Marshall: The New Generation
Gary Coooper from mi-pro.co.uk talked to Paul Marshall, about why ‘family’ will always be central to what the company does…
Marshall Amps - still a family business...
[From mi-pro.co.uk] While Jim Marshall is still very much a part of the brand he founded some 50 years ago, his children are now at the heart of what Marshall Amplification does today. Gary Cooper talks to Paul Marshall about why ‘family’ will always be central to what the company does…
Artist liaison is an important role in any MI business catering for the professional market, but nowhere more so than at Marshall. This is a company, after all, that grew from the demands of a group of young musicians in the early 1960s who frequented Jim Marshall’s Ealing music shop. They wanted a completely new sound to be played at undreamed of new levels and Marshall obliged by inventing the stack.
The business was founded as directly as possible on giving musicians what they wanted. Subsequently, the Marshall brand rose to huge international prominence as those artists then carried the name around the world and, ever aware of the importance of that factor, the company has always played the closest possible attention to its ambassadors.
For many years that role was handled by Jim Marshall himself, but in recent years it has increasingly been assumed by his son, the company’s artist and customer relations manager, Paul Marshall – particularly so, since his father’s health has made it difficult for him to travel as avidly as he once did.
As Jim has increasingly handed day-to-day running of the business to others, there has been a some sense of confusion as to who was doing what within Marshall. It’s inevitable with a company that has been so identified with one man for so long that it has left – justified or not – the impression of a vacuum.
There are a lot of questions for Paul Marshall, then, when we spoke, recently. We began by asking him about the company’s present management team. “The structure has changed and the reason has been due to Dad’s age and health. My father would love to be able to go on travelling every day of the week if he could and all over the world, but his doctor’s advice is not to travel too far.
“Victoria was our managing director, but with Dad not being able to travel so much, the company wanted to keep up the role that he used to fulfil, so she has now taken on an ambassadorial role for the company along with Terry Marshall. Terry knows a lot of people from Marshall’s past; he knows all about the earlier times and gets on well with artists, distributors and the dealers. He’s also tremendously enthusiastic about the products. What is more, he has a lot of knowledge and he’s a great musician himself, so to have him back involved in the company again is excellent – it’s a good feeling.”
With Terry and Victoria Marshall now non-executive directors, the day to day running of the practical aspects of the business has passed to two long-time Marshall directors: Jon Ellery and Graham Young, who both have over 15 years experience with the company and who are now acting as joint MDs.
“They work well together, they’re a good team and they’re doing a sterling job,” Marshall says.
The point about Jim Marshall not being able to travel too far begs the question as to how involved the founder actually is.
“He’s still very much a part of things. He comes into the office a couple of days each week and he’s still on top of what’s going on. When we have artists come over, like Slash and Zakk Wylde recently, they go out for dinner with him – so he’s still quite involved. In fact Zakk refers to him as ‘Dad’.
“Zakk recently donated a guitar to our museum and it came with a handwritten note saying ‘to Dad’ – and that’s the way he’s thought of by so many people.”
In terms of his own role, though, Paul Marshall is responsible for other areas, such as running the service department (a vital part of the Marshall profile, as we shall see). He is acutely aware of the importance close customer relationships have traditionally played in the business.
“I see my role as maintaining that company ethos – finding out what people need and making sure they have it. Dad always instilled in me that the customer’s right, no matter what he says and that’s the philosophy I have, too. It’s right. Marshall has that reputation among musicians and it’s important to me that we maintain it.
“It extends beyond customer relations, too, for example with warranty issues. If a customer has an issue with an amplifier (and it doesn't happen very often) we will go to the n’th degree to resolve it. We have customers coming to the factory all the time and that’s important for us, too. If a customer has a product that’s three months old, ten years old or forty years old, he can phone up, make an appointment, come and visit the factory and have it repaired while he waits. That level of service is vitally important. The word spreads and recommendations from satisfied customers can’t be bought. They have to be earned.”
It was always true in ‘the old days’ that one of the many things that set Marshall apart was that when you called you were quite likely to have the phone answered by Jim himself – and not just in the early, Ealing days, either. It was equally as true when the company moved to Milton Keynes. That was the way Jim liked to do things and it’s heartening in these corporate times to see that ethos being continued today.
This matters all the more to the health of the UK’s MI industry as Marshall is not just one of our few remaining home-grown companies (possibly the biggest), but it is one of the handful that still actively manufactures here and this, by one of those strange twists and turns of fate, means it is actually benefiting from the recent collapse of the pound against international currencies.
While it has suffered in recent years from a strong pound (particularly in the vitally important US market) it is suddenly in the relatively happy position of finding its situation easing both there and in other export markets.
Back home, meanwhile, rumours have been strong in the trade that Marshall was considering changes to its dealer agreements. Recently, some dealers have reported, negotiations have begun to put relationships on a new footing. Immediately, images of the sea-change brought about by Gibson last year sprang to mind. Marshall quickly refutes that anything like that will happen.
