Monthly Archives: May 2017

47 Years

By Lloyd Graff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lloyd and Risa Graff olive oil tasting in Tuscany, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Feeling Steady?

By Lloyd Graff

I talk to clients in the machining business almost every day. I often ask the perfunctory question, “How’s business?” and I usually get the perfunctory answer back – “It’s steady.” Then I chuckle to myself. I’ve never known business to be “steady.” It’s always bouncing one way or the other. The national economic statistics may show little change from month to month because the ups and downs of various segments will negate one another, but trends are always shifting. Nothing is constant. One of the things that keeps me continually fascinated with business and keeps me up at night is the opening and closing of windows of opportunity.

A small business lives and dies by identifying those mysterious windows of opportunity, devising plans to take advantage of them and then having the courage to act before the imagined windows shut with a chilling thud.

Sam Zell, the Chicago real estate magnate, just came out with his autobiography. Through the years he has been uncanny in seeing the business opportunities opening up before his competitors and anticipating the trends that might devastate the value of his properties. Zell has bought and sold a hundred malls. Now he is hating Amazon.

Tennis sneaker legend Stan Smith. Flickr/adifansnet. Courtesy of Business Insider

In case you might not have noticed, Amazon and Internet retailing have absolutely devastated medium-sized shopping centers and malls. Department store companies are reeling. Retailing icons like JCPenney and Macy’s are considering bankruptcy.

On the other hand, restaurants and take-out joints, food trucks and martini bars are thriving. People are consuming food and experiences while tending to pass on buying more stuff. Zell may not like it but he gets it, and he is trying to repurpose malls into health care facilities and gyms.

Lacrosse is now the latest hot sport in the U.S., golf is in the toilet, and Mark Fields was just canned as the head of Ford despite the immense profits of the F-150 truck. Evidently Bill Ford and family felt he did not move rapidly enough into autonomous cars and electric vehicles. Opening and closing windows, depending on your point of view.

Business is about being blindsided. Volcanoes seldom erupt but they are constantly moving closer or further from a blowout.

I read today that the white sneaker boom has recently deflated. Honestly, I didn’t even know that white sneakers have been hot for the last five years. The Adidas franchise on Stan Smith tennis shoes has gone cold, folks. I hate to date myself again, but I was a Stan Smith fan before he won Wimbledon in 1972 and teamed with Bob Lutz to become the best tennis doubles team in the world. To most folks today, Stan Smiths are just white tennis shoes worn by women trying to be trendy. Stan had a terrific serve up the middle, by the way. One of the big questions for every business person is should you search for the opening windows or just be content to play your everyday game, hoping your day will eventually prevail over time. Do you wear your Stan Smiths that you bought in 1972 until they wear out and then buy another pair? Why not? Well, you might very well go broke in those 14 years that everybody forgot about Sam Smiths except Adidas and old Stan living down at Hilton Head.

In the screw machine world, perhaps you ran those good old #2 Brown and Sharpes while the rest of the world bought Citizens. Maybe those Brownies will finally have their day again in 2019. Maybe their bronze gears will last until the machine is bronzed.

Younger people may be better at identifying opening windows of opportunity, but their lack of experience and perspective can also work against them. Businesses that have a dialogue between young and old participants may have a better chance to distinguish between promise and illusion. But for gear heads who believe business can actually be steady, life is always going to be as hard as stainless steel.

Question: Is 3D printing a window that’s opening or closing?

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Grecian Earn

By Russell Ethridge

I’ve probably been complicit in tax fraud. Certainly not illegally; I’ve always paid Uncle Sam every dollar he says he’s owed. Where I suspect I went astray was during a recent trip to Greece, a country of remarkable beauty and history, warm people, and a government few trust and not enough pay for.

My crime was facilitating tax avoidance by paying in cash instead of a credit card to get a discount exceeding the modest fee VISA or American Express charges the merchant. Major hotels, the worldwide car rental companies, and high end retailers are not involved, at least that I could tell, but everyone else I encountered, the little tavernas and gift shops in small towns and every cabbie, offered at least a five percent markdown or more for cash. Nothing was rung on a register. Instead, a roll of Euros was whipped out, and the cash transaction was handled with no mechanical or digital finger prints.

