Two things to know about Lonnie Martin: He’s a mechanical genius and he’s kind of – his word – intense.
Another way to say it is that Martin possesses an outlandish amount of restless energy and a number of interests.
Today, that makes for a pretty colorful and successful guy. He has funneled that energy, expertise and entrepreneurial spirit into building Martin Machine & Welding, a job shop in Halstead that employs about 50, into a business that is seeing growth in a number of different sectors.
He feels like he’s been pretty lucky in life, although he didn’t always feel that way.
“I’m not in prison and I’m not a stripper,” he said in his characteristic drawl, the remnants of a speech impediment.
Raised in Park City, he struggled as a child largely in part because he lost much of his hearing after contracting mumps at age 4. The hearing loss, he said, is the source of the drawl. He still doesn’t wear a hearing aid. Instead, he is good at reading lips and takes senior staff with him to meetings.
He did poorly in school and acknowledges he didn’t like following rules much.
“I was a social outcast,” he said. “I had no social skills. I didn’t speak right.”
One bright spot: He discovered he really liked the metal shop at Brooks Middle School. After his sophomore year at Heights High School, at age 15, he dropped out. After some tense times at home, he left for western Kansas to live with his aunt and uncle and work a variety of tough farm-related jobs.
His talent and independent spirit showed itself early. He learned at every job he had. By the time he was 20, he managed the set-up and opening of a manufacturing facility in Wichita.
Dale Jarvis, manager of machinery tool distributor Hartwig, had just started working at the former MegaFab plant in Hutchinson decades ago when he met Martin at a company party.
“My God, this guy was in my face and talking to me and I thought, ‘This guy is crazy,’” Jarvis said. “I found out that he really is crazy, but he was really good at what he did.”
Jarvis, one of Martin’s best friends and admirers, said Martin was always thinking about how to cut the cycle time for running parts, speeding up the process and improving profitability. He had a tremendous analytical mind for machinery and manufacturing processes. He loved to work, and loved to tinker.
“He never stood still, he was really passionate – and as a result he was really hard to manage,” Jarvis said. “Sometimes I would have to pull him aside and tell him how a business works and that you’ve got to work side by side with people.”
Seeking more independence, Martin started his own business 26 years ago in his garage. Working 14 to 16 hours a day, plus weekends, for years and years, he built his company. He specializes in making custom parts from existing parts or from blueprints. He’s made many of his own machines from other machinery parts that’s he salvaged.
He moved from his garage to a small building in Halstead and then to a building that he’s now added on to seven times. Today, he has 90,000 square feet including a 36,000-square-foot warehouse he’s converting into a manufacturing facility. His latest venture is partnering with a couple of entrepreneurs in a company called Ocianna to turn their drawings for an innovative self-burying marine anchor into reality.
As he’s built the business, he’s learned new skills.
“I had a friend and he’d say, ‘Martin, you need some tact and diplomacy,’” Martin said. “I said, ‘What’s that?’ … I didn’t have a clue what tact and diplomacy was. But I do now.”
A test of his business acumen came in 2009, when the phone stopped ringing.
He acted fast to lay off most of his 60 employees, kept a core of 16 and worked like mad to keep the company afloat.
One of his ideas was to build a semi-automatic rifle, what is now the “Dirty Martin Arms” AR-15. He makes all the pieces in Halstead.
Today, business is back. He supplies parts for manufacturers in agriculture, the oil and gas and rubber industries, among others.
He has a beautiful new spacious house, for which he’s built in his spare time a number of Steampunk-like fixtures, including a 10-foot-tall “time machine” lamp that spins and whirls, and a row of impressive looking gauges, meters and whistles mounted above his stove.
“I tell people that’s the geothermal hydro-oxygenator for my galley,” he said with a laugh. “And they go, ‘What’s that?’
“I don’t know, it’s just a bunch of junk.”
He runs his company from a beautiful new spacious office, which at one end features a pool table he’s too busy to use.
Today, at 54, he’s very successful. He largely has to answer only to himself and has the time and money to tinker with whatever he wants to. He’s even getting married.
But, he’ll be the first to say, it’s been a long journey.
“Looking back, I was very lucky,” he said. “I didn’t think so at the time. If there was an angel on my shoulder, I didn’t know it was there.”