A discussion with Martin CEO Thomas Ripsam

Just as our week at the 2023 IBMA World of Bluegrass convention was coming to a close at the end of last month, we had what may have been the most unique opportunity provided by this annual get-together, roughly an hour with Thomas Ripsam, President and CEO of the Martin Guitar company, who visited us in the press room of the convention center.

He was in attendance for the IBMA Bluegrass Live! weekend festival, in order to enjoy the music being presented across the street at Raleigh’s Red Hat Amphitheater, and at several other stages, and to participate in various Martin sponsored activities to connect with the wide and diverse community of Martin owners where they celebrate the music they love. These included a Martin booth at the convention center, sponsoring a guitar competition and awarding the winner a new D-28, and donating another D-28 guitar for IBMA’s Trust Fund for an auction to benefit members of the bluegrass community in need.

“We plan to be more accessible at festivals,” he said. “Martin has always supported bluegrass, but will be doing more. We are relaunching the Martin Owners Club as Martin Backstage, with lots of exciting offerings. There will be a free tier, and a paid tier with more exclusive content.”

Ripsam joined the company in June of 2021, succeeding longtime CEO CF Martin IV, known as Chris, who then took on the role of Executive Chairman of the Board. Chris represented the sixth generation of the Martin family to lead the company, the great-great-great grandson of the founder. C.F. Martin was founded in 1833 and is celebrating its 190th anniversary this year.  Martin family watchers wonder whether Thomas’ successor might someday be Claire Frances Martin, Chris’ daughter, yet another CF Martin.

Thomas shared that while he has a varied set of interests in music, bluegrass was definitely one of his top faves. He said that he is a long time Doc Watson fan, and while his main focus is playing acoustic and electric guitars, you will also find a banjo and a mandolin in his collection which he enjoys playing occasionally.

“The quality of musicians in bluegrass really stands out,” he told us. “They’re incredible – people don’t realize just how good. Plus everyone is so humble and welcoming.”

He had been enjoying a tour of the exhibit hall, and was looking forward to seeing a special set that evening with The Kruger Brothers and friends, offering a tribute to the music of Doc Watson.

We initially wondered what advice Chris Martin may have had for the new CEO when he came aboard more than two years ago.

“Don’t screw it up!,” he said with a laugh. “No, seriously, he told me to just keep it going. Chris cares deeply about people, about the instruments, and about their history. And we do want to keep that going.”

With a background in business consulting for companies in the consumer goods, retail, and tech industries, Ripsam may not have initially seemed liked the ideal candidate to helm perhaps the most recognized name in guitars worldwide. But he reached out to the search committee when he learned that Chris planned to step down, and after a number of detailed interviews and meetings, was hired as the pandemic was winding down.

Originally from the south of Germany, Thomas grew up in Ulm, where he lived until college. After falling in love with Elvis, he became inspired by the guitar, and taught himself to play as a teen. He came to the US after college, married, and lives in New Jersey about an hour from Nazareth. From there he started collecting guitars, both acoustic and electric. He has also had a life long interest for creating music, and has published two albums under his pseudonym, Seeds of Imagination.

“I love the history and the stories behind artists and their guitars. It’s like seeing the seeds of their imagination.

Creativity is a big part of who I am. At Martin, a lot of our people are true artisans. Some are artists/painters outside of work, or may work in fashion.”

We also discussed Martin’s move over the past few decades from offering lower priced guitars under a different brand, to bringing them all under the CF Martin banner, even the very least costly beginner models.

“Even though we cover many price points, I think the common thread across them all is quality and tone and playability. I also think that we will see more and more that the consumer is becoming better educated, and has certain pre-determined perspectives. But people will begin to understand that there are a wide variety of materials that can make good guitars. Issues like reforestation and deforestation means that resourcing materials will continue to evolve.”

He tells us that Martin is currently shipping about 140,000 new guitars each year, a good number of these being made in the second Martin facility located in Navojoa in the northern Mexican state of Sonora. The Martin shop in Nazareth completes around 200 guitars each day, or slightly more than 50,000 per year.

Soon they’ll be celebrating the 35th year of operation for the Sonora plant, and Ripsam was adamant that all instruments built there are shipped to Nazareth for inspection before going out to dealers or customers. These are their only two manufacturing operations.

“Sustainability is a big priority for us. Last year we did a company-wide examination of everything we do – employees, community, environment – to shape our direction forward to become an even more responsible company.

The company has grown close to 50% over the past two years, but that boom seems to be over. We didn’t want to get into a big growth in manufacturing, and then have to fire people afterwards if things slowed down.

We continue to examine how consumers want to engage with us, now that the distribution channels are changing – the independent stores who offer a range of services, as well as the chains who specialize in volume and low prices.

We were the last ones to offer online purchases of our guitars, but we know there are some people who want to deal that way.”

So what can we expect from Martin in the near future?

“Well, we always have new products in development, some connected with artists, which we’ve done well with. We try to think about the audience we should connect with, which is very diverse, covering a lot of different genres. There will be new Eric Clapton and John Mayer guitars, and we have a solid pipeline of projects covering many genres including bluegrass. It’s real hard work, but we are excited about it.

I feel that colors are under-leveraged in acoustic guitars. For instance, the Mayer model is a fantastic color.”

And finally, how does it feel to be heading up such an iconic brand?

“Truly, it doesn’t feel like work. I’m working with amazing people as part of an amazing company that impacts people’s lives everyday by helping them to unleash their artist within. It’s all been very special for me and my family

The first thing I do every morning when I get into the office is play the guitar, to remember what it is that we are doing.

I think of the CEO 10, 1933 Ambertone limited edition guitar, which I designed myself… Seeing that out there with my signature, it’s hard to describe how that feels. It’s so humbling to be able to make a contribution.

I’m very grateful to Chris and the family that they have given me me the opportunity.”

You can learn more about all the guitars, accessories, and services offered by the Martin Guitar company online.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.