Author Archives: Lloyd Graff

Tickling the Funny Bone

A young Bernie Sahlins

Bernie Sahlins died over the weekend at 90. He was co-founder of Second City, Chicago’s famous comedy club, and is known for propagating great comedians like Gilda Radnor, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live.

Sahlins was a close friend of a cousin of mine, Sheldon Patinkin (yes, Mandy Patinkin is also a cousin).

When I read Bernie Sahlins’ obituary I realized a link between improvisational comedy and what I do for a living.

The improv comic takes a word, a situation, a hint, and builds a sketch on it. If he or she is a Belushi or a John Candy they take funny and build it into pathos or a belly laugh with a gesture or word. The key is connection to the audience and boldness. They have to be willing to be stupid and fail outrageously to be crazy funny.

I feel the tug of improv in the used my machinery business, Graff-Pinkert. Every deal starts with a clue, a sniff, a subtle hint of possibility. I swallow the clue and let my unconscious pick up on the trail. The great improv comic also absorbs the clue. If she has a partner they toss the idea up like a balloon in a light breeze and follow it joyfully together around the stage. They make laughs out of nothing but their zigzagging playful imagination.

When I’m clicking in my work I’ve also connected to my unconscious mind, because that’s where the creativity lives. When I go to “what if” land I access the mind that can make deals where there are none.

This may sound goofy and a long way from engineering and machining, but I think the joy of improv has a place in every business and endeavor. What if the next time you get a batch of prints you say to yourself, “if I could do this stupid and wrong, how would I approach it?” You just might find some nutty insight that could start a new business.

In business, the exciting deals are the ones that make us feel uncomfortable. A smart guy once told me, “you never get a good deal until you feel it in your gut.” Then you know you’ve pushed into the discomfort zone where big things happen.

At Second City, Bernie Sahlins helped establish a culture where comedians were rewarded for both taking chances and playing ball with their peers. Second City is not for soloists. It is an ensemble. So is business. Even the virtuoso needs a good band to play with.

My two sons have both done improv. They even did it together. I think every person should take an improv class just to access their funny bones for once in their lives. It’s a way to stretch. We all need that.

Question: Who is your favorite comic? Why?

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Your Father’s Day Card

Learning from the master.

Father’s Day is coming up June 16, but what if you don’t have a Father to connect with anymore?

My suggestion is to reach out to another man you respect, someone you’ve learned from, who has gone out of his way for you. Write him a card, give him a hat (doesn’t have to be a fedora), bake him a loaf of bread (yes, I’ve done that), take him to lunch — a hot dog will do fine. Men are people, too.

I learned a lot from my Dad, but I’ve also searched for mentors who came from a different place.

I saw a psychotherapist for 10 years, Herb Cibul, who helped me see my world with a clarity and confidence I did not possess before I started going to him. Herb died several years ago. If he were alive today I would write him a long card to let him know how much he meant to me, and that I am okay.

For over 15 years I also had a brilliant business mentor, Belford Small, a machinery dealer from my father’s era, who gave up the daily grind after his warehouse burned down. He moved from Chicago’s Lake Street to Delray Beach, Florida, and advised a privileged few men on investments, the used machinery business and life.

Bel was a chain smoker, and I could occasionally hear him exhale smoke on the phone, but since almost all of our work was done long distance, it never bothered me.

Bel was incisive and analytical. I felt he could counsel me on every business problem I encountered. I know that my Dad was jealous of the hours I spent with Bel on the phone, but he also knew that Bel understood all of the players in our business and was often crucial in bringing about a consensus among us at Graff-Pinkert.

Bel Small made me feel like I was his special student, not a client. I paid him a consulting fee each year, but he never billed the company. I loved the man, not as a father, not as a therapist, but as a loving teacher and mentor.

I wish I could send him a card for Father’s Day.

I hope everybody who is reading this piece has somebody in their life who fills the role that Herb and Bel did for me, and that my Dad did in a different way. If you do have that person now, maybe take a little time to tell them how much they mean to you.

Question: Tell us about your mentors.

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Politically Incorrect Blog

Cute-Dog-Pictures-9 (1)

1) I find the trend of women and men choosing to produce and raise children without a partner to be disturbing. It’s tough on everybody. It impoverishes families and makes parents less upwardly mobile in the workforce because they are deflected by the enormous burdens of child rearing. I know that many men abdicate parenting and I find that appalling, but the apparent planning by many women to be the primary parent is an upsetting trend in America.

