Monthly Archives: August 2011

I’m Too Busy

Sometimes I find something that just hits me and strikes a chord with my heart. A few days ago these lines made me slow down and connect with life.

  • How often are we so busy acquiring that we forget all we have?
  • How often are we so busy engaging those around us that we forget the simple gift of their presence?
  • How often are we so busy rushing to a destination that we forget to enjoy the journey?
  • How often are we so busy trying to make more time that we forget to be thankful for the time we have?
  • How often are we so busy with our lives that we forget to be thankful for life itself?

Question: On this day I am thankful for …

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High School Reunions – To Go or Not To Go

A reunion is one of those odd human events that evokes distant memories of triumph and sadness. I think we choose to attend one if the sadness is sufficiently buried to allow the good feeling to flow undammed.

A committee has formed recently to plan the 50th reunion next year of my high school in Chicago. This was a vehicle to reunite with two friends that go back to grade school days when we were both in the same Cub Scout den. We met last weekend when my buddy Howard, who lived across the street from me, was in town because his son-in-law from LA wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to watch both the Cubs and White Sox play in Chicago on the same weekend. Norman Sack whose mother, now 94, was the “den mother” also joined us. We had not seen each other for well over 40 years.

We set up the rendezvous at the gigantic Hyatt Hotel downtown. My eyes are not perfect, but I thought I would recognize them. Wrong. Howie was 60 pounds heavier than I remembered and Norm a 100 pounds lighter. Fortunately they picked me out, I guess because I never changed.

My expectations were modest. I wondered why I was even making the effort to schlep downtown on a beautiful summer day to see guys who had not wanted to connect for 40 years.

I had gone through the reunion angst with my wife, who had agonized about attending her 40th last year in Charlotte at her high school, which she had happily left behind when she went away to college at 17. Risa hated her high school’s country club atmosphere that survived despite the upheaval of bussing and desegregation in the early 1970’s. She chose not to attend and even shied away from connecting with any old high school friends.

But Howard, Norman, and I did meet for two hours last Sunday and it felt good. The three of us were real with each other. We talked about our families, wives, children, sons-in-law, parents, siblings. Then the conversation gravitated to wounds, surgeries, near death experiences, and finally, to careers—successes and disappointments. The boasting and embellishment that I feared was eliminated. The energy was authentic from the three of us and the connection was more solid than I would have predicted after so many years. Was it really that many years?

I was moved by the common experiences of loss and joy. The trauma of our Vietnam experiences (even though none of us actually went to Saigon), the impact of dealing with sick parents, the pleasure of successful children and beautiful grandchildren, and the choices about whether to continue to work or opt for retirement resonated cleanly between the three of us who spent so many hours playing softball on the public golf course next to our homes.

But I still feel ambivalent about next year’s reunion. Howie says he’s definitely not coming in from LA. When I read the roster of those who have died, including my own first cousin, Don, I feel vulnerable and a bit morbid. I’m on the planning committee, but I doubt I’ll ever attend an actual meeting. I wonder why I never made an effort to reconnect after we left U-High.

But there are the guys on the basketball team—Steve, and Rusty, and John. And Cathy who had a crush on me. And Sherry who went to Hollywood. And the popular girls who ignored me.

After this weekend, I think I’ll go.

Question: What was your experience at your high school reunion?

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Dirty Smelly AND Hot

I was talking to John Greene a few days ago and he gave me the insider’s view of the foundry business in America. John runs FL Sales, Inc., a used machinery firm specializing in the world of molten metal. To my surprise, it’s smoking.

John said that the dirty old foundries we associate with the shuttered rust belt remnants are long gone. The foundries that survived have modernized and meet environmental standards. A lot of work did flow to cheap labor countries but many companies have learned that cheap labor does not necessarily mean viable product. Greene says that virtually every iron factory he knows is going full tilt and there is a real shortage of good used equipment on the market. A foundry that had been shut down for 2.5 years was recently sold and will be starting up here in the U.S.

Investment casting is crazy hot today also. The lost wax process, which lends itself to products like golf irons, fire arm triggers, and aircraft parts, is in such demand that most plants are operating 24 hours a day. At a recent auction of investment casting machinery the prices approached 100% of replacement cost.

Only the brass foundry part of the business is suffering. The environmental challenges in nonferrous almost force the product offshore where they don’t care about the niceties of safety.

