Category Archives: Featured

latest post image will be prominently displayed on the featured top part of the front page.

Life Saver

By Lloyd Graff

On Monday, August 14, my wife, Risa, received a Facebook message from a woman named Diana. In 1995 they were both on a commuter train to downtown Chicago when Diana’s 3-week-old daughter Keisha stopped breathing. Even worse, blood was coming out of the baby’s mouth. Risa had recently taken a CPR class at her Tae-Kwan-Doe school. Everybody else on the train seemed paralyzed, but Risa raced to the baby and administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. There was no time to think. She had the courage and the knowledge to step up. The train ultimately stopped and the mother and child were helicoptered to Children’s hospital. The baby survived and thrived.

In Diana’s note she thanked Risa and sent a photo of 22-year-old Keisha with with her own 2-year-old son. Risa had only heard from Diana one other time since the incident, when Keisha was still a baby. It was a very sweet August anniversary for all three.

I am also celebrating the gift of life in August. August 29, 2008, was the day my life almost ended with a catastrophic heart event. After a terrible summer vacation in New Buffalo, Michigan, where I probably almost died climbing up a sand dune, I began to push my denial aside enough to think I was quite sick, though probably with pre-pneumonia, rather than severe angina.

Metra Commuter Train in Chicago

After getting back to Chicago I finally decided I’d better see a doctor friend of mine, Chris Costas. Chris put a stethoscope on me, looked at my face and then told me he was wheeling me himself to the ER of St. Francis hospital in Evanston, Illinois. The last thing I remember of that day was the nurse asking me if I cared if they cut my underwear off.

My wife, Risa, tells me that by the grace of God there was a cardiac interventionist available to attempt to insert a stent in my blocked left anterior descending artery (the “Widow Maker”). The procedure was an extremely difficult one because of the 100% blockage, but if the cardiologist could not pull it off my odds of living were awful. I had to get stronger to be able to have the quadruple bypass I needed, and that could only happen if he could somehow get the stent in.

Dr. Muhammad Akbar, the cardiologist, somehow inserted the stent. When asked how he did it he silently pointed skyward. I was on a ventilator for 13 days after that. The bypass surgery was successful, and I feel truly blessed as I celebrate the beauty of living every day.

August also makes me think of my Mom, Thais Kassel, who was born August 15, 1923. She was a loving and kind woman. Great Cubs fan, too.

August is such a beautiful month.

Question: Have you ever saved a life or had your life saved?

Share this post

Steel Driving Machine

By Lloyd Graff

It is rare to read a long article in The Washington Post that delves into the life of a guy who pushes the button on a punch press thousands of times a day. But Chico Harlan did it brilliantly in his feature piece last Saturday.

The two-thousand-word article was about more than just Bobby Campbell who works at Tenere Corporation in Dresser, Wisconsin. It was probably the best depiction of the struggle to find capable and reliable factory staff in America 2017 that I have read. I wish I had written it.

I talked to The Post’s Chico Harlan on the phone to compliment him and get more background on the piece. He spent nine days in a Holiday Inn Express in the middle of no-where Wisconsin because he and his editors, and indirectly Jeff Bezos of Amazon who owns The Washington Post, thought the piece was that important. The American labor market, especially manufacturing, is a multifaceted mess, and this mid-sized firm named Tenere, owned by a private equity group, was that rare company which would allow a reporter like Harlan full access to the shop floor and the lives of its employees.

Tenere is a big fabricating job shop. On a good day it has 550 employees banging out sheet metal components primarily for the electronics industry. They are not high-tech products, but they must fit nicely for the disk drive companies that purchase them. Tenere has a plant in Mexico, but the core of the business is in the northwest corner of Wisconsin, 90 minutes from the Twin Cities. Not many folks live in the small towns like Dresser, and you aren’t going to attract many young people with $12-$13 per hour jobs. Harlan says Tenere chronically is 120 workers short of where they would like to be, with a three-shift operation of punching, bending and assembly. The firm is constantly trying to hire and continually discarding the weak applicants who often self-select by quitting during their first week. They have bent their hiring standards to allow in people who have had criminal or substance abuse problems and still they cannot get the people they need. The writer spent a lot of time with Bobby Campbell, the press operator with a long-term drinking problem. Harlan wrote sympathetically about Bobby’s agonizing ride home each night in which he passes a dozen gas stations and mini-marts selling beer. His urge to stop and buy a dozen cans is often unbearable, and if he buys them he’ll probably down them all in one sitting.

