Monthly Archives: April 2013

He Gave His Father “The Talk”

Sometimes the line written for a laugh rings true as a bell.

The most recent Dos Equis beer ad ends with, “he gave his father ‘the talk.’” I heard the line and chuckled.

A few hours later, my children gave me “the talk.”

We were on our annual family vacation in San Diego last week – the whole mishpacha (family) in adjoining condos, eating, playing, needling, sharing the vibe. My grandchildren had puzzles and projects everywhere. The beautiful disarray of a family that loves being together – at least in small doses – filled the space with joyful chaos. Earlier in the day we watched the Chicago Bulls win an incredible triple-overtime playoff thriller. My granddaughter Chava, who is five years old and doesn’t even know who Michael Jordan is, was so attracted to the wild raucous cheering she can’t wait for the next game, which she thinks will be like the last crazy one. But it won’t be, because we will not be together to go nuts, even if the Bulls make up a 14-point deficit in two minutes again like they did on Saturday.

“The talk” used to be when a dad told his son the “facts of life.” But when we get older, if we are blessed to be part of a caring family, the children may turn the tables to give the parents their version of “the talk.”

Like the father wants to help his son navigate the world of dating and sex, the adult child wants a reluctant parent to “man up” as he faces the challenges of age, pain, and physical decline.

My kids have endured a lot of hours in hospital waiting rooms hoping I will emerge. They have seen my sight decline and lately watched my arthritic and tendonitised knees rob me of my bounce. Children want you to stay the same Dad you were when they were kids. Maybe some fathers wish their kids always stayed “kids” too.

I take joy in the love and caring of my family and also wish they would just give me some space to work out my stuff my own way. They may think they know what’s going on in my head and my body, but how can they? Did I know how they really felt when they were teenagers?

My children believe in self-improvement, even perfectibility, and I guess Risa and I have trained them well in that area. They believe in a better diet, the power of therapies, the next knee surgery. I’m more into extra-strength Advils and putting one foot in front of the other.

The generations of Graffs love one another, and for that I am hugely grateful. But as much as we try, it’s hard to be in each other’s heads.

Questions: Have your children ever given you “the talk”?

If you have had a knee replacement, would you recommend the surgery to somebody else?

A video of the Dos Equis ad “The Talk”

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Inside the Medical Tent at Boston

Dr. Martin Levine (bottom left in white) helps aid injured people at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon following an explosion in Boston, Monday, April 15, 2013. (AP Photo/The Boston Globe, David L Ryan)

Martin is so skilled at waterskiing he seldom uses the skis anymore. He prefers the challenge of barefoot skiing on Lake Hopatcong that hugs his summer residence in New Jersey. Martin is my wife Risa’s first cousin, so I’ve known him for over 40 years. At every family event we played basketball against each other. We’d bang each other around on the court (he played for the North, I always played for the South) and then adjourn for the banter.

If there was an injury Martin would take over using his medical training to aid and comfort the hobbled participant.

It came as no big surprise that Dr. Martin Levine was one of the first doctors to reach the wounded at the Boston Marathon last Monday. He has run many such races and worked Boston for 13 years. He was in the medical tent tending to the irregular heart rhythms and dehydration issues that hit the runners coming in at the popular four hour mark that is such a great accomplishment for recreational runners who train religiously to run one marathon a year.

And then the bombs went off. Martin ran to the noise and smoke a half block away from the medical tent. On the basketball court Martin always attacked the basket, while I preferred the open jump shot. He loved the contact.

Martin encountered the carnage a couple minutes after the explosions. He begged people for belts and credentials lanyards – anything he could find for a tourniquet. The imperative was to stop the bleeding because most of the wounds were to the lower extremities from the BBs and ball bearings in the pressure cooker bombs.

Martin said time stood still amidst the chaos of bleeding and dying runners and spectators. But Martin was ready for this horror. The medical staff was well trained and experienced. These medical people were pros, and while they were not expecting a bomb attack they were in emergency triage mode immediately. Fortunately, the second bomb went off so soon after the first that it did not trap the first responders like at the fire at the fertilizer plant in Texas last week.

Martin did all that he could to help the wounded. He walked to a friend’s house after the ambulances had collected the wounded. Every noise seemed magnified. It was not like September 11th because he could walk away toward normalcy. But it did feel like war had come to Boston.

Question: Should Dzhokhar Tsarneav be tried in the criminal justice system or the military courts?

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Observations from PMTS 2013

A few observations from the 2013 Precision Machining Technology Show (PMTS) in Columbus.

1)      Attendance at shows is dwindling, which does not mean PMTS was a weak event for those who attended. The third day was a bust for counting attendees, but a great time for exhibitors to walk the floor and touch their peers. I think this has become an important aspect of smaller shows – the chance for the community of vendors to share stories and swap ideas. The machining world is a shockingly close community of buyers, sellers, and producers. The willingness of machining folk to share knowledge, even with potential competitors, is a refreshing testament to the term “friendly competition.”

