“We didn’t even have a screw gun … but we didn’t have anything to lose.” ¶ That’s what Edward Martin, president and CEO of H.J. Martin and Son in Green Bay, recalls about his rather serendipitous decision to add drywalling to the company’s divisions in the 1980s.
At the time, Edward’s father, Patrick, was not pleased.
Flash forward to 2009, when Edward’s son, David, then in his early 20s, joined the 82-year-old firm. He thought adding a merchandising niche was prudent.
At the time, Edward was not pleased.
Does father always know best? In both cases, the sons’ prescience, coupled with a deep-seated knowledge of the industry and a passion for growing the fourth-generation business, won out.
Edward grew the drywalling business, which he credits with being “pivotal” to the company’s growth as a national player in the interior contracting world. And David’s foresight has ushered H.J. Martin and Son into the 21st century with a new merchandising division – one which complements the others seamlessly, and ultimately, strengthens relationships with the company’s national commercial partners.
“They’re always willing to be a partner, not just a contractor,” says Terri Faessler, new store visual merchandising supervisor for Cabela’s. “There is a difference.”
The “like father, like son” dynamic is nothing new at H.J. Martin, which Henry John Martin started in Depression-era 1931, modestly selling paint and tile out of his basement. Since then, the company has grown to 600 employees supporting its major commercial divisions, including flooring, glass/glazing, drywall, ceilings, doors/hardware and fixture installation. According to Edward, sales for fiscal year 2013 are on track to far exceed $100 million.
Out of the basement, into the big-time
Many people may pass H.J. Martin’s headquarters on Military Avenue (H.J. Martin was the first retailer on the then-gravel road in 1959) and think of it as a place to buy tile and carpeting. And, of course, it is. Industry journal Floor Covering Weekly repeatedly names the company on its list of top 50 flooring retailers in America.
But while flooring is where it started – in that basement on Maple Street – the company has moved far beyond bathroom and kitchen floors. Still, Edward never undervalues those residential clients.
“You’ve got to remember where you came from,” he says. “That’s where we started.”
While Edward admits no job is too small to tackle, these days, commercial builds are among the headline-topping work garnering H.J. Martin accolades. About 80 percent of its business is commercial clients – including high-profile names like Costco, Lambeau Field, Target, Burlington Coat Factory, Menards, J.C. Penney, Best Buy and Cabela’s. Recently all of H.J. Martin’s divisions worked on the new 100,000-square-foot Cabela’s store in Ashwaubenon.
“They’ve been our partner in setting up stores for quite some time, and they’re a big part of our remodels,” says Faessler, who has worked with Edward Martin on projects since 2005. “Their professionalism really shines.”
To be competitive on such major jobs, Edward credits being able to offer package pricing for their many divisions. And winning those jobs, he adds, is essential to the company’s growth and reputation. “You learn a lot about the industry by taking complicated jobs. The most difficult jobs can be the most successful.”
Bob Barker, executive vice president of the Associated General Contractors of Wisconsin (AGC), agrees.
“The idea behind their success is the projects they’ve been involved in and the history of the company,” he says. “They take on tough projects and do great work.”
In the past 11 years, H.J. Martin has won 19 AGC Build Wisconsin awards. This year, it was named best specialty contractor for exterior finishes from the Wisconsin Energy Institute in Madison and best specialty contractor for interior finishes for the Aurora Cancer Center in Grafton.
Lane Parker, project manager at SM Wilson, a general contractor in St. Louis, has worked with H.J. Martin on retail projects such as J.C. Penney and Macy’s since 2006.
“They’re a company that will work beside you,” Parker says. “One of the things I try to do from a project perspective is to get everyone involved in the team concept; we can’t do it without our subcontractors.
“There’s nothing worse than trades that don’t work together, and Martin provides that extra team member concept. They are very willing to work with others.”
H.J. Martin may be the leader in the Midwest in its lines of work, according to Edward, but its reach far exceeds Green Bay. The company has worked on projects in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, including projects at Disney World in Orlando, Fla.
“I think we’re always looking for a new challenge,” says Kevin LaPoint, vice president of H.J. Martin’s commercial glass and entrance division, who has been with the company 14 years. “We keep learning on every single project we do … and we just keep getting better and better at what we do.”
One of the glass division’s more recent visible successes is the 250,000-square-foot corporate headquarters of Schreiber Foods nearing completion in downtown Green Bay, which features 50,000 square feet of transparent glass on its exterior.