Tenere has a lot of folks like Bobby Campbell to deal with, which is what brought the company to Matt Bush and Rob Goldiez and their robot rental startup, Hirebotics, after a manager read about them in the trade publication, The Fabricator. Day after day Bobby Campbell misses his quotas, but Tenere needs Campbell because he is the best they can get – at least until Matt and Rob brought in the robots from Denmark made by Universal Robots.

Hirebotics is a year-old company according to Goldiez. He and his partner are engineers, formerly working at a unit of Berkshire Hathaway, who saw the potential for being the vital facilitator between the robot seller and the end user like Tenere that faces huge operational problems on a shop floor lacking sophistication and distrustful of automation. Goldiez told me they are being swamped with inquiries since The Post piece and the article in The Fabricator.

A Universal Robot is a $32,000 robotic arm, not one of the monster Kuka or ABB machines welding car bodies you see at Toyota or Ford.

Matt and Rob packed two robotic arms and their wiring packages into their car in Nashville and drove to the northwest corner of Wisconsin to install them themselves. They are very hands-on guys. Their intriguing business proposition is that they rent the robots by usage for $15 per hour. The machines are expected to be used 80 hours per week, minimum. Records of uptime are kept on the Cloud.

It took eight days for Bush and Goldiez to officially integrate the robots into Tenere’s production, making “claws” and “holsters” out of sheet metal. They are not really replacing people, just augmenting production for people like Bobby Campbell who tries his best but cannot keep up with the company’s production goal.

For highly reliable Annie Larson, another Tenere employee highlighted in the story, the second robot installed is a godsend. Her team is supposed to be comprised of 12 people but usually only 6 or 7 show up. Her robot doesn’t have sick kids or divorce court to deal with and hits its quotas every day. She’s happy about it because it takes stress out of her life when the team falls behind.

Tenere is now planning for robots 3 and 4 from Hirebotics. They had been considering busing in people from a Somali community in the Twin Cities, a 90-minute trip, but the robots may make that unnecessary. For now the company is starting to manage its “arms” race.

Question: Over the next 10 years will robots save or kill more jobs in America?

Read Harlan’s Washington Post Article “Rise of the Machines.”

Share this post

What are YOU selling?

By Lloyd Graff

I’m sitting on a wooden chair at my local Starbucks next to a kiosk of snacks I’ve never seen anybody buy. I’m sipping an iced latte. It’s decent, but I didn’t come here for the coffee. I just needed a table with some energy in the room that would make it easier for the words to flow for this blog. The latte is my space rental price, and I think it is well worth $4.53 to me for the two-hour lease with a reasonably clean bathroom and affable staff.

I think Starbucks founder Howard Schultz has always known what he was selling at Starbucks. In his early biography the poor Jewish boy from New York City, whose Dad was a $20,000 a year city truck driver, describes how he ended up in Seattle after dropping out of Northern Michigan University when the football coach realized he was never going to quarterback the varsity. Schultz was hardly a coffee maven then, but he traveled to Sweden in an early job and saw how the Scandinavians used to hang out and schmooze while sipping coffee, and he had a vision of what an American coffee chain could be.

His brilliant insight was that all over the modern world people hungered for a “third place”—not home, not work—where they could hang out and talk. There were bars, of course, but they had all kinds of stigma and only satisfied an older, nighttime clientele. The coffee shop, if it was correctly located, with the proper selections of coffee and food, comfortable seating, welcoming baristas (coffee makers) who were friendly and intelligent, could fill an enormous gap in food presentation.

Courtesy of dailymail.co.uk

What Howard Schultz understood intuitively in the late 1980s was that coffee was the hook to pull in his audience but he did not have to sell the best gourmet coffee in the world. The key to his real success was obtaining the best store locations and then subletting the space to coffee drinkers like me who couldn’t tell Brazilian from Sumatran beans in a million years. Who knew what a latte was before Schultz? And the Frappuccino, the masterpiece of Mr. Starbucks, was a billion-dollar invention that a true coffeeist would sneer at.

In business you have to know what you are selling. I think Gene Haas has been enormously successful in the brutally competitive machine tool game because he sold moderately priced machines and Haas service. The local repair technician with spare parts in his truck is Gene’s Haas’s great innovation. In many cases I think Haas sells service with a machine thrown in.

