SLAP A UNIFORM AND SOME eye-black on ex–Seattle Mariner Edgar Martinez and he looks like he could still hammer a double into the gap at Safeco Field. And lord knows the Mariners could have used the offensive help this season, if Martinez hadn’t retired more than three years ago after 22 years in baseball. But the man many experts consider the finest designated hitter ever to play the game remains a dogged competitor on a very different field.
Before, Martinez’s workplaces were batting cages and dugouts. Now he works in a small, quiet office just outside Kirkland’s bustling downtown. There he focuses on growing his promotional merchandise company, Branded Solutions by Edgar Martinez, and building the Martinez Foundation, which creates educational opportunities for Latino and other minority children. His wife Holli oversees the foundation, but he’s very much a hands-on boss at Branded Solutions, which helps companies find just the right gifts and promotional items—from mugs and golf bags to jelly beans, stopwatches, and, naturally, caps and bats—to carry their logos and slogans. The merchandise is the message—conference swag as strategic marketing. Case study: When KOMO-TV launched a “4-the-Earth” segment, Branded Solutions provided notepads and pencils made from recycled paper (and branded, of course) for giveaways.
Edgar the ballplayer was famous for his engaging smile and boyish enthusiasm for the game. Businessman Martinez is subdued and, well, businesslike. He speaks in soft and measured tones. His office shows none of the ostentation and self-worship for which ex-sports stars are notorious, just a few photos from his playing career.
Most ex-ballplayers end up coaching, broadcasting, or owning car dealerships. Martinez had something else to fall back on; his interest in business goes back to high school. He started his first venture, Caribbean Embroidery, with a childhood friend in Puerto Rico in the early 1990s, and moved it here in 1994 to capitalize on the vast mainland market. His wife and her parents ran the company while Martinez played ball. But by 2004 Caribbean Embroidery was scrambling in an overcrowded field. “I remember reading somewhere that there were like 250 embroidery businesses just in Washington State,” Martinez says. “Our margins were getting really thin.”
"In baseball, you make adjustments every at-bat. In business, you have to adjust as the market changes."
Martinez knew the company had to find its own niche. “In baseball, you make adjustments every at-bat,” he says. “In business, you have to adjust as the market changes.” In 2004, he recast Caribbean Embroidery as Caribbean Apparel and expanded into distributing promotional merchandise sourced from the United States, China, and other countries. But he kept a hand in the embroidery trade until it proved clearly unsustainable. “We were using revenue from one business to support the other, and both sides of the business became diluted,” he explains. Finally, as 2006 turned to 2007, he sold the embroidery machines, rechristened the company Branded Solutions, and linked up with an established promotional-goods company, Image Source, that saw Martinez himself as a valuable brand. “We had to go with the bigger market,” he says, “and merchandise is an $18 billion market.”
As he ponders these challenges, the All-Star-turned-executive’s thoughts still turn fondly to baseball. “I miss it the most during spring training because I always loved the preparation part of the game,” says Martinez. “But I really like coming to work here every day. It’s a different sort of adrenaline, but I get a lot of satisfaction from what I do.”
And, it seems, results. “We’re on pace to more than triple the amount of business we did in 2007,” says Branded Solutions spokesman Jeff Holt. But Martinez vows to grow the company in a disciplined manner—as befits a strategic thinker who was one of the most patient hitters in the game.