Such transactions are invisible and impossible to tax without voluntary compliance. Greece, like much of southern Europe, is struggling economically. Although socialist Portugal (to the surprise of many) is doing a remarkable job paying its debts to its financially stronger European Union partners, Italy, Spain, and Greece are still drowning in debt. There is only so much rich countries are willing to do, especially with the headwinds created by the nationalist movements sweeping across Europe and, last  November, our own amber waves of grain. Greece is in the worst shape, and the world’s bankers think it is months away from financial meltdown.

Courtesy of bespokemag

I knew why, but I asked people there anyway. “The government does nothing for us,” many vendors told me. “They take our money and for what?” I suggested that maybe the government could use the money to improve the schools, repair infrastructure, promote business development, or just cut the grass in the beautiful but neglected parks and other public spaces that keep Greece just a tad less polished than France or Germany. These small proprietors would have nothing of it. They needed that money, and they were loath to give it to a government they see as ineffective and confiscatory.

I don’t know enough about Greece to say the allegation is true, but I certainly saw, amid remarkable evidence of thousands of years of western civilization, a tincture of physical and social decay, and a general malaise, largely among young people. Nearly 25% of them are unemployed, just hanging out at coffee shops and surfing on their smart phones. I don’t know who pays their phone bills.

At the same time, this is a government that requires early elementary school children to learn a second language while their brains are still malleable. It works hard to support tourism which provides many jobs. Signs of investment in alternative energy are everywhere despite the fact that oil is cheap and close by. The pollution in Athens is much less than it was only a few years ago. The government is doing some things that only governments can do, and it needs money to do them.

What do we expect of our government, and how much should we pay for it? How do we make sure that everyone pays their fair share? If government is a service like car repair or house painting, why should some people pay more to have their house painted because they make more? Bill Gates doesn’t pay more for bread than I do although it is a much larger proportion of my income than his. Or, are taxes related to the return we get from the opportunity government gives us to make money by creating social and commercial structures? Should it be the “juice” we pay for our success or just a fee at a toll booth paid equally by the drivers of a Benz or a beater? Either way, taxation requires sufficient faith in government to encourage voluntary compliance. In that, Greece is lacking. Trust in government is essential for an ordered society.  Trust, however, is threadbare in many places for many reasons, including the U.S. Greece just may be the first in the Eurozone to suffer the cost of losing it.

Question: If Mexico had a 5% percent total tax would you move there?

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Immigrants Welcome

By Noah Graff

Just got back from Spain and Scandinavia last week, traveling on business with a little bit of pleasure thrown in.

During my travels it was easy to observe the steady influx of Arab refugees and other immigrants into Western Europe, which continues rapidly amidst backlash from many Europeans. I had the opportunity to meet several immigrants as well as “native” Europeans who shared with me their perspectives of a diversifying Europe.

In Madrid I saw a banner hanging on the Palacio de Cibeles saying “Refugees Welcome.” (see photo) Later that day I saw a procession of Somalis carrying similar signs. In Barcelona I met a very friendly Pakistani man in Plaça Nova selling castanets for two Euros a pop—you know, those clickers used by Flamenco dancers. The guy was beaming as he enthusiastically peddled his goods. In excellent English he talked about all the interesting tourists he had met from around the world, including a wealthy American woman who he had a love affair with. He was not a refugee, just a Pakistani man who moved to Europe to find a better life. I asked if he had felt hostility from the people in Spain, a country that is considered one of the more welcoming destinations for immigrants. He said that the Spanish people had been very polite to him, but he could still feel that they wished he was not there. He said that people said subtle things to him like, “Don’t you think you would feel happier back in Pakistan with your family?” His long-term goal is to get a job as a waiter in a restaurant in Barcelona, a respectable legal job where he could utilize his language and social skills. For now he spends each day ably bouncing around Barcelona’s plazas scooping up his merchandise in a mere 30 seconds when the authorities look like they are threatening to bust him and his colleagues.

Palacio de Cibeles in Madrid, Spain

On the plane to Denmark I met a Swedish woman from the city of Malmö, right across the bridge from Denmark. She said she had mixed feelings about the refugees. She said Sweden has been trying to make immigration more difficult, but she also said that the Swedish government has started a new program in which it invests resources in immigrants who have professional medical or science backgrounds. The government provides them with additional training and tries to place them in jobs parallel to those they had in their former countries. This way immigrant doctors and engineers can enrich the country’s economy rather than be wasted cleaning toilets.