I believe machining companies sell absolute reliability more than anything else. Customers say they buy primarily on price, but in many cases after a few years with the same supplier they check price infrequently. They want to know that the product arrives on time, that the quality can be counted on and that the supplier listens to them. They may say it’s all about price, but usually it isn’t. And if it is only about price, who needs them?

I’m finishing my latte now. The coffee grinder is humming but I barely notice it. My car is right outside the door. Very convenient. Parking is one of the nice plusses with this Starbucks. Schultz coming through again.

At Starbucks, it’s not the coffee. It’s the location. They know what they are selling.

Question: Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts or Maxwell House?

Share this post

Repealing and Replacing My Career

By Stephanie Herzfeld

It initially felt like I was sucker punched. The air left my lungs, and I was left momentarily speechless and very confused. What, I’m being let go?

I should’ve seen the writing on the wall. There were warning signs months in advance that I was blind to or perhaps that I just didn’t want to see. They started giving me new assignments that were unrelated to my area of expertise because there wasn’t enough of “my” type of work to keep me billable. Stress levels were on the rise in the office, and as the surest sign of impending doom, I was given a serious salary cut.

I’d come home some days so wound up over work I must have been vibrating like a tuning fork. Nevertheless I persisted, even though taking this job was actually something I had hesitations about from day one. From the start, my colleagues and bosses came across as aggressive, and the office always had a nervous, edgy energy. But I had never quit anything in my entire life, and the idea of throwing in the towel and looking for something new simply wasn’t a concept I could wrap my mind around. And, I was trapped in the “golden handcuffs.” How could I give up a job with great benefits and a good salary (even after the pay cut) in this economy? So I hung on and held out hope that work would improve, until it didn’t.

I was laid off from my public relations job in early April, and after a day or two of feeling sorry for myself and processing the shock of the situation while hibernating at home, watching TV and eating ice cream I actually started to feel better. I wasn’t happy about being unemployed, but I had the sensation that the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders. I was no longer tethered to a job that wasn’t right for me—a job that I likely would not have left had I not been forced to go.

I wondered what to do next. After returning from a serendipitous trip to Spain (traveling allowed me to put everything on pause and clear my head!), I thought about my professional background. I was 37 years old and had worked in PR for big agencies for the past 12 years, 10 years in New York before coming to Chicago.

Although I have a background in communications/PR and a degree in journalism, I knew that I didn’t want to go back to the same type of corporate environment of the big PR agency that I’d just come from.

Triumphant Jerry Maguire after being fired.

I saw a career counselor to help me find my calling. She guided me on how to marry my field of expertise in communications to the causes I’m interested in. She wanted me to take a step back and think about what it would take to make me get excited about getting out of bed in the morning. Although my ultimate goal is to find a job, we discussed the benefits of volunteering (in tandem with job hunting) to help me test drive possible career paths and fill my resume gap. We also discussed the technical aspects of job hunting and the importance of putting out feelers to my personal and professional contacts because as is the case with online dating, the more of yourself you put out there, the more you will receive back—it is a numbers game.

Working with her I discovered that being a CEO of a Fortune 500 company won’t make me happy. Neither will working at a tech start up. Following an exercise in which I had to make a list of 50 companies that I’d like to work for, I discovered what I had an inkling about all along—that I’d like to work for an organization that “does good.” Simply put, I’d like to work for an organization that contributes to the greater good in a meaningful way and prioritizes this above profits (so I’m thinking I likely won’t work for Martin Shkreli).

Women’s issues have always been important to me, and they have become even more so since the presidential election. Also I’m a huge animal lover. These interests have led me to volunteer at Paws and Planned Parenthood. At Paws I’m still in the training phase, shadowing cat experts before I’m allowed to interact with/“socialize” the cats. (Apparently, playing with and petting the cats so they become accustomed to humans are nuanced skills that require rigorous training.) Meanwhile, at Planned Parenthood I’ve been helping design educational materials on birth control. (FYI, abortion is actually only a small part of Planned Parenthood’s services—health screenings, counseling and community outreach account for the majority of the work the organization does.) It’s been fascinating to dive into the history of contraception as I pull presentations together, and I’m reminded of how lucky I am to have access to this type of healthcare… for now. After just a few volunteer sessions they have already started hinting about paying jobs that could be available.