2) Doubling down on the single parent trend, I find the huge percentage of American children being raised by grandmothers to be quite sad. The absence of parents will ensure an impoverished angry underclass in America.

3) Unemployment benefits for up to 99 weeks is bad for this country. Same for food stamps. Two years of unemployment compensation means a huge budget drain, rusty skills, and a work disincentive. Food stamps were supposed to be a temporary bridge, not a crutch for 50 million people.

4) The military budget is enormously bloated, full of tanks and planes even the Pentagon does not want.  It should be cut by 10% per year for the next five years.

5) Drone warfare is the scariest technology to come along since nuclear weapons. When real blood and gore are a video game for a 22-year-old controller sitting in Maryland, we are all in trouble.  When local police have their own drone toys to hunt bad guys, the nonconformist malcontents will be in jeopardy.

6) Public education with unionized teachers and protected administrators is dumbing down the country. Give people vouchers — or whatever you want to call them — to buy education. If folks choose Web courses like the audacious Khan Academy over crappy local schools, so be it.

7) American immigration laws are ridiculous. Allow in 5 million immigrants per year using a lottery. Let in every brainy person or rich person who wants to invest a significant sum of money, and then boot them out if they get themselves arrested too often.

8) LeBron is the greatest basketball player, ever.

9) The unholy alliance of the oil cartel, environmentalists, and Government whores keeps oil prices high. We should be paying $1.75 for gasoline or compressed natural gas at the pump.

10) Additive technology, “printing parts,” will kill the CNC lathe and machining center business in 10 years.

11) People who bet on inflation will continue to lose. Gold will plummet to $300 per ounce. Water will rise in value until we get cheap desalinization in 15 years.

12) I’ve never had a pet and do not plan to change my policy.

Question 1: Are you offended?

Question 2: Does it bother you that I don’t like dogs?

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Do you try to be like your father?

Leonard and Thais Graff in Paris, 1960

Every month I get an emailed catalog from DelMonico Hatter, promoting their stylish hats — Borsalino, Stetson, Kangol — the best brands. Ernest DelMonico, who runs the firm, is a third generation hatter from New Haven, Connecticut, and his merchandise is first rate. I once bought a black Kangol cap from them to go with my navy and tan ones. Frankly, I rarely wear a hat. Only when I dress up and put on the navy cashmere topcoat I bought twenty years ago do I wear a Kangol. I’m a hood or baseball cap guy.

But I do love DelMonico’s hats. He was featuring a Homburg last Sunday, trying to capitalize on the opening of the new Great Gatsby film set in the Roaring Twenties.

I could never wear a Homburg hat. Too David Niven or Walter Pigeon, but I was fascinated by the catalog photos of the hat with the details about the materials and design specs, down to the brim size and choice of bands and feathers.

I love the idea of Homburgs, fedoras and panamas. I just don’t like wearing those things on my head.

Harrison Ford, as Indiana Jones, could pull it off. How I’ve wanted to wear one of those bruised, brown fedoras like Indy and outfox the Nazis. But could anybody really wear one like Dr. Jones? When I try to imagine myself as the fearless archaeologist with the sweaty brown fedora, I end up seeing myself as Yosemite Sam, the three foot tall Bugs Bunny character with the four foot hat covering everything but his mustache.

I was visiting friends recently in Austin, Texas. My wife Risa and I made the mandatory stop for Western wear at Allen’s Boots. Risa bought a pair of cowboy boots. It’s what a Chicago lady does in Austin. Damn, I wanted a Stetson. I tried several on. Beautiful hats, soft brim, silk lining. Looked ridiculous on me. It would have resided forever in my closet.

Where did this gut fascination and rational rejection of hats come from?

It’s a father-son thing, I’m sure.

My Dad, Leonard Graff, could really wear a hat. He rarely left the house without one. He owned several fedoras — the real fur felt articles. On his one and only trip to Europe in 1960 he went to the temple of hats, the Borsalino factory in Alessandria, Italy. He brought a beret home for me and I cherished it. My father even had a Homburg for formal occasions and a pork pie for light ones.

At 6’6″ tall with a made-to-order suit, Serge overcoat and a navy Borsalino fedora, he was an imposing man. I wish I could wear a hat like him, but it’s just not me. My father had the big personality to go with his big frame.

He died in 1996, right around this time of year, and I think of him every day.

I love the idea of hats. I study them, I imagine them on my head, but I can’t wear a hat like my father did. They were him. They were Indiana Jones. And that’s okay.

