David Steedman talks Maton Guitars and how to go global
The CA at the head of Maton Guitars talks about the music industry, the family business, and success on the world market
- Steedman, the son in law of founder Bill May, has been general manager of Maton for 12 years
- Maton is renowned for quality instruments, innovation and R&D, and chasing export markets
- The company now exports to 44 countries and makes 8,000 guitars a year
By Tony Malkovic
David Steedman CA is a chartered accountant, but he makes a good salesman.
Steedman knows how to spot and make the most of an opportunity — like the time some 15 years ago when he was working in Hong Kong and persisted in knocking on the door of a local music shop.
“I’d ask them: ‘Why don’t you sell Maton guitars?’”, Steedman recalls.
The store got the cheeky message and a decade and a half later it stills sells the Australian-made guitars.
At that stage, Steedman wasn’t even working for Maton - he’s now general manager - but he did have a very good connection.
His then future wife, Tristana, is the granddaughter of the late Bill May, who founded the company.
Tristana is a CA specialising in insolvency, she and Steedman had met when they both worked at what is now BDO Australia, prior to shifting to Hong Kong to pursue their accounting careers.
The way Steedman tells it, when they returned to Melbourne, she was responsible for his career pivot.
“Tristana is famously quoted as saying to her mother Linda: ‘Why don’t you give David a bit of a job before he goes out and gets a proper job?’,” says Steedman.
That proper job never eventuated. Instead, he served an apprenticeship of sorts at Maton.
“I’m an accountant and I like a good family story and a good family business,” says Steedman.
“But at that point, I knew nothing about guitars or guitarists.
“So I came in and assisted in areas such as build material/control, management reporting, ascertaining which guitars made money, what were the cost drivers in the business and really getting my teeth into the business.
“And really, that was the best way to get an understanding of what this business was.”
The family liked what they saw and Steedman was appointed general manager some 12 years ago.
While every family business is unique, Maton seems to be in a class of its own.
Seventy years on, the company still produces handcrafted instruments and is still family-owned and run. The founder’s daughter, Tristana’s mother Linda Kitchen, and her husband Neville are both directors of the company who work in it full time.
“I always tell people my mother-in-law, who is also my boss, holds a unique position of power over me. Which is a good thing — and we get along famously.”
The company employs about 55 people and makes about 8,000 guitars and several hundred ukuleles a year at its factory in the eastern Melbourne suburb of Box Hill.
Instrument making can be a fickle game, with cheap imports and a fluctuating dollar complicating things.
“It’s a difficult industry, it’s a low-margin industry, and it has a lot of retailers in it who struggle for a dollar, to be honest.
“It is really a difficult industry to succeed in.”
But after seven decades, Maton seems to have got the rhythm of it.
The company is renowned for the quality and craftsmanship of its instruments, its pursuit of innovation and R&D, and its emphasis on chasing export markets.
For instance, when Maton Guitars started seven decades ago, founder Bill May did something nobody had tried before: he made guitars using Australian woods such as Queensland maple. Ironically, he sometimes had to conceal the fact because people were more used to overseas woods.
Maton has continued to pioneer the use of Australian tone woods such as Victorian blackwood, and bunya pine and walnut sourced from Queensland.
Another innovation is the use of computer numerical controlled (CNC) routing machines to precisely cut the backs, sides and necks of the guitars, which are then assembled by hand and carefully chiselled, filed, sanded, glued, strung and finished.
Steedman says R&D is crucial.
“You need to keep working as hard as you can to improve what you did,” he says.
“You can never say, ‘Gee, we’ve built a brilliant guitar now, let’s just implement that and not think about it again’.
“For example, we spent three or four years developing a pickup, which the market has absolutely loved and continues to love.”
I always tell people my mother-in-law, who is also my boss, holds a unique position of power over me. Which is a good thing — and we get along famously.”
All you need is love
The word ‘love’ is a good one to try to explain how Maton staff and customers regard their instruments. They’re a picky bunch, and making guitars is almost a mystical art rather than a technical skill.
If you tour Maton’s climate-controlled factory, you’ll see the staff love making guitars and love wood. They’ll check it for moisture and humidity, inspect it, tap it and listen to it, smell it, and run their hands along the grain.
Most people don’t realise it, but practically everyone who’s grown up in Australia or New Zealand has heard a Maton guitar being played.
The Seekers strummed them. The Easybeats egged on fans with them. Tommy Emmanuel still amazes audiences with them.
Ditto for Split Enz’s Neil Finn, Keith Urban and Slim Dusty.
And don’t forget the Wiggles.
Even Elvis, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones have played Matons.
Then there’s the sound coming from the suburbs. In thousands of bedrooms and garages around the country, many tens of thousands of Baby Boomers and their Gen X and Y kids have learnt their licks on a Maton.
