Talking Steel with Miles Free

By Noah Graff

Two weeks ago at the Precision Machined Products Association (PMPA) Tech Conference I interviewed Miles Free, the association’s Director of Industry Research and Technology. He’s a guru of machining industry world politics and one of the world’s foremost experts on the steel trade.

In March when President Trump tweeted his intentions to implement a 25% tariff on steel and a 10% tariff on aluminum coming into the United States, Free was bombarded from news outlets around the globe for his analysis—he really knows his steel. I came into the interview knowing very little about global steel trade, so it was a great opportunity to get a solid breakdown of the effects of Trump’s proposed tariffs on the machining industry.

Below are a few interesting points I gleaned from the interview, which in a few weeks will be released as a Today’s Machining World Podcast!

Target of President Trump’s Proposal for Tariffs on Raw Material Imports

Miles Free says that the proposed tariffs target China. The Chinese have overbuilt their capacity to make steel. They can produce more steel than they can use and more steel than the entire world can use. This gives them power over the prices of raw materials used to make steel and also makes them vulnerable.

A steel foundry on the outskirts of Beijing. (abc.net.au)

Also, solely owned American companies are illegal in China. An American company must have a Chinese partner, and that Chinese partner is supposed to have full access to the American company’s technology. The Chinese have just relaxed the regulation for ownership of car companies. The press is speculating that Tesla is going to build a plant in China, and this probably would not have been announced right now had the tariffs not been brought up.

Quality of Chinese Steel and Other Raw Materials Versus that Produced in the United States

Free told me that it would be difficult at times for even experts to be able to take a certificate of analysis and say if a batch of steel is from the United States or China. However, the Chinese have different production systems and inconsistent regulations in their manufacturing processes. The quality of Chinese steel is not legally guaranteed like it would be from a steel company in the United States. As a result, when Chinese steel is bought off the dock, a purchaser cannot know the quality of the product. Also, as opposed to big hot roll coils, steel bar stock used by machining companies is notoriously difficult to maintain in good condition when transported by sea because it has a lot of surface area that can rust.

Sanctions on Ourselves

Despite the desire of American companies to buy steel in the United States for reasons of both quality control and economic patriotism, there are certain grades of steel used for machined parts that are no longer produced domestically. Thus machining companies have no choice but to import those grades of steel. The tariffs may make certain types of steel cost prohibitive for American manufacturers.

If Trump’s policy of a 25% tariff on raw material were implemented, it would mean that if General Motors wanted to order a batch of steel parts, an American supplier would not be able to price the parts competitively with a foreign supplier who didn’t have the 25% penalty tacked on. General Motors would then be tempted to produce the parts in China or another foreign country and import the finished parts to the United States. Miles Free compared this potential raw material tariff debacle to the economic sanctions on imports that the United States would inflict on an enemy like Russia or Iran.

“Nobody would have dreamed that the White House would ever use an entire industry as a negotiating technique” Free said.

Hopefully the tariff threat will remain solely a negotiating technique and not something the U.S. government follows through on. The current postponement of the tariffs until June 1 and the many exemptions already discussed in Washington to protect machining companies from the tariffs are reasons to remain calm.

Question: Have the proposed tariffs affected your business already?

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The Retirement Question

By Lloyd Graff

Is retirement a curse or a blessing? Obviously, there is no single answer to the question.

I have answered the question for myself without a lot of soul searching. I enjoy the challenge of working, of pushing myself, interacting with people and creating new stuff.

If I can be productive I would like to work for the rest of my life. I am 73 years old. I find the number scary, but doing the mundane of “showing up” everyday still stimulates me like nothing else that I have discovered. I am very conscious of having the enormous asset of working with my son, Noah, and a cadre of bright reliable caring people who have my back and challenge me to be smarter than I am.

I am also acutely conscious of the fact that the year that somebody is most likely to die (other than the year they are born) is the year they retire. I’m sure that is partially related to folks retiring because they are ill, which may skew the numbers, but I also believe that for many people, the loss of interaction with peers, the boredom, the solitariness, the lack of purpose is a curse.

72-year-old Finn Esko Ketola. Four-times World Champion Weight Lifter.

I think the self-professed financial gurus who preach the virtues of retirement to feed their advisory services tend to be a group of circling vultures.