At this point in my life, I’m happy to just be me.

Question: Do you try to be like your father?

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To Share or Not Share

Hamsters sharing a carrot

This is an unpaid, unprompted shout-out to the Precision Machined Products Association’s (PMPA) Listserve.

Every day, members jump on the association’s email forum with technical problems they encounter. It’s esoteric inside baseball stuff generally, far above my pay grade, yet invariably several folks quickly offer their unique experience in solving the tough machining challenges and other shop issues that come up for people living in cubicles of doubt.

A single company could never aggregate a fraction of the knowledge located in the heads of members of this small trade association.

One thing that makes the Listserve work so well is that it has a few very simple ground rules, some of which are not even articulated, yet are well understood by the group. One rule is that technical members who join the PMPA at significant cost, partly to gain access to the members at meetings, must never use the Listserve as a sales tool. Another is to always be helpful and never condescending when giving advice to other members.

A few years ago a particularly egocentric and bombastic PMPA member announced on the Listserve that he would never give out proprietary information that he had learned through hard experience. He mocked his peers for giving away the “family jewels” to potential competitors in the association. Previous to this incident he was already considered a bully by many members and eventually he was ostracized from the Listserve. Today he no longer is a PMPA member.

I know there are many other professional groups with wonderful collegial exchanges on the Web, but the PMPA cadre of dedicated online savants like Dan Murphy of Tsugami, Bob Drab of Corey Steel, and Miles Free of the PMPA staff seem unique in their willingness to be highly accessible resources, always willing to interrupt their workdays to give help to their struggling peers. The cool thing is to see competitors or possible future competitors jump into the colloquy to give valuable, hard-earned knowledge to help each other.

I am a member of the Machinery Dealers National Association (MDNA) and I cannot imagine my peers using a Listserve format to offer advice to one another on how to value machinery, though on a one on one basis I have experienced dealers sharing knowledge, but in a guarded way.

My one critique of the PMPA is that it has been only moderately successful in marketing the Listserve’s value to potential members in the machining universe. For the relatively modest price of admission to the PMPA organization, members get the cumulative knowledge of potentially thousands of seasoned pros, many of whom will unselfishly attempt to solve the most onerous of machining problems.

Question: Would you share hard-won expertise with a competitor in a trade group?

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The Shift from More to Better

A Mayfran Chip Handling System

I’ve closely studied two recent auctions of screw machines and ancillary equipment – Anderson Fittings in Chicago and MTTM in the Twin Cities last week – for indications of market strength and customer preferences. This is not just “inside baseball” for people in the trade. These auctions, which from all appearances were actually honest sales with no observable price pumping (I tend to be cynical about this stuff), tell a clear story about the turned parts market, at least for the multi-spindle niche.

The buyers generally do not need more capacity. They have more than enough spindles turning. At the Anderson auction, nice rebuilt Davenports in the1980s and ’90s with threading and pickoff brought $5,000 or less. New Britain Model 52, 6-spindles with threading went for $3,000 to $10,000, with a 1981 62 New Britain fetching under $20,000 with buyer’s premium. The one machine that brought a fair price was a 1995 8-spindle model 81 New Britain that sold for a little under $60,000 with the BP. When I evaluated the deal last winter I had figured the automatics would bring higher prices than that, yet I significantly underestimated what the auction ultimately brought in total.

The wild card at Anderson was the peripheral equipment, such as a Mayfran chip handling system which brought almost $50,000 and Ransohoff parts washing machines which had been disconnected and pushed to the wall when I evaluated the deal. The parts cleaning machines brought in over $100,000, which surprised everybody at the sale except the people bidding on them, because it was a fraction of the replacement cost.

The tooling and spare parts exceeded expectations, and the underground auger for transporting chips to the crushers and spinners brought $10,000, to my surprise.

The auction in Minnesota last week told a similar story. It was a collection of old nondescript 6-spindle National Acmes, which I assessed would bring low prices at the sale–and they did. The only machine worth more than $20,000 was a mid-1970s 1-¼ RA-6 that sold for $26,000 including the buyer’s premium. A decent 3-½” RB-6 took in $6,000 and a mediocre 1” RAN-6 without a pickoff fetched under $10,000.

But bidding on the tooling and accessories rocked. A Winter thread rolling attachment sold for over $4,000 and Langolf shave tool holders fetched almost $1,000 each.

