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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 10, 2001

On woodwork's cutting edge

By Andrew Gomes
Advertiser Staff Writer

Jon Martin has spent 40 years creating heirlooms out of koa — rocking chairs, beds, mirrors and tables — that have been passed down from his hands to generation after generation of families.

Martin & MacArthur co-founder Jon Martin, left, and partner Lloyd Jones enjoy a break sitting in their companys rocking chairs. Jones bought out company co-founder Doug MacArthur in 1986.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

Now Martin and his business partner feel it's time to pass along ownership of their company, Martin & MacArthur, to ensure its legacy.

The Kalihi-based firm is the largest handcrafter of koa furnishings in the Islands and has played an important part in keeping alive the traditions of making classical Hawaiian furniture.

The company is considered by some to be one of the pillars of the state's more than $40 million furniture-making industry and is one of only five local manufacturers of furniture and related products with 20 employees or more, according to a 1997 state report.

Irving Jenkins, author of a book on Hawaiian furniture and Hawai'i's cabinetmakers, calls Martin & MacArthur the single biggest and lasting influence on the industry in the 20th century.

Martin, a Hawai'i transplant who fell in love with the wood of the island's largest native tree, is by no means planning to slow down or give up designing and signing every piece turned out at the Martin & MacArthur factory. But the company, which employs 20 furniture builders and 55 other employees, is at a crossroads.

In a kind of an against-the-grain way, the company has matured during one of the most difficult periods in the state's history for entrepreneurs. While economic stagnation gripped many Hawai'i companies during the past decade following bursts of prosperity in the late '80s, Martin & MacArthur grew its annual sales — from $1 million in 1987 to about $7 million last year.

The furniture-maker achieved consistent annual profits during those years by diversifying into retail stores selling Hawaiian crafts and increasing wholesale business of picture-framing supplies and high-end hardwood lumber.

The future of the company now, its principals say, is filled with more opportunity and challenges as it seeks continued growth through expansion of retail stores on the Neighbor Islands and the Mainland and in Japan.

But Martin and Jones, like old-growth trees, are getting up there. So they have begun to seek a successor for the company.

The only problem is there is no heir apparent to take over ownership of the business. Jones, 62, says he and Martin, 63, studied their options for a successor, including family and a hui of employees. But they recently opted to find an outside buyer using a hired consultant.

"We don't want (it) to be the end of the business when we fall over on the golf course with a heart attack," Jones says. "We don't want to run away from the business, but we want to see that the business is perpetuated."

Jones and Martin say any interested buyer will have to be of like mind when it comes to quality standards, forestry preservation and business philosophy. "We're not looking for somebody to come plunk some money down," Martin says. "We want to carry the company on."

Both 50-50 partners would like to remain involved with the business. Martin also has a protege in shop foreman John Stack, who has trained under Martin for 18 years. To what degree they all stay involved will depend on the buyer Jones and Martin accept.

Starting small

Texas-born Martin grew up building stage sets and props for his parent's theater production company. He developed his woodworking skills at McKinley High School when the family moved to Hawai'i in the mid-1950s, and later worked with master boatbuilder T. Murakami.


Martin & MacArthur built its reputation on furniture like this simple rocking chair made from koa, a fancy hardwood grown in Hawai‘i.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

fter serving with the Army in Korea, Martin opened a small shop building stereo cabinets out of a Kaka'ako garage in 1961. Two years later, local businessman Doug MacArthur joined Martin to handle the administrative side of the company in return for a 50 percent stake.

Martin designed and built the furniture. But his strength, according to Jenkins, is identifying beauty in rough-hewn koa planks and matching similar or complementary pieces of wood.

"It's the most varying wood in the world," Martin says. "It comes in all shades and a variety of grains — bird's eye, ribbon, curly."

In addition to koa, Martin works with other woods. Among them: island mango and 'ohia; imported exotic zebrawood and gaboon ebony; and more common species such as teak and cherry. But to him, the fancy hardwood that grows only in Hawai'i is the most beautiful wood in the world.

Mary Philpotts, principal of the local interior design firm Philpotts & Associates, says Martin always has put out "what is probably the best quality product of classical Hawaiian furniture."