To sum it up, iron furnaces are hot, brass furnaces are cold.

Question: Have you found foreign castings to be of acceptable quality?

Workers in Haora, India, forge manhole covers for Con Edison and some U.S. cities’ utilities. Photo courtesy of The New York Times

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What Annoys You The Most In The Media?

I watch the financial squawkers on TV while I’m sweating on the treadmill in the morning, but the relentless chirping about recession and doom is getting me down, which is not useful in my real life.

I get no relief from NPR on the radio when I drive to work. The commentators are continually alluding to the “terrible” economy. Then, when I reach the factory I turn on my iPad to check Yahoo! Finance and peruse the Wall Street Journal online. Another dose of pessimism. Then I say hello to certain coworkers, who repeat some of the bad news I’ve already heard.

What a ridiculous way to start a work day where people rely on me to make good things happen.

The media world is in a foul mood these days. But I choose not to be. It’s a waste of my energy and highly counterproductive in my personal and professional life. So how do I counteract a sullen, anxious, pissed off world that wants me to join its negativity?

My first defense is to look back to my heart situation three years ago – August 28, 2008 when the doctors at St. Francis Hospital told my wife I had a 20% chance of survival if they could not get a stent in the key artery feeding my heart, which was almost completely blocked.

Fortunately, Dr. Mohammed Akbar was working that day in the hospital and he had the guts and skill to succeed in the difficult procedure, which enabled me to get strong enough for the quadruple bypass surgery I required. I think about that event everyday. I realize that every day is a gift, so why wallow in negativity?

My second layer of defense against the grouchy pessimists is taking 15 minutes every morning for prayer and meditation. As part of my ritual I read a section recounting one person’s recitation of gratitude. After reading it I silently recount some of the things I’m especially grateful for, then I always put in a thank you for the ability to breathe.

My last line of defense against the fear-mongers is to connect with my wife Risa and son Noah. A touch, a kiss, a chat, a smile, reassure me that there is joy to be a part of. As I write this I know I will come off as a corny romantic Pollyanna, but I am who I am.

I feel like I have a choice most days, whether to be happy and confident or grumpy and pessimistic. I choose happy about 80% of the time, but I admit it is not always easy to do in a pissed off world. I think it takes effort and a plan to stay up when so many are down. It is easy to slide into the pervasive quicksand of depression around us.

Question: What annoys you the most in the media?


Saturday Night Live skit with “Debbie Downer” and Steve Carrell.

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I Hate That Machine

I received a call from an old business associate recently who wanted to talk about a piece in Today’s Machining World. It was a pleasant enough conversation, but all I could think about was his voice. He sounded so old.

I realized that I make so many judgments on what people sound like and how they choose their words. Last night my wife wasn’t feeling well and she was expressing her sinus misery not in what she said, but in her intonation. When kids walk into the classroom, a teacher sets the mood and tone with the first utterance.

We are wired and conditioned from birth to catch the meaning of sounds—not necessarily the words—but the sounds.

A business does itself harm if it neglects its phone greeting. I despise the canned greeting that is endemic today. You’ve alienated me the moment I hear it. But just as grating to me is listening to a tone-deaf human being. I think most people do not know how they sound on the phone. They miss the vibe they give off.

Speaking and listening skills can be taught. A business that cares about its clients’ reactions can coach its team. A doctor can rehearse her bedside demeanor. I’ll never forget observing a doctor rushing into a surgical waiting room and virtually shouting to an anxious family, “We found cancer!” There’s a better way.

I believe that business gravitates to energy and joy. If you compare the happy voices you hear when you take a Southwest Airlines flight to the bored and sullen voices on a U.S. Air or United flight, you can see part of why Southwest thrives and the others struggle.

Setting a mood and tone is ultimately each person’s responsibility in developing relationships. I am going to make a conscious effort to listen very critically to myself and ask my associates to give me honest feedback on the vibe I give off to them.

Question: Does a canned phone greeting and menu irritate you? Does it make you want to hang up the phone?

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Tiger Fires Caddy, Why Do We Care?

Recently Tiger Woods fired his longtime caddy Steve Williams. It became a big story in the sports media because Williams had high visibility at Tiger’s many triumphs, and I would assume he knew a lot about Tiger’s personal travails.