Life is so short that it’s a pity to spend your life going to a job that makes you miserable. Getting laid off in April is probably one of the best things to ever happen to me. Now it’s time to both repeal… and REPLACE my former career path.

Question: What was the best or worst career change you made in your life?

Stephanie Herzfeld has been working in the PR field for 12 years. If you know of an interesting job in the field of “doing good” email her at stephanieherzfeld429@gmail.com.

Share this post

Renaissance Machinery Dealer

By Noah Graff

A few weeks ago I traveled to Berlin, Germany. During my stay I visited a used machine tools company called Innovac GmbH where I met with its owners Dr. Mohammad Ehsasi and his wife, Cathy Farrar. Innovac sells just about every type of equipment—from woodworking machines, presses, rotary transfers and refrigeration machines to milking machines. It’s always interesting to meet other machinery dealers because I get to learn about their business philosophies and find out how they got into the esoteric used machine tools racket.

Dr. Ehsasi grew up in Iran. He went to the United States in 1976 to get a master’s degree in physics at the University of Maine where he met his wife Cathy. After a few years the couple moved to Berlin where Ehsasi did research at the world-renowned Max Planck Institute.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 a lot of idle used equipment and entire factories came on the market in East Germany. Ehsasi had many contacts in Middle Eastern countries who were looking to acquire bargain priced used equipment so he got into the business of moving entire factories in a wide range of industries to an equally wide range of countries in Europe and around the world. As time went on Ehsasi stopped the labor-intensive transport of entire factories and focused on individual pieces of equipment.

Universal Room Module from H.O.M.E. Modular Systems

Dr. Ehsasi is a renaissance machinery dealer. Several years ago he and his wife started a B2B magazine in Germany called Trade & Contact that covered the machining industry around the world. They told me it was a labor of love that they unfortunately had to end because producing it took too much time and too many resources while they were also trying to run a machinery business—familiar story.

Screw-connected Framework of Room Module from H.O.M.E. Modular Systems

Today Ehsasi has a new passion project, a company called H.O.M.E. Modular Systems. After the natural disasters of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the earthquake in Japan in 2011 Ehsasi realized the world needed quality temporary housing for disaster relief. Temporary housing kits already existed, but they required the components of the buildings to be welded together, and their quality standards varied. Ehsasi’s temporary housing system on the other hand uses a simple screw-connected framework which enables end users to assemble and disassemble structures easily themselves. Ehsasi says that two people with a forklift can assemble a structure’s framework in one hour. He says that in 40 hours an entire living space can be finished with ready-made components for a bedroom, office, kitchenette and bathroom. The Universal Room Modules in a disaster area can be easily disassembled and transported after the crisis ends to new places to be used for new applications such as another shelter or a standalone office. Using modern manufacturing techniques it is possible for H.O.M.E. to produce 200 or more modules in one day.

Interior of Universal Room Module from H.O.M.E. Modular Systems

However, Ehsasi’s unique vision is to produce temporary structures of high enough quality that people will buy them to use as living or working spaces in a normal economy, not just in disaster areas. Recently, Ehsasi has engineered heavier duty modules that can be stacked up to three levels. Local building materials can be used and the potential for designs is limitless, making them attractive for both architects and end-users.

We machinery dealers have to be flexible. There is a finite amount of iron treasure to trade in this world but an infinite amount of new ideas to try out and needs to meet.

Question 1: Could you live happily in a 400 square foot house?

Question 2: Do you feel like you are anti-immigrant?

For more information email info@innovac-home.de or go to www.innovac-home.de

Share this post

Pools of Money

By Lloyd Graff

We hear the term “private equity” tossed around every day in business. The Bloomberg ticker tells us about the giants that often go by initials like KKR and 3G. They have enormous pools of cash available for a juicy investment. Insurance companies, foundations and wealthy private investors fund these guys (they are usually guys) looking for the next big score, in which a small stash of cash is augmented by container loads of borrowed money. The drill is usually to fancy-up the books by firing a bunch of people, curtail capital investment, roll up some similar businesses for supposed economies of scale, and then go public or sell out to another entity with similar plans.

I was intrigued last week by a public relations release (I get a dozen of them every day) that mentioned a longtime machinery business friend, David Muslin, being involved in a private equity deal. His firm was buying out a 50-person cold heading shop in Bristol, Wisconsin, called Anderson Products. I called David hoping he would give me some insights into how private equity deals work in the world of medium-sized contract machining shops of the kind I deal with every day.

