Monthly Archives: January 2013

Chinese Take-out

Workers at Union Fashion Dress Co., Ltd. which was established in 1998 in Zhongshan City. Their market network covers the main cities in mainland of China, and more than 10 other countries.

The wedding dress business has tied the United States intimately with China. My niece Diane is a doctor doing her residency in Baltimore. She is super busy, so my sister Susan is doing the spade work for her upcoming wedding.

I was fascinated when I heard about the process of buying a wedding dress.

It turns out that a large percentage of the world’s wedding dresses are produced in the city of Suzhou, near Shanghai. (Suzhou is also home to thousands of machining companies.)

The industry has been rapidly moving online with precious little attention paid to the intellectual property of the designers like Vera Wang who sell the $10,000 dresses in bridal salons. One can buy knockoff dresses direct on eBay from a raft of Internet stores. I gather this is a highly risky endeavor. For $150 you can order a dress online, hope for the best on the fit and then spend $50 with a local dressmaker to make it look presentable. Another option is to shop at a storefront with Chinese made dresses to try on, but often there’s just one size of various dresses, so you better be a size 6–also risky.

This is an evolving business model. Because the Chinese have access to cheap sewing talent and have scaled their silk and lace products they have an enormous advantage in the marketplace, but lead times for dresses are three to four months.

Dress on Alibaba.com selling for $147.04.
Free shipping to U.S. in 3 to 7 days.

I am intrigued by this model because of the parallels to the machined parts world. The high labor demands of a custom dress gives China a big edge. The economies of scale enable specialization and cheaper access to materials.

The Internet brings in customers from around the world and the ease of ripping off designer fashion enables a lot of styles for consumers to choose from.

The proliferation of storefronts in American cities where Chinese firms can develop connections with buyers is a refinement of the bricks and Web approach.

I think there is an opportunity for a mid-priced bridal dressmaker to develop a “Made in America” dress, based on service and delivery, by keeping a stock of fabric here and developing a local workforce. The magic of wedding dresses is the aura of specialness provided at the point of the transaction. If that magic can be enhanced by local production of the gown, the locally made bridal dress could make a comeback.

In the machining world, the cost differential with China seems to be steadily closing. In China it is becoming harder to find enough blue collar workers with skills, so wage increases of 30 percent are common, year on year. Chinese companies are aggressively seeking skilled people for their factories in Europe and North America. Unlike silk, metals are competitively priced here.

Today, China is the place to purchase a wedding dress, but in a world marketplace, that could change overnight.

Question: Is it possible to protect intellectual property today?

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The Rise of the Permanent Temp Economy

Politicians across the political spectrum herald “job creation,” but frightfully few of them talk about what kinds of jobs are being created. Yet this clearly matters: According to the Census Bureau, one-third of adults who live in poverty are working but do not earn enough to support themselves and their families.

A quarter of jobs in America pay below the federal poverty line for a family of four ($23,050). Not only are many jobs low-wage, they are also temporary and insecure. Over the last three years, the temp industry added more jobs in the United States than any other, according to the American Staffing Association, the trade group representing temp recruitment agencies, outsourcing specialists and the like.

Low-wage, temporary jobs have become so widespread that they threaten to become the norm. But for some reason this isn’t causing a scandal. At least in the business press, we are more likely to hear plaudits for “lean and mean” companies than angst about the changing nature of work for ordinary Americans.

How did we arrive at this state of affairs? Many argue that it was the inevitable result of macroeconomic forces — globalization, deindustrialization and technological change — beyond our political control. Yet employers had (and have) choices. Rather than squeezing workers, they could have invested in workers and boosted product quality, taking what economists call the high road toward more advanced manufacturing and skilled service work. But this hasn’t happened. Instead, American employers have generally taken the low road: lowering wages and cutting benefits, converting permanent employees into part-time and contingent workers, busting unions and subcontracting and outsourcing jobs. They have done so, in part, because of the extraordinary evangelizing of the temp industry, which rose from humble origins to become a global behemoth.

The story begins in the years after World War II, when a handful of temp agencies were started, largely in the Midwest. In 1947, William Russell Kelly founded Russell Kelly Office Service (later known as Kelly Girl Services) in Detroit, with three employees, 12 customers and $848 in sales. A year later, two lawyers, Aaron Scheinfeld and Elmer Winter, founded a similarly small outfit, Manpower Inc., in Milwaukee. At the time, the future of these fledgling agencies was no foregone conclusion. Unions were at the peak of their power, and the protections that they had fought so hard to achieve — workers’ compensation, pensions, health benefits and more — had been adopted by union and nonunion employers alike.

