I am not a racist. I am not a Racist! I am not a RACIST! I wanted to hire a person to call people in the machining business to prospect for surplus machinery for sale and find potential customers. I decided to place an ad on a local Internet classifieds page mostly used by people looking for a plumber or exchanging muffin recipes. This approach had worked beautifully two months ago in locating a new factory employee whose wife saw our wanted ad an hour after we had placed it. She called, set up an appointment for her husband, and I hired him on the spot.
The area I live in is predominantly African American, so I anticipated calls mainly from Black women. And I anticipated my problem. How would my 99% White clientele treat a woman who speaks with a “Black accent”? Just writing that sentence offends me. I hate that I care about the reaction of biased phone answerers, but then I think of myself and how I unconsciously respond to “Black English” when I hear it. Viscerally I recognize it immediately and discount the speaker.
My job is to run a business and make money. If a “Black accent” makes a potential customer tune out the caller, that caller has failed in that mission.
Does that mean I have to rule out hiring a pleasant glib telephone prober who happens to sound “Black” on the phone? Can she help how she sounds? Does it occur to her that the community she will be connecting with might reject her because of an initial reaction to her voice?
Maybe I am all wrong about this. Maybe it is my own deep-seated racism speaking to me and the machining audience does not notice it or care. I don’t know.
I do know that my own racism plagues me every day. I hate my own biases. I deliberately try to behave as if I am pure of heart and mind on race. But that doesn’t get me off the hook.
My next-door neighbors are Black. My neighborhood schools are comprised primarily of Black students. My wife’s educational therapy practice has mostly Black kids. But I am not color blind and I never will be, I regret to say.
I am stuck with being who I am. I can feel something, but I don’t have to act on it. I don’t have to discriminate.
And then I hear the voice on the phone and I am silently tormented by my wicked personal racial facts of life. The voice won’t work for this job. I know it. Damn it. I know it. I hired a White woman with a “White voice.” Racism stinks. Racism is awful. Lloyd, you are a racist.
It isn’t a dumb question because the flimsy, one use only, $2 shades are the stuff of a provocative metaphor for how we live our lives. This issue came up after reading Seth Godin’s pithy short blog this past Tuesday, “The Market for Used Eclipse Sunglasses,” which I will reprise now.
“It doesn’t matter how many you have. It doesn’t matter how much you paid for them. It doesn’t matter how long the line was yesterday. The market is gone. It’s a sunk cost. Falling in love with what we have and reminding yourself of what it cost you is no help at all. The same goes for the value of the assets we invested in, the rare skills we used to possess, the position in the marketplace we worked so hard to get. New days require new decisions.”
As a used machine tool dealer who has speculated on and collected the eclipse sunglasses of the machining world for decades this blog was gold. I walked around my 20,000 square foot warehouse yesterday looking at Wickman and National Acme, Schutte and Gildemeister cam operated screw machines. At one moment, they looked like iron excrement, and then a customer called from New England looking for three machines, and the flotsam and jetsam sparkled like sapphires and rubies in my mind’s eye.
Value is in the eye of the beholder. The collector sees a fortune in old comic books and an ugly clunky wooden desk made in 1840 by a venerated craftsman. For a hobbyist a solid 40-year-old Bridgeport mill or sturdy little South Bend lathe are perfect for basement experimenting.
Seth Godin is also right, I must admit. In business we cannot be trapped by our eclipse sunglasses, no matter how useful they were for a few precious minutes on Monday.
There is an auction coming up on August 29 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with 40 well-maintained cam operated Tornos Swiss-type screw machines. They made money for the family that owned the shop for many decades. They probably will be sold and packaged for shops in Vietnam after the auction. Today, the shop owner probably looks at them ruefully, like eclipse sunglasses that he kept way too long.
When I discussed the Godin blog with my children and grandchildren they reacted to the one-day glasses with a different angle. To them, the sunglasses were an artifact, but one of value, because in five years they could pull them out of a closet and recall a wonderful memory of sharing the eclipse experience on August 21, 2017. For them the eclipse sunglasses were like a photo album or a poster advertising the first concert they attended. That view intrigued me. It romanticized the junk. But it does not change the kernel of truth in Godin’s blog. Graff-Pinkert cannot run a business selling machines whose main value is sentimentality.
The old iron, the now useless sunglasses, the obsolete ideas we cling to from childhood must be pitched or we will become the doddering hosts of tomorrow’s roving pickers.
Question 1: Are mechanical machine tools the eclipse sunglasses of manufacturing?
Question 2: Do you have a Bridgeport in your basement?
