It’s a Wonderful Business

By Lloyd Graff

Left to right: Manny Buenrostro, Lloyd Graff, Rex Magagnotti, Brian Crowner looking at Acme RBN-8

Yesterday was an emotional day for me. I gave out end of the year bonus checks to the employees of my used machinery company, Graff-Pinkert, holding impromptu talks with each person after delivering each envelope. I thanked each person for their contribution, asked them how they could improve next year and how I could help them. Paternalistic, very old school.

I found myself holding back my tears during some of the sessions. I scurried to an empty shop office to pull myself together — and wept.

Some context. As I drove to work yesterday, I was wallowing in a sense of futility. I had been working on a dozen deals and they all felt stalled. Some will gel soon I think, but my feeling of frustration was sickening. I had made projections expecting at least a few of them to close by now, but man plans and God laughs. I was defining my year’s work by an accountant’s calendar.

But in a small family business, fulfillment is not just about money. Many of my peers have retired now and wonder why I am still working. I have a hard time explaining my feelings to people who have worked in big organizations, but when I struggle to make the pieces fit together and lose sleep worrying about bank loans and expectations not reached, I start to wonder why I am knocking myself out at 69. My son Noah, who is working very closely with me now, is starting to internalize the emotional roller coaster of business ownership, but until the buck stops with him, it will still be a foreign notion. My Dad, Leonard, lived the business in a totally visceral way, but I never felt it in full Zantac mode until I was in charge.

When I gave out the checks, a couple days after my birthday, I felt the gravity and the gratitude of the moment. I understood in my heart of hearts why I work so hard and feel so passionately about the business. The men and women I work with really care about what they do, and depend on the company.

Hector Serna has worked on the cleaning rack for 30 years. He is a perfectionist about transforming oily, cruddy machines into beautiful, functional mechanical Rembrandts. He is highly demanding of the guys he manages. His adult sons, Joey and Mario, joined him to clean machines several years ago and he wasn’t easy on them. Hector lost his wife a few years ago, and his gallbladder occasionally acts up, but he puts on his shop apron every day and attacks the filthy screw machines. His sons are now apprenticing as screw machine rebuilders in the shop, but Hector still relishes the challenge of turning the ugliest of multis into works of art. Graff-Pinkert has been his life’s work, and mine, too.

Greg and Manny Buenrostro have worked for the company over 20 years and have made themselves into accomplished machinery rebuilders. They are sophisticated in diagnosing problems from anxious clients. They started at Graff-Pinkert knowing nothing, yet today they are respected for their skills around the world and are now training Hector’s sons to do what they do.

Rex Magagnotti has worked for Graff-Pinkert for more than two decades. Yesterday he was prepping a machine himself for an impending inspection, because he wants it right. He is our sales manager, but that hardly describes him. I have to cajole Rex to take a vacation. I depend on him for advice on a myriad of topics and defer to him frequently. He is training my son Noah more than I am, and often I find myself arguing vociferously against both of them. They think I am too soft as a negotiator.

Cathy Heller has been handling our spare parts operation for 20 years. Her relationships with customers have grown to the point where she knows the names of their pets.

Yesterday, I truly felt deep in my heart that the company isn’t only “my business.” When I gave Manny his bonus check, I thanked him for his terrific work ethic and he thanked me for “being there for everybody.” I finally connected with my emotions. I get to do this business. Graff-Pinkert could easily have died five years ago with my heart attack. It could have ended when my brother and I split up last year. It certainly could have folded in the 2008-09 economic debacle. But we all pulled together and now celebrate another year in the life of a small “family” company, 72 years old.

Take a moment to share your own story.

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14 thoughts on “It’s a Wonderful Business

  1. Misterchipster

    When one has a passion for something it becomes a part of who they are. “Work” is something done for money, “vocation” is an extension of what you are made up of and it shows in how you perform.

  2. Tom Tobin

    Our company, Tobin Machining, Inc., has existed for over 90 years. We have evolved through my career, 32 years here, from Tool & Die, Single and MultiSpindle Screw Machines and making handcuffs to a CNC Barfeed Production Machine Shop. I am third generation. We were also able to bonus our employees this year. What makes this place go is the people, on the floor or in the office. They are the heart that beats which keeps the flow of product going out the door, day after day after day.

  3. Faith

    This made me tear up! I am in somewhat the same position as Noah as my parents own a small industrial supply business that they are grooming me to take over. In no way do I feel the brunt yet, and I just hope and pray that when its my time, I will take care of our “family” at the business the same way my parents have taken care of us. 🙂 Great article and Happy Holidays!

  4. David Bradley

    After reading your bonus check story, about your business associates (employees), that you realize that you, Lloyd Graff, are a very, very rich man.

