Monthly Archives: September 2012

Attack Iran?

By all accounts I have heard IMTS was a major success for the exhibitors. I am always skeptical about supposed pre-registration numbers at shows, but this year it appears that IMTS actually exceeded the 87,000 number that was floated before the show started. The 100,000 mark was probably reached. If you can generalize, buyers were even more schizophrenic than usual. With excellent cash flows the last couple of years, manufacturing migrating back to North America from China, and with favorable depreciation rules for the moment, this should have been a selling free-for-all. But I gather many buyers were drooling yet reluctant to place orders. The excuses were the usual suspects – the election, the “fiscal cliff,” European woes, and the possibility of war with Iran. What it boiled down to was  a lack of visibility about cash flows for the next couple of years. Because companies these days are projecting two year paybacks or less on new purchases, this lack of visibility is a killer.

I think this is a good time to buy, but with a caveat. No matter what the outcome of the American election, a question mark will be eliminated in November. The “fiscal cliff” will be addressed one way or another. The likely outcome is “kicking the can down the road” again, but even if the cuts and tax increases take place it takes some uncertainty out. “Obamacare” is unlikely to be overturned, but in a Romney administration it would be changed and delayed. This will probably occur in an Obama administration if the Republicans hold the House.

For me, Iran is “the big one” that cannot be forecasted with any certainty. This is how I see it at the moment.

Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu is ready to hit Iran’s nuclear bomb program hard – now, but he wants Barack Obama’s help and blessing. Obama thinks he has Mitt Romney on the run and does not want to jeopardize his re-election with a Mideast war and the resulting pop in oil prices – and an Iranian counterstrike against the U.S. He is trying to restrain Israel, at least until the November election is over. The unknown variable is whether Iran will risk an attack to continue to pursue its nuclear strategy, or make a last minute deal and proclaim victory, causing oil prices drop to $60 per barrel because of shale gas and reduction of perceived political risk.

Can the world live with a nuclear-armed Iran? The best minds in Israel, and hopefully at the CIA have been trying to handicap this for years. And even if the calculation I have read from Israel is true, that there is a 20 percent chance of an Iran first strike, that is an unacceptable risk for many Israelis to live under.

For me, nuclear weapons in the hands of the current Iranian leadership is a gut issue that keeps me up at night. On one level it stifles the economy and deters the guy who wants to buy a new machining center. But the bigger picture is that Tehran’s overreaching for a return to Persian greatness threatens my people – Israel and America – and it really does scare me.

Question: Should Israel attack Iran? Should the U.S. attack Iran?

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Gimme Shelter

The new PADS Permanent Facility for the Homeless in Country Club Hills, Ill.

For 10 years, once a month, I would leave my comfortable bed at 4:45 a.m., drive through the winter slush to a local Jewish temple, and schlep mattress pads off the floor where 50 homeless guys had snored the night away in warmth and awkward camaraderie.

I did it not out of a soaring sense of compassion for the hapless poor of American society, though those feelings did warm me on those frigid mornings, but because my friend Jerry Levine, oil industry lobbyist and book reviewer extraordinaire for Today’s Machining World, suggested I do it. The volunteers used to go out for breakfast after the homeless men were out the door, some headed to jobs, many meandering down the streets to the local McDonald’s or White Castle to idle their lonely days away.

Today I will celebrate the official opening of the PADS Permanent Facility for the Homeless in Country Club Hills, Ill., a $20 million dollar permanent site where the homeless, evicted, displaced folks seeking shelter can find a safe place to stay temporarily–maybe several months–and hopefully pull their messy lives together.

After my heart attack four years ago, I stopped doing my monthly shelter stint, but Jerry and I continued having breakfast regularly. He has given me an insider’s view of how this testament to the best of America’s spirit of volunteerism and charity somehow survived the venality of American political infighting and the sloppiness of Government bureaucracy to somehow pull the money together for this amazing edifice for the poor of the South Suburbs of Chicago.

Jerry Levine, writer of the “Book Review” for Today’s Machining World and advocate for the construction of the new PADS facility for the homeless in Country Club Hills, Ill.

I know the project would never have been built without Jerry’s untiring effort and unshakable belief in the need for shelter for the sad, tortured and often just luckless among us.