2)      People are quite optimistic about their businesses, even though generally they are feeling a lull right now. There is a sense that the field has thinned out, Chinese competition is less intense, money is fairly accessible, home building is rising, and prices for materials are stable. This is a window of quiet opportunity. There is no buying frenzy, but a resolve to improve processes and equipment.

3)      Customers want value, but they also crave stable, capable suppliers. Big companies that virtually never single-sourced will do it today with seasoned, trusted firms. This makes planning more reliable than it has been in a decade, which means more sales of capital equipment. It is also making job shops, of all things, a hot commodity for the bigger companies and private equity firms. Job shops have expertise, customers, and a reputation to sell. The value of the equipment, which used to be the only way to monetize a job shop, is secondary to its ability to produce good product and be “growable.” Perhaps the best example of the potential value of a very smart group of machining guys is the sale of PPC Corporation in Manlius, New York (Syracuse) for over $500 million. The fourth generation of the Mezzalingua family sold the business, which has morphed into a successful manufacturer of connectors for the cable TV industry, to Belden Wire in January. The founder of the company John Mezzalingua, a child of Sicilian parents, started the business in 1946 by showing his employer, the S. Cheney and Son Foundry, how they could improve their ugly potbelly stoves by inexpensively polishing them. Mr. Cheney was so impressed he backed Mezzalingua to start his own business. Today the foundry is long gone, but the Mezzalingua heirs are very rich. The word is that the family kept the wireless technology they developed out of the deal with Belden. This may well be the seed of an even bigger fortune. It shows what you can do with a bunch of screw machines and some very shrewd people.

Question: Will the Boston bombing deter you from attending big events?

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Inflation? Not In My Neighborhood.

Olympia Field Country Club in Olympia Fields,  Illinois.

I have an unusual vantage point to observe the housing market as the pundits fret about the housing “bubble” they imagine is bulging.

I live in a housing refrigerator, Olympia Fields, Illinois. I bought my 3,000 square foot home 34 years ago on a half acre lot within walking distance of the Olympia Fields Country Club, where they played the 2003 U.S. Open golf tournament. There are five beautiful country club courses within a seven minute drive. The suburb is on the Metra train line so I can get downtown in 35 minutes, and I’m five minutes from the interstate.

My wife and I bought our lovely home for $130,000 in 1979 and have put at least $150,000 of improvements into it.

We could sell it this spring for $175,000 to a two earner couple, putting up a 3.5% down payment which we would probably have to subsidize.

On the other hand, my daughter and her husband in Palo Alto, California, just bought a home on a lot half the size of ours, about 2,000 square feet, for 10 times that price. Before they purchased it they needed to write a letter to the seller explaining why they were a deserving buyer for their home.

Like politics, the housing market is local. Is there a bubble in the Bay Area? Actually, not. The house my daughter bought might have been 5% less last year, but the price has little to do with the interest rate and everything to do with Silicon Valley, where Google and Apple are willing to pay well for talented people who want to live close to the office.

Then, there is my gracious, spacious, well-maintained home, next to the best rated grade school in the area. It’s so un-inflated, “flat” would not do it justice. Is there a housing bubble in Olympia Fields, Illinois? I rather doubt it. The five bedroom house across the street was recently sold to a speculator who just put it up for rent.

Houses sell when people want to buy them. With 3% money and 3% down payments you still can’t move the needle in my neighborhood, while in Palo Alto many houses sell for all cash.

The head of the Fed grew up in a small home in Dillon, South Carolina, but he made his name in academia by studying the Great Depression. He has helped the underwater big banks with his low interest policy, but the cheap money has enabled the American economy to rebound while Europe has floundered. There is absolutely no sign of widespread inflation in wages, real estate, or chewing gum.

But I keep rooting for some, which would indicate that the economy has some footing and real people have found their mojo.

Housing bubble? Please. Come to my house for pancakes.

Question: Would a little inflation help you?

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Hard Hiring Decisions

One of the good things about buying out my brother at Graff-Pinkert was being asked by lenders to study my costs. What I found out, among other things, was that direct labor costs in the shop comprised a small percentage of my cost of sales, even though we refurbish many of the machines we sell. But the competitive advantage of selling a superior product compared to our competitors (excuse the advertising) is our expertise in upgrading the flawed used machinery.

I concluded that I needed to protect this advantage and expand on it. I raised all of our key employees’ salaries significantly and began an aggressive training program to upgrade the mechanical skills of our committed but untrained younger employees.

