Knowing What You’re Doing

What is all this stuff worth?

The education of my son Noah in the used machinery business has been progressing for nine months. This is a report from his boss, which is complicated because he is also his father. Next week you’ll hear from Noah about his view of the process.

To an outsider, buying and selling used machinery may seem simple: buy low, sell high. The reality is that it is one of the most demanding intellectual challenges I have ever encountered. Valuing dirty, broken, flawed, obsolete iron and convincing a potential buyer they are getting fair value is so difficult. The iron is generally an illiquid asset. Noah’s job is to liquefy the illiquid, but to do that he has had to learn why people still buy screw machines that most people, even those in the trade, think are weighty anchors.

He has educated himself by talking to people in the field at meetings, one on ones in their factories, watching videos, and especially by listening to Rex Magagnotti, Graff-Pinkert’s go-to guy on screw machinology. Rex has even taught him how to measure the slop on an Acme end tool slide with a dial indicator, a skill that my brother Jim and I never learned. He’s picked up the lingo, if not the context of machining terms. He has the knowing smile even if he’s bluffing a bit, and he’s been very willing to ask the vital dumb question.

There’s no such thing as mastery in this business. The secret is refining your guesses. Noah is constantly probing me, Rex and my brother Jim on values. He asks why a machine is worth X or Y and we say, “because that’s what we think it’s worth.” And then he says “why” again and the concentric circles of guessing provokes yet another annoying “why.” The repetitive “why” imparts rigor into our discussions, but eventually it becomes vexing and then infuriating. When there is no “right” answer, punting often becomes the answer and the indecision becomes a de facto decision. I think that for young people a “no decision” is hard to accept. Often I recommend to defer until more information filters in. Procrastination on a decision, if it is made with intent to eventually decide a tough question rather than just duck, can be positive.

This is the Jerry Reinsdorf approach. Reinsdorf is the principal owner of the Chicago White Sox and Chicago Bulls. He told me that the secret of his success was procrastination, which he defined as waiting long enough to allow proper decisions to become clear.

One lesson I’ve been trying to teach Noah, and relearn myself, is to “know enough to know what you don’t know.” In business we need to avoid the dummies who don’t know what they don’t know – or to take advantage of their hubris.

My brother Jim and I constantly debate the virtues of playing for the long ball or settling for singles. Noah listens to the arguments and tests me on my positions. When I’m not swinging for the fences I tell him the importance of consistent cash flow. When I move towards Jim’s “always make a deal” posture, as I often do, Noah winces. I know how easy it is for deals to fall apart so I often urge him to make the deal when it is within reach.

I find that the sheer quantity of detail, which fills in the texture of a deal can be confusing, even overwhelming for Noah. The business demands a huge cumulative memory for detail to go with an array of relationships to call upon. He cannot manufacture these elements. They come from observations, immersion, and hard work. I want him to achieve mastery in a year when it has taken me 40 to learn so little myself. But Noah made a sale today, of a 1” Wickman screw machine, mostly by himself. It’s coming together. I’m grateful.

Question: How long did it take before you thought you knew what you were doing in your job?

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22 thoughts on “Knowing What You’re Doing

  1. AvatarJim

    About 30 years, then everything else changed around me and I’m starting over! I hope it doesn’t take so long this time around!

  2. AvatarJerry Fair

    Well, it’s been 42 years for me (so far). Just when you think you are getting it,
    the equipment changes…. and you have to re-learn what you already know.

  3. AvatarA

    12 years and counting … been taking over my dad’s shop for the last 10 years, learning beside him everyday, don’t know if I’ll ever be read, but he cant work forever, hoping i can keep it together!

    Whenever i think i know everything i remind myself that my dad’s been in the business for over 40 years and he’s still learning.

  4. AvatarDave Dibble

    My first job was turning wrenches in a family garage. After about 8 years, I was comfortable and computerized emission controls came along. Learning hard again for the next 12 years. Then into tool & die / wire EDM for 13 years. Comfortable after about 9 or 10 years, but still learning. Now as a manufacturing engineer and we’re back to square one again. Been at it about 3 now and I’m not sweating bullets every minute, but still working hard at learning.

  5. AvatarEd Gnifkowski

    i’ve been in the fire sprinkler business for 40 years and still learn something every day. Especially now that my daughter has joined me. i’m reminded of the story that might have been told about your dad. The son joins the dad to learn the business and tries to find his place in the mix. He asks his dad how he marks up his cost and hears ten percent.. He say dad that’s rediculous with all of your overhead and such you can’t possibly make a profit on ten percent. Dad says you’ve had a good life so far and your mother enjoys a very comfortable life. Don’t tell me how to run my business. Jr persists and dad says “look, i buy for a dollar and sell for ten. Thats a good solid ten percent..”
    i know you’ve heard that before but I had to mention it.

  6. AvatarFrank Goffena

    I thought I knew what I was doing 15 years ago, but it is obvious now that I didn’t. Although I think I know what I am doing now, but will probably think the same way in another 15 years.