But temp leaders were creating a new category of work (and workers) that would be exempt from such protections.

The temp agencies’ Kelly Girl strategy was clever (and successful) because it exploited the era’s cultural ambivalence about white, middle-class women working outside the home.

To avoid union opposition, they developed a clever strategy, casting temp work as “women’s work,” and advertising thousands of images of young, white, middle-class women doing a variety of short-term office jobs. The Kelly Girls, Manpower’s White Glove Girls, Western Girl’s Cowgirls, the American Girls of American Girl Services and numerous other such “girls” appeared in the pages of Newsweek, Business Week, U.S. News & World Report, Good Housekeeping, Fortune, The New York Times and The Chicago Daily Tribune. In 1961 alone, Manpower spent $1 million to put its White Glove Girls in the Sunday issue of big city newspapers across the country.

The strategy was an extraordinary success. Not only did the Kelly Girls become cultural icons, but the temp agencies grew and grew. By 1957, Kelly reported nearly $7 million in sales; in 1962, with 148 branches and $24 million in sales, it went public. Meanwhile, by 1956 Manpower had 91 branches in 65 cities (and 10 abroad) and, with sales at $12 million annually, employed some 4,000 workers a day. In 1962, Manpower also went public, boasting 270 offices across four continents and over $40 million in sales.

The temp agencies’ Kelly Girl strategy was clever (and successful) because it exploited the era’s cultural ambivalence about white, middle-class women working outside the home. Instead of seeking to replace “breadwinning” union jobs with low-wage temp work, temp agencies went the culturally safer route: selling temp work for housewives who were (allegedly) only working for pin money. As a Kelly executive told The New York Times in 1958, “The typical Kelly Girl… doesn’t want full-time work, but she’s bored with strictly keeping house. Or maybe she just wants to take a job until she pays for a davenport or a new fur coat.”

Protected by the era’s gender biases, early temp leaders thus established a new sector of low-wage, unreliable work right under the noses of powerful labor unions. While greater numbers of employers in the postwar era offered family-supporting wages and health insurance, the rapidly expanding temp agencies established a different precedent by explicitly refusing to do so. That precedent held for more than half a century: even today “temp” jobs are beyond the reach of many workplace protections, not only health benefits but also unemployment insurance, anti-discrimination laws and union-organizing rights.

By 1967 Manpower employed more workers than corporate giants like Standard Oil of New Jersey and the U.S. Steel Corporation. Manpower and the other temp agencies had gained a foothold, and temporary employment was widely considered a legitimate part of the economy. Now eyeing a bigger prize — expansion beyond pink-collar work — temp industry leaders dropped their “Kelly Girl” image and began to argue that all employees, not just secretaries, should be replaced by temps. And rather than simply selling temps, they sold a bigger product: a lean and mean approach to business that considered workers to be burdensome costs that should be minimized.

For example, in 1971 the recently renamed Kelly Services ran a series of ads in The Office, a human resources journal, promoting the “Never-Never Girl,” who, the company claimed: “Never takes a vacation or holiday. Never asks for a raise. Never costs you a dime for slack time. (When the workload drops, you drop her.) Never has a cold, slipped disc or loose tooth. (Not on your time anyway!) Never costs you for unemployment taxes and Social Security payments. (None of the paperwork, either!) Never costs you for fringe benefits. (They add up to 30% of every payroll dollar.) Never fails to please. (If your Kelly Girl employee doesn’t work out, you don’t pay.)”

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Coming home

Courtesy of The Economist.

A growing number of American companies are moving their manufacturing back to the United States

IN 2005, A START-UP company from California called ET Water Systems decided to move its manufacturing operations to China. At the time there was a general exodus to Asia in search of lower costs, recalls Mark Coopersmith, the firm’s chief executive. ET Water Systems, which builds sophisticated irrigation devices for businesses, quickly started losing money, not least because it had so much capital tied up in big shipments of goods which took weeks to cross the oceans. Innovation suffered from the distance between manufacturing and design, and quality became a problem too.