Our long-time electrician, who had retired but returned as a part-time independent contractor, just retired again, leaving me the opportunity to hire a full-time machine tool electrician. This was the opportunity to find somebody who would improve our CNC capability and get younger. Not that there is anything wrong with old, yes, I’m taking Social Security, but …

I advertised on Craigslist at Noah’s urging and decided to offer less than half what an electrical contractor would charge me but more than I had paid for our former full-time electrician. I figured $35 per hour would bring action, and it did.

Strangely, I hired the first guy who called, Julio, a Dominican living in Santa Barbara, California, though I did talk to several other applicants and received 40 résumés.

Julio really wanted to come to Chicago because his girlfriend lives here. He has had two jobs in the 14 years he has lived in the U.S. He flew to Chicago on his own dime for an interview, and when I offered him the job he told me he couldn’t leave his current employer high and dry so I had to wait more than a month for him to start. He is extremely confident in his abilities, though his previous experience has been mostly on printing equipment. His references were very strong and our retiring electrician said Julio knew his stuff and would be happy to train him.

Time will tell whether he will work out for us, but his confidence and eagerness make me think he will challenge us to come up with new tasks to keep him interested long-term. That should make us better.

In the office, our secretary, a bright and personable young woman, recently quit unexpectedly to try something new. My first thought was to try to woo her back, but after that did not work, I decided to go a different way.

I was aware of a woman who had a responsible job at a paving firm in our area. She had worked there for 19 years but was starting to feel thwarted by the family business. A new generation of managers were coming in, and she did not like the vibe. She said she was also simply looking for a new challenge professionally.

I wanted an Administrator/Office Manager who was mature. I commented to a few people that I wanted an adult. I know that in politically correct circles I should not write stuff like this … but it’s my blog. I’ve had several severe disappointments in this job in the past. I was willing to pay well above “scale” for the person I project to do a big portfolio of tasks better than they have been done in more than a decade.

I’ve come to some conclusions and generalizations about hiring today in America. There are good people out there if you look, use your networks and ignore written résumés. The big enemy of good hiring is worrying about offending the people who currently work for you. If it takes more money to get the person you need than you are paying your current employees, you probably should raise your good people and not worry if your mediocre ones gripe or leave.

I think one reason unemployment is still high in the U.S. is that employers are learning this lesson. You do not need average employees. Only keep the really good ones and pay them well. You won’t need as many and life will be simpler.

Question: What works better, growing your own employees or bringing in expensive talent?

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Is Business “Just Business”?

Michael Scott of “The Office”

I wrote a blog recently about my reaction to a letter from my landscaper Guillermo’s daughter, which put a face on her father to his clients. I received two comments asking why Guillermo’s daughter wrote the letter.

I didn’t answer for a few reasons. First, I don’t know why the letter was written. Ostensibly it was to announce that Guillermo was again taking a week off so his clients should not expect him to come and mow the lawn.

But after a friend queried me on the topic yesterday, I started thinking more about the issue and my own response.

I am conflicted about how much one should reveal to his clients or employees.

My father believed that “business was business,” and you did not get involved personally with the people you work with, your vendors or customers. He told me a story numerous times over the years about an early incident in his business career. He owned a screw machine shop during World War II and decided to have a Christmas party. To him, the party was a disaster. People got drunk and rowdy, but worst of all for him, a few days after the party the employees tried to unionize. He vowed never to throw a party again and to keep formal and distant relationships with his people.

I always have that story resonating in my head and try to maintain a don’t know, don’t tell relationship with the people who work for me.

Yet I publish this blog and before that the magazine, in which I reveal a lot about my feelings to the 60,000 people who receive it. Inconsistent, I suppose. The blog I wrote recently about my feelings after the breakup of Graff-Pinkert with my brother was honest, yet also guarded, to honor my brother’s emotions, which I did not feel comfortable discussing.

Returning to the letter, I wrote about it because it sparked emotion in me about a hardworking faceless immigrant entrepreneur carving out a life in America. Maybe I’m a sucker for these stories, but it made me want to do more business with him, and that was something I take with me into my own business relationships.

I have learned through the years that business is more than “just business.” Relationships are at the core of business, but navigating the shoals of how close to be with employees and clients is a never-ending mystery. My father’s admonition to keep your distance will always live in my head, but my love of connection usually wins out.

Perhaps Guillermo’s daughter did what Guillermo would not do for himself. Maybe the letter was written to get a Christmas bonus for Guillermo, but that was not my point in writing about the letter.

I contract with a “service” to clean our offices every Friday. Frankly, I do not really care to know the life story of my floor mopper. But if I had the same floor mopper for years and his daughter wrote me a letter about his life, I would start to care about him more. Guillermo’s daughter may have understood this human desire for both distance and connection a little better than most.

Question: Do you try to keep your distance on a personal level from your employees, co-workers and clients?

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