The company has a loyal following, and Maton carefully manages and caters to the needs of players and customers with its marketing, branding, artist endorsements and social media savviness.
For instance, it currently has a big stable of artists — including guitar superstar Tommy Emmanuel who’s been playing Matons since he was about four years old.
Emmanuel is based in Nashville, but tours the world playing Matons which he helped design and which are named after him. In terms of an ambassador with cred, it’s a dream fit.
“His sound is our sound and we’re really proud of that and we’ve worked really hard with him to continue to develop that,” says Steedman.
Maton’s also worked hard on its marketing via its website and social media.
It has an extensive YouTube channel featuring videos it’s made of its celebrity artists in concert and sharing playing tips.
And, in a new take on reality TV, it also has more than a dozen videos where Maton staff in effect become video stars, explaining in their own words what they do.
You can watch Ray talk about body shaping, Sam explain all about frets and necks, and Lofty will walk you through wood machining basics.
In the same value-adding vein, the company conducts free tours of its factory. Guitar lovers can also view the Maton museum, which features scores of eclectic, and electric, guitars from the company’s past including the first guitar made by Bill May all those years ago — an acoustic, Spanish-style instrument.
For guitar players and collectors, the whole experience is like being a kid in a toyshop.
Maton now exports to some 24 countries, including China.
“Last month, we exported 44 per cent of our production. Typically, it’s closer to the high 20s,” says Steedman.
“In the long-term scheme of things, it’s getting harder and harder to compete with better and better products coming into Australia. So we need to export to survive and to grow.
“Quite honestly, it’s quite difficult for us to grow our units in a domestic market. We need to work hard to maintain our leadership.”
That hard work involves expanding exports to the country considered as the home of the guitar.
“We’re in the throes of attaining US distribution, we’re working heavily towards that at the moment,” he says.
“The biggest challenge is going to be supplying that market in conjunction with all our other current domestic and international markets, and dealing with the constraints within the manufacturing process.
“It’s important that when we partner with a strong US distributor, we’re able to supply them in a timely fashion.”
Selling guitars to the US is a bit like selling fridges to Eskimos: the US is a big market with some big players, such as CF Martin, Fender and Gibson.
Steedman is unfazed.
“The bad thing about export markets is the margins are lower because you’ve got to go through distribution,” he says.
“The good thing about it is they tend to be more skewed towards the higher end of our products.”
That focus on higher end guitars and a big international market would be music to Bill May’s ears.
It’s a riff on his approach to guitar making that he summed up decades ago when he said: “If you make a good guitar, the right guitar, people will want it.”
Making guitars, or anything, for a local market is one thing. Marketing and selling them overseas is a different game altogether.
So what’s Steedman’s advice for other Aussie and Kiwi companies wanting to go global?
1. Forge relationships
“Work really hard on your brand, work really hard on your relationships, make sure you deal with quality people,” he says.
“Make sure you make the decisions as to who you partner with, make sure you make them well and diligently rather than quickly.
2. Embrace technology
“Embrace new technologies, such as social media and your website — we invest a lot of time and effort and focus on that.
“And continue to research and develop your product.”
3. Customer service
“And don’t forget your old customers while you’re chasing the new ones.
“You have to listen to all of your different types of customers, whether it be a someone who bought a Maton 30 years ago and wants to know a little bit about it, or whether it’s one of your current retailers, distributors or artists.
“Attend to their issues and try to make their problems disappear as best you can.
“You also need to consolidate all the information and feedback you’re getting.
“Get rid of the noise and focus on what the trends are and the information you’re getting.”
Tony Malkovic is an award-winning freelance journalist.
This article was first published in the July 2016 issue of Acuity magazine.
The genius of a garage innovator
Am ambitious mind
The words “innovator” and “start-up” weren’t used much when the late Bill May took the gamble to give up his job as a woodwork teacher to make guitars.
But in effect, both terms apply.
In 1946, just one year after the end of World War II when times were tough and money short, he took a big punt.
“I got started by resigning from the Education Department, pushing a small motor car out of the garage and started work there,” he explained in a 1971 family movie.
The fledgling company was a real family affair. Older brother Reg, a machinist, came onboard. And Bill’s wife Vera used her business skills to watch the money and balance the books.
May, who also played jazz guitar and bass, knew what he wanted in pursuing his dream of making instruments.
“You’ve got to know the sound,” he’d say.
And indeed, that philosophy formed the basis of the Maton name: it’s a combination of May and tone.
May wouldn’t have realised it, but he shared a mindset with more modern garage start-ups such as Apple computers and Microsoft: they all wanted to create quality products for world markets.
“When I set Maton up, I had a very ambitious mind, it was to make guitars that were as good as anything else in the world,” May said.
“Which was laughable then, by anybody in Australia.”
Seventy years on, no one’s laughing. Instead they’re hailing the gently-spoken May as someone decades ahead of his time and the founding father of the Australian luthier industry.