Steve Jobs once said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
Today, I’m going to tell you a story about how dots in my past came together serendipitously to help me solve problems and make some good deals in our used machinery business. When I met the people in these stories, I had no idea they would be significant to our business down the line, and of course, I never could have predicted how they would connect with one another.
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One of the most interesting and gratifying parts of being a used machinery dealer is the wonderful network our company, Graff-Pinkert has built around the world for over 80 years.
We do business with an incredible variety of people. Technical specialists, new machinery dealers, used machinery dealers, end-users, end-users who act like used machinery dealers. The classifications of many of these folks often become blurred.
I’ve got my robot guy, Mike in Michigan, my INDEX guy, Mitch, and my South American INDEX guy Allen. I’ve got my Schutte and Gildemeister guy Mauro. I’ve got my Tornos guy, Dulio, and my Tornos guy in Germany, Achim. The list goes on and on.
Serendipity brought us all together, and now that we have all these relationships they stack on top of each other to create new serendipity. The more dots you have in your network, the quicker you acquire new dots.
Last month, Graff-Pinkert presented at the Precision Machining Technology Show (PMTS) in Cleveland. The booth wasn’t in the greatest location because we registered at the last minute. But we knew it was important to be there because a show like that is such a fertile place for serendipity. There’s tens of thousands of people who are part of the same tribe. Sure, some people are doing milling and some are doing turning. Some people are running machines made 50 years ago, while others only want to use the newest technology. Other people like me are pedaling iron. But we all speak the same language of machining, and most of us can benefit something from getting to know each other.
On the second day of the show, Bill Camloh a distributor for the Japanese CNC machine tool builder Shimada stopped by our booth. We met Bill about 10 years ago when he contacted us because one of his customers needed a bunch of nice used Hydromats after his shop had a fire. It was one of those great machinery deals that you still remember a decade later. It sounds a bit morbid, but fires are sometimes quite serendipitous for machinery dealers, and manufacturers too for that matter, if they have good insurance and fire suppression systems.
Customers become a little more aggressive in their spending when they genuinely NEED more machines and they have an insurance company playing sugar daddy. Honestly though, that deal is bit fuzzy in my brain by now. I don’t generally don’t think about it when I talk to Bill. He told me he’s the same when he talks to us.
Anyway, Bill came by the booth and introduced us to a very close friend of his, Shinji Okuda, the Vice President / General Manager of SB Machine Tools, the U.S. distributor of Shimada. Shinji and I made small talk for a few minutes and exchanged business cards.
Just then, my friend Jay Sauder, owner of Sauder Machine in Plymouth, Ohio, stopped by the booth. Jay is a brilliant guy, who I always enjoy talking to. He’s been on the podcast twice. He uses super high-tech Japanese and German machines to make hydraulic wheel cylinders for Amish horse drawn buggies. We still haven’t made a machinery deal with Jay yet, but he’s always teaching me interesting things. Shinji and Bill were about to say their goodbyes after they saw Jay come over to the booth and start talking to me, but I stopped them from leaving and introduced them to Jay.
Jay doesn’t own any Shimadas. He runs Mazaks and INDEXs and DMG/MORI machines. But just about instantly, he and Shinji started talking shop, and I sat back and admired the new dots I was creating. My serendipity guru, Christian Busch, says that whenever you meet someone new, it’s good to think about all the people you already know who might benefit from an introduction with your new contact. When you introduce two people who can help each other, you create potential serendipity for them, and that serendipity has a way of finding itself back to you.
Ok. Back to the story. The conference ended on Thursday, and I returned to Chicago on Friday where four shiny used Citizen Swiss machines, fresh off the boat from Japan were waiting for me in our Graff-Pinkert warehouse. We had just rolled the dice, importing a Citizen K16 VIIP, L20E VIII, L20 VII, and A20 VII, as well as a DMG MORI 32/5 and a Fanuc Robocut Wire EDM.
The machines looked beautiful! However, before we could sell them, the first thing we had to do was get their controls in English and get them running.
Rather than bring in Citizen technician to work on the machines, we brought in Chris Armstrong. Avid readers and listeners might remember Chris from my interview with him on Swarfcast, as well as his role in blog and podcast “Tale of a Used CNC Machine.” Chris used to work for Citizen, he co-owns a production shop near Houston called Texas Swiss Factory, and he does technical service on all types of Swiss machines. Those who know him call him the Mad Scientist because supposedly he’s able to get any CNC machine going.
Chris had been at Graff-Pinkert all week working on the Citizens, and he had made good progress. Friday was his last day in Chicago before returning to Houston, and I was dead set on having a video of all four citizens running before he left.
I had taken videos of three of the machines so far. But we still needed to the get the Citizen K16 VIIP going. In order to do that, we needed to connect it to the Alps bar feeder that came with it.
The problem was that we couldn’t figure out how to run the bar feeder because its control and buttons were in
Japanese. It was now 4:30 PM, and Chris and I both hated the idea of leaving without that machine running. Chris asked me if I knew someone who spoke Japanese, and ideally someone who also spoke “CNC machines.” I thought about it, and I remembered Shinji from the PMTS. I debated whether it was appropriate to call him. But he did tell me that if I ever needed help with anything I could call him. And he was the only person I could think of.
I called the number on his business card, and he picked up! I told about him our situation, and he said he would try to help. Then I called him on FaceTime so he could try to make sense of the messages on the bar feed’s PLC. Icould see that he was talking to us from his living room at home.
Shimada’s machine tools generally don’t use bar feeds, so at first it was difficult for Shinji to make sense of the PLC’s error messages. But then we turned our attention to the PLC’s key pad. We asked him to translate the Japanese characters on each button. Then we quickly grabbed a pen and started writing the translations right on the keypad. The scene kind made me feel like a code breaker! It was fun.
Shinji turned out to be lifesaver. With the translated buttons, Chris was able to activate the bar feeder, and we got the Citizen machine to run. (Scroll to the bottom for the video we took of it running). Chris and I celebrated by getting Al’s Italian beef for dinner.
Now we just have to sell the machines. Anybody reading or listening to this, feel free come on down to Graff-Pinket and have a look. They are beauties.
Before I end this little tale, I’m going to bring up a less fun story that happened four years earlier.
Our religious readers our there, (and I’m not talking about organized religion) might remember a blog I wrote recently about a bunch of Swiss machines in Japan that we were cheated on back in 2019. We paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for some late model Swiss machines, including two Citizen L20E machines, which the seller, JS Precision, never actually owned. Before we had realized we were never going to get the machines we had paid for, we had pre-sold the two L20Es to a company in Texas, co-owned by Chris Armstrong. They had even put down a deposit, which we had to send back, of course.
But those machines that we were cheated on introduced us to a new customer. A year later we sold Chris’s company a Citizen M32. I also got to interview Chris for the podcast. Two years ago, we hired Chris go to remote 200-person town in Texas where he revived a shiny red CNC Escomatic EC08 that had been defiled by rats. He’s also been a life saver over the past few years, helping us over the phone to troubleshoot our used Citizens.
Finally, four years after our failed attempt at buying Citizen machines from Japan, it was only fitting that Chris was the one to get our new imported Japanese Citizens going.
So remember, when you meet people, particularly in your business sphere, don’t discount their significance just because you don’t see it at that moment. It could take two days or 10 years, or in my case both, until the dots connect beautifully.
Question: What dots have you connected in your life?