Third of four stories on the 2018 Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame honorees.
CEDAR FALLS — It’s not the growing fleet of trucks or newly expanded warehouse at Martin Brothers Distributing Co. that fill John Martin with pride.
It’s the folks behind the wheel and staffing the office Martin credits with taking the 78-year-old Cedar Falls-based food distribution company to new heights under his leadership.
“I’m just really proud of my work force,” Martin said. “I have been so blessed with such a wonderful cast of hard-working employees. I don’t think there’s a day that goes by that I don’t believe how incredibly lucky I was to get people.”
Martin’s integrity and successful growth of the family company founded by his father and uncle, coupled with a commitment to his community, led Junior Achievement of Eastern Iowa this year to induct him into its Business Hall of Fame.
It’s an honor Martin said he would break up and share with others if he could.
“Our managers are considered leaders and innovators in the industry,” he added. “They always moved the bar higher than I set it.”
Martin grew up in the business started in 1940 by his father, Roy, and uncle, Glen, eventually taking over in the 1980s. John Martin still serves as chief executive officer of Martin Brothers Distributing but has turned over the reins to a third generation in sons Brooks and Jeff.
John Martin still remembers tagging along with his father to the business in its early years.
“My dad was great,” he recalled. “It was really good for me because I got to follow him around back when it was brand new.”
Martin joined the payroll at age 16, hauling produce in a pickup because he was too young to drive a straight truck.
“I really learned a lot from driving too,” he said. “The front-line experience teaches you a lot. I think it really made me realize how important customers are.”
Martin also credited his business instructors at the University of Northern Iowa, where he earned a marketing degree, and basketball coaches for helping him learn about team teamwork and leadership.
Martin starred on the UNI basketball squad from 1967 through 1970, earning a spot in the school’s sports hall of fame.
“I learned a lot through sports,” he said. “I had great coaches … who taught me so much. I think if you can coach and you’re a good coach, you can manage, because you learn leadership.
“Not everyone had a chance to be in sports,” he added. “But if you really want to get somewhere in this world, make time for activities where it involves a team and sharing and learning.”
That focus on learning trickled into his management at Martin Brothers, where he had required reading assignments for employees.
“My nickname used to be Pope,” he said. “Nobody wanted my pontifications so I gave them a choice: Read this or listen to me. They all chose the book.”
While leading the company through several major expansions, Martin also introduced an employee stock ownership plan and has helped other local businesses do the same.
“If you want to motivate people and have them stay motivated, you share,” he said. “I made the decision to have my employees be shareholders.”
Martin also played a major role in his industry, chairing the board of Institutional Food Distributors of America, which took him to the White House as part of a panel looking at alternative energy when fuel prices were spiking.
While meeting with President George W. Bush and others, Martin realized he’d forgotten to silence his phone when friend Jerry Slykhuis tried to call him not once, but twice.
“I was fumbling with my phone and George looks over and says, ‘Do you need a little help with that?’” Martin said. “He’s a funny guy.”
Kris Hansen, the CEO of Western Home Communities, nominated Martin for the Hall of Fame award not only for his business success but his involvement in the community.
“The first thing that comes to mind is his commitment,” Hansen said. “If he’s said he’s in, he’s in all the way.”
Martin has served on the boards of The Western Home Communities and Optimist Club; served as a volunteer assistant coach for 17 years under former head coach Slykhuis; and sponsored the Martin Brothers Select AAU basketball team.
“We don’t charge the kids (for AAU) like some programs do,” Martin said. “We try to make it a place where as many kids with talent could showcase it and try to get (college offers). It was just my way to paying it back and saying thanks.”
Martin said he was happy accepting the Hall of Fame award largely because it shines a light on the Junior Achievement program, which be believes does a tremendous job of preparing students for a career in business.
“I wish it could be mandatory for every student,” he said. “If they could have this head start going in, it’s a huge advantage.”
‘If you want to motivate people and have them stay motivated, you share,” he said. “I made the decision to have my employees be shareholders.’ John R. Martin