I took the train from Denmark to Sweden. Thousands of people commute between the two countries daily for work like Americans do between states like Illinois and Indiana or New York and New Jersey. Since 2016 when commuters enter Sweden from Denmark officials check their passports or identity cards, however when commuters return to Denmark their documents are not checked. Denmark is in the European Union where people can travel freely between countries so it cannot monitor everyone who enters. Sweden is not in the EU, which gives it the freedom to monitor who comes in with document checks.

On the train I met a 40-year-old Somali man who had been living in Sweden for 20 years. He was friendly to me but reserved and was conservatively dressed in a grey sweater vest. He told me that he was a bus driver in Malmö. On a stop he got out to smoke and shared a lighter with a large Polish man from the train. He seemed fully assimilated both in his attire and his stereotypical Scandinavian reserved friendliness.

The last immigrant I met was at the Helsinki, Finland, airport on my five-hour layover going back to Chicago. I talked to Karine, an Armenian, professed lesbian, with dreadlocks who grew up in Russia. Her personality was an intriguing mix of hippy granola, Scandinavian socialism, and raw, aggressive, “survival of the fittest” Russian/Armenian blood. She beamed as she talked about the socialist Finish system which supplied her with a decent apartment and stipend when she lost her job, even though she wasn’t even a Finish citizen at the time. She talked about her lesbian civil union as a path to Finish citizenship. She said that it is difficult to become rich in Finland because the average income tax rate is around 50% but says she is content because the standard of living is good for everyone with the country’s free healthcare, excellent free education and a generous safety net.

When I asked about life in Russia she immediately became animated. She portrayed it as the complete opposite of Finland. She said that in Russia it is possible to achieve great wealth but life there is aggressive and cutthroat. She said to survive in Russia you have to be strong, aggressive and watch your back because you never know who will be gunning for you. Everyone will stomp on the next person to get ahead in a system that revolves around theft, bribery and blackmail. According to Karine if a person wants to do well in a Russian school, bribery with money or sex is a given. Starting in childhood, on the first day of class students bring the teacher candy to try to be in his or her good graces. Karine tried to go to a special theatre school when she was 16 but the teacher told her dad that he would require sexual favors for her to enter. She said her sister who remains in Russia can’t advance professionally because she refuses to give in to the sexual advances of her superiors. The Russian police and legal system also cannot be trusted and require bribes from everyone.

Despite her depiction of Russia’s bleak, ruthless economic way of life, Karine says that Russian people have a profound warmth and show love for each other in a way other cultures cannot match. She misses the warmth and the passion of the Russian people but she is willing to sacrifice it to be in a safe, pleasant, Scandinavian country. I was surprised when she told me there are not that many Russians who emigrate to Finland when the countries border one another. Perhaps this is because the cultures of the two countries are so different.

The French Presidential election was held the day I left Europe, pitting the Pro European Union Emmanuel Macron verses the xenophobic Anti-EU Marine Le Pen. On the journey I pondered the future of Europe’s welcome mat for immigrants. Would I be able to travel from country to country as easily in the future or would there be more passport checkpoints like the one I encountered at the Swedish border? Macron’s victory points to the status quo surviving for the time being, but the ethnic and political future of Europe is certainly murky.

Question: Has President Trump been too hard on immigration?

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French Vanilla

By Lloyd Graff

Emanuel Macron is the new President of France. He is a political newcomer who saw an opening in a divided dispirited country of 80 million people. He played the election like Bill Bellichek, figuring that the burnt-out leftist and rightist parties would neutralize each other in the qualifying election and he could sneak down the middle of the field. Then he would finish in the top two with the populist with neo-fascist roots, Marine Le Pen. If he could sneak in to face her in the Finals, he figured the losing parties would rally behind him as the anti-Le Pen, and he would have the election for the taking, unless he really screwed up.

That was exactly how it played out. Macron, the Kennedyesque 39-year-old former Rothschild banker, crushed Le Pen 2-1 on Sunday.

Macron wears a paper crown as he tastes the traditional Epiphany cake in a visit to a Paris shopping mall, Jan. 6, 2016. (Beloit Daily News).

One of the most intriguing things about Macron to me is his unconventional marriage. His wife, 24 years his senior, Brigitte Marie-Claude Trogneux (heiress to the five-generation Chocolaterie Trogneux), was his high school drama teacher and coach when he was 15. They stayed in touch throughout the years and she ultimately left her marriage and three children to marry Macron. She helped choreograph his shocking political career that took him from investment banker to a prominent position in Socialist Francois Hollande’s cabinet, to the landslide President of France. Vive la différence.