The question that arises for me is, how important is a caddy to a professional golfer? Is a caddy more analogous to a personal assistant in business, or Tenzing Norgay who climbed Mount Everest in 1953 with Edmund Hillary?

Stevie Williams immediately hooked on to Adam Scott, a 31-year-old journeyman on tour from Australia who was “the next big thing” ten years ago, but never achieved the stardom predicted for him. He won his first tournament last Sunday, pocketing $500 grand. Was Williams the difference? You certainly can make a good circumstantial case for it.

When I started working in the family machinery business back in the 1960’s, my father had Aaron Pinkert as a minority partner. Aaron, I soon learned, was intelligent and friendly but was miscast in the rough-and-tumble trading world.

But Aaron provided a calmness and optimism to balance my Dad’s mood swings. Was Aaron his caddy, his Stevie Williams? Perhaps. He did not provide the energy and creativity to build a business, but my Dad might have crashed and burned without the support he provided.

The caddy for a golfer is a walking consultant on the course. The good ones buoy their spirits after a blown three foot putt, and may even question the choice of clubs and shot strategy if they have the ear of their pro.

For a wounded Tiger, hurting physically and mentally these days, I can understand the need to make a shift. Changing caddies could be healthy, especially if Steve Williams was perceived to be part of his problems.

A pro golfer hits his own drives, but it takes a team, an entourage, to put him in a position to succeed. In a business or a practice I think it is vital to surround yourself with positive people who compliment your skills. A successful person has talent, a unique ability that enables him or her to compete successfully.

Question: Have you experienced being a caddy, either literally or figuratively?

Tiger Woods celebrating with caddy Steve Williams.

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America’s Back on Track

I was talking with a client recently who was happy to relate how his company was doing. The firm makes brass and steel fluid handling hardware sold at big box retailers and through industrial distributors worldwide.

The company had six plants, three in the U.S. and three in China, but has closed one in China and is in the process of closing a second. The cost advantages of making product in China have eroded. The strength of the Yuan currency, quality challenges, supply chain interruptions, and the human cost of running people back and forth has caused them to pull manufacturing back to the U.S.

The one plant that they are continuing in China does casting work, which still makes sense because the environmental hurdles for such work in America are too bothersome and expensive to deal with.

The American plant my client runs produces about $100 million worth of product, much of it run on machines like Davenports and Acmes. He employs 150 people. He says it would take 1500 workers in China to turn out a comparable amount of turned products.

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I know most people were sickened by the debt ceiling brouhaha in Washington, but I was mesmerized by it. The corralling of the budget deficit issues in America is worthy of the drama. Cutting government spending and deciding whose ox will be gored will be the big political issue of the next few years, and it is worth fighting about. I laughed and then grimaced at the rise of the Tea Party and its over-the-top rhetoric, but now I salute them. The Tea Partiers moved the country and showed what a determined minority can accomplish if it stays on message and adheres to discipline. The Washington establishment blinked over the weekend and real change happened.

We recently watched the “Arab Spring” begin to unfold, portending significant change in the Arab world. What just took place in D.C. may be the small beginning of Americans taking control of Government Gone Wild.

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Another hopeful development coming out of Washington is a shift in the policy regarding immigrant entrepreneurs and immigrant “brains.”

The ugly anti-immigrant bias, which rippled though the Bush Administration after September 11 and continued into Obama’s Organized Labor homage, is now changing. According to an August 2 article in the Wall Street Journal Alejandro Mayorkas, Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for the Department of Homeland Security, is implementing several new initiatives to bring in foreign entrepreneurs, particularly in the high-tech sector.

In recent years, software entrepreneurs in particular have obtained their education here and then been forced to take their business startups elsewhere because they could not get a Green Card. Hopefully visas will now be easier to come by.

There is also a new initiative to allow foreign investors to get visas if they invest $500,000 in a new business that employs at least 10 people. At the time that Canada initiated a similar program in the late 1990’s people in Hong Kong were scared about their future under Beijing rule. A tremendous rush of money came into Vancouver, and Canada is still reaping the dividends of that opening. Look at the Canadian dollar versus the American currency now.

For the first time in a while I’m starting to feel optimistic that a broken government can be mended by the will of the people.

Question:  Do you think America is moving in the right direction?

Alejandro Mayorkas, Director of U.S. Citizenship and ImmigrationServices for the Department of Homeland Security

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