Of the 20 or so towns in the area, exactly none of them wanted a permanent homeless shelter in their community. “Not in my backyard” was the view of the local mayors. For almost 15 years, the shelter volunteers talked up various sites, but nobody would take a chance on their local political future to advocate for a group that had no clout and probably didn’t even vote.

But four years ago, a bizarre event that could never be anticipated took place. Dwight Welsh, a white mayor, in a virtually all black town, Country Club Hills, had an epiphany. His mother was dying and he claims that on her deathbed she told him to build the homeless shelter in his town. Crazy story, but Welsh made it his mission to fulfill his mother’s dying wish. He needed a plot of land to be donated that was big enough and accessible by public transportation. And it had to be isolated enough so neighbors wouldn’t go nuts about the structure killing their property values.

And Walsh knew he had the perfect piece of ground for the project. A developer wanted to build an outlet mall on a strategic parcel near two Interstate highways in the village. The owner of the property, a wealthy black funeral home operator, needed to keep Dwight Welsh happy if the Outlet Mall was ever going to be built. Dwight cajoled three acres out of him and then the race began for the government money to build the project. If you had the land and the permits, the money was out there in various government vaults if you knew how to work the bureaucracies that controlled it. Jerry told me that there were consultants who made a career out of playing the game of unlocking government money. When you find the right consultants, lawyers, architects and politicians you can stitch together the funds if you have the site.

Today, the local politicians converged on the brand new 5-story building sitting in the prairie next to the Interstates, within walking distance of my office, for a ribbon cutting ceremony.

The local shelters in the churches and temples are still needed but now there is finally a port in the storm for the homeless people to hopefully repair their lives. For my friend Jerry Levine, it is the culmination of a good man’s effort to help people few of us really care about. For the local Mayor, Dwight Welch, it’s the validation of his mother’s wish.

Does the American political system work? Every once in a great while – yes – it does.

Question: Is helping the homeless a proper function of government?

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Don’t Talk Politics in Switzerland

Syndicat Attendees from Heinrich Müller GmbH Dipping Fondue

At the beginning of September, I attended the Syndicat International Du Décolletage in Bern, Switzerland. The Syndicat, or S.I.D. Congress, is a conference that brings together precision parts manufacturing organizations from the U.S., Switzerland, France, Spain, Germany, Sweden, and Ireland. It was a week of mingling, fondue-dipping, and touring impressive Swiss shops and prominent machine tool builders like Pfiffner and Tornos.

As a technical member of the Precision Machined Parts Association (PMPA), I was grateful to receive an invitation. I often feel like a little bit of an oddball at PMPA events because I’m not a manufacturer and I’m not a new equipment distributor, yet I still feel like I belong to that community from years of writing for TMW and selling used equipment for Graff-Pinkert. I don’t feel like I’m a true member of the PMPA fraternity, but that’s perfectly fine because I feel respected by the members, and it seems like they enjoy having me around — usually, at least.

My goals for the week in Switzerland were to get to know my international machining industry peers and soak up as much knowledge from them as possible. Of course, I wouldn’t have minded selling them a machine or two as well. The amount I learned and the people I met that week far exceeded my expectations, easily justifying the time and money for the trip. And as I often find at these type of gatherings, the best moments occurred during the unofficial itinerary — the nauseating bus rides through the Alps, sharing a fondue pot, or wandering off from the guided tours to pursue personal discussions.

Syndicat attendees touring Bern. Noah on far left.

The first night at dinner was rather memorable. We first mingled over hors d’oeuvres, primarily chicken on sticks for some reason. I talked mainly to German and Swiss shop owners. They queried me about the upcoming Presidential election, about which I told them I was undecided. I asked them what they thought of our current President, and they were generally pretty positive about him. Wow, I thought — wouldn’t find too many perspectives like these among typical TMW readers.

After the chicken skewers, I sat down for dinner at a table comprised entirely of Americans, most of whom I knew from past PMPA events. Soon after sitting down, whad’ya know — someone popped the question, “So Noah, what do you think of the upcoming election?” I gave my honest opinion, that I was undecided.

