Category Archives: Current Events

Machining the Fair Way

Francesco Molinari, the Italian professional golfer who has entered the top tier of pros who are factors in every major tournament, led by two strokes going into the final round of the Masters Sunday.

I have followed Molinari with more than a casual interest of late because he has used a putter made by a 90-person job shop just down the road from Graff-Pinkert in Tinley Park, Illinois. I met the owner, Bob Bettinardi, at IMTS. We were both resting our bones for a few minutes next to the Universal Robots exhibit, and we talked a bit about CNC mills and his putters business, which has evolved from the job shop that was its origin.

Bettinardi had a golf shirt on with Bettindari Golf’s logo. He has built a product with worldwide reach out of a small Haas mill shop.  This is the dream of so many independent entrepreneurs in our machining world who long for the margins and stature that come from a world-renowned product.

Bettinardi’s branded putters sell for $300-$400 for a club similar to the stick Molinari used to win the British Open at Carnoustie last year.  He also makes an $800 putter with a copper insert.

For a shop running VF-3 Haases with less than 100 employees, Bettinardi is playing in the big leagues with Callaway Golf and Mizuno dominant in the golf club world. It appears Callaway lured Francesco Molinari away from Bettinardi this year though Matt Kuchar, still a prominent pro, and many other up-and-comers are still using the Tinley Park shop’s putter.

Francesco Molinari's former Bettinardi Putter

Francesco Molinari’s former Bettinardi Putter

A Bettinardi faces a daunting challenge going up against the Callaways of the golf world. They have enormous marketing budgets, and a putter’s design can be easily copied. I do not believe Bettinardi has a patented putter. He has to make a product that pro golfers adore, convince them to stay with it for years, and hope his devotees win big tournaments to popularize his sticks. A company doing maybe $20 million a year in sales can do the golf shows and hit the big retailers, but it is always an uphill battle against the Callaways who have constant exposure in the equipment market and have their name on half the golf bags on the pro tour.

This is why small, closely held family businesses like Bettinardi Golf sell out to the behemoths. I do not know if Bob will sell out or if Callaway, with a market cap of $1.6 billion, will eventually crush him by stealing away all the Molinaris of the golf world when they get hot.

As an independent observer and former mediocre golfer, I hope he keeps milling fantastic, elegant putters in Tinley Park, Illinois, and selling them direct on Amazon for $399 a pop.  I’d like to see him buy a dozen more Haas mills and put “Made in USA” on every lovely club he makes.

Maybe today Francesco Molinari will wonder if he could have beaten Tiger Woods at the 2019 Masters if he had had the Bettinardi in his bag.

Questions: 

Is there an even playing field in the machining business?

Has Haas helped even the playing field?

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Hoops Heaven

I have just completed an indolent weekend of imbibing sports on TV: NCAA basketball winnowing 16 terrific college teams down to the Final Four and the Chicago Cubs opening the season with the Texas Rangers. Just for the added whipped cream I watched the Miami Pro Tennis Tournament that Roger Federer won, the 101st significant tournament victory of his career.

I thought about business a bit, responded to emails, ruminated about blog topics, changed my travel plans to the Precision Machining Technology Show in Cleveland this week, and did a rigorous work out, but mostly I relished some superb basketball and suffered through deplorable relief pitching by the Cubs. At least I could share my pain with my son-in-law,  Scott, via text to ameliorate some of the
agony. And it’s only April. Six months more of baseball trauma.

I have not followed college basketball much this year, and I don’t bet on sporting events, but I studied up a bit before the Tournament and listened to Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith enough to quickly pick up the 2019 narrative.

Duke did finally lose by one point to Michigan State on Sunday, 69-68. Tom Izzo of MSU has a group of solid college players, none of whom may make it in the NBA. They are led by Cassius Winston, a shrewd, savvy guard who makes big plays but does not stun you with any single facet of his game.

NCAA Basketballs await this year's Final FourThe Final Four this year will be made up of Michigan State, Auburn, Texas Tech, and Virginia. None of these four teams have a Top Ten prospect, except possibly Jarrett Culver of Texas Tech, who is probably a 15-20 pick if he forgoes his final two years of eligibility.

Auburn’s top player, Chuma Okeke, tore his ACL in the Elite Eight game victory over number one seed, North Carolina, yet Auburn, a five seed, still beat a Kentucky team of High School All Americans to reach the Final Four.

The only top seed to reach the Final Four is Virginia, who should have lost, but with two seconds left on the clock and losing by three points made a one-in-a- hundred play against Purdue. Purdue had deliberately fouled so Virginia would not get a chance at a three-point field goal to tie the game. The free throw shooter got only two shots. Everybody knew that if he made the first free throw he would attempt to miss the second, hoping for a rebound off the rim that a Virginia player could catch and then shoot successfully to tie the game. I have seen this attempted many times, but I have never seen it work. But on Saturday a blond African kid, yes, from Guinea, Mamadi Diakite, plucked the rebound and hit the tying shot with the ball in the air when the buzzer went off. Virginia then went on to win in overtime over the Boilermakers.

I have been watching the NCAA college tournament since 1965 when I went to Portland, Oregon, with the Michigan team and saw Bill Bradley score 56 points in a runner-up game and then Gail Goodrich score 43 to propel UCLA over the Wolverines for the title.