“What we do is very visual,” LaPoint says. “We’re one of the last contractors to come in and make everything pretty.”
H.J. Martin also worked on 70,000 square feet of glazing (in addition to flooring and interior drywall) at the recently-completed Navitus Health Solutions building, which prominently gleams off Hwy. 41 South in Grand Chute.
As Edward notes, “Success breeds success.” The Disney project was one such case of the company’s diversity fueling word-of-mouth recognition and, ultimately, more jobs.
According to Joel Johnson, H.J. Martin’s vice president in the drywall division, when one part of the company does well, it opens the door for other departments to follow suit.
“Even if one division gets a portion of (the job), we’ve got a piece of the pie. We know it’s all a team; the entire company depends on us to do a good job,” Johnson says.
In addition to doing a good job, however, Edward also says staying on top of opportunities is key to the company’s success. Case in point? In the mid-1980s, Edward was Christmas shopping at Best Buy when he heard that a competitor was planning to do the work on 20 new Best Buy stores.
After doing some research and pitch work, “We got all 20 stores,” he says, adding that H.J. Martin has just finished more than 1,000 stores for the electronics giant.
Making its Name in Challenging Times
As it happens, the company’s biggest expansions were in difficult times, dating back to his grandfather starting a business fresh on the heels of the Depression.
But that stick-to-itiveness certainly has served the company well, including when Edward joined the company in 1978. At the time, the company was making $1.9 million annually in sales.
“I knew we had to find new revenue sources,” Edward says, recalling the company’s entry into the drywall business as one such example.
In the 1980s, Edward was buying some equipment from a local drywall company that was going out of business. Al Gabriel, then with the defunct company and now an H.J. Martin employee, asked Edward if he’d like to go into the business together – a move that Edward’s father, Patrick, disapproved of, but one that Edward chose to gamble on. “You have to go forward,” he says.
“Drywall projects led to the takeoff of the fixture division,” Johnson says, and when Gabriel came on board, H.J. Martin expanded its work with Shopko. From that modest start, the drywall division has grown to sales of $15 million to $20 million annually, roughly the same as its glass division.
New revenue sources were also essential when the recession hit in 2008. “Everything stopped,” recalls Edward. Fourteen jobs scheduled for Menards were pulled instantly, understandably creating some panic in the ranks.
“It was very tough,” recalls Edward. “It was like a bright light was coming at you. … It was like a light on a freight train and you were in the tunnel.
“We had to reinvent ourselves,” he says. “We never wanted to risk another division’s success.” And, perhaps David Martin echoes their executive sentiment best: “We don’t feel right sitting up here if we don’t have work.”
That led the company to do more corporate remodels, for example. “Everybody was more competitive just to stay in business,” says Johnson, who notes, however, that the slowdown did have some positive impact on the company overall.
“It really tempered everybody,” he believes. “We were growing at such a rapid pace. We almost needed to slow down a bit to retool ourselves.”
One thing the company didn’t want to do, however, was lose its highly trained staff.
“We couldn’t cut the muscle out of the company,” Edward says. In fact, he credits those skilled craftsmen with getting H.J. Martin through that tough time. When some of the competition went away, H.J. Martin had the skilled workforce to take over.
According to David, the company has a “very low” turnover rate. He says they just had an employee retire after working for the company for 50 years.
“With that longevity of employees, we just keep getting better and better at what we do. We keep learning on every single project,” LaPoint says.
That’s a testament to the company’s culture of treating employees well and maintaining an open door policy. The clear glass doors on Edward and David’s shared office are a visible reminder of that.
“We very rarely say ‘no’ and we always find a way,” David says of the company’s employees. “I think that’s why people stay.”
New Generation, New Division
David Martin, 27, grew up in the family business (“I just sort of hung out every Saturday,” he says), and officially joined H.J. Martin in 2009.
The oldest of four siblings, David feels proud, but not entitled, to continue his family’s legacy.
“I never felt entitled to a position based on my last name,” he admits. “And I’m not motivated by personal wealth.”
Parker speaks especially highly of David Martin. “He’s a super nice guy; he understands the way the business works, just the way his dad has taught him.”
