Brian W. Martin

The Past as Present

At times, it’s hard to tell if it’s the quality of the aging videotape causing audio distortion, or if it really was a blowing gale that long ago 4th of July on Long Island Sound. Brian Martin wasn’t there that day, but he watches his parents, grandmother, uncle, aunt, and cousins celebrate the holiday with some sunfish sailboat races that provide amble evidence of the wind’s force. The commentary of the videographer, the sun glinting off the water, the joy on his father’s face, all feel so real, even though many of the people in the frames have since passed away.

As a historian, Brian understands better than most the power and importance of preserving and remembering the past. It’s the essential human practice that allows him to supersede the most recent memories he has of his parents, who both passed away from cancer, and instead remember them as they were—energetic, vivid, full of color and life. His relationship with the past is not simply defined by a sense of personal nostalgia, but more so by a drive to understand and use the past in the present. And now, as the President of History Associates, Brian channels this lifelong passion through his leadership of a consulting firm specializing in helping organizations and individuals discover, preserve, and present their past. “At the heart of being a historian is a sense of discovery,” he says. “I love that I learn new things every day and have the opportunity to contribute to the collective body of knowledge we have about the past.”

History Associates first took root in 1979, when the federal government was considering a reorganization that would have pulled its reconnaissance and radiological sensing capabilities from the jurisdiction of the Department of Energy (DOE) and instead house them under the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). But DOE had developed these capabilities through the atomic tests of the 1950s and 60s, and was well versed in providing that surveillance, as they had done during the Three Mile Island incident. DOE tasked Dick Hewlett, the department’s Chief Historian, with telling the story of its response to the incident, in part to inform the policy debate going forward.

Already busy with other assignments, Dick hired two historians, Phillip Cantelon and Robert Williams, to capture the story. They in turn enlisted Rodney Carlisle, a visiting scholar at DOE’s history office, to help type the manuscript on an early word processor. As all four historians engaged in the project, they began to realize that history isn’t just valuable in the marketplace of ideas. Indeed, they saw how people outside the academy used and valued history forming the basis for a profitable business model. With that, they formally launched History Associates in 1981. The fledgling company began doing work for the Bank of New York’s bicentennial celebration, and later took on the archives for Texas Instruments. Then, as concern and litigation grew over possible health effects associated with nuclear weapons testing, President Jimmy Carter directed the government to release as much information as possible about the testing program. DOE contracted with History Associates to find these records in repositories across the country and support the declassification process.

Meanwhile, Brian was working on his master’s thesis on affirmative action policy at Carnegie Mellon in 1984, when he received a call from his advisor. History Associates was looking for someone to go to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to write a labor history for a federal agency. Brian had intended to complete a full PhD program, but he decided the opportunity was worth putting all that on hold. “I had been sitting at home for two months, struggling to get my thesis finished,” he recounts. “I drove down to interview at DOE, and they asked me when I would be done with my paper. I answered by asking them when they needed me in Oklahoma. They said two weeks. I said, I’ll be done in two weeks. They offered me the job, so I finished my paper the night before I left, drove to Pittsburgh to drop it off, and then headed to Oklahoma to start my life.”

As the firm’s ninth employee, Brian spent the next four years in Tulsa working as the historian, librarian, and records manager for the agency. He then relocated to Rockville, Maryland, to work with the staff of researchers collecting and declassifying the nuclear testing documentation.  As he took on project after project, Brian caught the attention of Dick Hewlett, the company’s chairman. Dick encouraged him to finish the PhD he had set on the backburner in 1984, so Brian refocused his sights on that goal. “At one point, I was just stuck,” he remembers. “I had two kids and was working crazy hours at History Associates, so it was impossible to find the time and mental space to really focus. Dick saw the problem and arranged for me to take a six-month sabbatical, in which I’d work six days a week in his basement office. He reviewed my writing and gave great advice through the process. In the end, I was able to finish my dissertation and get the PhD in 1997, which was essential to one day becoming president of the company. But for him, where would I be now?”

Another crucial step in Brian’s path to success came in the early 2000s, when Phil Cantelon put out a memo asking all employees to describe where they saw themselves in the future of the company. “For some crazy reason, I had the audacious thought that someday I wanted to be the firm’s president, so I said so,” Brian recalls. “I had no idea what that really meant at the time, but I knew someone would have to take over the company’s leadership at some point, and I felt compelled to step up.” In 2004, the founding partners set a goal of transferring the management and ownership of the company to a new generation of leaders, appointing Brian to head a committee to define what the transition would look like. The plan was presented and accepted, and Brian stepped into the role of Executive VP for two years. Then, in 2007, he was named President and COO, with Phil remaining in the CEO position.

