Monthly Archives: July 2017

Repealing and Replacing My Career

By Stephanie Herzfeld

It initially felt like I was sucker punched. The air left my lungs, and I was left momentarily speechless and very confused. What, I’m being let go?

I should’ve seen the writing on the wall. There were warning signs months in advance that I was blind to or perhaps that I just didn’t want to see. They started giving me new assignments that were unrelated to my area of expertise because there wasn’t enough of “my” type of work to keep me billable. Stress levels were on the rise in the office, and as the surest sign of impending doom, I was given a serious salary cut.

I’d come home some days so wound up over work I must have been vibrating like a tuning fork. Nevertheless I persisted, even though taking this job was actually something I had hesitations about from day one. From the start, my colleagues and bosses came across as aggressive, and the office always had a nervous, edgy energy. But I had never quit anything in my entire life, and the idea of throwing in the towel and looking for something new simply wasn’t a concept I could wrap my mind around. And, I was trapped in the “golden handcuffs.” How could I give up a job with great benefits and a good salary (even after the pay cut) in this economy? So I hung on and held out hope that work would improve, until it didn’t.

I was laid off from my public relations job in early April, and after a day or two of feeling sorry for myself and processing the shock of the situation while hibernating at home, watching TV and eating ice cream I actually started to feel better. I wasn’t happy about being unemployed, but I had the sensation that the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders. I was no longer tethered to a job that wasn’t right for me—a job that I likely would not have left had I not been forced to go.

I wondered what to do next. After returning from a serendipitous trip to Spain (traveling allowed me to put everything on pause and clear my head!), I thought about my professional background. I was 37 years old and had worked in PR for big agencies for the past 12 years, 10 years in New York before coming to Chicago.

Although I have a background in communications/PR and a degree in journalism, I knew that I didn’t want to go back to the same type of corporate environment of the big PR agency that I’d just come from.

Triumphant Jerry Maguire after being fired.

I saw a career counselor to help me find my calling. She guided me on how to marry my field of expertise in communications to the causes I’m interested in. She wanted me to take a step back and think about what it would take to make me get excited about getting out of bed in the morning. Although my ultimate goal is to find a job, we discussed the benefits of volunteering (in tandem with job hunting) to help me test drive possible career paths and fill my resume gap. We also discussed the technical aspects of job hunting and the importance of putting out feelers to my personal and professional contacts because as is the case with online dating, the more of yourself you put out there, the more you will receive back—it is a numbers game.

Working with her I discovered that being a CEO of a Fortune 500 company won’t make me happy. Neither will working at a tech start up. Following an exercise in which I had to make a list of 50 companies that I’d like to work for, I discovered what I had an inkling about all along—that I’d like to work for an organization that “does good.” Simply put, I’d like to work for an organization that contributes to the greater good in a meaningful way and prioritizes this above profits (so I’m thinking I likely won’t work for Martin Shkreli).

Women’s issues have always been important to me, and they have become even more so since the presidential election. Also I’m a huge animal lover. These interests have led me to volunteer at Paws and Planned Parenthood. At Paws I’m still in the training phase, shadowing cat experts before I’m allowed to interact with/“socialize” the cats. (Apparently, playing with and petting the cats so they become accustomed to humans are nuanced skills that require rigorous training.) Meanwhile, at Planned Parenthood I’ve been helping design educational materials on birth control. (FYI, abortion is actually only a small part of Planned Parenthood’s services—health screenings, counseling and community outreach account for the majority of the work the organization does.) It’s been fascinating to dive into the history of contraception as I pull presentations together, and I’m reminded of how lucky I am to have access to this type of healthcare… for now. After just a few volunteer sessions they have already started hinting about paying jobs that could be available.

Life is so short that it’s a pity to spend your life going to a job that makes you miserable. Getting laid off in April is probably one of the best things to ever happen to me. Now it’s time to both repeal… and REPLACE my former career path.

Question: What was the best or worst career change you made in your life?

Stephanie Herzfeld has been working in the PR field for 12 years. If you know of an interesting job in the field of “doing good” email her at stephanieherzfeld429@gmail.com.