When five years later Mr Coopersmith investigated the difference between the total cost of production in China and America, including the cost of shipping, customs duties and other fees, he was amazed to find that California was only about 10% more expensive than China. And that was just on the immediate numbers, without allowing for the intangible benefits of making the devices almost next door. ET Water Systems’ new manufacturing partner, General Electronics Assembly, is in San Jose. As it happens, the firm’s owner has a Chinese background and a large portion of its employees are of South-East Asian origin.

 

The number of firms known to have “reshored” manufacturing to America is well under 100. Doubtless many more are doing so quietly. Examples range from the tiny, such as ET Water Systems, to the enormous, such as General Electric, which last year moved manufacturing of washing machines, fridges and heaters back from China to a factory in Kentucky which not long ago had been expected to close. Google has attracted a great deal of attention for deciding to make its Nexus Q, a new media streamer, in San Jose.

The reshoring movement has to be kept in proportion. Most of the multinationals involved are bringing back only some of their production destined for the American market. Much of what they had moved over the past few decades remains overseas. And for many of the biggest firms the amount of work that they are still sending abroad outweighs the amount that they are bringing back onshore. Caterpillar, for example, is opening a new factory in Texas to make excavators, but has also just announced that it will expand its research and development activities in China.

According to a survey conducted by Harvard Business School last year, many firms are still deciding against basing activities in America. Professors Michael Porter and Jan Rivkin asked HBS alumni who were running businesses about their choices of location and found that many of them were deciding to leave because they thought wages abroad were lower than at home. Another important reason, though, was to be near customers in big new markets, which this report does not see as offshoring in the conventional sense. Messrs Porter and Rivkin argue that firms are now ready to reconsider offshoring. They realise that in many cases they overdid it, and are discovering hidden costs in moving production a long way from home. But, the authors argue, America’s government is not making the country’s business environment attractive enough for companies to want to come back.

Given the political pressure, it is natural for companies to want to publicise anything that looks like reshoring. Lenovo says that its decision to bring back computer-making to North Carolina was a way of looking after the firm’s reputation as well as bringing direct business benefits. The Chinese firm’s global supply-chain chief, Gerry Smith, says he has received dozens of telephone calls from former university classmates to congratulate him on the move.

But reshoring amounts to much more than public relations. It is being driven by powerful forces and will only get stronger. In a survey of American manufacturing companies by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in April 2012, 37% of those with annual sales above $1 billion said they were planning or actively considering shifting production facilities from China to America. Of the very biggest firms, with sales above $10 billion, 48% came out as reshorers. The most common reason given was higher Chinese labour costs. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology looked at 108 American manufacturing firms with multinational operations last summer. It found that 14% of them had firm plans to bring some manufacturing back to America and one-third were actively considering such a move. A study last year by the Hackett Group, a Florida-based firm that advises companies on offshoring and outsourcing, produced similar results. It expects the outflow of manufacturing from high- to low-cost countries to slow over the next two years and the reshoring to double over the previous two years. “The offshoring of manufacturing is now rapidly moving towards equilibrium [zero net offshoring],” says Michel Janssen, the firm’s head of research.

The crucial change that has taken place over the past decade or so is that wages in low-cost countries have soared. According to the International Labour Organisation, real wages in Asia between 2000 and 2008 rose by 7.1-7.8% a year. Pay for senior management in several emerging markets, such as China, Turkey and Brazil, now either matches or exceeds pay in America and Europe, according to a recent study by the Hay Group, a consulting firm. Pay in advanced economies, on the other hand, rose by just 0.5% to 0.9% a year between 2000 and 2008, says the McKinsey Global Institute. In manufacturing, the financial crisis actually reduced pay: real wages in American manufacturing have declined by 2.2% since 2005.

By contrast, pay and benefits for the average Chinese factory worker rose by 10% a year between 2000 and 2005 and speeded up to 19% a year between 2005 and 2010, according to BCG. The Chinese government has set a target for annual increases in the minimum wage of 13% until 2015. Strikes are becoming more frequent, and when they happen, says one executive, the government often tells the plant manager to meet workers’ demands immediately. Following labour unrest, wages at some factories have gone up steeply. Honda, a Japanese carmaker, gave its Chinese workers a 47% pay rise after strikes in 2010. Foxconn Technology Group, a subsidiary of Hon Hai Precision Industries, a Taiwanese firm that does a lot of manufacturing for Apple and other big technology firms, doubled pay at its factory complex in Shenzhen after a series of suicides. Its labour troubles are still continuing.

