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

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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?

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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?

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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?

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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

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The Color of Law

By Jerry Levine

It’s been 150 years since the end of the Civil War and 50 years since the signing of the Civil Rights Act. However we still have a divided society – whites on one side and blacks on the other. Richard Rothstein in his book The Color of Law argues that the racial divide stems from a deliberate segregation of housing fostered largely by federal, state and local governments in cahoots with bankers, real estate developers, labor unions and the general public. He discusses many issues resulting from housing discrimination, including unemployment, household income, wealth accumulation, education and crime.

Rothstein begins about 100 years ago with a history of restrictive covenants and “redlining” mortgage lending practices in housing markets across the country. Public housing had very similar restrictions as private housing; and, unbelievably by today’s standards, this was Federal Housing Authority (FHA) policy. Restrictive covenants were upheld by the Supreme Court, with three of the sitting justices at the time recusing themselves from the decision because they themselves lived in homes with restrictive covenants. In addition to restrictive covenants, violence against new black home owners moving into an all-white neighborhood was a huge problem from the ‘20s through the ‘60s. There was rarely an arrest or prosecution of perpetrators. 
Rothstein also discusses the issue of white flight, both in public and private housing. The FHA justified its racial policies because they were worried that both black home ownership and white flight would contribute to FHA mortgage defaults. So, the FHA built white-only or black-only projects. Blacks were frequently denied both FHA and VA mortgages, and thus they might only be able rent a home, which prevented them from accumulating wealth as home values appreciated. Blacks frequently ended up obtaining risky private contract mortgages where missing one mortgage payment meant foreclosure. Newspaper stories just last week in my home city of Chicago indicated that blacks still pay much higher property taxes than whites for comparable housing. To help meet expenses and insure against foreclosure, many black home owners rent part of their house to additional families to help cover costs. This over-crowding leads to neighborhood deterioration, crime and over-crowded schools.

Rothstein maintains that racial segregation was created by government action, and once entrenched, segregation is difficult to reverse. He argues that did not need to happen. He argues that starting about 100 years ago, if the government had declined to build racially separate public housing, and had not allowed suburbs to adopt exclusionary zoning laws, and had told developers that they could not have FHA guarantees unless the houses were open to all, and state courts had not blessed private discrimination, and if churches, universities, and hospitals had faced loss of tax exempt status for their promotion of restrictive covenants, and the police had arrested rather than encouraged perpetrators of violence, and if real estate commissions had denied licenses the brokers who used unethical blockbusting techniques, and school boards had not drawn attendance boundaries to insure segregation, and if highway planners had not been allowed to demolish African-American neighborhoods to build new roads, and if African-Americans had the same access to labor markets as other citizens, we would live in a very different country. I love his idealism, but to accomplish what he wanted during what I remember of that period of time seems Herculean.

I believe the real culprit was not the government, but the basic prejudice of many Americans, especially then. Political leaders can push for change, but in the end in a democracy like ours, the will of the people prevails. The good news is that attitudes have been changing for the better. I personally see a vast change from the attitudes of my immigrant grandparents, who lived in their own little ethnic enclave and barely spoke English, to my very successfully integrated, diverse children and grandchildren. My family and friends are a mix of people of all shapes and sizes, religions and colors, with differing sexual orientations. This country is changing. Unfortunately, it takes such a long time.

Question: Why does everybody hate Trump?

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It’s Tough to be the King

By Lloyd Graff

Jeff Immelt, head of General Electric Corporation, is getting the boot as head of the company. Travis Kalanick is being asked to step aside as head of Uber. The news came out the same day. Two kingpins of business being pushed aside almost simultaneously. The parallels are so delicious, I had to write about it.

Immelt is the Robert Redford of business executives. Perfect hair, Savile Row suit, London-made wingtips. If he wasn’t the head of GE for 16 years, he could at least play the role. He took over from Jack Welsh, the master earnings manipulator (Mr. 11% profit growth year after year) a couple days before September 11, 2001. I always felt Immelt personified GE beautifully – handsome on the outside, complex and conflicted on the inside. He should have been CEO in the 1980s and ‘90s, playing golf with Generals and Presidents, and then wheeling and dealing over cocktails at “The Club.”