The takeaway from these recent auctions is that buyers in this field do not covet more capacity, they have enough spindles turning. What they need and will pay for are the complimentary tools and equipment that will make their operations better and more versatile. Attachments, tooling, chip equipment, washers and inspection items are what auction buyers will bid up the price for.

In the Graff-Pinkert machinery business we see a similar trend. Our clients often want to “trade in” their tired but still viable machinery for similar but rebuilt machines with productive attachments hung on them. The machine is seen as a platform for the attachments and tooling which give manufacturers an advantage with a relatively modest extra cost.

For people in the trade this is an important market shift from “more to better.”

Question: Is it easier to find good machinists today?

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The Davy Crockett of Screw Machines

Tim Haendle was pleased with himself when I talked to him Wednesday. He had bought 100 carbide inserts – used of course – for a hundred bucks at a Hoff Online Auctions Internet sale of a screw machine shop in St. Paul, Minnesota. He’ll regrind them for use on one of the 22 National Acmes he runs in his shop, buried in a forest in Mendocino County, 125 miles north of San Francisco.

Tim is a customer of Graff-Pinkert, of sorts. He is a rugged individualist determined to live life and do business his own way. I never make any money selling to Tim, but he tells good stories and teaches me stuff when I talk to him, which is usually to remind him of obligations, because whenever I sell to him he pays in installments.

Tim runs two dozen multis and complimentary CNC machines, basically by himself and a couple helpers. His wife used to work with him, but now she’s occupied, working at a hospital in Willets, California.

Haendle’s factory is 3.5 miles deep on a gravel road in the pines and redwoods on 300 acres he owns. It is part of the ranch where the great racehorse, Seabiscuit, trained and lays buried. He paid heavily to bring power and phone to the property, though knowing Tim, he got a deal.

His machines are set up on specific jobs and he runs them when he gets an order. Lean manufacturing? Don’t be ridiculous, but extremely people efficient. His M.O. is to buy cheap but good machines, set them up infrequently, and put them in a big old barn of a building that seldom requires heating out in the “middle of the middle of nowhere.” He uses the Web to find the best deals, and can still breathe deep of the piney scents of nature.

I see Tim as the Davy Crockett of screw machines. He confirmed this view by telling me about a wilderness moment he had had on his land. He took two of his dogs, a dachshund and a lab, out for a walk. He often takes a handgun on such strolls, but he left it home this time. The little dog started growling, sensing danger. Tim stopped and turned around to see a fierce looking mountain lion a few feet away. “I couldn’t run, so I just froze and looked into his eyes,” he told me. Tim figured the mountain lion wanted his dachshund for breakfast, and hopefully not him for lunch. But he stared down the big cat and lived to tell the tale to a machinery peddler in Chicago.

Tim is not the only wilderness machinist I do business with. Chuck Fluharty runs seven Swiss CNCs in rural Pennsylvania since leaving the big company rat race at Exxon. I saw him at PMTS in Columbus in April. His shop is thriving and financially his ship has come in because his land is smack dab in the heart of the Marcellus shale oil and gas formation. Drillers want to shower him with money for mineral rights. Good news, bad news for him because he enjoys his bucolic setting to run his quiet Swiss lathes.

I like touching base with guys like Tim and Chuck who live amidst a simpler America, connected to the world but happily away from the chatter and clutter of civilization.

Question: Is it easier to run a business in the boonies?

Click below to watch a video of Davy Crockett

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Turning Iron Into Gold

The Alchemist by ChrisRa. Original artwork done for the forthcoming game from Mind Juice Media, Spellchemy.

I love the used machinery business because it is a competitive treasure hunt every day. It asks us for impossible calculations about realizable values for illiquid, flawed, sometimes rickety, filthy objects that often have little tangible worth when we are asked to buy them.

Here’s an example of the type of situation we consider at my company Graff-Pinkert every day. A firm has a 25-year-old screw machine or rotary transfer machine that it does not need at the moment. It has long been written off the financial statements, yet the potential seller feels it still has value but doesn’t know how much. He calls dealers for comps, checks eBay for similar machines, and considers whether he may use it again soon himself. He advertises it or calls us and probes for an offer. We feel the piece may have enough potential value that would make it a worthwhile addition to our stock, but we need to determine whether it is badly worn and will require substantial expensive refurbishing, or if it can be sold in its present state, which usually means full of oily chips, a nasty appearance, and out of production.