The traditional retirement age of 65 is totally outdated today. It was an invention of unions and do-gooders when the lifespan of workers (many of whom smoked cigarettes regularly) was rarely past 65. Today if you live to 65 you have a good chance to pass 80 in reasonably good health. With 4% unemployment now, there are many interesting job or gig opportunities as well as an infinite number of volunteer possibilities.

I want to identify my own biases at this point, because I do write this piece from a position of white privilege in America. People in failing health, weak in skills, or chronically depressed certainly lack the opportunities that I have. For them, retirement may be more of a blessing than a curse.

But I think that the notion of retirement has been sold to people from childhood, partly as a job preservation tool for workers and unions that see older people hogging the prime jobs. In an economy that increasingly is filled with service jobs and people doing part-time gigs, I think there will be loads of interesting opportunities for older people if they are not crippled by the notion that the world undervalues them.

My view of the world is colored by my wife Risa’s passion for Taekwondo at 67 years old. She is a 4th Degree black belt and is proceeding with the long test protocol to get to 5th Degree. She drives 37 miles each way to her school twice a week, partly to train with other women who have a similar commitment. She also maintains a private practice as an educational therapist in which people pay her $100/hour to help their children learn. Her clients do not care about her age.

I certainly know about the fragility of life. “Man plans, God laughs,” is the line I live by, but understanding how blessed I am to be alive and live in America makes me determined to keep squeezing the juice as long as possible. For me, that means to write, make deals, expand my networks and have fun.

Question: What’s your plan at 65? Keep working, retire, volunteer, hang out?

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Profilometer

By Lloyd Graff

I’m writing this blog in my new favorite Starbucks in Flossmoor, Illinois. All of the employees are African American women. I am one of three white people in the shop. If there was ever a company whose culture frowned on racial profiling it is Starbucks, with its Jewish founder, Howard Schultz, son of a New York cabbie. Yet at one of its shops in an upscale neighborhood in Philly, a couple of well-dressed black men ended up in handcuffs because an employee of Starbucks freaked out and called the cops when the guys wanted to use the bathroom and hadn’t yet ordered their Frappucinos.

Profiling happens all the time and it stinks.

To stereotype, to profile, is human. It’s a means of protection built into our brains. It’s a decision-making approach taught to us almost from birth.

I have learned through the years that one of the beauties of everyday life is that profiling is such an imperfect tool for making accurate judgements. Its flaws present us with opportunities to exploit the fallacies of stereotyping.

Profile of a Starbucks cup.

For running a business, profiling is the screening device we use, consciously or unconsciously to make decisions. Too fat, too ugly, too young, dresses inappropriately, dropped out of school, served time, wears his hat funny, gets around in a wheel chair, farts a lot, too old. We have a million disqualifications. In our machinery business, Graff-Pinkert, we try to use profiling of unloved machine tools to our advantage as we hunt for unloved gems in the scrap category.

A couple years ago, the best college pitching prospect in the county couldn’t get an offer to play professional baseball because he had an embarrassing sexual incident in his past. The kid was completely blackballed by Major League Baseball. The incident happened 10 years earlier. Was it fair?

Is life fair?

*******

One of the funnier cases of profiling, very literal profiling, took place a dozen years ago and was recounted recently by Michael Lewis in his book The Undoing Project. Lewis has a long chapter on Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, who are favored to win the NBA Championship this year. Morey recounts his struggles through the years trying to figure out what players to draft, sign or trade to build a championship team.

He brings up the story of Marc Gasol, a Center from Spain whose brother Pau was already a respected player in the League. Marc had most of the pedigree to be a top five pick in the draft.

He had skills, a shot, a height of 7’1”, and a brother in the NBA. A no-brainer pick, except that the scouts and GMs hated one thing—his body type. Poor Marc Gasol had breasts. Because of his “man boobs” the profilers, the NBA draft mavens, all whispered with their half smiles that Marc really wasn’t “our kinda guy.” He went #48 in the 2007 draft. Upon entering the NBA, Gasol worked on his fitness, hit the weight room and became an NBA All Star for Memphis.

********

One more stereotyping story to savor. Last Monday’s Boston Marathon was run in brutal weather conditions. Freezing cold, sheets of rain. Perfect weather for Boston in April. Boston is the premier marathon in America and most of the top distance runners in the world compete there. The great marathoners do not pay to enter the competition. The best ones are guaranteed their expenses and sometimes are paid just to show up.