But Immelt’s world changed radically after taking the job. The financial world lost respect for dishwashers and lightbulbs. Half of GE’s revenue came from GE Finance. After 2008, the financial folks lost respect for the financial folks. General Electric stock got stuck in the La Brea Tar Pits. Even today, after hundreds of plant closings, acquisitions, and selloffs, the company’s stock value is 27% less than when Immelt took over in 2001.

Ironically, Immelt announced that the company would sell the light bulb business last week—his last big announcement.

Thomas Edison, the founder of the company which would become GE, would have understood the personnel move. Crusty old Tom, inventor and entrepreneur, considered by his peers as one miserable SOB, probably would have kicked out smooth Jeff Immelt earlier than Nelson Peltz did, whose Trian Fund Management is GE’s Biggest stockholder.

Travis Kalanick of Uber. Courtesy of www.gerardlebovici.wordpress.com

On the miserable human being scale, Tom Edison and Travis Kalanick of Uber would have vied for top banana.

In nine years Kalanick has built Uber from a tiny startup to a household name. The value of a taxi medallion in New York City was $1 million in 2013. Today you would be hard pressed to get $200,000 for one. Uber is valued at $70 billion, with 40-year old Kalanick’s stake at $6.3 billion. He is mega rich and evidently almost universally despised by those who know him. He has built a “grasping” culture at Uber, but one that has worked brilliantly at empire building.

Jeffery Immelt, bred from corporate parents, graduate of Dartmouth, well spoken, beautifully coiffed, knows all the old corporate rules. He certainly has the patina of a gentleman. Travis Kalanick’s father sold newspaper advertising in L.A. and his mother, Bonnie Horowitz, taught him to be tough. He went to Cal Northridge with a total passion to make it BIG. He made it HUGE, but Travis just could not stop being Travis.

His undoing this past year stemmed from his desire to move past Google, Ford and Tesla and everybody else in autonomous cars. He moved much of the business to Pittsburgh and basically tried to buy the Robotics department at Carnegie Mellon University—cheaper than paying $15 billion for Mobileye like Intel just did. He looted the department by offering riches to the good geeks of Pittsburgh. Then he took the audacious gamble that Thomas Edison probably would have admired. He hired Google’s technical head of its autonomous car project Anthony Lewandowski to lead his headlong rush into robotic vehicles.

Google was not pleased. It sued Uber and Lewandowski and things started to fall apart for Kalanick. He also got nailed for not reining in the boorish, sexist behavior of Uber’s employees.

Travis needs some of Jeff Immelt’s adultness and Immelt probably wishes he had some of Kalanick’s brashness.

This weekend they both got pushed aside – not exactly fired – but the money guys on their respective boards told them they were no longer in charge.

It’s business. It ain’t Beanbag.

Question: Who would you rather have dinner with Jeff Immelt or Travis Kalanick?

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The “What if” Question

By Lloyd Graff

I have spent my entire business life identifying price anomalies and taking advantage of them to make money. “Buy low, sell high” is my secular religion.

I am now confronted by a situation that screams BUY for me as a “comp” watcher, but everybody I know tells me I’m nuts.

This is the situation.

I live in the South Suburbs of Chicago in a lovely suburb of well-cared-for 2000- to 5000-square-foot homes on 20,000-square-foot lots. My home is 28 miles from downtown Chicago by car, 40 minutes by commuter train. It is peaceful, has nice parks and is surrounded by golf courses, including the Olympia Fields Country Club, where the 2003 U.S. Open was played.

My wife and I bought our 3000-square-foot home 39 years ago for $130,000. We have put a lot of money in it. We have an 800-square-foot workout area, mostly carpeted in the lower level.

Lloyd Graff’s home in Olympia Fields, IL.

We might be able to sell our house for $200,000, probably $180,000.

Why has housing inflation ignored my neighborhood? Will young people discover the price disparity between comparable suburbs or neighborhoods in Chicago and rush in to take advantage, or will homes continue to go begging where I live?

I have left out some pertinent information. The area where I live used to be primarily comprised of white people. Today it is a “mixed” area of whites and African Americans. I stress “mixed” because as I look out my big kitchen window I see a soccer game being played in the schoolyard with half of the kids being white and half being black. This is not the ghetto. This is not gang infested Englewood, where I live.