Martin in the early years literally built that venerable reputation as a fine furniture maker, showcasing his work at the workshop and in a showroom in Davies Pacific Center on Bishop Street downtown.

Jenkins, the Hawaiian furniture author, says most of the few large-scale factory producers of koa furniture died out after World War II. Martin & MacArthur, he adds, has been the dominant manufacturer since the 1970s.

In the 1980s, when Jenkins was doing research for his book, and classical Hawaiian furniture was enjoying a resurgence, he figures Martin had trained about half of all Island cabinetmakers.

Martin's work, Irving adds, was used as a benchmark for pricing antique koa furniture. "(Martin) influenced every area of the koa furniture industry in Hawai'i," Jenkins says.

In 1986, Jones, a veteran Hawaiian Dredging Construction Co. executive born in Australia, joined the furniture-making company, buying out MacArthur.

MacArthur was tired of commuting from the Big Island to O'ahu, and Jones was at a stage in his career where he felt he didn't want to work for one company all his life.

Jones leveraged his experience in marketing and running a concrete manufacturing plant at Hawaiian Dredging. He helped diversify the woodworking business beyond selling fine furniture to consumers and commercial customers like hotels by making full-fledged divisions out of side businesses distributing high-quality local hardwood lumber and picture frame supplies, including glass and matting.

Today, Martin & MacArthur sells about 80 percent of the 70,000 board feet of koa it uses a year as picture frames, according to Jones. About 5 percent becomes furniture. The rest is sold as lumber.

Another division, retail stores, was launched in 1994 with the opening of a Martin & MacArthur store at Aloha Tower Marketplace. A second store opened in 1998 at Whalers Village on Maui.

The stores sell a wide range of Hawai'i-made crafts, from $2 spinning tops made of kukui nuts to a $16,000 koa rocking horse. Most of the merchandise is made by about 300 artisans who supply Martin & MacArthur.

The diversification served the company well during the turbulent 1990s, especially as furniture orders from hotels and other commercial customers fell off.

"Ten years ago they were in such a hurry to build stuff it was not, 'How much is it going to be?' but 'When can you get it to us?' " Martin recalls. "Now it's, 'How much is it going to be and can you chop off a little here?' "

Jenkins says the fine Hawaiian furniture business historically has been a struggle for woodworkers who are typically forced to branch out with other work to support their passion for making koa pieces.

Philpotts adds,"They've had to really work hard to do this, to ride the wave of the volatile market that swoops through up and down and up and down, because (their products are) a luxury."

Martin & MacArthur sales have risen an average of 12 percent in each of the past 10 years — all of which were profitable, according to Jones.

With the resurgence in the local economy last year, all three divisions — factory furniture, retail stores and frame/lumber distribution — have balanced out, each contributing one-third to total sales, Jones says.

Despite recent uncertainty about the Mainland and Japanese economies and their effects on Hawai'i consumers, Martin & MacArthur business this year is on pace to expand sales by 10 percent to 15 percent.

In the past several months, Martin & MacArthur opened a retail store in the Shops At Wailea on Maui and a temporary store at Ala Moana Center.

At the factory, which accounts for most of the company's furniture sales, business has been good too, with new Castle & Cooke Inc. owner David Murdock recently purchasing an $11,000 koa roll-top desk and a few other furnishings for a new house on Lana'i.

Future company growth lies mostly in retail store expansion. Jones says depending on performance of the Ala Moana test store, Martin & MacArthur may seek a long-term location at the mall.

Other areas being looked at for stores are the Neighbor Islands, Las Vegas, several West Coast cities and Japan.

"When you see how successful (local retailer) Hilo Hattie has been on the Mainland," Jones says, "we think there's an opportunity to do that."

But Martin notes that retail is tough. "Landlords in shopping centers know just how hard to squeeze," he says. "You have to sell a lot of merchandise to make money at it. It's not easy."

Martin adds that they haven't decided under what kind of format to expand Martin & MacArthur retail stores outside Hawai'i. Doing it through a franchise is a possibility as is doing it themselves, he says.

However the future of Martin & MacArthur is crafted, it is certain that Martin and Jones will have a hand in it.

"Jon just has a passion for making furniture."

"We can't go on forever," Martin acknowledges, but adds: "I know that I just have to work."