On Monday, August 14, my wife, Risa, received a Facebook message from a woman named Diana. In 1995 they were both on a commuter train to downtown Chicago when Diana’s 3-week-old daughter Keisha stopped breathing. Even worse, blood was coming out of the baby’s mouth. Risa had recently taken a CPR class at her Tae-Kwan-Doe school. Everybody else on the train seemed paralyzed, but Risa raced to the baby and administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. There was no time to think. She had the courage and the knowledge to step up. The train ultimately stopped and the mother and child were helicoptered to Children’s hospital. The baby survived and thrived.
In Diana’s note she thanked Risa and sent a photo of 22-year-old Keisha with with her own 2-year-old son. Risa had only heard from Diana one other time since the incident, when Keisha was still a baby. It was a very sweet August anniversary for all three.
I am also celebrating the gift of life in August. August 29, 2008, was the day my life almost ended with a catastrophic heart event. After a terrible summer vacation in New Buffalo, Michigan, where I probably almost died climbing up a sand dune, I began to push my denial aside enough to think I was quite sick, though probably with pre-pneumonia, rather than severe angina.
Metra Commuter Train in Chicago
After getting back to Chicago I finally decided I’d better see a doctor friend of mine, Chris Costas. Chris put a stethoscope on me, looked at my face and then told me he was wheeling me himself to the ER of St. Francis hospital in Evanston, Illinois. The last thing I remember of that day was the nurse asking me if I cared if they cut my underwear off.
My wife, Risa, tells me that by the grace of God there was a cardiac interventionist available to attempt to insert a stent in my blocked left anterior descending artery (the “Widow Maker”). The procedure was an extremely difficult one because of the 100% blockage, but if the cardiologist could not pull it off my odds of living were awful. I had to get stronger to be able to have the quadruple bypass I needed, and that could only happen if he could somehow get the stent in.
Dr. Muhammad Akbar, the cardiologist, somehow inserted the stent. When asked how he did it he silently pointed skyward. I was on a ventilator for 13 days after that. The bypass surgery was successful, and I feel truly blessed as I celebrate the beauty of living every day.
August also makes me think of my Mom, Thais Kassel, who was born August 15, 1923. She was a loving and kind woman. Great Cubs fan, too.
August is such a beautiful month.
Question: Have you ever saved a life or had your life saved?
It is rare to read a long article in The Washington Post that delves into the life of a guy who pushes the button on a punch press thousands of times a day. But Chico Harlan did it brilliantly in his feature piece last Saturday.
The two-thousand-word article was about more than just Bobby Campbell who works at Tenere Corporation in Dresser, Wisconsin. It was probably the best depiction of the struggle to find capable and reliable factory staff in America 2017 that I have read. I wish I had written it.
I talked to The Post’s Chico Harlan on the phone to compliment him and get more background on the piece. He spent nine days in a Holiday Inn Express in the middle of no-where Wisconsin because he and his editors, and indirectly Jeff Bezos of Amazon who owns The Washington Post, thought the piece was that important. The American labor market, especially manufacturing, is a multifaceted mess, and this mid-sized firm named Tenere, owned by a private equity group, was that rare company which would allow a reporter like Harlan full access to the shop floor and the lives of its employees.
Tenere is a big fabricating job shop. On a good day it has 550 employees banging out sheet metal components primarily for the electronics industry. They are not high-tech products, but they must fit nicely for the disk drive companies that purchase them. Tenere has a plant in Mexico, but the core of the business is in the northwest corner of Wisconsin, 90 minutes from the Twin Cities. Not many folks live in the small towns like Dresser, and you aren’t going to attract many young people with $12-$13 per hour jobs. Harlan says Tenere chronically is 120 workers short of where they would like to be, with a three-shift operation of punching, bending and assembly. The firm is constantly trying to hire and continually discarding the weak applicants who often self-select by quitting during their first week. They have bent their hiring standards to allow in people who have had criminal or substance abuse problems and still they cannot get the people they need. The writer spent a lot of time with Bobby Campbell, the press operator with a long-term drinking problem. Harlan wrote sympathetically about Bobby’s agonizing ride home each night in which he passes a dozen gas stations and mini-marts selling beer. His urge to stop and buy a dozen cans is often unbearable, and if he buys them he’ll probably down them all in one sitting.
Tenere has a lot of folks like Bobby Campbell to deal with, which is what brought the company to Matt Bush and Rob Goldiez and their robot rental startup, Hirebotics, after a manager read about them in the trade publication, The Fabricator. Day after day Bobby Campbell misses his quotas, but Tenere needs Campbell because he is the best they can get – at least until Matt and Rob brought in the robots from Denmark made by Universal Robots.