BCG used to argue that companies unwilling to send their manufacturing to lower-cost countries were putting their very future in jeopardy. Now it says that companies will bring manufacturing back to America from China. As soon as 2015, says Hal Sirkin, a consultant at the firm, it will cost about the same to manufacture goods for the American market in certain parts of America as in China in many industries, including computers and electronics, machinery, appliances, electrical equipment and furniture. That calculation takes into account a wide variety of direct costs, including labour, property and transport, as well as indirect ones such as supply-chain risk.

After decades of complaining about American and European workers’ high pay, cushy conditions and unreasonable expectations, businesspeople now increasingly moan about Chinese workers. Their aspirations are rising and they are less willing to work long hours in boring factory jobs. A new labour law introduced in 2008 brought in more protection for workers, including the right to a permanent contract after a year of employment, and workers are more aware of their rights. One consultant jokes that it is getting as hard to fire people in China as in France.

“China’s labour market is so overstretched that all the high-quality labour has been exhausted, you have to hire people with lesser qualifications, and then quality becomes a problem,” says Alain Deurwaerder, who until recently ran a factory in Thailand for Ducati, an Italian motorbike-maker. Another European chief executive complains about the flightiness of his Chinese workforce: “If someone on the other side of the road offers 5% more pay, they go.”

Lorne Schaefer, the owner of Jenlo Apparel Manufacturing, a Canadian-owned clothing company, opened a factory in Liuzhou in southern China in 2008 because he could no longer find workers at home; second-generation Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants in Montreal, he says, no longer want to work in the industry. Now he is having similar problems in China. The latest generation of workers, thin on the ground because of the country’s one-child policy, are not keen to toil in factories, nor do they want to work for companies that make goods for export, since the quality standards are far higher than for domestic consumption. So even in a labour-intensive industry such as textiles, the cost benefit that China offers is quickly eroding.

“Pay for senior management in several emerging markets, such as China, Turkey and Brazil, now either matches or exceeds pay in America and Europe”

Higher labour costs alone are not enough to prompt companies to leave China. The country has the world’s best supply chains of components for industry and its infrastructure works well. Firms have already invested heavily in being there. And companies that initially came for the low labour costs now want to stay because it has become a huge market in its own right. Nonetheless, “the incremental decision to invest in new production capacity in China has become tricky,” says Gordon Orr, Asia chairman for McKinsey.

One answer is to invest in other low-cost countries, of which there is no shortage. Myanmar, for instance, is attracting interest now that the West is lifting economic sanctions. But the scale, skill and productivity of the labour force there, and in countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia, nowhere near matches China’s, argues Mr Sirkin. And workers in those countries, too, are demanding better pay and rights.

Mexico, which has the huge advantage of bordering the United States, is increasingly attracting production destined for the Americas that would formerly have gone to China. Average pay for Mexican manufacturing workers is now only slightly higher than for Chinese ones, and the time it takes for goods to travel to North America is measured in days not months. Some firms, such as Chrysler, a car company, are even using Mexico as a base to supply the Chinese market. The country has become an important production hub for the aerospace industry. But Mexico’s poor infrastructure and highly publicised drugs-related violence may deter some firms.

Even as pay is rising rapidly in China, costs in America are falling. The successful extraction of natural gas from shale has dramatically lowered the price of energy. PricewaterhouseCoopers, an accountancy firm, reckons that these lower American energy prices could result in 1m more manufacturing jobs as firms build new factories. Companies such as Dow Chemical, a speciality chemicals firm, and Vallourec, a French steel-tubes firm, have announced new investments in America to take advantage of low gas prices and to supply extraction equipment.

Not only have American wages declined or are rising only slightly, BCG points out, but the dollar has been weakening. The workforce is becoming more flexible and productivity continues to rise. High unemployment has brought a willingness to work for lower pay, especially in southern states. These are mostly “right to work” states where individuals are free to decide whether to give financial support to a trade union, so unions are less powerful there. The very threat that jobs will be outsourced will also have played a role in keeping wages down.

Alabama, one such state, received a big boost last year when Airbus, a European aeroplane manufacturer, said it would open a big new factory. Airbus also plans to expand its production in Asia beyond its main factory in Tianjin, China, to be close to fast-growing new markets. Fabrice Brégier, the firm’s chief executive, says that for skilled workers, “China is no longer a low-cost country.”