David has been in the used machinery business for 40 years, working for Sidney Lieberstein at Perfection Machinery in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, then buying out Sidney with Pat Angus, then gravitating to the auction business and starting PPL Auction in 2007 with Joel Bersh. Dealing with distressed companies ultimately led him to the lending and investing business in Big Shoulders Capital.

To Muslin, some companies have the potential for investment and others are better off dead than alive, with their physical assets worth more than a failing business. As an auctioneer those are most of what he sees every day, but sometimes a deal comes along with a big upside with an infusion of fresh money and new energy. In the case of Anderson Products in Wisconsin, the company had been sold a few years ago when a private equity group took over Rockford Products, a struggling fastener company in Rockford, Illinois, and then bought out successful Anderson Products, trying to bring in some earnings and professionalism. It went the other way with the top folks at Anderson quitting and the whole Rockford project falling apart.

Muslin and his associates at Big Shoulders thought that with Tim Cash, who had run Anderson when it was successful, willing to come back with a “piece of the action” he could obtain financing for the 50-person shop. Big Shoulders would end up with a share of the company and if things went well Muslin would own a big chunk of a valuable asset. If it did not work out his auction firm would sell the assets and they would have a chance to get out whole.

David told me he owns a very successful aluminum extrusion business in Florida, and a steel business in Harvey, Illinois, among several operating companies that Big Shoulders has invested in.

He believes the key to all of the deals he looks at is attracting the right talent to run the business. As in every enterprise, things go wrong very often. Manufacturing is extremely competitive. He says that for every five deals a private equity firm does, one is an outright failure, two struggle to break even, and if you are very skillful and probably lucky, two are winners.

Over the years I have known a lot of machinery dealers and auctioneers who have moved into investing in operating businesses. Some have hit the jackpot, but most of the companies have ended up being liquidated because the everyday management and the passion of the owner operator was hard to replace. But there is a strong swing today toward private equity and sometimes its wayward cousin “pirate equity,” buying small and medium-sized businesses in North America. There is plenty of risk money out there. Interest rates are historically low and manufacturing seems to have stabilized after the China tsunami ended. A lot of money from foreign countries is hunting for a home here, both in real estate and business investment.

I wish David Muslin good luck in this venture. Investing in hammered down businesses is a tough game, but what isn’t?

Question: If you could get the money, what type of business would you start?

Share this post

Equal Opportunity?

By Lloyd Graff

I have been thinking a lot about whether America has become hopelessly stratified by wealth, race, education and all sorts of barriers that make it almost impossible for poor people to improve their status.

I have the opportunity to observe a lot of the edges of our cultural, educational and economic divide as a small business owner, grandparent, and resident of a racially mixed community.

Running a small business that does deals with both successful and struggling companies, I see how the unfolding of the post World War II industrial revolution has moved American jobs and ingenuity all over the world. First, we had Japan challenging, then China, and then the rise of Mexico to reduce the torrent of jobs going to the Far East. Automation is now reaching a new critical mass which will eliminate more low and middle level jobs. Amazon and its offshoots will continue to drain retail jobs. Drones will eventually wipe out tons of UPS and FedEx employees.

Yet there are thousands of unfilled factory jobs that evidently still do not pay enough to attract young people today. That is the real rub in my machinist world. You can offer $30 per hour for a skilled machinist, repair person or programmer and you still cannot hire her or him.

Education has failed us in America, but maybe that is an incorrect cliché. Maybe Americans have failed the education system.

I think there are all kinds of interesting opportunities available in manufacturing and a hundred other jobs in our diverse and rich economy in America, but ambition, hope, courage, a roadmap, and maybe most important, self-belief, are lacking.

I heard a really disturbing and shocking figure. Today, 60% of new births in the U.S. are to unmarried mothers. Every related statistic points to a poorer life outcome for those kids. The children of married, two-parent families have far more opportunities. And that 60% figure keeps growing while the economic gap between one parent children versus unmarried two parent homes also gets wider.

I look at my older grandchildren and see them get a demanding Silicon Valley education with the structure of daily religious education as well as supplemental athletic and dance training. Should I tell my children not to push their kids to excel because poor, unwed parents make bad decisions? Of course not.