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Renaissance Machinery Dealer

By Noah Graff

A few weeks ago I traveled to Berlin, Germany. During my stay I visited a used machine tools company called Innovac GmbH where I met with its owners Dr. Mohammad Ehsasi and his wife, Cathy Farrar. Innovac sells just about every type of equipment—from woodworking machines, presses, rotary transfers and refrigeration machines to milking machines. It’s always interesting to meet other machinery dealers because I get to learn about their business philosophies and find out how they got into the esoteric used machine tools racket.

Dr. Ehsasi grew up in Iran. He went to the United States in 1976 to get a master’s degree in physics at the University of Maine where he met his wife Cathy. After a few years the couple moved to Berlin where Ehsasi did research at the world-renowned Max Planck Institute.

When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 a lot of idle used equipment and entire factories came on the market in East Germany. Ehsasi had many contacts in Middle Eastern countries who were looking to acquire bargain priced used equipment so he got into the business of moving entire factories in a wide range of industries to an equally wide range of countries in Europe and around the world. As time went on Ehsasi stopped the labor-intensive transport of entire factories and focused on individual pieces of equipment.

Universal Room Module from H.O.M.E. Modular Systems

Dr. Ehsasi is a renaissance machinery dealer. Several years ago he and his wife started a B2B magazine in Germany called Trade & Contact that covered the machining industry around the world. They told me it was a labor of love that they unfortunately had to end because producing it took too much time and too many resources while they were also trying to run a machinery business—familiar story.

Screw-connected Framework of Room Module from H.O.M.E. Modular Systems

Today Ehsasi has a new passion project, a company called H.O.M.E. Modular Systems. After the natural disasters of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the earthquake in Japan in 2011 Ehsasi realized the world needed quality temporary housing for disaster relief. Temporary housing kits already existed, but they required the components of the buildings to be welded together, and their quality standards varied. Ehsasi’s temporary housing system on the other hand uses a simple screw-connected framework which enables end users to assemble and disassemble structures easily themselves. Ehsasi says that two people with a forklift can assemble a structure’s framework in one hour. He says that in 40 hours an entire living space can be finished with ready-made components for a bedroom, office, kitchenette and bathroom. The Universal Room Modules in a disaster area can be easily disassembled and transported after the crisis ends to new places to be used for new applications such as another shelter or a standalone office. Using modern manufacturing techniques it is possible for H.O.M.E. to produce 200 or more modules in one day.

Interior of Universal Room Module from H.O.M.E. Modular Systems

However, Ehsasi’s unique vision is to produce temporary structures of high enough quality that people will buy them to use as living or working spaces in a normal economy, not just in disaster areas. Recently, Ehsasi has engineered heavier duty modules that can be stacked up to three levels. Local building materials can be used and the potential for designs is limitless, making them attractive for both architects and end-users.

We machinery dealers have to be flexible. There is a finite amount of iron treasure to trade in this world but an infinite amount of new ideas to try out and needs to meet.

Question 1: Could you live happily in a 400 square foot house?

Question 2: Do you feel like you are anti-immigrant?

For more information email info@innovac-home.de or go to www.innovac-home.de

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Pools of Money

By Lloyd Graff

We hear the term “private equity” tossed around every day in business. The Bloomberg ticker tells us about the giants that often go by initials like KKR and 3G. They have enormous pools of cash available for a juicy investment. Insurance companies, foundations and wealthy private investors fund these guys (they are usually guys) looking for the next big score, in which a small stash of cash is augmented by container loads of borrowed money. The drill is usually to fancy-up the books by firing a bunch of people, curtail capital investment, roll up some similar businesses for supposed economies of scale, and then go public or sell out to another entity with similar plans.

I was intrigued last week by a public relations release (I get a dozen of them every day) that mentioned a longtime machinery business friend, David Muslin, being involved in a private equity deal. His firm was buying out a 50-person cold heading shop in Bristol, Wisconsin, called Anderson Products. I called David hoping he would give me some insights into how private equity deals work in the world of medium-sized contract machining shops of the kind I deal with every day.