Big unions in America have sometimes been willing to let wages fall to keep jobs at home. In 2007 the United Auto Workers union (UAW) accepted a two-tier wage structure under which some new blue-collar workers are paid only half as much as longer-serving ones. In 2011, after the government had bailed out part of the motor industry, the Big Three carmakers employed more second-tier workers, reducing their overall labour costs. Ford has brought back production from China and Mexico to Ohio and Michigan, thanks to a new agreement with the UAW.

As the example of ET Water Systems showed, transport costs are playing a big part in reshoring. Rising shipping, rail and road costs are most damaging for companies that make goods with relatively low “value-density”, such as consumer goods, appliances and furniture, according to a recent McKinsey report on global manufacturing. That makes reshoring or nearshoring more attractive. Emerson, an electrical-equipment maker, has moved factories from Asia to Mexico and North America to be closer to its customers. IKEA, a Swedish firm that makes products for the home, has opened its first factory in North America as a way to cut delivery costs, and Desa, a power-tools firm, has returned production from China to America because savings on transport and raw materials offset the higher labour costs.

In the longer term reshoring will be boosted by the use of advanced manufacturing techniques that promise to alter the economics of production, making it a far less labour-intensive process. 3-D printing, a process in which individual machines build products by depositing layer upon layer of material, is already being used in research departments and factories. Disney is developing 3-D printed lighting for interactive toys, and says that in future the interactive devices inside such toys may be printed rather than assembled by hand. Additive manufacturing machines can be left alone to print day and night. For now they are used mainly for prototyping and for complex parts, but in future they will increasingly make final products too.

Robots are already making a difference to the share of labour in total costs. Cheaper, more user-friendly and more dextrous robots are currently spreading into factories around the world, and they cost just the same in America as they do in China. Relative to the cost of labour, average robot prices since 1990 have fallen by 40-50% in many advanced economies, according to McKinsey. Baxter, a new generation of robot made by Rethink Robotics, an American firm, costs $22,000 apiece and is so safe and simple that it can be taught by an unskilled worker and operate right next to real people.

Baxter and his ilk may mean there will be fewer manufacturing jobs overall, but those that remain can stay close to a firm’s domestic headquarters. And even if the manufacturing activity itself does not employ many people, the supply chains that spring up around it will create new work.

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Obama/Kaepernick Dream Team

Their faces bear a remarkable resemblance, though separated by 25 years. The coloring is similar. One has oversized ears, the other an enormous aquiline nose. Both are 6’4″ tall and love to play basketball.

President Barack Obama won his second Big Game in November. Colin Kaepernick won his second NFL Playoff game last Sunday in Atlanta.

Two kids of mixed race parentage raised by white people. Kaepernick was adopted by German Americans, Rick and Teresa Kaepernick, living in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Obama was virtually adopted by his mother’s parents, white Kansans who moved to Hawaii after his Kenyan father ran off and his mom drifted to Indonesia to marry another man.

Kaepernick excelled at sports in high school in small town Turlock, California, near Tahoe, but no major colleges wanted him to play football at 6’4″, 170 pounds. Only one college liked him, nearby University of Nevada, Reno, mainly because they saw him as a potential safety.

Barack Obama was an obscure state legislator from the South Side of Chicago who decided to run for the Senate after the Republican incumbent retired from politics. Nobody had heard of him, but gradually all of his better-known opponents self-destructed. He won the primary almost by default and then beat an incredibly weak Republican who wasn’t even from Illinois.

Kaepernick inherited the San Francisco quarterback job after the incumbent, Alex Smith, former number one pick in the draft, incurred a concussion. Coach Jim Harbaugh never liked Smith as a quarterback, and when Kaepernick played well in his first two games, Harbaugh made the audacious decision to keep Smith on the bench, even though he was cleared to play.

Colin Kaepernick

As I write this piece on Martin Luther King Day, I can only marvel how America has changed. When I was Colin Kaepernick’s age there were no black quarterbacks in the NFL, much less black Presidents. The symbolism of the Inauguration taking place on King’s birthday is compelling to me. It is a National Holiday. Obama visited King’s portrait with his family Monday, signifying the black leader’s importance to him – and to me.