Not coincidentally, there are virtually no African American people in their Bay Area neighborhood or school.

Where my wife and I live, our next-door neighbors are black and the schools are more black than white. My wife’s educational therapy practice has more blacks than whites. Real estate values are less than half of similar housing stock in nearby suburbs. Growth in home values has been the most important vehicle for building wealth in America and most black people have been shut out. This has contributed to poorer quality schools in black neighborhoods, also contributing to the expanding wealth and opportunity gap between rich and poor, black and white.

There is little doubt in my mind that we are headed in a bad direction. David Brooks just wrote an excellent column in The New York Times entitled “How We are Ruining America”, which began with this lead.

“Over the past generation members of the college educated class have become amazingly good at making sure their children retain their privileged status. They have also become devastatingly good at making sure the children of other classes have limited chances to join their ranks.”

I know of no good parents who are going to stop doing everything possible to enhance their kids’ chances for success.

Government programs have generally been awful failures, except maybe Head Start and Pell Grants, at changing people’s self-limiting and self-destructive behavior. Throwing money at prevention of opioid addiction certainly has not worked. Planned Parenthood and abortion availability hasn’t dented unmarried parenthood.

Should I feel badly if my children and grandchildren are in the more fortunate category? Perhaps, because my America has been so good to me. But, what do you do if so many people in this country cannot, will not, or believe they are so hopelessly stuck, that they and their kids will never get out of the mire?

Question: If you were a poor kid today, what would you do to succeed?

Share this post

Let Me Work

By Lloyd Graff

I’m on vacation in the Bay Area and I’m working. Today it’s a blog, business calls, thinking about options for TMW and Graff-Pinkert. I’m in a coffee shop, sipping a latte and nibbling a superb authentic French croissant. I’m staring at a majestic eucalyptus and passing bikers.

I’ve been seriously considering what I really want to do on vacation – and frankly – this is it. I’m staying with my wife at my daughter Sarah’s and son-in-law Scott’s house. I get to be with my three grand daughters, watch the Cubs on cable, cheer on American Ninja Warrior, and do business and write.

I know there are a million things I “should” do on “vacation.” Hiking, RV’ing, museum’ing, I could go to Norway and cruise the fjords, maybe Australia too, and then there’s the majestic beauty of Alaska. I have the money, I probably even have the time (who knows), but I have no desire to do that stuff any more. I’d rather do work, family and Cubs. For me, my work is a challenging mind game each day. Bridge and chess don’t do anything for me, but the intricacies of a negotiation for real money is endlessly fascinating. As the machinery business has become a global bazaar it makes it even more fun.

The 3am email from China or Slovenia may screw up my sleep and annoy my wife but it’s definitely more exciting than a prostate call. And the beauty of email makes it possible to do business on weekends and holidays. The Fourth of July is a work day in Europe, Asia and Brazil.

I know I am extremely fortunate to have my work also be more avocation. Maybe I’ve worked hard most of my life to be able to get to do it now. But I’ll take it – happily. And I’m really enjoying the croissant, too.

**********

The grand Tesla argument is in full swing now. Elon Musk is actually going to do what he promised he would do, build a $35,000 sexy American electric car and mass produce it, to the tune of 20,000 per month by December. He has pre-orders for 400,000 cars. And Goldman Sachs is hating on him – or at least his stock.

Musk has used the Amazon strategy of building a company from scratch by using borrowed money and hype. There is a furious tug of war going on between the bears and bulls.

The stock is $315 per share today, valuing the company at $51 billion, more than General Motors or Ford. Tesla is losing gobs of money as they simultaneously gear up to build the midsize car and build the monster battery plant in Nevada.

Meanwhile, Musk is also heavily involved in his reusable space launch company, SpaceX and his Boring Company which proposes to use a high speed tunneling concept to circumvent Los Angeles’ clogged highway mess.

Musk is overextended in every way. The stock is down 15% in the last month, but is still in outer space according to the doubters.

I find Elon Musk the most amazing entrepreneur of our day. He actually builds things and knows that he can fail on any of these ventures, but he keeps defying the naysayers. One day the Goldman Sachs’ers will be right and the stock will plunge like his rockets sometimes do, but folks like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos do absolutely remarkable things between the misses.

Question: What is your ideal vacation?