I prefer to stay away from the racism issue for the moment. There is more interracial marriage than ever in America today. If Dancing with the Stars, that icon of American television, is any guide our society is becoming more accepting of black and white coupling than ever before.

Big money is pouring into development of sites that used to be primarily Black on Chicago’s near Southside. Oak Park, Evanston and Hyde Park are integrated communities with booming property values, and the public schools in those areas are definitely not the best in Chicagoland.

I ask myself this question, if I ran a hedge fund would I be a buyer or a seller where I live? Would Warren Buffett buy or sell the South Suburbs of Chicago?

Warren Buffet and Carl Icahn are cold blooded investors. I think they would ask the real economic questions. How much is race fear worth? How much should you deduct for B- public schools? How accessible are private schools and what do they cost? How much money will it cost to make the South Suburbs of Chicago sexy?

If a house in Evanston is $1 million and the same house in Olympia Fields is $200,000, how long will it take and how much money and effort will it take to pull the value up to $500,000?

Creative people in business like to ask “what if” questions. It is a way to tap into creativity and stretch oneself.

The Buffetts and Icahns of the world constantly bring in people to pose “what if” questions. Buffett had his eye on Heinz for 20 years, but in his mind the price was always too high. A few years ago he asked or was asked by Paulo Lemann of 3G Partners, a Brazilian investment banker that bought Burger King and turned it around, if it would make sense to buy Heinz if 3G cleaned up its inefficiencies. And Bingo. Buffett had the money. 3G had the ruthless expertise to squeeze out the fat and they made a deal.

What are the “what if” questions about real estate in the area I live in? Can you convince a gutsy advanced group of young white people to take advantage of a bargain? How long would it take for the followers to push up the price of the housing market if the intrepid few came?

I understand that America is still beset with racial fear and anger, but times, they are a-changing, too. I think it is quite possible that at some price disparity and with shrewd marketing, white folks will buy a house next to black people and communities will change shades. And home prices will rise, not fall.

Question: Is America less racist than it used to be?

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Tools of Justice

By Lloyd Graff

It’s the American Horatio Alger story. Invent the next Xerox machine and get rich. Or get screwed.

Dan Brown was a smart Irish kid from the south side of Chicago. His Dad wanted him to learn a trade and become a plumber, so he took all of the shop courses in high school. His Mom thought he was a really intelligent kid who should go to college, and had him on a college prep track.

He ultimately went to St. Xavier College (now university) majoring in biology and chemistry, falling short of his goal to go to medical school. Dan never lost his father’s knack of a handyman, or the appreciation of those trade skills, he naturally combined them with his science education. After college, Dan ended up in the chemicals and plastics industry where he created the first of his now 40 US Patents, pioneering some new processing technology and gaining valuable business experience, Dan started his own product design consultancy in 1991.

One day in 2002, his son Dan Jr. was attempting to work on the lawnmower with a pair of pliers. Dan Sr. saw the danger in that endeavour and father and son bickered over the proper tool selection for the job. There really was no good tool for the job. Dan, the inventor, set out to make a gripping device that would be better than a wrench or pliers for this kind of ornery everyday task that flummoxes the home fix-it person.

Dan Brown, inventor of the Bionic Wrench. Photo credit John Gress. Courtesy of the New York Times.

Dan, with his product design expertise, developed his Bionic Wrench to do those jobs. He was sophisticated enough to create strong intellectual property, and go to the expense of nailing down solid patents for his clever device. He found a solid American stamping house, Penn United, to build the product and began selling in specialty niches, proving the merit and viability of the tool.

Dan believed his real opportunity to establish the brand was to market with television supported advertising and shopping channels like QVC. He found difficulty breaking into the big box retailers who focused primarily on low cost products sourced in China. Dan’s vision for his new invention was a “Made in America” business model, a very challenging task in the hand tool market.

The Bionic Wrench, developed by Loggerhead Tools and completely built in America, was ready for Prime Time in 2005. It won the Popular Mechanics new product design award and among many other design and innovation awards. It launched at the end of 2005, having its first success with a Direct Response TV (DRTV) campaign at Canadian Tire, Canada’s retail giant in 2006. However, like many other businesses, LoggerHead was hit hard by the recession, which had derailed most all start-ups in its path, not to mention quite a few existing businesses.