I know the bad stuff about college basketball. The players are exploited by the coaches and the NCAA who make billions of dollars off the TV contract. Some players rarely go to class like Derrick Rose at Memphis, but Rose and his coach, John Calipari, knew what they were doing. Memphis won the NCAA that year, but scandal took it away from them. Rose got his $50 million NBA contract
despite hobbling knee injuries, and Calipari nailed perhaps the second-best coaching job in college basketball, after Duke, with Kentucky.

I know college basketball and football are a mockery of amateurism. Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour give under-the-table money to coaches and players. I still love to watch it.

It is such a different game than when I watched it in the 1960s, when Adolph Rupp of Kentucky put only white
boys on the court. African American players dominate the sport, but there are players from all over the world in the NCAA tournament. Gonzaga, a little Jesuit school in Spokane, was a top seed this year, and their best player, Rui Hachimura, was from Japan.

The Finals will be played this coming weekend. If you were a betting person you could have gotten 70-1 odds on Auburn two weeks ago. None of the Final Four are clear favorites. And that is a wonderful thing. I’ll be watching. Will you?

Question: Do you care whether college basketball mocks the amateur ideal?

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Michelle and I on Euclid Avenue

I’ve been listening to Michelle Obama’s wonderful autobiography, Becoming, with rapt attention. She is a brilliant writer and a terrific storyteller. What makes the book especially fascinating for me is her references to her birthplace and longtime home at 74th and Euclid in Chicago, 7 short blocks from my home growing up at 67th and Euclid. I’m 19 years older than Michelle, but we share similar memories of growing up on the South Side of Chicago. Yet many of our memories are quite different because of race, ethnicity, and the times.

Michelle Robinson came from a lower middle-class family, but they were rich with togetherness and their parents’ commitment to upward mobility for the two children. Michelle’s dad, Fraser, worked for the Chicago Water Department, checking filtration meters constantly at the enormous Navy Pier facility. It was a safe union job with the city. Fraser was also a Precinct Captain in his neighborhood, making sure everybody voted for Richard Daley and the Democratic machine.

Michelle’s mother, Marian, was a mostly stay-at-home mom who was home at lunch to make sandwiches for Michelle and her friends, and an emotional rock for the whole family, both then and now. She also lived in the White House during Barack’s time in the Oval Office, making sure the Obama daughters had all the love and guidance Michelle and her brother Craig had.

Michelle Obama's Childhood home in Chicago.Seven blocks away from the Robinsons, my mom stayed home to watch over me, my sister, and brother, making all of our meals and lending constant support. Like the Robinsons, who went to all of Craig’s basketball games (he played Division 1 in college), my parents always went to my basketball and baseball games. Several years earlier, I played baseball in the gravel schoolyard at Bryn Mawr Elementary, which Michelle attended, before I went to Hebrew school, three days a week. During the summer, I played Little League and Pony League at Rosenbloom Park, which bordered the Robinson house.

Despite our proximity and similar interests and outlooks, our childhoods did differ. Growing up on the South Side of Chicago Michelle and Craig Robinson constantly dealt with racism, not the overt type that kids encountered where my wife Risa grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, but a type of debilitating racism stemming from diminished opportunities, low expectations, and schools with low-achieving classmates.

I went to an elementary school two decades earlier that had similarities to Bryn Mawr. There were black kids in my class, but the school’s Irish teachers treated white kids, who made up about 2/3 of the class, with respect and had high expectations for our success. The black kids, with a few exceptions, were treated as second-class. The 48 kids in our class were segregated by test scores, which dictated which row of eight we sat in. I was conscious of the unfairness and unkindness inherent in the seating arrangement, but the idea of complaining about it was not in my vocabulary at the age of 10 or 11.

Michelle Robinson graduated from Bryn Mawr and attended Whitney Young High School, a racially diverse, elite magnet public school attended by many of Chicago’s most affluent African Americans. This was the alternative to attending South Shore High, which was 98% black but a couple of blocks from her home. Whitney Young was an hour and a half bus ride on two Chicago buses for her, and the kids paid their own bus fare.

I would have gone to Hyde Park High School, which was also 98% black, but I got into the prestigious University of Chicago Laboratory School, a private school a few miles away, though I usually received a ride from my mom or dad in the morning. My classmates were an amalgam of kids from U of C parents, Jewish kids from the South Side, and commuters from around the city. About 20% were black.

Michelle writes vividly about friends she had growing up, especially one of the daughters of Jesse Jackson, who lived in a beautiful stone house a few blocks from me, although I did not know it at the time.

Michelle graduated from Whitney Young high school and went on to Princeton in 1981, as had her brother Craig, two years earlier. After Princeton, she earned a degree from Harvard Law School and a position at probably the most prestigious law firm in Chicago, Sidley Austin LLP. Nineteen years earlier, I attended the University of Michigan, then joined the Illinois National Guard, and later started peddling screw machines in an office on the South Side of Chicago in 1969.

Michelle eventually made it to the White House with Barack, whom she helped recruit for an internship at Sidley Austin. But both of us will always share Euclid Ave.

Question: Do you ever go back to where you grew up? How does it feel?

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