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We are headed, apparently, for another Battle of the Titans in the NBA Finals between Cleveland and Golden State. This will be the third straight Finals with these two great teams.

The NBA season is an 82-game slog, but the Finals are real theatre, especially with these teams because they are so special and well-matched. LeBron James plays with such heart, such total unalloyed passion for the game. He has amazing court awareness and intelligence, you just have to admire him. His game has evolved in a similar way to Michael Jordan’s—playing outside, picking his spots to drive, and willing his team to victory when necessary. With the addition of Kyle Korver and his 50% 3-point shooting skill to go along with J.R. Smith’s touch, Kyrie Irving’s playmaking and Tristan Thompson’s rebounding knack, the Cavs are a formidable defending Champion.

Golden State has the greatest group of lights out shooters ever assembled. Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and now Kevin Durant are just unfair to be on the same team. But the player who is the difference maker, even with those three crazy accurate gunners, is Draymond Green, the 6’5” swingman who plays with the energy of a rabid mongoose with an almost Trump-like unpredictability. Draymond lights up the floor. He may start a fight or kiss the referee in a 30-second flurry. His first step to the hoop is unmatched and his dunks are atomic. LeBron is the best player in the game. Draymond is the most fun to watch. If you love basketball like I do, or even if you think a “pick and roll” is a breakfast pastry, Cleveland versus Golden State will be worth watching.

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Blog fans. I am a person who loves ice cream, but as a cardiac patient I cannot eat it to my “heart’s content.” Rum Raisin is my all-time favorite—for me it’s the Michael Jordan of ice cream. I want to know the best ice cream, gelato, frozen yogurt etc. that you’ve ever had. It can be smooth or chunky, populist or elite. It’s almost summer, so they say, so tell me about your best ice cream experience ever.

Question: What is your favorite ice cream?

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Goodbye Columbus

By Lloyd Graff

I found last week’s Precision Machining Technology Show (PMTS) in Columbus an exhilarating and exhausting experience.

It was exhilarating because for the first time in 10 years the participants were confident again. I do not remember one person coming to our humble exhibit and complaining about business. Maybe they grumped about their back or metatarsals, but about business, they were positive. This is an extraordinary shift from even two years ago, and I think it reflects more than just monthly sales figures (which are darn good, by the way). The climate for machining folk has changed. “China” is now considered a long-term competitor, not a monster vacuum sucking up almost every biddable job. The American survivors, and the European, Mexican, Brazilian, Canadians and Fijians too, understand the kind of work they are good at and what the Chinese will devour. There is a relative stalemate with China today. A little comes back, a little goes away. This is stasis that you can borrow money against.

There is no comfort in business. The “comfortable” ultimately die a very uncomfortable death, but the people who are uncomfortable about the present yet confident about their ability to weave and bob into the next few rounds, are the folks who predominated at PMTS.

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When I returned to Chicago last Thursday afternoon, Cathy Heller, who runs the spare parts business for Graff-Pinkert, proudly told me she had her second great month in a row selling mainly Wickman tooling and spare parts. Even more significantly, the percentage of surplus oddball parts was unprecedentedly high. This is an indicator that does not show up in The Wall Street Journal stats, but is one of the tea leaves that I monitor.

When our customers are upgrading their tired and haggard 40-year-old multi-spindles, they are dipping into the capacity that has been sitting in the empty ocean containers for the good times they thought would probably never come. Or maybe they are finally changing the spindle bearings of the clunker in the corner they used on the sloppy bushings they used to run before China happened and cars became reliable.

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People are still in love with Swiss CNC screw machines. The technology keeps getting just a little bit better every year. Citizen, Star and Tsugami keep slugging it out to get every sale with the Korean and Taiwanese machines close enough to get their pieces. There are not many good used machines available, so the new builders usually do not have to compete with the second hand market.

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A volleyball tournament is pushing PMTS out of the Columbus, Ohio, Convention Center. Courtesy of USA Volleyball.

After eight shows over 16 years, the PMTS Show is leaving Columbus for Cleveland in 2019. The show got the boot because it did not bring enough hotel room buyers to town to justify its prime time slot in the Convention Center. If I am privileged to attend in 2019 I will look back nostalgically on the Ohio capital. The facility was efficient, clean, and not ridiculously pricey. But the chipmakers do not show up in the numbers that the volleyball tournament’s parents and fans do that will supplant PMTS in April of 2019. Volleyball may reign in Columbus, but Cleveland loves us.

Question: Are you winning or losing against China now?

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