Vegas puts odds on the favorites, and very rarely does an outsider break into the top group. But in 2018 it happened.

Sarah Sellers, a 26-year-old nurse from Arizona, paid her $180 entrance fee. She runs at 4:00 a.m. back home in Phoenix because her job as a nurse anesthetist doesn’t afford her a lot of training time. She came partly because her husband Blake was running too. Sarah had run cross country and track at Weber State and was an Academic All American. But she isn’t a marathoner. Boston was her second marathon.

She just kept pushing in the horrendous conditions of Boston, and all of the big names kept faltering. She was 25th at the midway point and 13th at 20 miles. Sarah just kept running and finished the race in second place, collecting $75,000 in prize money and a spot in the Olympic trials.

The profilers in Boston and Las Vegas didn’t know her name before Monday in Boston.

Question: Is profiling necessary for successful law enforcement?

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Rocket Men

By Noah Graff

I’ve always thought space travel was cool and interesting, particularly as a kid, but I seldom romanticized it like so many other people do.

I think it’s a generational thing. The Space Shuttles of the ‘80s and ‘90s were neat but those didn’t travel very far and they seemed too practical and utilitarian to me. Working on the Hubble Telescope and taking photos of earth and other planets was cool, but most of the news I heard about the Shuttles came when they blew up. The moon landing was amazing, but it was 49 years ago! So that has generally felt kind of “been there done that” for me.

I just read Rocket Men by Robert Kurson, a book documenting the story of NASA’s Apollo 8 mission in 1968, and my perspective on NASA and space travel has changed. I doubt most people nowadays even know what the Apollo 8 mission was. They know about the mission that landed men on the moon, though probably not by name (Apollo 11). Apollo 13 was the only Apollo mission I myself could name before I read this book because I had seen the great Tom Hanks movie about it.

View of the moon from Apollo 8 .

Apollo 8, launched 50 years ago, is arguably the NASA mission that most changed the world. It was the mission that sent a manned spacecraft to the moon and orbited it 10 times, not the mission that landed men on the moon. Apollo 11 was momentous, but Apollo 8 was the bigger achievement. Space travel had begun only a little more than a decade before it, and until that point in time the farthest any manned space flight had traveled was 800-some miles. To get to the moon’s orbit and return back to earth a spacecraft had to travel almost 250,000 miles at speeds up to 25,000 miles per hour. The ship had to have the power to break out of Earth’s orbit, enter the moon’s orbit, then break away from the moon’s orbit again and return to earth. Its instruments had to make extremely precise life or death calculations using computing power a micro-fraction of that found in a modern smartphone. The spacecraft’s so-called Apollo Guidance Computer was more basic than electronics in modern toasters that have computer controlled stop/start/defrost buttons. Upon reentry to the earth’s atmosphere the Apollo 8 spacecraft traveled in excess of 24,500 miles per hour and the computer took over flying duties. Some compared finding the entry corridor to throwing a paper airplane into a public mailbox slot from a distance of four miles.

Had a trip to the moon developed in conventional NASA fashion there would have been several missions prior to it in order to incrementally overcome the challenges of such a voyage, perhaps over the course of two years. It made sense to proceed with caution because just a year before, the Apollo 1 mission had ended tragically in a fire on the launchpad, killing the mission’s three astronaut crew members. In the summer of 1968 the odds of reaching John F. Kennedy’s goal of sending a man to the moon before 1970 and beating the Soviets in the Space Race seemed bleak. But on August 3, 1968, while sitting on a sandy Caribbean beach, George Low, one of the most important engineers at NASA at the time, had an epiphany. Suddenly it dawned on him that with the right plan and some good fortune it actually was possible for NASA to send a manned spacecraft to the moon in four months, arriving at the moon on Christmas eve. Remarkably in a matter of days he was able convince NASA and the U.S. government to attempt this audacious goal.

Had the Americans not shot for the moon in 1968 they likely would have lost the Space Race. Many accounts say the Soviets would have been capable of attempting a similar mission only two weeks after Apollo 8 launched. By September of 1968 the Soviets had already successfully completed a circumlunar voyage carrying passengers of tortoises, wine flies and meal worms. Why not a person?