Emerging from the recession, his son Dan Jr. had started working full time in the business. In 2009, LoggerHead started working with Sears, and after two years of trial orders, LoggerHead had its first DRTV test with Sears at Christmas 2011. The product was a resounding success, selling out before Christmas and outselling all other tools in its category. The Bionic Wrench was the most profitable product of the category and the best seller as an American Made product, proving the concept and business model.

Dan’s dream became nightmare the next year, after a solid 2011 Christmas for the wrench. Sears and its Craftsman brand went after the $19.99 highly giftable product in 2012, debuting their own knockoff. Sears and Craftsman contracted with Apex Tools Group, a billion dollar division of Bain Capital, to make the Bionic Wrench’s clone in China. But Dan Brown was not going to let this happen without a fight, he successfully organized a legal team and sued both Sears and Apex for willful patent infringement of the patented Bionic Wrench.

Sears and Apex hired law firms to defend them, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, and Winston & Shrawn LLP. Kirkland is the second largest law firm in the country, and Winston isn’t far behind. This was no typical David and Goliath battle, this was a David versus two Goliath battle. In this type of case, patent owners only can get justice if they have the millions needed to get to court. This is virtually impossible for start-ups, and large corporations know this, giving rise to a practice known as efficient infringement.

In cases like the Brown’s, when a knockoff appears, it can quickly destroy a company, and in this case the proven American Made business model. Inventors must seek a source for financing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit to protect their business, while at the same time competing against their own technology in the form of a low cost knockoff in the marketplace.

Faced with this paradox of enforcing his property rights, the inventor has the nearly impossible financial quest of having to organize this legal battle against the infringers; in a system where you only can get the justice you can afford to pay for, a literal contradiction of your rights.

But the Browns partnered with Paul Skiermont, of Dallas based Skiermont Derby LLP, and his legal team, who took the case on an alternative fee basis. Skiermont believed in the Browns and their intellectual property, gambling his time and efforts on getting a piece of the final judgment if LoggerHead proved its claims.

Sears and Apex are multi-billion dollar companies who know that small guys don’t have the money or the guts to take them on. The Browns were the rarity because they refused to give up and be cannibalized by a knockoff of their own design and patents in the marketplace. The Skiermont Derby team went to battle with the Goliaths who had knocked off the Bionic Wrench.

After four years and a two-week courtroom battle in the U.S. District Court of Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer, on May 11, 2017 the jury awarded a $6 million judgment to LoggerHead Tools for patent infringement. The next day the same jury heard arguments for willfulness and again ruled in LoggerHead’s favor on “willful infringement” by both Sears and Apex Tool Group. It is now in the hands of the judge, who can punitively award as much as triple the damages with that willfulness verdict to LoggerHead.

The Browns are thrilled with their win, but Sears and Apex will likely appeal, as these legal battles often extend on for years. An individual inventor faces a brutal gauntlet of legal and competitive hurdles to successfully bring a product to market and sustain a business. As a society, we need to be supporting, nurturing and protecting these American job creators, but as seen in the LoggerHead case, this is far from the reality.

Like many of those Southside Irish baby boomers, Dan Brown was the first in his family to go to college. And although he never did become a plumber like his dad wanted, or get to medical school as his mother dreamed, ironically he did recently become a doctor (PhD), successfully defending his doctoral thesis just ten days after the trial ended.

It is not impossible for a savvy tough-minded pair of Chicago south side Irish guys to win and survive, but it sure ain’t easy, even for a “bionic” team.

Question: What have you invented?

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47 Years

By Lloyd Graff

Today is my 47th wedding anniversary. “So what?” you may say. But if you have some curiosity about the marriage of a blogging trader in old machinery I will tell you some stories.

I met my wife Risa (Levine) in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She was a 17-year-old freshman at the University of Michigan and I was a grad student, majoring in staying out of Vietnam and Journalism. We met at a “mixer” at The Michigan Union on a Saturday night. I had gone there to play Ping-Pong, a sport I truly loved. What else would a 24-year-old guy just back from Fort Jackson, South Carolina, Army basic training and MOS training in stringing telephone wire on 50-foot poles for the Illinois National Guard, want to do on a Saturday night in January 1969.