Hirebotics is a year-old company according to Goldiez. He and his partner are engineers, formerly working at a unit of Berkshire Hathaway, who saw the potential for being the vital facilitator between the robot seller and the end user like Tenere that faces huge operational problems on a shop floor lacking sophistication and distrustful of automation. Goldiez told me they are being swamped with inquiries since The Post piece and the article in The Fabricator.
A Universal Robot is a $32,000 robotic arm, not one of the monster Kuka or ABB machines welding car bodies you see at Toyota or Ford.
Matt and Rob packed two robotic arms and their wiring packages into their car in Nashville and drove to the northwest corner of Wisconsin to install them themselves. They are very hands-on guys. Their intriguing business proposition is that they rent the robots by usage for $15 per hour. The machines are expected to be used 80 hours per week, minimum. Records of uptime are kept on the Cloud.
It took eight days for Bush and Goldiez to officially integrate the robots into Tenere’s production, making “claws” and “holsters” out of sheet metal. They are not really replacing people, just augmenting production for people like Bobby Campbell who tries his best but cannot keep up with the company’s production goal.
For highly reliable Annie Larson, another Tenere employee highlighted in the story, the second robot installed is a godsend. Her team is supposed to be comprised of 12 people but usually only 6 or 7 show up. Her robot doesn’t have sick kids or divorce court to deal with and hits its quotas every day. She’s happy about it because it takes stress out of her life when the team falls behind.
Tenere is now planning for robots 3 and 4 from Hirebotics. They had been considering busing in people from a Somali community in the Twin Cities, a 90-minute trip, but the robots may make that unnecessary. For now the company is starting to manage its “arms” race.
Question: Over the next 10 years will robots save or kill more jobs in America?
I’m sitting on a wooden chair at my local Starbucks next to a kiosk of snacks I’ve never seen anybody buy. I’m sipping an iced latte. It’s decent, but I didn’t come here for the coffee. I just needed a table with some energy in the room that would make it easier for the words to flow for this blog. The latte is my space rental price, and I think it is well worth $4.53 to me for the two-hour lease with a reasonably clean bathroom and affable staff.
I think Starbucks founder Howard Schultz has always known what he was selling at Starbucks. In his early biography the poor Jewish boy from New York City, whose Dad was a $20,000 a year city truck driver, describes how he ended up in Seattle after dropping out of Northern Michigan University when the football coach realized he was never going to quarterback the varsity. Schultz was hardly a coffee maven then, but he traveled to Sweden in an early job and saw how the Scandinavians used to hang out and schmooze while sipping coffee, and he had a vision of what an American coffee chain could be.
His brilliant insight was that all over the modern world people hungered for a “third place”—not home, not work—where they could hang out and talk. There were bars, of course, but they had all kinds of stigma and only satisfied an older, nighttime clientele. The coffee shop, if it was correctly located, with the proper selections of coffee and food, comfortable seating, welcoming baristas (coffee makers) who were friendly and intelligent, could fill an enormous gap in food presentation.
Courtesy of dailymail.co.uk
What Howard Schultz understood intuitively in the late 1980s was that coffee was the hook to pull in his audience but he did not have to sell the best gourmet coffee in the world. The key to his real success was obtaining the best store locations and then subletting the space to coffee drinkers like me who couldn’t tell Brazilian from Sumatran beans in a million years. Who knew what a latte was before Schultz? And the Frappuccino, the masterpiece of Mr. Starbucks, was a billion-dollar invention that a true coffeeist would sneer at.
In business you have to know what you are selling. I think Gene Haas has been enormously successful in the brutally competitive machine tool game because he sold moderately priced machines and Haas service. The local repair technician with spare parts in his truck is Gene’s Haas’s great innovation. In many cases I think Haas sells service with a machine thrown in.
I believe machining companies sell absolute reliability more than anything else. Customers say they buy primarily on price, but in many cases after a few years with the same supplier they check price infrequently. They want to know that the product arrives on time, that the quality can be counted on and that the supplier listens to them. They may say it’s all about price, but usually it isn’t. And if it is only about price, who needs them?
I’m finishing my latte now. The coffee grinder is humming but I barely notice it. My car is right outside the door. Very convenient. Parking is one of the nice plusses with this Starbucks. Schultz coming through again.
At Starbucks, it’s not the coffee. It’s the location. They know what they are selling.
Question: Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts or Maxwell House?