Around the world many people said the idea of sending a manned spaceship to the moon by Christmas of 1968 was a reckless suicide mission. Imagine if the mission failed. A person could never look at the moon the same way again on Christmas. They questioned risking innocent people’s lives by rushing a mission just to win bragging rights. And it was the MOON! I try to place myself at that time period and I think I might have thought the idea crazy as well. It’s still hard to fathom. The MOON—that sphere in the sky, literally another world. A person had to travel 250,000 miles in a tin can to get there. At the time, deep space was only something in science fiction, but it is a mind boggling and surreal concept for me even today.

Not to mention, this pie in the sky mission was conceived in the midst of one of the most turbulent years in United States history. Americans were divided. The war in Vietnam was escalating. Race riots and assassinations filled the news, and people feared the Soviets were ready to start World War III.

But when Apollo 8’s Saturn V rocket launched Dec. 21, 1968, the world looked up and united for a moment. The mission was unprecedented and in its own way, bigger than all the conflicts raging on the ground. The Pope blessed the voyage before takeoff, and 65 countries tuned in on Christmas Eve to witness the ship’s broadcast from the moon’s orbit, including the Soviet Union and East Germany. Apollo’s three man crew had agonized for weeks prior to the trip about what to say to the world if they indeed reached lunar orbit on Christmas Eve. They consulted with just a few people to prepare a speech, and the wife of one of the writers they contacted finally gave them an idea of what to say. The speech was kept in complete secrecy from everyone, including NASA and their own families.

The three astronauts read the opening passage from the first book of Genesis.

William Anders

“We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.”

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.
And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

James Lovell

And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.”

Frank Borman

And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good.”

They ended with the captain Frank Borman saying, “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.

We find ourselves in another divided United States right now, maybe the most divided since the time of Apollo 8. Russia is still an adversary but seemingly less of an immediate threat to our existence. The U.S. now collaborates with the Russians and other nations on the International Space Station. NASA doesn’t launch its own manned rockets or Shuttles anymore. It hasn’t sent a man to the moon since Apollo 17, 46 years ago.

Elon Musk says he hopes his company, SpaceX, will send a crewed mission to Mars in 2024. How much will I care about it? Is that mission as hard to fathom today as sending a man to the moon was in 1968? Would reaching Mars be more of an achievement than Apollo 8 reaching the moon? Will such a voyage take a leap of faith like that of Columbus or Apollo 8? Will sending people to Mars unite today’s world temporarily like sending men to the moon did?

Question: Is sending people to Mars important to you?

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Current Change

By Lloyd Graff

How do you deal with change? I’m talking BIG CHANGE. Existential change in the way you do business.

We are witnessing it being played out every week now in the drug sales world. CVS is buying Aetna Insurance, Express Scripts is combining with Cigna Insurance, and Wal-Mart is exploring a deal with Humana. These mergers are defensive moves because the health care delivery business is living in mortal fear of Amazon making a big move into the industry, which most people see as ripe low hanging fruit waiting to be plucked. Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and Chase are combining efforts to develop an end run around traditional health insurance.

Many people more connected than I am think the machining world, particularly high-volume turning aimed at the automotive industry, will soon face similar existential change. This view is based on the growth of electric vehicles, which use significantly fewer machined parts than internal combustion powered vehicles. Automotive suppliers as well as companies involved in the oil and gas products and distribution industry face a long-term dwindling demand for the stuff they provide. This will also affect the metals business, from mining to melting to rolling and trucking.

The big shift to electric powered rechargeable cars and trucks will be more visible in five years because the Chinese seem to be committed to allowing only new electric cars to be sold in the country within a few years.

Smog in Harbin in northern China.

China is a 13 million car market. The country’s leadership, almost out of self-preservation, realizes air pollution is an existential issue that cannot be pushed off indefinitely.

The move to electric is a big step, and while it does not address China’s coal fired electricity plants, it will ameliorate air quality and show people that the government wants to make the country semi-livable.

A billion Chinese folks wearing gas masks isn’t my primary worry. I am concerned that my traditional machining company clients will be choking as they compete for dwindling contracts for beautiful, accurate machined components that connect the petrol to the engines in the Chevys, Toyotas and Benzes across the world.

These days I frequently address the big “electric” question to clients who I know well. The answers I usually get are the kind civilians probably give when they know an invasion is coming but don’t know when. The answer often goes something like this, “I know it’s coming. We discuss it every week, but we need to make money today, and today our business is terrific.”

What are some good options for folks (like me) who see very good business short-term by continuing to do what we are doing but are fearful about the longer term trend.

