is your personal history with the guitar?
I started on acoustic around age 13. There was obviously no YouTube or learning channels available, so I did it the old way—I listened to a lot of music and then tried to figure out how to play. I briefly played in a band before college where we did mainly originals, but I put that on the back burner when my business career took off.
I have been writing songs since my mid-teens and play the guitar almost every day as a source of joy, love, and meaning. I also love the entire process of writing, recording, mixing, mastering, and have lots of recorded but unpublished material at home. I released the album The Soul Shrine in 2020 under my pseudonym, Seeds of Imagination, which is available on the major streaming platforms.
Beyond my wife and family, nothing is more meaningful in my life. We have four kids, and they’ve all learned to play an instrument.
When did you begin collecting guitars, and what has been your focus?
I started to collect acoustic and electric guitars, as well as basses, in the mid-1990s. I also have other fretted instruments like banjo, mandolin, and autoharp. I do like to play the guitars I own, and I am looking for a personal connection with any instrument I buy. Of course my Martins have a very special place in my heart; I own several and they are all keepers. Many of my choices are influenced by the music and musicians I listen to. Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here album led me to my Martin D12-28. Listening to Rush, Genesis, Yes, and Deep Purple led me to buying a Rickenbacker bass.
Getting back to Martin, what do you see as the primary areas of growth for the company and for the industry?
There’s a lot of focus on acoustic-electric guitars—a continued area of growth. And there’s a lot of growth potential in better understanding individual consumer groups. For example, what does high-end mean? It can mean very different things for collectors versus professional performers versus studio musicians versus hobbyists. I think better understanding what you can do for individual groups opens up opportunities.
Thinking again about the Covid crisis, we were all surprised at how many new learners entered the field and the number of people who picked up the guitar for the first time. And I do think the big question is, what’s going to happen with all these players—how do you keep them going?
There’s also a lot of potential international growth for Martin, especially when you look at Asia and Latin America, traditionally less-tapped markets. We are a relatively small company, though maybe not within the music industry. We still have to think hard about where to put every dollar we invest. That’s part of what we are trying to figure out, going forward.
As a guitar player, as somebody who absolutely loves music, I believe that there is no better time than now because there’s so much available. When I pick up a guitar, I just feel so much meaning and love. And when I wake up in the morning, my first thought is I want to bring this feeling to others, in a way that it touches them personally. That’s my inspiration every day—and what better place to do it than with Martin.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.