There was a different reaction than that of the Germans. I may just as well have been a 22-year-old OSHA inspector with the amount of anger this statement triggered. Basically, I was told that I was dishonoring my country and my family to even fathom voting for Obama. This wasn’t what I came to Bern for, I thought. I came to the conference to bond with my peers, not fight, and I liked these people, as long as they weren’t blasting me. Somehow I managed to chill things out and have some good discussions about Abraham Lincoln and then about the superiority of Index Multi-Spindles.

It seemed like almost everybody at the conference owned Indexes and loved them. This turned out to be a quite a useful thing for me personally, because the second-to-last day of the conference, my coworker Rex was in Australia bidding on several MS Indexes. I ran recon all over the conference asking folks how the machines worked, what models were most popular, how difficult it was to tool them, and most importantly, how much the machines cost new. Eventually I found out Rex had bought an MS32. One of my fellow PMPAers was especially helpful and told me he paid $1,300,000 for his. I then consulted an Index sales rep for Sweden at the conference who quoted me a price in Swedish Krona, which converted to around the same price as the first one I was quoted.

Everyone at the conference was fantastic about sharing their knowledge of the machinery and the industry with me. They answered my questions about the merits of CNC Hydromats verses traditional ones — they like both. They told me why they preferred one equipment brand over another, and what methods they used to give them pricing power with their customers. They answered my rudimentary questions about how to count the number of axes on a machine. Sometimes we just talked about their children or how fast they get to drive their Porches on the autobahn.

I guess people are generally open and welcoming when they get to talk about the topics they know best and love. Their enthusiasm fueled my own. I felt a stronger bond with my machining industry peers than ever before.

Question: Do you usually find conferences in your industry worthwhile or a waste of time and money?

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Mundane Meets Spiritual At IMTS

Today I get to celebrate the end of IMTS and the start of the Jewish New Year – Rosh Hashanah. For me these are surprisingly connected events to be treasured and assessed.

My life is a combination of the mundane and the spiritual, but I find it strange and sometimes inspiring how the stuff of business and the practice of my religion wrap around each other so often in my daily life. This hit me at IMTS when I met with a fellow traveler in the machine tool world at the Mazak exhibit. He had sought me out after reading my work for many years. We share a love of this business, a passion for sports and to my surprise, a commitment to Judaism. I know some people wonder why I occasionally bring religion and God forbid – God – into my columns, but he gets it, and out of the blue, he engaged me about my Judaism over bottled water at Mazak.

One of the nice things about doing Swarf for 12 years is that people feel like they know me, which frees them up to expose more of themselves than they normally would to somebody they’ve never shaken hands with before.

We played a little “Jewish Geography.” He knows a couple of distant cousins of mine, at least I think they might be cousins. Then he asked me about my religious practice, which seemed odd with the machining centers cutting metal 20 feet away. Yet he asked with such a matter of fact sincerity that I answered him with more depth and nuance than I would have even expected of myself. Two sixty-something guys who had never actually met sat and talked about how we pray at IMTS in Chicago. There was a refreshing innocence in the incongruence of the moment and it made me sweat with the rawness of the happening.

I usually have a lot of deep conversations over the course of a week. I guess I crave them because they give texture and depth to my days. I was discussing with my wife Risa my struggle to get as much done during my work day that I feel I ought to and she suggested I curtail my serendipitous conversations which sop up my available minutes. My talk at the Mazak booth was one of those. It took me away from some other business connections I wanted to make at IMTS.

But as I think about it today, as Rosh Hashanah is about to begin, I would gladly trade three business card exchanges at IMTS for my 45-minute ad hoc talk that intersected our spiritual connection.

Will that talk transfer into more money in my bank account? God knows – or doesn’t. But in September of 2012, the beginning of my New Year, this is how I look at it. I have a finite number of days left of health and breath. I want these days to be as rich as possible, which definitely has something to do with my business success and my organizational acumen, or lack of it. But it’s the emotional connection that really makes my days precious. If I can find that and savor it at those crazy incongruous times it surfaces, like at the Mazak display, I want to go for it. Screw the “to do” list, give me my moments.

Question: Should religion be off-limits in business?

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What the NFL and IMTS Have in Common

The NFL for 2012 began on Sunday and Monday. IMTS took the stage a short walk from the stadium where the Chicago Bears played the Colts. Both are big powerful institutions controlled by a small group of owners and run by a loyal staff of administrators on the East Coast. And both organizations face major challenges today.