Mitt Romney won 59 percent of the white vote and lost the national election big. America is a changin. I voted for Romney in 2012 because I preferred him on economic issues, but I still love the idea of Barack Obama – the mixed race kid from nowhere, with no wealth, no connections and no past, who became the American President.

Obama is the personification of the American dream in 2013, and dreams are truly important. Just ask Colin Kaepernick, the mixed race adopted child of German American parents, who dreamt in 4th grade that he would be 6’4″ tall and play quarterback for either the Green Bay Packers or the San Francisco 49ers.

For me, Obama winning the presidency twice confirms the dream of Martin Luther King.

Questions: In your lifetime, has racism declined in America?

Who is your favorite quarterback ever?

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Paying for Failure

The vertical machining center built in 1996 was dirty, but it had been making parts a week earlier in a factory near Milwaukee. When we brought it into our plant our best mechanics looked at it and motioned for help.

We called a local CNC repair firm and asked for assistance. The repair guy they sent charged $120 per hour, plus $75 per hour travel time. He was booked up for a week. We checked his references as best we could. Nothing negative showed up on the web, so I decided to take a chance on him and signed a paper he thrust into my hand.

After a day of noodling around the machine, he said the control was giving him consistent error signals. By the second day, he declared that he needed a new board. I OK’d the order of the part. He came in with it three days later. He then attempted to reset the parameters but ran into more glitches.

He called a colleague to consult, and they fretted for five hours and still couldn’t get the machining center to perform properly. They were getting frustrated and irritable. I overheard them calling my machine “that old jukebox” and speaking disparagingly about the dumb machinery dealer who paid good money for a “boat anchor.”

After five days, the repair guy told me that his “operating clients” needed him and that they took preference over a “speculator.”

I told him I had lost faith in him. He presented me with a bill for $6,073 for labor and travel plus $1,247 for the board.

I told him I wasn’t better off than before he showed up. He said, ”you agreed to pay for my time and material. I could not guarantee success on that thing,” pointing toward my VMC.

So what should I do in this case? I despise rewarding failure. I want to pay for success, not hours expended to no avail. He told me that when you go to a doctor you get no guarantee.

I have not paid him and he is threatening legal action.

Question: Should you have to pay a technician who fails to fix your problem?

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Car Talk

My wife and I have 2003 Toyota Avalons with 90,000 miles on them. The cars have given us dependable transportation for 10 years. They still run nicely and show few signs of self-destructing. They get lousy gas mileage (12-15 mpg) and are a little too big for empty nesters. We drive mostly around the neighborhood or to downtown Chicago. Seldom do we drive more than 120 miles in a day.

2003 Toyota Avalon

We are both a bit tired of our old comfortable Avalons, but the idea of spending a lot of money on a new car irritates us. We regard cars as useful modes of transportation. They do not have to be “the ultimate driving machine” as BMW touts, but these cars are really boring to us after 10 years.

A couple of cars do actually intrigue me. I love the Tesla “S” car, which is all-electric and drives magnificently, according to the car mags. But the car is a lot of money to spend, and I can hardly justify the cost on gas savings. I also like the Toyota Prius plug-in. With my driving, I probably would fill up once a quarter. I know that driving 5-7000 miles a year does not argue for an electric, but I like the idea of an electric car and I’ve loved driving a quiet Prius every time I’ve had the chance.

I pose the question to you folks who know so much more about cars than I do: Should we keep our two old grandma cars and drive them until they drop? Or should we keep one or none and splurge on something sexier? Is there a real safe car out there like a Volvo or Subaru that we should consider? I want a car, not a truck or SUV, I think. And I want a new car if I buy one. I do not want to spend a fortune, but I’ll listen to any idea.

Please steer me in the right direction.

Question: Is buying “American” irrelevant in today’s auto world?

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Living Disorganized

My wife Risa and I had a serious talk last Sunday about how we organize our time. She is an educational therapist who works primarily with young people who have difficulty in school. They almost all have trouble organizing their time.

So do I.

Risa is a devotee of lists. I often forget to make mine, and when I do make them, I often lose them. I hold almost everything in my head, which is good because my desk is usually a mess. Fortunately I have a decent memory.

Risa programs her day around her appointments and listed tasks. She sets goals for herself for the week and the month. I also set goals, but they tend to evaporate, to be replaced by new goals, which also float away into my jumbled kaleidoscope of ideas.