Today, History Associates has around fifty employees, some at client sites across the nation, all working to achieve the company’s mission of discovering, preserving, and presenting the past. First, it seeks to help clients discover the past by answering historical questions through research. This often means helping attorneys establish the facts at issue in a case. “These are cases where you have very few or no living fact witnesses, so we have to rely on documentary evidence that tells the story,” Brian explains. “Our historians find that evidence and then make sense of it.” The company generally works on high-dollar, high-value issues spanning environmental, product liability, and intellectual property cases. “The law and history cover the full range of human experience, so it can really be anything,” Brian says. “Whether you’re a country lawyer or a big time litigator, everyone has a need for this service at some point.”

When it comes to preserving the past, History Associates helps clients identify, preserve, and make available historically significant material. In this capacity, they often serve cultural institutions that need help managing their collections or require additional staff support for a special project. Presenting the past involves using authentic historical information and materials to tell engaging and informative stories. “The identity of an organization is wrapped up in its historical material,” Brian points out. “If they don’t have the evidence and the artifacts, it’s harder for the organization to tell its story and reinforce its identity to the audience it’s trying to reach, whether that’s shareholders, customers, employees, or the general public.” History Associates tells stories across a variety of media, from print history books to smartphone apps, and has worked on projects as vast and varied as processing archival collections for the America’s national parks, to creating a smart phone tour of the Gettysburg College campus and surrounding area to help connect the college with the battlefield and the historical context of the town.

Brian’s own history began in Bethesda, Maryland, where his mother worked as a medical technologist at the National Institutes of Health and his father was a special agent for the Hartford Insurance Group, servicing the entire Eastern shore. In 1964, when Brian was three years old, the family moved from Rockville to Farmington, Connecticut. “We lived there just long enough for me to become a Boston Red Sox fan,” Brian laughs. “When I was eleven, we moved to the town of Trumbull, near Long Island Sound and close to where my father had grown up. Like my father, I became a New Englander at heart.”

In the summers, Brian and his brothers, Charlie and Andy, enjoyed visiting their uncle’s farm in northeastern Ohio, where their mother’s family was from. They also loved to spend time at their other uncle’s cottage on Long Island Sound and in cottages in Maine. “My father grew up sailing a boat he built with his father, and he passed his love of the water and the sport on to our whole family,” Brian says. “We couldn’t take it out alone until we could flip it and right it ourselves, so it was a big deal when I mastered that skill and passed that milestone. Learning to sail and being out on the water was wonderful. It became a time of contemplation for me, as well as a time of focus as I worked to get the boat operating and performing at its peak. You can’t control the weather and the waves, so you have to adapt. It was a tremendous metaphor for life, and at the heart of it was the relationship between my father and me as he taught me how to live and then set me free on the water. That’s something I’m learning to do with my own son now.”

Brian laughs today when he says that he learned everything he needed to know about business from the paper route he worked as a kid. He managed daily, Sunday, and weekly deliveries, totaling over 200 deliveries per week, and learned that customer satisfaction always comes first. “Some people wanted their papers placed in the screen door, while others liked them in their milk boxes,” he remembers. “Little things like that really matter.” He learned to employ his brothers on days he was stuck at track practice, and he came to understand that if he failed to collect from his customers, the deficit owed to the manager each month would come out of his own pocket. The experience in management reinforced the strong work ethic he learned from his father, a man who was always getting something done. “When I washed his car in the summers, he would point out the spots I missed, and I’d have to do it again until I got it right,” Brian says. “The lesson was, get it right the first time, and know that details matter. These are things I try to teach my own kids.”

Taken together, Brian remembers the experiences of his childhood as idyllic. His mother embodied the drive of their family, making the plans that led to fun adventures and character-defining experiences. Brian also played hockey like his father and grandfather, a man he never met but admired in photos of when he played on Harvard’s team in the 1920s. In track, he stayed away from the short sprints where his brother dominated, and instead gravitated to the longer races that showcased his persevering nature.

Brian came to love history thanks in part to family trips to national parks. His interest was reinforced by his high school history teacher, Gordon Williams, who taught directly from primary sources. Brian relished learning about the past from the words of those who had lived it, which helped bring the past to life for him. He also developed a deep appreciation for Mr. Williams’s skill at teaching. “He could reach students like me, who were totally motivated, while also engaging the students who didn’t want to be there,” Brian recalls. “To me, that’s a real gift which speaks to what teaching should be.”