David has been in the used machinery business for 40 years, working for Sidney Lieberstein at Perfection Machinery in Elk Grove Village, Illinois, then buying out Sidney with Pat Angus, then gravitating to the auction business and starting PPL Auction in 2007 with Joel Bersh. Dealing with distressed companies ultimately led him to the lending and investing business in Big Shoulders Capital.

To Muslin, some companies have the potential for investment and others are better off dead than alive, with their physical assets worth more than a failing business. As an auctioneer those are most of what he sees every day, but sometimes a deal comes along with a big upside with an infusion of fresh money and new energy. In the case of Anderson Products in Wisconsin, the company had been sold a few years ago when a private equity group took over Rockford Products, a struggling fastener company in Rockford, Illinois, and then bought out successful Anderson Products, trying to bring in some earnings and professionalism. It went the other way with the top folks at Anderson quitting and the whole Rockford project falling apart.

Muslin and his associates at Big Shoulders thought that with Tim Cash, who had run Anderson when it was successful, willing to come back with a “piece of the action” he could obtain financing for the 50-person shop. Big Shoulders would end up with a share of the company and if things went well Muslin would own a big chunk of a valuable asset. If it did not work out his auction firm would sell the assets and they would have a chance to get out whole.

David told me he owns a very successful aluminum extrusion business in Florida, and a steel business in Harvey, Illinois, among several operating companies that Big Shoulders has invested in.

He believes the key to all of the deals he looks at is attracting the right talent to run the business. As in every enterprise, things go wrong very often. Manufacturing is extremely competitive. He says that for every five deals a private equity firm does, one is an outright failure, two struggle to break even, and if you are very skillful and probably lucky, two are winners.

Over the years I have known a lot of machinery dealers and auctioneers who have moved into investing in operating businesses. Some have hit the jackpot, but most of the companies have ended up being liquidated because the everyday management and the passion of the owner operator was hard to replace. But there is a strong swing today toward private equity and sometimes its wayward cousin “pirate equity,” buying small and medium-sized businesses in North America. There is plenty of risk money out there. Interest rates are historically low and manufacturing seems to have stabilized after the China tsunami ended. A lot of money from foreign countries is hunting for a home here, both in real estate and business investment.

I wish David Muslin good luck in this venture. Investing in hammered down businesses is a tough game, but what isn’t?

Question: If you could get the money, what type of business would you start?

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Equal Opportunity?

By Lloyd Graff

I have been thinking a lot about whether America has become hopelessly stratified by wealth, race, education and all sorts of barriers that make it almost impossible for poor people to improve their status.

I have the opportunity to observe a lot of the edges of our cultural, educational and economic divide as a small business owner, grandparent, and resident of a racially mixed community.

Running a small business that does deals with both successful and struggling companies, I see how the unfolding of the post World War II industrial revolution has moved American jobs and ingenuity all over the world. First, we had Japan challenging, then China, and then the rise of Mexico to reduce the torrent of jobs going to the Far East. Automation is now reaching a new critical mass which will eliminate more low and middle level jobs. Amazon and its offshoots will continue to drain retail jobs. Drones will eventually wipe out tons of UPS and FedEx employees.

Yet there are thousands of unfilled factory jobs that evidently still do not pay enough to attract young people today. That is the real rub in my machinist world. You can offer $30 per hour for a skilled machinist, repair person or programmer and you still cannot hire her or him.

Education has failed us in America, but maybe that is an incorrect cliché. Maybe Americans have failed the education system.

I think there are all kinds of interesting opportunities available in manufacturing and a hundred other jobs in our diverse and rich economy in America, but ambition, hope, courage, a roadmap, and maybe most important, self-belief, are lacking.

I heard a really disturbing and shocking figure. Today, 60% of new births in the U.S. are to unmarried mothers. Every related statistic points to a poorer life outcome for those kids. The children of married, two-parent families have far more opportunities. And that 60% figure keeps growing while the economic gap between one parent children versus unmarried two parent homes also gets wider.

I look at my older grandchildren and see them get a demanding Silicon Valley education with the structure of daily religious education as well as supplemental athletic and dance training. Should I tell my children not to push their kids to excel because poor, unwed parents make bad decisions? Of course not.

Not coincidentally, there are virtually no African American people in their Bay Area neighborhood or school.

