WILKES-BARRE —There were no audible gasps when Jay Bush, spokesman and family leader of the Bush Brothers & Co. (the company that makes the baked beans), told a crowd that the company hired another Golden Retriever to play Duke in TV commercials.
Likewise, no one seemed to mind when Bush confessed he never planned to appear on national television promoting the family’s canned baked beans recipe.
At a Wilkes University-hosted Family Business Forum, Bush shared the stage Wednesday with Christian Frederick Martin IV, chairman and CEO of C.F. Martin Guitar & Co., as the two told area business leaders how they ride the highs and lows while developing two of the country’s most-recognized family businesses.
“I was working in the plant trying to figure out how to keep sand out of the can. They asked me to come and do a screen test,” said Bush, who was a plant manager at the time. What followed were 18 years of commercials as Bush rose to be a widely recognized figure for the company, though his family has since relinquished bean-making oversight to a non-family board and administration.
On the other hand, Martin still plays a big role in the company his great-great-great-grandfather started in 1830s Markneukirchen, Germany. The original C.F. Martin packed his bags for the United States about 180 years ago, fed up with the elitist climate among German instrument makers who were unhappy C.F. was building guitars without a formal apprenticeship.
Of all the qualities needed to run a successful business, Martin, who has led the company based in the Lehigh Valley for 28 years, credited innovation and respect for employees as two that have kept his company afloat during the market’s ups and downs.
As a young man, Martin said he developed respect for the guitar builders who worked in his family’s factories.
“I grew fond of my colleagues who use the chisel,” Martin said. “I’m kind of dangerous with the chisel.”
He said he finds the best innovation in asking employees for better ways to make the company’s iconic guitars, because they’re the ones who use the tools every day.
“If nothing else stuck to me, it was that,” Martin said.
Martin & Co. has moved some production to Mexico and started using some machines to make guitars. During the switch, he said, some Pennsylvania employees whose jobs were on the line had the chance to retrain and stay on. Not all of them took it, but he said his workers’ well-being has always been a priority.
Bush said the non-family board still reports to a family-filled corporate senate, but the transition to a publicly traded company with all non-related operators was necessary for growth.
“We had to professionalize our organization to the next level of sophistication and prosperity,” Bush said.