• Diversify. Find a business where your skills translate but is unrelated to the internal combustion engine. Medical, firearms, plumbing, construction and military are some areas of interest.

• Improve what you are doing now. Gasoline engines will be around for a long time even if new sales taper off, so prepare to get a bigger share of a smaller pie, especially the replacement market.

• Redefine your narrative. If you define yourself as an automotive supplier or a screw machine house, change your mission to a broader one or a more specialized one.

• If you are a company owner, fatten up your EBITDA and look for someone to buy your firm. Private equity companies are quite interested in machining companies these days. They like the cash flows and most of them are relatively short-term players. If you have a five-year window of growth in the machining world as related to oil and engines this is the time to fatten the cow.  If you are not an owner go work for a firm which has made necessary changes.

• As a wildcard countermeasure, invest in copper and cobalt stocks or futures. If electric really takes off, the price of copper and cobalt (lithium appears to be on the way out) will climb dramatically. The Chinese have been buying up copper and cobalt assets like crazy, especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa. If they hog the supply for internal use, the rest of the world will bid up the price for what is available.

• Be on the lookout for the next big thing. It could be additive manufacturing, urban farming, exercise equipment, underground living, water purification, or a million other possibilities if you can change your personal narrative.

Question: Do you think you will be driving in an electric vehicle in 10 years?

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A Patient’s Perspective

By Lloyd Graff

Today I get to do my twenty-first straight day of radiation treatment. Don’t feel sorry for me at all, this is my fortunate opportunity to save my sight by deactivating a slow growing benign tumor in my brain which is dangerously close to my optic nerve. The proximity to the nerve is the reason that the surgeon who operated on me two years ago left the remnant of the tumor. It was just too close, even for the most skilled surgeon, to remove the whole thing.

I have been doing the radiation at around noon, which is the ideal time to navigate the traffic from my office to the hospital and back without dramatically messing up my work day. It is a 25-minute trip each way. On most days, the radiation procedure, from hitting the hospital to walking out the door to head back to my office is 30 minutes, except when I see my doctor.

The weekly doctor meeting is what prompted me to write this piece.

My primary doctor for this procedure has been informative and positive. He told me and my wife, Risa, that he has treated many cases very similar to mine with excellent results. He told me I might experience a little fatigue, but it will go away after the treatments are over. The reason for 30 small doses of radiation rather than 3-7 larger zaps is that it is safer and usually more effective in the long term for this kind of tumor.

So far, I have felt absolutely tiptop. Except when I have seen the doctor who has subbed for my regular doctor when he has been away over the past month.

The radiation oncologist who has seen me on two occasions (although I think he forgot he saw me the first time) has given off a strangely different vibe.

When I saw him last Thursday he asked me with distinctly low energy how I was feeling. I told him I was “feeling great.” I said the “great” with emphasis because I knew he was going to continue with a line of questioning aimed at discovering problems I was having.

“Have you been nauseous?” “No,” I said. “Have you lost any sight?” he asked. “No, my vision is the same.” “How tired are you?” he asked. I answered truthfully that my workouts have been better during the course of the treatment. “I have felt tired around 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon, but I always do,” I told him. “It will get worse,” he said.

I could not wait to get out of the office. I had girded myself for his negativity when I discovered my regular doctor was not in, but he still eroded my upbeat mood. I became angry.

I recently listened to a Seth Godin podcast on the power of placebo. Numerous clinical tests have shown that placebos are often as effective as medicines and treatments. This radiologist, in a 10-minute session, where he did not seem to want to be, had undermined my positive outlook.

I decided to write him a note giving him a patient’s perspective on our meeting. I looked him up that night on the hospital’s Website, guessed what his email address was and wrote him a letter about what it felt like for me at that last meeting. I read it to Risa and she advised caution about sending it. I decided not to send it, but then I read his vitae and saw that he specialized in treating kids. At that point connecting with him became about his child patients and their parents. Maybe an email from me telling him how it felt to be his patient would help him as he dealt with kids who were a lot more vulnerable than I was.

I sent the email to the doctor at 9:30 p.m. last Thursday and wondered if I would get a reply.

He did send a short email back the next day. He addressed it to “Mr. Lloyd.” He did correct that a while later, but I wonder if I got through to him at all.