Ping-Pong action had settled down around 8 p.m., and I heard the band playing in the giant ballroom, so I stuck my foam rubber paddle in my sport jacket and moseyed into the huge room to check out the girls.

There were at least 1000 people in the room, but I think God was smiling on a 6’ 3” Ping-Pong player wearing a tan corduroy jacket, and a southern girl with a Semitic face wearing the shortest skirt in the ballroom.

A little more background. When I was an undergraduate in Ann Arbor from 1962-1966 I became continually more obsessed with the War and the likelihood that I would die in the jungle like friends and acquaintances already had. Increasingly this view conflicted with my desire to have a long-term relationship with a woman. I graduated from the U of M and went to Northwestern Law School, primarily to keep my deferment from Vietnam. Law School was a bore for me and I did not like living at home again after the freedom I had in Ann Arbor. Also, at Michigan I was something of a celebrity because I had been the Sports Editor of the Michigan Daily (campus newspaper) and had a column that was widely read. I flunked Contracts at Northwestern and just knew that I was not destined to be a lawyer.

Professor Bill Porter who was the head of the Journalism Department at Michigan had told me before I graduated that if law school wasn’t “my thing” just call him and he would arrange for me to enroll in the masters program. I went back to Ann Arbor in September of 1967, left on New Year’s Day 1968 for Fort Jackson (the first day of the Viet Cong’s Tet Offensive) and came back again in September of 1968.

After Basic Training and returning to the campus I loved, I felt an enormous burden lifted from my psyche. I concluded that I was probably not going to get killed in Vietnam and I would start to live the rest of my life.

On that freezing night in January of 1969 I was in the right place to meet Risa Joy Levine of Charlotte, North Carolina, who very quickly became the love of my life.

I picked out Risa from all the girls in the ballroom and maneuvered my way toward her, not so easy with the Ping-Pong paddle in my pocket, and I introduced myself. I mentioned it was awfully noisy and asked Risa if we could go into the hall to talk. She said ok, and then we conversed for awhile and I asked her if we could go for a bite to eat. After the snack I asked if she would come to my apartment to watch TV. She came, met my roommate Grayle Howlett, and the three of us watched Elizabeth Taylor in Sweet Bird of Youth.

About 2 a.m. I volunteered to drive Risa back to her dormitory. Of course, my car wouldn’t start, so I called a cab, rode with her back to her dorm and then walked back in the cold wondering what had happened on the way to a night of Ping-Pong.

Lloyd and Risa Graff olive oil tasting in Tuscany, 2004

Risa and I went out virtually every night for the next six weeks. I quickly connected with her about baseball. Even though she was not a fan she was an attentive listener. In the course of one conversation I mentioned that Ted Williams was the last .400 hitter and had batted .406 in 1941. I would occasionally ask her about “Teddy Baseball” and she would immediately say, “batted .406 in 1941” in a jocular way. I know if I asked Risa today who the last .400 hitter was she’d immediately say Ted Williams .406 in 1941. It was one of our code words that spelled love and connection.

I probably knew in my heart of hearts that I wanted to marry Risa after the first night, but we did not start to talk of marriage for six weeks.

After all, she was 17 years old when we met and had virtually never been out on a date, and had just started college in Pre Med. But I was stupidly sure of myself and my feelings. I could see the future, at least I thought so, and Risa was my future.

Her parents came up to Ann Arbor after six weeks of calling her and never finding her in her room in the dorm. They were enormously relieved to see I wasn’t a bearded, pot smoking hippie. In fact, I was a lot like them. When Risa’s father, Sol, found out that every morning I took 15 to 20 minutes to Daven (a recitation of Jewish morning prayers), something that he also did, he was ready to give Risa away. Her Mom Shirley, seemed enamored of me from the moment we met, so all I had to do was convince Risa that she should give up her Ann Arbor adolescence and accept fate, and that we were each other’s destiny.

Regarding Risa, I have always been a hopeless romantic. We got married May 24, 1970. It took my parents a while to totally accept Risa, because they thought nobody was quite good enough for Lloyd, but they did ultimately embrace her, because they understood how completely in love I was and how devoted I was to her.

Today, our 47th wedding anniversary, I still think she is my perfect partner and will always be the love of my life.

And yes, just ask her who the last .400 hitter was in the Major Leagues. She will answer with a big smile.

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