If by chance the machine shows well and is still running good parts, it becomes inviting for our broker competition, which hopes to turn it quickly for a modest but quick profit, without doing any of the difficult work of returning it to its original state of productivity.

Our challenge is to find machines that can be reclaimed from 25 years of factory abuse, refurbish them and reconfigure them to meet our client’s imminent need, and do it for a price that will be competitive and provide us with a profit that will keep the doors open. How do we do this nutty alchemy? It ain’t easy.

We deal with clients who approach business from a distinctly different angle than ourselves. They are engineers or shop folk who are obsessed with precision and repeatability. While we both pray to the same god of “return on investment,” my company is focused on one machine at a time, while they may be looking at the profit on a million pieces.

We are selling reliability, hand holding and an understanding of the capability of the machine, while our machinery broker competitors may be selling primarily on price.

Turned parts people are extremely price oriented. They deal in pennies per part and fractions of seconds of idle time, so every expenditure is weighed and reweighed for its impact on the bottom line.

For me a deal is an art form, an intellectual and artistic challenge to shape the price, terms, and other variables to meet the customer’s needs and wants, even if they are unspoken.

How do we make a profit?

Another “art form.”

Naturally, it is crucial to acquire “raw material” right. If you buy machines for stock like we do, you need to find machines that are not so horrible that they defy reclamation. You need skilled machinists and electricians to refurbish them. You need a cleaning crew to suck the swarf out and return them to their original beauty, and you must be skilled at scrounging for the new and used parts these old workhorses require to regain their mojo.

Over the years, we have acquired thousands of viable parts, accessories and attachments for the kinds of machines we sell. They have been stripped off machines or salvaged from the flotsam and jetsam of pillaged factories. Many days all the greasy iron looks like pennies a pound scrap to me, and then a Wickman buyer needs just the shaft we’ve held for a decade and it turns into gold in my eyes.

Banks and accountants struggle with how to account for our inventory of reclaimed, exquisite crud. “What is it worth?” they ask. “How long have you had it?” they inquire. “What did you pay for it?” they want to know.

When asked these logical questions by well-meaning, but uninitiated outsiders I have to stifle my penchant for sarcasm and flippancy. They are good questions for regular businesses with inventories not comprised of cannibalized Acmes, half attachments, and renegade Hydromat flanges.

The bankers and accountants study our net worth numbers each year coming up with a verdict on our success or failure. I struggle to contain my cynicism, annoyance, sometimes triumph. Profit, net-worth, margins and ratios are the stuff numbers people obsess about, and I care about those things, because as the owner and boss I need to. But where my love of the used machinery business truly stems from is the constant challenge to do the impossible. We turn iron into gold, and do it steadily enough to pay the bills each month.

Question: Are good used machines a better value than new machines?

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I’m Distracted

So many nights I go home discouraged and numb, with the sickening feeling that I accomplished nothing and wasted my workday reading emails and contemplating my navel. Recently, I read an article on productivity in business today. The piece decried the decline of work quality because of email, texting, Facebook and time-wasting games like Words with Friends. Technology has become an office curse and I see a trend in crackdowns to curb the time wasters.

I am working on my own habits to combat my personal drift. What I have found to be most useful is preparing an agenda for myself the night before and then writing a journal entry at the end of the day, putting on paper all that I have done during the workday.

This exercise of recounting how I spent my day lets me know I have actually done something meaningful with my minutes. Knowing that I will be honest in my journal is a check on ennui. It also gives me a sense of accomplishment and confidence that I am more than a lazy sloth. I find I am a lot more productive than I thought I was. I give myself credit if I worked out or had a caring conversation. If I had a cookie, or God forbid, an ice cream, I mention it. The world won’t come to an end for a few hundred dumb calories.

The curse of the driven person is thinking he constantly falls short. For the mildly driven, like me, the nagging feeling is that I spent the day in a daze.

I write this blog partly because advertisers pay for the privilege of hooking into Swarf’s fan base. It gives me an impetus to create, but I have found the secret of good prose for me is removing myself from the real hard trying. My best work comes when I allow the blog to “write itself.” The best book on the creative process of writing I’ve come across is Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Her view is that you must release yourself from your trying-so-hard self to allow the unconscious mind to take over the pencil. I often tell myself to let the pencil write the blog. While I’ve never set up a screw machine or written a computer program, I imagine the process is similar. Free yourself up so that your spark can ignite the project. I hope you go to sleep feeling fulfilled.

Question: How do you attain productivity in the Facebook world?

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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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