I don’t believe the doctor is a jerk, but I don’t think he knows how to communicate with his patients to help them believe in their treatment and their ability to heal. It’s an issue we all have in our relationships, but for a doctor the costs of messing things up are greater than just an everyday misstep.

Question: Are you afraid to go to the doctor?

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Man of Steel?

By Lloyd Graff

The tariffs being imposed by the Trump administration on foreign steel and aluminum are an intriguing bargaining chip from a macro economic standpoint, but a pain in the ass for most shops trying to turn metal into profit versus competitors across the globe.

For nimble companies with the skill and patience to file the paperwork for exclusions, the tariffs may become a competitive advantage against the folks who just call Central Steel and grit their teeth. For those firms whose primary added value comes from intellectual property the added raw material cost will be immaterial.

This is a situation where being in a trade group like the Precision Machined Products Association (PMPA) adds real value because the group and its consultant in Washington are doing the research to guide members through the bureaucratic maze of steel and aluminum categories to elude most of the sting of tariffs. If Trump’s primary goal is to impress the Chinese and Europeans that the U.S. is tired of being a patsy on international trade, he should not be worried if American companies navigate their way through the government shoals. It’s what he would have done if he was buying rebar for a new hotel building.

*****

Talking about the PMPA, at its recent Management Update conference in San Diego, its favorite economist and “Carnac the Magnificent,” Brian Beaulieu, spoke. He sees a magnificent 2018 for the people in our business with 2019 still strong. He is bullish on the next five years for those who have survived the 15-year shakeout in the industry. He is an advocate of raising prices, raising wages and instituting training programs to raise productivity. Instead of complaining about employees, he says, make them better.

Beaulieu also predicts that electric cars are here to stay, which will have a dramatic effect on the amount of parts currently being produced for internal combustion engines. He feels automotive component work will deteriorate steadily over the next 10 years. You have been warned.

*****

I am not that much into TV drama shows these days, but I heartily recommend the new season of Homeland on Showtime. This is the seventh season of the show, which stars Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin (my distant cousin), and so far it is clearly the best of all of them. I have seen the first six episodes and they get more riveting each week. This season has heavy political overtones relating to the 2016 Presidential election and the possibility of malignant foreign intervention. It is not really anti-Clinton or Trump, but it illuminates the danger of manipulation through technology and exploiting the divisions which make us vulnerable. I think the show is brilliant and extremely scary.

******

I know a lot of folks are down on the NCAA Basketball Tournament because of scandal and the best players heading for the NBA, but if you just enjoy the game and the all out effort of the kids playing it, you will love the 2018 version.

My hometown favorite, Loyola of Chicago, won two games on buzzer beaters to advance to the Round of 16. They have no players with a prayer of going pro, but they play a beautiful passing game coupled with ball fakes that reminds me of teams in the 1960s.

Villanova, another Catholic city school, is probably the favorite now, because they have excellent athletes and play selflessly. They also have Kevin Brunson, who is the best pure point guard in college ball. His father played in the NBA, and he totally gets the game. He may not have the body of an NBA star, but he is a shrewd player who knows how to lead and win.

Villanova is my pick to triumph, but I would love to see them play Kentucky, which has a tremendous collection of Freshman who will soon play pro. John Calipari, underrated as a coach, has made these egotistical allstars into a real team at this point in the season. They are only a fifth seed and lack a true point guard, but wow, do they have talent, and they seem willing to play together long enough to make it to the Finals.

It’s going to be a lot of fun to watch this NCAA play out.

Question: Do you you think many voters’ feelings were manipulated in the 2016 election? Do you care?

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32 Pounds Ago

By Lloyd Graff

I have lost 32 pounds over the last four months, and I am stunned. It has not been that hard to do once I decided it was something I truly wanted to do.

Tony Robins says the “WHY” question is the most important, and I agree. If you ask yourself, “why do I want to lose weight?” and you answer, “I want to feel better and live longer,” the how will make itself apparent. In my case the why and how questions became salient during a doctor’s visit in which my blood pressure reading was on the wrong side of 160 and my weight was crowding 270. My doctor Scott Stern at the University of Chicago asked me if I was serious about losing weight. I nodded yes, and this time I actually meant it.

He said, “Lloyd, I’m going to recommend a book to you, Always Hungry? by Daniel Ludwig.” He said he had read it himself and learned a lot of new things.