During his senior year of high school, Brian visited his older brother at James Madison University, where he attended a Bible study. The Martins had grown up in the church, but Brian saw that his brother had come to his own personal belief for the first time, amidst a group of people who shared genuine caring and appreciation for one another. “I thought that was pretty neat,” Brian comments. “It started to make sense to me that Christianity wasn’t just a thing you do on Sunday mornings. Rather, it’s a relationship with God and with your brothers and sisters.”

As he approached graduation, Brian decided to enroll in Gettysburg College because he wanted to continue his study of history in a historical setting. There, he joined a Christian fellowship group and buckled down on his education, which yielded strong grades. His academic experience there was defined by professors like Gabor Boritt, the school’s Lincoln Scholar who had left his home country of Hungary as a teenager in 1956. Boritt went on to become one of the top Lincoln Scholars in the country, and taught a riveting Civil War course at Gettysburg through the Socratic method. In the spring of Brian’s junior year, Boritt suggested he go to graduate school. “I was the top history student in my class at that point, but the thought had never crossed my mind,” Brian says. “I thought I would work in insurance like my father and grandfather.”

In college, Brian had really come into his own intellectually, but he didn’t want to spend his career thinking about doing. Like his father, he wanted to do. Fortunately, he came across a notice on a bulletin board at school for an applied history graduate school program at Carnegie Mellon, utilizing history as a policy tool. “It sounded right up my alley, and I was accepted straight out of undergrad,” Brian says. “I’m grateful Dr. Boritt saw a gift in me and encouraged me to use it.”

At that time, Carnegie Mellon was the premier post-industrial university. Brian had exceptional teachers and a great experience, but he yearned to get to the “doing” part of his career. A year into the program, surrounded by students who had been working on their dissertations for the past seven years while living off ramen noodles, Brian began having doubts. He hit a low point as he struggled to finish his thesis, and looks back with gratitude for his parents’ willingness to support him without question or judgment through the challenge. “Then all this opportunity fell into my lap, thanks to one of my advisors at Carnegie Mellon, Joel Tarr, and Phil Cantelon at History Associates” says Brian. “While working for History Associates in Tulsa, I was sitting in on our client’s labor negotiations and arbitration cases and advising the management team based on the history I knew. I wasn’t just thinking about doing—I was actually doing. It was just what I needed, and I know I would not be where I am without all the people in my life who have helped in such serendipitous ways.”

Through this journey, the most important person of all has been Ginger, the woman Brian married in 1991 after meeting through a group of mutual friends. They had their son Sam in 1993, and their daughter Jessie in 1996. “Meeting and marrying Ginger was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says. “She’s an incredible partner and supporter. Many times through life, her strength, confidence, and ability to remain calm under stress has made all the difference, allowing me to take risks I probably wouldn’t have taken otherwise. I love being with her and experiencing life with her. Everything we’ve been through together as a family has really meant a lot to me.”

For Brian, leadership involves “bringing people together to think critically, wrestle with problems, and makes things happen.” A servant leader, he focuses on his role as a steward of History Associates and the lives it touches. He fosters a culture that encourages employees to take initiative—a spirit that landed the company on the Inc. 5000 list three years in a row from 2011 to 2013. “The consistent success History Associates’ has enjoyed over 35 years is certainly not attributable to any one person, but rather is the product of everyone working well together,” he affirms. He also leads with an empathy that stems in part from the loss of his parents. “The process of their passing had a tremendous impact on my life and taught me a lot of empathy,” he says. “People face loss and hardship every day, and I’ve come to recognize that we all experience these things differently. It also taught me a new appreciation for life and what’s important.”

In advising young people entering the working world today, Brian underscores the importance of being able to communicate effectively. “Writing, speaking, classic liberal arts skills—they don’t go out of style,” he says. “If you want to drive the conversation, present the idea. Think it through and then put it on the table for everyone to react to. In a way, leadership is putting the idea on the table and explaining how to make it happen.”

Beyond that, Brian encourages the pursuit of something you love. “You’ll spend a lot of time working, so find something you enjoy and believe in and can pour your energy and time into,” he says. “I’ve been so fortunate to find a company where I get to engage everyday with great clients and colleagues in a competitive business environment oriented around a field I love. My path in life wasn’t always clear, but it led me exactly where I needed to go, to a profession where I can make the past useful for clients from all walks of life and all corners of the country. If we learn to look closely, the past is present for all of us, and can be used to better the future.”

Brian W. Martin

Gordon J Bernhardt


President and founder of Bernhardt Wealth Management and author of Profiles in Success: Inspiration from Executive Leaders in the Washington D.C. Area. Gordon provides financial planning and wealth management services to affluent individuals, families and business owners throughout the Washington, DC area. Since establishing his firm in 1994, he and his team have been focused on providing high quality service and independent financial advice to help clients make informed decisions about their money.

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