“We are looking at our dealerships and one of the reasons is that we want to ensure the Marshall brand has the best possible support. One of the consequences is that it is going to rationalise our dealership base to a certain extent, but the idea behind it is to ensure the customer receives the best level of support we can provide. It won’t be the same as the Gibson programme and we won’t be forcing dealers to stock certain items. We try to work with dealers and it’s really about that – working with them in a period of economic uncertainty.
“Our view is that the customer is always best served by going into a shop and getting personal attention from someone who knows about the product and is very enthusiastic about it. Something we are trying to achieve with the new agreements is maintaining that level of service and commitment to the consumer. And in these cash-strapped times a good personal service could go a long way to turning a potential sale into a realised sale.”
It is probably too early to tell how Marshall’s proposals are going to be received by retailers, but as ever, MI Pro’s letters page is open for any views readers may want to express.
One thing that Marshall dealers may have experienced in the past few years, has been the sense of fashion moving on – a concern that the company that invented the stack might have been destined to be stranded in a world of big hair and 80s guitar heroes at a time when Indie bands are coming to the fore. As it turns out, however, while the 80s rock gods still draw gigantic crowds at the Marshall stand for signing sessions, the company has also managed to sell its combos to artists for whom big really isn’t very beautiful at all.
“Yes, we’ve not been moving away from the traditional side, so much as adding to it,” Marshall says. “On the X-Factor the other week there were a lot of Marshall amps on stage. We’re not just a rock icon now. At the V Festival this year half the acts there were using Marshall.
“You have to remember that the stack wasn’t all Marshall was in the past, either. Another icon was Eric Clapton’s Bluesbreaker combo – that 1962 combo with such a wonderful sound. I think, for retailers, you really have to try to promote the whole brand and remember that there is that real heritage with combos and now increasingly with the bass side, too.”
The Bluesbreaker - a Marshall classic
This is an area where Marshall has begun to make long overdue headway. For whatever reasons, bass players have traditionally tended to leave Marshall to the band’s guitarist, preferring to explore alternatives offered by amp manufacturers who specialised in bass alone.
If one were being fair, this has had a lot more to do with image and fashion than technology as there is no mystery in making an amplifier suitable for handling bass and if a company as big as Marshall decided to make bass amps, it could do so as well as anyone – and has. But whatever the perceptions that might have hindered the brand in that discipline were, they have begun to shift, Marshall says.
”I get frustrated sometimes when people say, ‘oh yes, Marshall does guitar amps’ and when I point out we also offer bass, they look incredulous. But Oasis is out at the moment with two Marshall VBA stacks – they’re the most prominent things on stage. You’ve also got Slayer. It’s not just Kerry King and Jeff using their Marshalls, but Tom is using Marshall bass, too and so are Paul Weller’s and Amy Whitehouse’s bassists. People may not have recognised Marshall as a bass amp manufacturer in the past, but it is making some real headway in that market now.
“One of the factors there, incidentally, has been our reliability. On that 18-month Oasis tour, using two bass heads and cabs, we just haven’t had any issues at all.”
Another area where Marshall faced a challenge was from the burgeoning ‘boutique’ market, which is ironic given that Marshall was probably the original boutique valve amp, arriving in a market dominated by production products from brands like Vox and Selmer. So how does the company view the boutique sector?
“One of the things I like to try to get across is just how passionate the people at Marshall are. It’s not just the family – although we are still very much a family business and that’s very important – but everyone who works there.
“We’ve got people in the factory who’ve been here for 30 years. That’s quite unusual and it’s because they love the product in the same way we do.
“So when people talk about hand-wired amplifiers, well, that’s what we do. It’s what we’ve always done, it’s what we are and what builds-up the brand loyalty that is so important.
“We’re a very open company. Anybody can phone up and come and see us. When we take people around the factory and they meet staff that have been making our amplifiers for 30 years, they see what we are about.
“As a result, when you buy something like our hand-wired 1974 combo, it’s an amazing product – the sound, the tone, the clarity, the whole thing is manufactured here in the UK and, as I say, the people who make it, who actually put it together, have been doing it for many years and they are passionate about it. That is a boutique amplifier. There’s a lot of skill and passion in the product and then there is the quality factor. Every amplifier made in the Marshall factory is tested four or five times during production and then, finally, it has a guitar plugged into it and it is tested again.
“I think that’s our answer to the other companies, really – our pedigree and our experience. We can still service amplifiers that we made in the 60s and we have people that really know what they are doing. That sort of experience and that sort of depth are pretty rare.”
But no company, even one as steeped in rock heritage as Marshall, can spend all its time looking backwards. The forthcoming NAMM show, it is strongly rumoured, will see the debut of something really quite exciting from the Milton Keynes maestros. We tried to probe, but Paul Marshall and the rest of the team were being extremely cagey.
Whatever it is they have up their collective sleeve, you would have to have a heart of stone not to wish them great success. At a time when this industry is, like all others, staring in the face of considerable difficulties, it is the power of myths and icons and dreams that can tempt customers to spend money they might otherwise leave in their bank – and that is where the premium brands are so important and where Marshall, one of the last great all-British musical icons, plays a flagship role.
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