The NFL has two major problems that are closely related. It’s current and past players are extremely worried about the physical toll of the game – particularly concussions. The corollary issue is that parents are increasingly forbidding their kids from playing tackle football because it is deemed too dangerous. When I was at the Chautauqua Institution a few weeks ago, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was on a panel of speakers moderated by Luke Russert. Luke asked the 2,500 people in the audience whether they would allow their kids to play football. The vast majority shouted NO. Certainly this group was a highly educated and upper income sample, but it appears that pro football players are viewing themselves as highly paid gladiators, and are doubting the viability of their profession.

IMTS – the show – also faces major hurdles in the online age. The challenge for the organizers is to get enough qualified potential buyers to pay the price of coming to Chicago and walking through millions of square feet of exhibits that often are similar to what they saw a few years earlier. Machine tools do not change so frequently in most cases for many purchasers. And usually it is difficult to discern what innovations are meaningful.

For the exhibitors the key to success at IMTS is to attract enough real prospects to their displays and then show them something that ignites their interest and stands out from the competition. I think that in many cases IMTS acts more as reinforcement to previous notions clients have about their wares. The show enables new companies to make an impact by showing innovative products and services, which establish them as legit players.

The NFL and IMTS share an important characteristic in the marketplace. They give the country something to talk about. For the football fan, Peyton Manning’s comeback from injury or whether Tim Tebow can ever be a successful NFL quarterback and can hold a fan’s interest for months. For a machine tool user, the competition between Mazak and Mori or Citizen and Star or Haas and Doosan are grist for the mill. Competition is exciting and the NFL and IMTS play it for maximum gain for the exhibitors.

Personally, I’m excited by both events. The 2012 football season and 2012 IMTS are big fun milestones to be marked and enjoyed to the max.

Question: Are the NFL and IMTS rising or falling in importance to you?

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Romney vs. Obama

The election is two months away. Polling data, which has been remarkably accurate during the primaries, is showing a close popular vote, but the electoral map favors President Obama. A Republican must win Florida and Ohio, most likely, to win the presidency because California and New York are solidly Democratic. If Pennsylvania goes Democratic, which is likely according the polls, and Illinois is probably not in play, Florida and Ohio become absolutely crucial for the Republicans to put enough electoral votes on the board to win.

I thought Mitt Romney made an excellent speech to the Republican Convention, but it was too late at night to get a big audience. Viewership was down 30% from 2008. Marco Rubio of Florida made a superb nominating speech, but the talk after the event was about Clint Eastwood’s ad-libbed empty chair fiasco. The fireman from Medford, Massachusetts, who should have had the spotlight, not Eastwood, got little notice 90 minutes ahead of Mitt Romney.

In my opinion, the Republican Convention was a partial success. I give it a B- for effectiveness, because they did little to counteract Obama’s huge lead among Latino voters, about 70-30. If this holds, Romney probably loses Florida, Nevada, and New Mexico. Game almost over.

Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan was a good one, though it defied the popular wisdom that he needed Senator Rob Partman of Ohio to help him win the Buckeye state. The merit of choosing Ryan is that he gives the impression of a person who could be President, and he has a clear economic policy that can help define the waffling Romney campaign. But the Democrats are attempting to smear Ryan on his Medicare stance to push Florida seniors toward Obama.

But I do not think the election is a done deal. Obama’s popularity has slid considerably in four years.

His leadership has been weak. He has not sold his policies to the country. The high unemployment rate is still his albatross. The unforgiving negativity of Republicans in Congress has actually made Obama look good. I do not see the Affordable Heath Care Act (Obama Care) as a major issue in the election because nobody really understands its impact yet. Dodd-Frank, though important to banks, also has little visibility with voters.

What can still win the election for Romney is his performance in the Debates. Al Gore and John Kerry both lost the election in the Debates and McCain did not help himself.

Romney needs to impress America that he will be the leader to take the country to a better place economically or Obama must look cynical or ineffectual to change what appears to be a likely outcome today. Personally, I think Romney must do something stunning to change the 70-30 Latino advantage of Obama. Maybe if he spoke in Spanish to declare his support for the “Dream Act” he could change the election. I think if he plays it safe on immigration he loses the game. No Florida, Democrats win.

Question: What would you do if you were Mitt Romney?

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