Somehow, I do get things done. Graff-Pinkert makes deals. We buy, we sell, we make good machines, we collect money and pay the bills.

I write this column, and sometimes 10,000 people open it, and I think most read it, so I believe my thoughts are organized and relevant.

Yet, I wonder how I do it, being so organizationally challenged. It helps to have an office staff working for me who can compensate for my deficiencies. Risa helps immensely in organizing the house and family responsibilities. She also monitors our social life and keeps track of payments to the cable provider.

She will be taking an online course soon on how to teach folks to organize themselves more efficiently. She needs a person to practice on. I volunteered. I know I will learn from her. I will take good notes. I will discuss the lessons learned with Noah and Rex, who share some of the same issues with time management.

Then I’ll probably lose my damn notes.

Question: Do you have organizational problems? How do you compensate for them?

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Two Letters from Paul on Guns

I received these pained notes in November and December from Paul Merandi, a machinery dealer in Hauppauge, Long Island. Paul is a thoughtful and sincere guy. I found his postings provocative and affecting. – Lloyd Graff

A comment posted in response to the blog “Gun – No Gun” 10/26/2012

I was raised with guns but do not presently own any. My wife and I chose not to have any in the house with the kids around. For a very long time we would not even let a water pistol into our kids’ hands. That changed with my son, who seemed to have an interest in weapons of all types, while my daughters had none. We gradually softened. We let him experience paintball and permitted the Nerf brand of toy weapons, air-soft type products and some video games into our home. To date, my son has followed the house safety rules.

About three years ago, it became clear that the “games” that he was experiencing were just games and he was not learning a thing about the danger, power, real responsibility and consequences of owning firearms. After much thought, I decided my son needed to see first hand the power that could be put into someone’s hands. While on vacation in Florida a few years back, I took him to an indoor pistol range to see if I could teach him a little more than the toys had.

The experience was well worth the time and effort. My son was able to see, hear and watch what a real firearm can do in the hands of someone with proper training. There were several off-duty policemen at the range and their skill and respect for the weapon were clear, even to a 13-year-old. After a short period of training we were able to rent a small caliber pistol and with me by his side, he shot 100 rounds at paper bulls eyes. We have now done this about six times. Guns are no longer a toy to my 13-year-old. I am not sure what is next for us, but I have enjoyed the time spent with him and the learning experience. I am sure there is a question on his mind that he wants ask – Dad, can I buy a gun? I do not have an answer yet, but my wife and I need to make a decision soon.

A Personal Note to Lloyd 12/27/2012

I meant to send this earlier but “Super Storm Sandy” has put a wrinkle in my time and life for the past few months. A while back, I posted a comment on your blog in reference to gun ownership (see above), and we had a nice chat a few days later. If you recall, I stated that I no longer owned any firearms. That choice was made because my wife and I have three children under our roof.

Well, Sandy has changed that way of thinking. My neighborhood on Long Island was devastated by that monster, and without electricity, natural gas and then even gasoline, life was very bleak. When the night came it was a very scary time, even in my solidly middle class neighborhood. Many, including myself, had generators to produce power for clean-ups, pump-outs, and whatever else you could use electricity for, but at night the gas and generators, if left outside to run in the dark, were a target for predators. In some cases locked gates and doors didn’t matter.

As more time passed and the gas lines got longer you could sense people’s desperation increasing. At one point, I was driving around with three plastic gas cans with between 0-15 gallons of gas and a generator in my Ford Explorer for fear of losing these valued commodities to people that had less than me. I was constantly looking over my shoulder, sleeping with one eye open and wondering what the hell I would do if “they” came for my stuff.

Fortunately, that decision never had to be made. But sometimes at night we heard gunshots, and in the days that followed, we heard the stories. We are slowly rebuilding and are making changes to our home because of our Sandy experience. One change is that there will be a gun purchase. It will most likely be a very reliable pump-type shotgun. It will be kept in some kind of gun safe, high in the garage rafters with a few boxes of shells. My hope is that it never gets any use.

At some point, life will get back to what it was before the storm. Then I will be able to take the Louisville Slugger out from under my bed and put it back in the shed with the other toys.

Please have a healthy, peaceful and storm-free New Year.

-Paul Merandi

Question: Do you believe armed guards should be posted in schools?

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