I listened to some of the book on audio then bought the hardcover, really figuring deep in my oversized gut it would be another one that would soon be forgotten on the shelf.

But it wasn’t forgotten, because Ludwig’s basic premise was so counterintuitive that I was attracted to it, particularly with Dr. Stern’s endorsement.

The gist of Dr. Daniel Ludwig’s thesis, based on a scholar’s storehouse of research is that you need to stop eating refined processed foods, sugary sweets, simple carbs like white potatoes, wheat and corn and replace them with fruits and vegetables, protein and FAT. Yes, FAT. In fact, fat is really the secret to making this eating regimen work, because replacing the sugars, processed foods and simple carbs with fat and protein like yogurt, cheese, eggs and meat reduces your cravings for the bad stuff. It also ends the insulin spikes that are one of the main reasons we have an epidemic of diabetes and obesity in America.

I am not a diabetic, but my father and his siblings were, as were both of his parents. I have always feared becoming diabetic, having seen so much of it growing up.

For me, Ludwig’s regimen was rather simple. Breakfast became eggs, berries, whole fat yogurt and grapefruit. No juice, no cereal, no bananas (too sugary) no sugar in the coffee, no BREAD. The no bread rule was the only one that bothered me a little at the beginning, but when I saw the pounds melting off quickly, I easily made my peace with it.

Lunch was a salad with a dressing, sometimes with meat or eggs added, never a sandwich. Another option was soup or meat leftovers from dinner.

Dinner was normally meat, chicken or fish with some kind of fat with it, plus a vegetable like broccoli, cauliflower or beans. Never potatoes.

Snacks during the afternoon now have become mainly almonds, which I like to toast, or sometimes pecans or walnuts. Occasionally I’ll eat a big scoop of peanut butter with no sugar added. I like Sweet Ella’s by Koeze of Grand Rapids.

For sweetness breaks, I favor berries and dark chocolate, at least 70% cacao. There is not much sugar in one quarter of a big Lindt chocolate bar.

In the first month I lost 10 pounds. I was down almost 20 in two. Four months later I was down 32 pounds and needed to buy new pants and belts.

I have not significantly changed my exercise routine, but everything is easier now. My blood numbers are all good, mild arthritis has improved in my hands and knees and interestingly, shoes and socks fit better because my legs and feet don’t swell.

During these past four months I have totally ignored calorie counting. It is just not an issue if I don’t eat sugars and simple carbs in significant quantities.

The new eating habits have not been difficult to develop once I understood that cookies and toast and fries were killing me. My goal had been to get down to my weight when I left the hospital after my heart attack nine and a half years ago.

Frankly, I never expected to get anywhere close to the 30-pound loss level. Yet, to my amazement, I reached it in 11 weeks.

How did I celebrate it?

Strawberries dipped in dark chocolate was just perfect.

Question: Do you trust your doctor?

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All the Wrong Places

By Lloyd Graff

The conventional wisdom is that “I need employees, but I can’t find them.”

This seems odd to me. I’ve been hearing the same lament for so many years and it still does not ring true. In a workforce of 161 million people in the U.S. with millions of ambitious, bright, stable people there are always going to be folks who want to make a change to improve their lot.

Allow me to throw out a few ideas that may kindle a new approach to finding productive employees or fresh employment opportunities.