Where my wife and I live, our next-door neighbors are black and the schools are more black than white. My wife’s educational therapy practice has more blacks than whites. Real estate values are less than half of similar housing stock in nearby suburbs. Growth in home values has been the most important vehicle for building wealth in America and most black people have been shut out. This has contributed to poorer quality schools in black neighborhoods, also contributing to the expanding wealth and opportunity gap between rich and poor, black and white.

There is little doubt in my mind that we are headed in a bad direction. David Brooks just wrote an excellent column in The New York Times entitled “How We are Ruining America”, which began with this lead.

“Over the past generation members of the college educated class have become amazingly good at making sure their children retain their privileged status. They have also become devastatingly good at making sure the children of other classes have limited chances to join their ranks.”

I know of no good parents who are going to stop doing everything possible to enhance their kids’ chances for success.

Government programs have generally been awful failures, except maybe Head Start and Pell Grants, at changing people’s self-limiting and self-destructive behavior. Throwing money at prevention of opioid addiction certainly has not worked. Planned Parenthood and abortion availability hasn’t dented unmarried parenthood.

Should I feel badly if my children and grandchildren are in the more fortunate category? Perhaps, because my America has been so good to me. But, what do you do if so many people in this country cannot, will not, or believe they are so hopelessly stuck, that they and their kids will never get out of the mire?

Question: If you were a poor kid today, what would you do to succeed?

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Let Me Work

By Lloyd Graff

I’m on vacation in the Bay Area and I’m working. Today it’s a blog, business calls, thinking about options for TMW and Graff-Pinkert. I’m in a coffee shop, sipping a latte and nibbling a superb authentic French croissant. I’m staring at a majestic eucalyptus and passing bikers.

I’ve been seriously considering what I really want to do on vacation – and frankly – this is it. I’m staying with my wife at my daughter Sarah’s and son-in-law Scott’s house. I get to be with my three grand daughters, watch the Cubs on cable, cheer on American Ninja Warrior, and do business and write.

I know there are a million things I “should” do on “vacation.” Hiking, RV’ing, museum’ing, I could go to Norway and cruise the fjords, maybe Australia too, and then there’s the majestic beauty of Alaska. I have the money, I probably even have the time (who knows), but I have no desire to do that stuff any more. I’d rather do work, family and Cubs. For me, my work is a challenging mind game each day. Bridge and chess don’t do anything for me, but the intricacies of a negotiation for real money is endlessly fascinating. As the machinery business has become a global bazaar it makes it even more fun.

The 3am email from China or Slovenia may screw up my sleep and annoy my wife but it’s definitely more exciting than a prostate call. And the beauty of email makes it possible to do business on weekends and holidays. The Fourth of July is a work day in Europe, Asia and Brazil.

I know I am extremely fortunate to have my work also be more avocation. Maybe I’ve worked hard most of my life to be able to get to do it now. But I’ll take it – happily. And I’m really enjoying the croissant, too.

**********

The grand Tesla argument is in full swing now. Elon Musk is actually going to do what he promised he would do, build a $35,000 sexy American electric car and mass produce it, to the tune of 20,000 per month by December. He has pre-orders for 400,000 cars. And Goldman Sachs is hating on him – or at least his stock.

Musk has used the Amazon strategy of building a company from scratch by using borrowed money and hype. There is a furious tug of war going on between the bears and bulls.

The stock is $315 per share today, valuing the company at $51 billion, more than General Motors or Ford. Tesla is losing gobs of money as they simultaneously gear up to build the midsize car and build the monster battery plant in Nevada.

Meanwhile, Musk is also heavily involved in his reusable space launch company, SpaceX and his Boring Company which proposes to use a high speed tunneling concept to circumvent Los Angeles’ clogged highway mess.

Musk is overextended in every way. The stock is down 15% in the last month, but is still in outer space according to the doubters.

I find Elon Musk the most amazing entrepreneur of our day. He actually builds things and knows that he can fail on any of these ventures, but he keeps defying the naysayers. One day the Goldman Sachs’ers will be right and the stock will plunge like his rockets sometimes do, but folks like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos do absolutely remarkable things between the misses.

Question: What is your ideal vacation?

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