As he walks the warehouses and halls at H.J. Martin, David greets everyone (knowing “almost” everyone’s first name). And he speaks highly of his father, whom he calls his “best friend.” Their office walls are covered floor to ceiling with new and old pictures of family, U.S. presidents, Vince Lombardi, Green Bay Packers and other sports memorabilia, as well as signed pictures from business icon Warren Buffett and other titans of industry.
When David joined the company, the go-getter, along with project manager Tim LaSure, introduced the idea of a merchandising division to the company. H.J. Martin was already well accustomed to installing retail store fixtures, but David wanted them to go the extra step and offer assistance in stocking and merchandising the shelves prior to store openings (some retailers use their own staffs). “We take their provided materials; we provide the labor and the carpentry skills,” he says.
While Edward remained uncertain, David convinced him that adding the new division wouldn’t require any additional overhead, supplies or staff – so it appeared to be a win-win. Fortuitously, in H.J. Martin’s first merchandising job, employees were able to cut the time from 12 weeks to eight weeks, fully solidifying relationships with preferred retail partners.
“We’ve utilized them on numerous national rollouts,” says Hank Dawson, vice president of construction for J.C. Penney, who has worked with the Martins for the last 10 years. “We’re confident in the quality of their work and being able to beat scheduled completion dates.”
For H.J. Martin and Son, nothing is taken for granted. While the company generated more revenue in one month of 2013 than it did in all of 1996, Edward always looks to the future. He knows the past is what paves the way.
“You have to earn your way,” he says, speaking of the many preferred vendor partners, such as Target, they have worked with over the years.
But success is also about giving back. “We feel we have a responsibility to this area,” Edward says. To that end, the company is involved in the Green Bay Chamber of Commerce, YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs. It also has worked on worthy charitable projects at the House of Hope and Freedom House in Green Bay, the Mount Tabor Center in Menasha and the Packers Heritage Trail Plaza in downtown Green Bay.
Both Martins, as well as their employees, seem to echo David’s mantra, “We’re only as good as our last job.
“Our biggest competition is being stagnant,” David says. That means staying busy, but also getting ahead of the pack – something both Martins have had their eyes on for some time.
“You always want to be the leader,” Edward says. “If you’re satisfied, you can’t lead.”
About H.J. Martin and Son
Founded: 1931 by Henry John Martin
Employees: About 600
Sales: More than $100 million in 2013
Current owner: Third-generation owner Edward Martin. He was preceded by his father, Patrick Martin. Edward’s son, David, is the fourth generation in the business.
Commercial divisions: Commercial flooring, residential flooring (Neenah and Green Bay), glass/glazing, metal stud/drywall, doors/hardware and fixture installation.
Buffett: From business idol to friend
Most businessmen have a mentor they admire and idolize. For David Martin, for a long time, that idol has been business magnate and philanthropist Warren Buffett. The billionaire’s signed picture hangs above his desk.
A fan of his business ethics and reputation, Martin wrote a few letters to Buffett, whose company Berkshire Hathaway owns carpet maker Shaw Industries. Martin was given the opportunity to meet Buffett through a mutual friend, former Green Bay Packers player Paul Hornung, a close friend of the Martin family.
When they met at a lunch, Martin says he found Buffett down to earth. The two have remained in touch and Martin even saved one of Buffett’s voicemails, which he’s happy to play for interested visitors.
And, at Buffett’s suggestion, the company also underwent a Dale Carnegie course for its employees.
Edward Martin is thrilled with his son’s budding friendship. He notes Buffett was just as impressed with David.
“He wanted to change the name of the company to Martin and Father,” he jokes.
“I’ll be right back …”
Patrick Martin’s office preserved in time
Adjacent to Edward and David Martin’s office, on the second floor of the H.J. Martin and Son’s Military Avenue headquarters, lies one small quiet unattended office.
In 1995, then-owner Patrick Martin left the office with a wave and one short comment: “I’ll be right back.” Unfortunately, he died soon after he left the office.
Inside, the office is frozen in time. Out of respect for the second-generation owner, the office remains unchanged. A chair sits askew. Papers are scattered on the desk, along with an unopened Christmas present. A taxidermy pheasant stands alert on a table near a locked gun cabinet.
Patrick, who joined his father Henry John’s business in 1948, is far from forgotten here. A first lieutenant in the Army Air Corps in World War II, he flew 44 combat missions. The highly-decorated officer received 15 air medals, including the Presidential Unit Citation, a Purple Heart and two Distinguished Flying Cross medals.