  7. AvatarJoe Leslein

    After 30 years around screw machines, starting as a chip spinner, I feel like I still pick things up… of course, the longer you stagnate on one type of machine or part, the less knowledge you gain. I’ve been around Acme’s, Wickman’s and Warner & Swasey’s, with a few different companies. the change of scenery/machines/product has kept it challenging. All in all pretty well rounded, but stay thirsty, my friends.

  8. AvatarJoe Landry

    I am 56 years old, and my first machine shop job came 40 years ago. If I ever get to the point where I know my job, I will immediately go looking for another one.

  9. AvatarJoe Dvorak

    If you were to ask me when I started at 18, I would answer 2 months. I knew it all. Now 25 years later I’m wondering where all that knowledge went. I have become quite humbled by all there is to learn.

  10. AvatarJohn Wirtz

    After about 30 years in this business I finally get to the point that I actually think I know what I’m doing by about noon everyday. But by the end of the day, I hear something, read something or learn something that clearly points out that I was mistaken. There’s a whole new set of rules of engagement for selling turned parts. Just doing what we’ve always done is no longer good enough. The traditional way of selling turned parts is dead. The internet killed it. And what’s considered the new thinking today is yesterday’s news by tomorrow. Things change so fast any more thatl i have come to realize that I will probably never feel like I know what I’m doing. I have also learned that when it comes to knowing what your doing, its more about the journey not the destination. That’s what keeps it fun and interesting.

    John Wirtz

  11. AvatarTony Seidelman

    I thought that i had learned all you could in a lifetime. Then I woke up this morning, looks like I atleast have 1 more!

  12. AvatarDan Main

    I can answer this in the context of valuing machinery and equipment; speaking to more experienced colleagues I know that it is a process whereby you are always ‘refining your guesses’ throughout your career, but it should be some comfort to Noah that I found after several years of incessantly asking ‘why’ myself, after a time it became second nature to get a feeling for values that are in line with other colleagues (and reality!). I’m sure he’s still in that frustrating period 9 months in, but he will find year by year that as he keeps working at it, building the knowledge and relationships, he will have occassional moments where his progress is made clear to him.

  13. AvatarAaron Shapiro

    Never! Just when you get close to the end zone, they move the goalposts.
    I have been selling cutting tools for 38 years, and the tools I sold in the early years of my career aren’t even being made anymore. If I don’t keep seeking out better answers, I’m finished as a distributor.
    The true challenge is to realize that the less you tell, and the more you ask, the better you become. By helping my customers find answers to their questions I learned things that help the next customer as well. I’m better off saying “I’m not sure…Let me find out”, than to give bad advise.
    Aaron Shaprio
    Colmar Industrial Supplies
    Wheeling, IL

  14. AvatarJim Bensen

    Every minute there are 17 new breakthroughs “offered up” somewhere in the world….that is close to 25,000 a day. Or, put another way, there is enough new knowledge developed each year to fill the Library of Congress…. a half-a-million times! What a great time to be learning, discovering, and alive!

  15. AvatarDomingo E. Mojica

    Back when I started in 1980, working as a CNC Programmer, an old Engineer named Frank, told me, on the first day, “Kid! I’m gonna tell you one f___ing thing. After 5 years, you’re going to learn all about this f____ing job! Between, now and then, try to learn ONE f ___ing thing a-day. Now, get back to work.”

    Man, or man was Frank correct! It seem that every time I moved to a new company, it took me about 3-5 years to “get it”. To be able to do it in my sleep.

  16. AvatarJerry Johnson

    Still learning……….every hour of every day. Which brings up another interesting issue.

    The folks saddled with the job of selling machine tools are educators. We provide information to the machine tool purchasers regarding the current state of the art, and the new technological advancements taking place in the machine tool world.

    How can a potential customer afford NOT to see us????

  17. AvatarBruce Renwick

    32 years in the same business and I’m still learning. Not only is the old way of doing things not acceptable any more, I still learn new things that relate directly to the “nuts and bolts” part of the trade. Imagine learning new ways to set-up screw machines after all this time. And Lloyd, I have to remind myself often that new trainees will not know instantly what it has taken the rest of us decades to learn, no matter how much I think to myself “didn’t I just show that to him last week”!

  18. Lloyd GraffLloyd Graff

    What a great thing to get so many thoughtful posts. Working with Noah in this 70 year old business is a special privilege I get.

  19. AvatarKeith

    I became middle aged last year (70) so I believe I am starting the 2nd half. I have co-owned a machine shop with my wife for the last 36 years. I am sure you all know the power of the word “ass u me”. Well, everyday I am aware that assumption can jump up and bite us. I have started an education and teamwork program at G.B.F. and we pick a word for the day each day. Yesterday the word was N I M B L E. Note, invent, manage, believe, listen, and engage. So I finally think maybe I have a hint about what I am doing!


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