Share this post

Respect the Streak

By Lloyd Graff

Baseball fans love statistics because they tend to make the daily events seem more rational and orderly. We humans crave order and predictability, even when things aren’t orderly and predictable.

Last season the Cubs won the World Series and were at or near the top all season in driving in “runners in scoring position.” Driving in runs is how you win games. It is a lot like the process of closing a deal in business or winning a case if you are a lawyer.

This year, as the Cubs struggle to stay above .500 game after game, they are in last place in scoring runs with runners in scoring position. They score runs by hitting home runs, but cannot get the big hit to bring in runners from second and third base. This seems odd because the young Cubs players are almost identical to the ones who led the Majors in scoring and led the National League in scoring by a wide margin in 2016.

This inconsistency is driving me nuts, not just because I’m a Cubs fan, but because this kind of unpredictability makes me crazy in my business life of trying to make deals. I am coming off two crappy years in the machine tool business. So far this year it has flipped and my machinery company is doing well. Is it luck? Is it adjusting to the mean? Is it because of an improvement in business conditions? Is it the “Trump Bump?” Then there’s my big question; the one that haunts me. Is business just random? Do we give ourselves too much credit when things go well and do we become overly self-critical when things stink?

Superstitious “Nuke” LaLush in the film “Bull Durham”

Going back to baseball. Crash Davis in Bull Durham said it well, “You have to respect the streak.” The streak gives us energy – both positive and negative. When you are slumping everything is a struggle and you make lousy decisions out of fear. The negativity dictates caution. You don’t feel like going to work and you fear making mistakes because you doubt yourself. Depression leads to deeper depression.

But when your luck charges, all things appear to be possible and you start making decisions with confidence rather than running away from them. In the baseball vernacular, you hit it to the opposite field when they pitch you outside because you don’t have to go for a home run every time up. If you don’t get a hit this time up there will still be other opportunities and your teammates will pick you up. Confidence is the difference maker in sports and in life.

I suppose I’m too old to believe in superstitions, but I do because I “respect the streak.” If wearing my underwear backwards is working for me, I’ll do it. Pink pants, drinking apple cider vinegar, listening to the same music each morning, if it abets a hot streak, I’m into it. Luck begets luck. Positive energy must be cherished and enhanced, because it eventually drifts away.

I believe in talent and hard work, for sure, but without good luck and the positive vibe that usually goes with it, it is difficult to sustain confidence. Confidence drives in the runs.

Question: What superstitions do you have?

“Respect the Streak” Scene in Bull Durham

Share this post

A Father’s Day Baseball Story

By Lloyd Graff

John Arguello is a favorite writer of mine, these days. He covers the Chicago Cubs intensively and works with a stable of writers and commenters at Cubs Den who really know the game. John understands “inside baseball” but he also pulls in the human side with wonderful sensitivity. He is undergoing cancer treatment at the moment at MD Anderson in Houston but took the time to write this blog yesterday. 

By John Arguello.
Article Courtesy of ChicagoNow.com.

I remember the creaking of the screened storm door opening, then closing quickly, the thin weathered door tiredly slamming shut against the door jamb. Following closely behind came the smell of sweat, it permeated the air, layered somewhere in the middle wafted that distinct metallic odor that comes home with you after working 12 hour days with steel machinery. I didn’t often see my father in his navy blue factory work wear, his fingers still stained with oil, tinged with hints of dried, crusted blood, the well-callused hands thick and swollen. Heavy. It always felt like I was stealing a secret when I caught a glimpse of my dad coming in through the back door on those days — those days when he was so eager to be home again that he didn’t have the time to transform himself seamlessly back to dad before we all had dinner together. As much as I greatly anticipated his return each day, I knew to respect that other side of his life. It was the side he never talked about and so I did not ask. As children, he wanted to keep that part of his life shielded from us. When that door closed behind him, it was as if he left that whole separate world behind him, even if it was only for just a comforting home-cooked meal, a chance to catch his breath, and a richly earned night of sleep, a time of quiet and peace before stepping back in between the factory walls the next morning, ready for the unrelenting clamor of industrialism to fire itself up again.

In between that grind was our little window. We knew the routine. After a replenishing dinner it was an ice cold beer, which he took at his evening throne, the soft brown leather recliner in the corner of the room that cushioned his landing from from the long hard day. It was during this time that I would approach my dad, tell him about school, but it wasn’t really school I cared to talk about. That’s what he wanted to know. That is why he did what he did all day long. For us. Every penny that did not go to paying the bills went to us kids, mostly for our future, so that one day we could have it much easier than he did.

