WALLA WALLA -- There may not have been a more fitting location for a tribute to the founders of Martin Archery Inc. than at banquet tables assembled for a potluck in the company's receiving department last week.
A dining room table was, after all, the hallowed starting ground for a hobby that grew into a business and ultimately into the three-generation, internationally known company whose bows are used by hunters around the world, not to mention Hollywood characters, too.
Now in its 60th year, Martin Archery is said to be the oldest family-run archery manufacturer in the business. In a gesture that demonstrates family ties go well beyond the bloodline, employees organized a surprise party Feb. 2 for founders Gail and Eva Martin, who also happened to be celebrating their 65th wedding anniversary.
"We are humbled and honored to celebrate this day with you," Martin General Manager Scott Landwehr said in the lunchtime speech that brought the plant to a rare mid-day halt.
Many businesses never make it to the five-year mark, and 10 percent or fewer of family businesses make it to the third generation, Landwehr cited.
Contemplating whether the anniversary of the business or the marriage was more prestigious, 87-year-old Gail Martin said with a grin: "Sixty-five years of marriage is a big accomplishment. I can't complain."
The man known for revolutionizing bow-string making has never been one to settle for complacency. The nucleus of his longevity ¬?-- whether in business or marriage -- is heart. Ingenuity is spurred from that passion. "If we didn't enjoy it, we would have quit a long time ago," he quipped.
Martin Archery may be a household name locally for its prestige and prominence in the community. But those who don't shoot a bow may not fully recognize the breadth of the company or its impact in archery, though just about everyone's sure to have seen it at some point.
Rock star Ted Nugent, long an endorser of Martin equipment, has had specialty bows made for him by Martin. The company's bows have been used in television and movies for years. Bo and Luke Duke used them on the TV series "Dukes of Hazzard." The bows have also premiered in movies, such as the 1984 version of "Red Dawn," "Princess Diaries 2," "The Scorpion King" and "How to Eat Fried Worms." Movie posters from every film featuring a Martin bow adorn the walls inside the manufacturing plant at 3134 Heritage Road.
The enormity of the operation is inconceivable from a passing glance through the window of a vehicle whizzing along the thoroughfare. Even less so now that the new highway is open and motorists no longer pass the building on their way west.
On a figurative level: Martin manufactures at least 50,000 bows -- compound and traditional -- annually. It employs about 75 people and works with about 1,000 dealers, from independent retailers like Walla Walla's Steve's Archery on Isaacs Avenue, to chains such as Dick's Sporting Goods, Sportsman's Warehouse and Cabela's. It also has clients in Australia, Germany, China and other countries all over the world.
It is a massive supplier of archery equipment for the Boy Scouts of America. It is so well known in archery circles that when representatives of the company travel to trade shows and exhibits, hunters and archers ask for their autographs on the equipment.
From a literal point of view: The property off Heritage Road includes two buildings totaling almost 54,000 square feet. Bows and accessories made there aren't sold out of the operation. So people who stop by are most likely seeking Gail Martin's scoring expertise.
Inside the lobby adorned with a seemingly endless supply of taxidermy, Martin is the only Pope and Young Club-authorized official in the area for measuring antlers. He is among 975 volunteer official measurers for the organization in North America.
The plant recently became home to Martin Archery's Howatt manufacturing plant, which formerly produced classic wood longbows and recurves from a Yakima location. Inside the cavernous operation, every aspect of Martin manufacturing takes place -- from a top secret research-and-development lab entered from an upper-level door protected by a secret code to the fabrication of aluminum risers, fiberglass limbs and cams.
The story of the company's simple beginning has been told time and again: Gail Martin shot his first bow in 1937 and started making archery gear while serving with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during World War II. He came back from Europe in 1946 and worked as a government poultry trader, continuing on the side his hobby of affixing turkey feathers on arrow shafts to keep them flying true.
Others wanted his work. He also designed a jig to make his own bow strings. People began buying those also. Bear Archery placed an order for 500 strings. Thus began the life of the manufacturing plant, born in 1951 to produce mostly archery accessories before bows became a focus in the early 1970s.
Sons Dan and Terry Martin were raised with the business. Dan has since retired. Terry continues with the business, as does his own son, Ryan Martin.
Innovation and diversification have been at the center of the company's success, the family says.
Terry Martin has nearly 30 framed patents adorning his office to prove it. The "Wall of Patents," as he wittily refers to it, is a demonstration of the company's competitiveness.
"Basically, that's what it comes down to -- creating new things," he said.
An aggressive approach to design has sharpened the products. With the passing years, the bows become lighter and swifter. They are more accurate and with less noise and vibration. The older models are still as good as they ever were, but those seeking innovation can find something new each year.
"Think of it like a bicycle," Ryan Martin said. "The bike you had 10 years ago you could still ride, no problem. But if you get one that's brand new, it might be a little faster, quieter."
The company's latest project -- a bow known as the "Seeker 365" -- is billed as the quietest, smoothest and most adjustable bow ever produced.
With its grip and site window suspended on carbon tubes, it can be adjusted for race height and forward/backward balance. It also allows for full adjustment of the brace from about 5 3/4 inches to more than 8 inches. A combination of cam module settings and grip position can fine tune the user's draw length like never before.
Knowing the audience has been key to success, as well, Ryan Martin said. The company's focus on high-end bows is reflected through a sister site known as Rytera. A separate accessories site has been developed under the Wildman name.
With multiple sites and markets, the company anticipates growth of 15 or 20 percent in 2011 after a relatively flat 2010, Ryan said.
"I feel lucky to be able to do what I'm doing," he said of the family business.