  5. Ken Cooley

    I as well could relate to your article and greatly appreciate you sharing freely with us.
    The end of the year always seems to bring us that “accountants Calender” worry but I caution myself and my wife that we look at this monthly and quarterly and December 31st means nothing more than the end of another month.

    Somehow we have been made to feel like we begin running a race every January 1 and the culmination of our race and determination of winning or losing is somehow based on the measurement done on December 31st. I feel like I need to weigh in on Jan 1 and do the same on Dec 31st to see if I did well or not.

    I’m thankful to be alive, to have a great staff and to be on course to one day give this company to my staff members who are ready to take it over. While it’s never easy being in business it is still rewarding.
    As one old sage once told me over 30 years ago, “if it were easy Ken, everybody would be doing it”. I remember that often, sometimes at 3am.

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!!

  6. Chuck McClure

    The story you shared is much like ours, albeit with a few less years of experience. The life of a “small business owner” is quite a challenge. I always feel like I’m on the cusp of breaking through the up & down cycles, only to be knocked down yet again. Whether it is this business or others I have owned in my past, each year seems to present a new set of “challenges & opportunities” as some folks like to say. At some point, normally at this time of the year it seems, I question what’s the point.

    This time this year has brought a new “challenge”. As some know & most don’t, my beloved mother past away on Oct 1st. Although you think you know what to expect when that day comes and how you will handle it, we all really have no clue what that time will bring. I guess some deal with it better than others.

    However, once the calendar turns to another New Year, I/we will once again figure out a way to shake all those questions of why we do what we do & hopefully learn to live with another emotional day of reckoning and once again “return to our normal lives”.

    At some point though, I would like to know, for what?

  7. Brett May

    Hi Lloyd
    I can relate to your feeling of its not just “my business,” It takes a network of support, employees, family, customers, vendors and the list goes on to make a company work and survive.
    Everyone is so important to make it all work, I find it hard to express how grateful we are. so Thank you very much.

  8. Gordon Erickson

    Having started from an idea 23 years ago, I feel your pain.
    If only an owner could have a full staff of people who care-that would get me crying right along with you
    Granted that is impossible, but having even a couple names you could drop means you have found some of them, and that is priceless
    Good luck with the hand off to your son, and congratulations for taking that hand off years ago. I couldn’t consider my dads home building business because I had no passion for it. I had to start from nothing like he did in something I loved.
    I am only 53, so I have a few years to work on the hand off. I can only hope one of my boys is interested, but at least let them finish college, and at least let them choose manufacturing.
    If you don’t love it, it would be work, and you can do that anywhere; With a lot less second guessing from those employees who do care

  9. Sarah

    Thanks, Dad, for continuing to inspire us all. And thanks to all of you for writing in and appreciating my dad’s wisdom, perseverance, and heart.

  10. Ashok J. Sheth

    Dear Mr. Graff,
    I have been reading your column for quite sometime. It is interesting and at times, I do share with my colleagues. The only thing that bothers me is why you feel that being 69 is a problem or something to dwell upon. I am also 66. I was in USA working as Used Machinery Dealer and Rebulder of Centerless grinder. We got in to manufactcturing New Centerless grinders and at age of 55, moved to India and started working full time in this activity. Today, I feel rewarded that we have a wide range of Centerless grinders and customers and friends all over the world. I do not think worrying about age or past illness should slow us down, but it just tells us to move faster and pass all our experience and knowledge to next generation so that they move to greater heights. We do not have to work for money at our age, but the Passion which comes from Heart would not slow us down, till God has some other design for us. I wish you and your family Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah.

  11. Maury Minerbi

    Congratulations to you and your staff for a successful year, since bonuses generally signify to positive results.

    It seems to me that you continue to choose working over a slower paced alternative for a number of reasons. First, you have a goal of teaching Noah as much as possible about the machinery business. That’s essential for his career success. Second, you enjoy what you do, the fun of the chase, and you do it well. Third, your identity is closely associated with Graff-Pinkert.

    As my wife, Susan, said repeatedly before retiring this year, “I’ll know when I’ll be ready when the time comes.” As an introspective, deliberate person, you too will know when you’re ready to slow down. In the meantime, enjoy every day.

  12. Jeremy

    When your work is your passion, the “work” is more enjoyable. As a small business owner with many hats, the hardest part is justifing the passion through economic terms – The business still has to pay for itself, as my wife never tires of reminding me. Multi-generational businesses are few and far between. How do you transfer your passion for your work to the next generation? It is difficult but you have to trust that some of your teachings stick and that they have learned enough along the way to be able the new leadership role. Good Luck to all family businesses during the transition phase. Merry Christmas and a here’s to a better 2014 !


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