  1. Stop looking in all the old familiar places. Don’t be so linear. There are white collar people, maybe even in your own company who would rather be in the plant, actually involved in making things directly. Have you asked around lately? We recently hired a person who had been repairing cell phones at a Batteries Plus shop. Met him while we needed an emergency repair on an iPhone. He had been a computer science major who dropped out after 2.5 years because of money woes. He impressed me with his intensity and conscientiousness and I left him my card as I left. He called to ask or an interview shortly afterwards and I hired him. He says there are other talented mechanical people in their shops who would readily leave for an opportunity to better themselves. He was making $15 an hour.
  2. Use social media to prospect for people who are in your circle of acquaintances or who might be connected to others in your chain of “friends.” Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. are enormously useful in extending reach to “non-linear” people who would never have reached your glimpse. Graff-Pinkert recently hired somebody who had just been laid off after 20 years with a company. His wife saw a brief notice in a local web page mainly aimed at local babysitters and gardeners. He was a bit shell-shocked about losing his job, but his wife knew us through her administrative job and it led to a fortuitous hire for both of us. He has been a great find. Social media is enormously powerful because it circumvents the usual employment matchup services with a much more creative searching technique, “the grapevine.”
  3. Forget about “the drug test.” How often have I heard the lament, “we can’t find anybody who can pass the drug test.” Maybe I’m naïve, but marijuana usage does not mean somebody should be blackballed out of hand. A more serious drug problem will become fairly obvious in an interview or, worst case, soon after hiring. Amazon is hiring tens of thousands of people these days. I am sure some are people who might not pass a strict drug test. They wash them out quickly if they can’t do their arduous job. If they can do the job they don’t really care what they do at home. Do you drug test all of your current employees, randomly?
  4. Don’t be a slave to the company pay scale. Talent is always a valuable commodity. Ask yourself if you are hiring, how much incremental value to the firm could a particular person add to the company. If the person would allow an extra $250,000 in annual revenue and would cost $60,000 it would make sense to hire her, even if the prevailing wage was $50,000. I think we get hung up on cost rather than value. I know there are few secrets at a company and jealousies can be a problem, but so is lost opportunity.
  5. If you are the boss and you realize you made a bad hire, fire the mistake quickly.

Question: What creative hiring ideas do you have?

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Delivered

By Lloyd Graff

Making sense about the economy today. As I travel the 15 minutes from my home to work I see four vacant strip malls. Maybe a restaurant still survives and a dry cleaner, but mostly I see vacant space, empty parking lots and for rent signs. Retail is dying out in my area of Chicago suburbia.

It appears the space will be empty indefinitely as Amazon remakes retail. Food delivery will expand as people get used to ordering their asparagus from photos. Prepared food will continue to grow in popularity from restaurants and specialty retail shops.

There is an opportunity for independent food outlets who know their niche and can execute because supermarkets generally cannot manufacture palatable prepared food. The sterility of most supermarkets gives Amazon an enormous opportunity to use Whole Foods to remake the space, but early returns indicate that they are in the learning stages. I used to love to peruse a good supermarket, but today I hate them. They deserve to struggle against restaurants and specialty shops until they become competitive.

Demolition of Lincoln Mall in Matteson IL.

Will the empty malls find an economic purpose? The only category with traction today appears to be restaurants, primarily fast food. They do not require huge square footage and parking.

When the financial entities blessed with these properties finally are forced to pay their taxes and utilities, the grass starts growing in the parking spaces, vagrants occupy the store aisles and lawyers are no longer being paid to try to collect rents from defunct businesses we will see some movement. There will be demolitions if people will pay for the wrecking balls. If towns had the money they could make appealing parks and public spaces, but generally they don’t have funds today. It looks like suburb rot for the next decade to me.

*****

The Fed is pushing rates up because that’s what the playbook says it should do. It makes sense if you are a central banker with degrees in economic orthodoxy, but I ask, why try to raise rates when there is little inflation except in real estate in a few cities on both coasts and in affluent caucasian enclaves? The American economy has struggled for a decade. Middle and lower income people have lost ground, school debt is a crushing problem and healthcare is a disorganized mess that most people struggle to finesse. Manufacturing here is finally competitive worldwide after two decades of shrinkage. The stock market is probably in the latter stages of the “Trump Bump.” American education is less favorable to the lower and middle incomes than 20 years ago, and the gap between elite and average schooling seems to be expanding. I think a few more years of relaxed interest rates would be helpful for the bulk of the population who do not rely on interest for its wellbeing.

Fortunately, money still likes to buy American issued debt as the Fed struggles to strangle us with high rates.

*****

The tax bill passed in December is a mishmash of restructuring, but the bottom line is that it will help most people in America. The Nervous Nellies and Sourpuss Democrats shriek about it, mainly because they are supposed to hate it, but it has a lot of goodies to be sprinkled into the economy. The question that does remain is whether the increased deficit will be difficult to borrow money for. Early indications are that it will be easily digested by the enormous American economy, which is growing at almost 3%. A big hiccup like 2008-2009 coupled with the stupidity of Wall Street gamblers could upset the apple cart. That’s why you keep money in the cookie jar.

My belief is that the best hedge against a recession and inflation is creativity, risk taking mentality, and optimism. I’ve been observing markets, the economy and happiness for a long time, and following the crowds is usually a good way to lose. Listen to your gut and then pursue something else because your gut is always chicken.

Question: How often do you eat a homemade dinner?

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