I was just a boy then. I wasn’t focused on the future. My life was right there in front of me. And just as now, my passion was baseball. My dad and I are very different in so many ways. He is pragmatic, results-oriented, linear, matter-of-fact. As child, I was a dreamer, curious, rebellious, inventive. I imagine that may have made him worry quite a bit at times.

What we did have was baseball. That was our thing. Whenever there was a time I needed to connect with my dad, baseball was there to act as a conduit. As you may have already surmised, my father is not the storyteller I am (that comes from my mom’s side of the family), but I asked him to tell me stories anyway. He would tell me about the clutch-hitting Ron Santo, the ultra efficient duels of Ferguson Jenkins and Bob Gibson, the slick glove of Don Kessinger, sweet-swingin’ Billy Williams, the Milt Pappas game featuring the worst non-strike call in the history of baseball, and on and on. My father provided the facts and structure behind the stories and my imagination raced enthusiastically to fill in the blanks. I don’t think he knew at the time that he would inspire such a passionate baseball fan. I think for him baseball was an occasional escape from the mundane reality of his working class life. As a child, a dreamer, it wasn’t that simple for me. A much as I excelled in school and big plans were being made all around for my future, I only wanted to be a ballplayer. Because, why not? When you are a child, anything seems possible. My dad, as usual, was more focused on the practical side of things and for him it was just easier to compartmentalize it all. School was school. Work was work. Baseball was baseball. There was a time for each, but they did not co-exist in the same world for him.

And so over time, baseball and I went on our separate paths. It’s not that I stopped following the game. I still followed it closely and passionately…but now it was separate from the rest of my life. It was just the practical thing to do. It was the responsible thing to do. It is exactly what my dad would have done. There would always be room to carve in a separate space for both.

But for me things don’t work that way. I see everything big pictures. Everything is connected. In my world, there are no neatly dividing lines except the ones we ourselves choose to draw. That worked for my dad, but I never dreamed I’d be the one actually drawing those lines as I got older.

My dad and I drifted apart over the years as well. It was not some kind of major rift or anything. More like an achingly slow continental drift that happens gradually over the span of a generation. I sometimes felt I let him down and didn’t live up to the promise and potential he always knew I had. I did well enough in life, made an earnest living. I exchanged my dad’s blue collar lifestyle for a white one. I exchanged the drone of factory machines for the drone of corporate life in America. That certainly seemed like progress. That’s the way things should be moving, is it not?

Except it didn’t feel that way.

About 10 years ago, around his 70th birthday, my dad and I began to reconnect again. It started with a speech the family asked me to write about him for a surprise party they had planned for him.

It was meant as a tribute to my father and everything he has sacrificed for us over the years. But something else happened as I delivered that emotional speech in front of the large gathering of our family and friends. Those lines I had drawn for myself suddenly became blurred and I found my voice again.

Nobody heard that voice louder than my dad.

“You should be writing”, he would later say. “You have a gift that I could never really have and that don’t think I ever fully understood. I wish I could have realized it earlier.”

To hear this from my father meant the world to me. My mother is more my kindred spirit in terms of our artistic sensibilities, but to be able to reach my dad on this level of openness was different. My father had always been practical, always drawing lines and wearily closing doors to shut out the noise and keep his different worlds separate and distinct

I think about myself now as I do my job as a writer, spending long days at the park out in the open air and sun, out near the field, with few physical barriers separating me from the the game I have loved my whole life, even if that game is often a slightly altered version with loosely defined rules and no pre-defined limits. If anything the quirkiness of time and rule in these games makes it even more appealing to me. It’s peaceful, quiet, only occasionally interrupted by the sweet crack of the bat after a long home run.

And then as I walk home after the game, I suddenly realize how tired I am.  I begin to feel how hot the Arizona sun beats down on me. As beads of sweat roll down my back and along the sides of my face,  I become eager to get indoors and feel the respite of our cool, air-conditioned home.  Then as I wearily reach to close the back door behind me, my sweaty hand slips on the door knob and I briefly catch a wisp of that familiar distinctive odor I remembered as a child.

Happy to be home at last, I sit down, crack open a beer, and begin to write…

Question: Who taught you the game?

Share this post