Afterthought : The Family Business

Today’s Machining World Archives October 2010 Volume 06 Issue 08

It was a throwaway line in the Chicago Tribune “Sports” section, but it caught my eye. Nate Montana, Joe Montana’s son, will not be the Notre Dame backup quarterback for 2010. He lost out to freshman Tommy Rees for the number two spot on the Irish depth chart.

Nate Montana was a third string quarterback at DeLaSalle High School in the Bay Area—which has one of the top high school programs in the country. He was a walk-on at Notre Dame but was hardly a Rudy in South Bend. He left after his freshman year, knowing that he was overmatched, and went to Pasadena Junior College for seasoning. Now he’s back in Indiana, but still third string.

I feel for Nate. College football is a tough family business, especially if it involves the Fighting Irish. But I can tell you, there’s no easy jump into the family business.

My brother Jim and I joined my dad and uncle in the machine tool business at Graff-Pinkert in the 1970s. I felt welcomed by my father and trained by traveling the Midwest in search of screw machines. I had a rudimentary knowledge of the equipment and a naïve view of the simplicity of the business—buy low, sell high, and jump through hoops for your customers.

What I had no understanding of was how much my Dad worried about the business and how hard I would find it to adjust to my role as the “son of the boss.”

My father was not a demanding taskmaster like Lee J. Cobb in the movies. My issue was that my berth was too soft. It was not that he set the bar too high, I just never knew where the bar was, so I could jump over it or limbo underneath. I always felt valued; I just didn’t know if I’d earned it.
It probably took five years of devising a role for myself to feel good about my position. I joined a group called the SOBs (Sons of Bosses), which was of little value. Later, I joined a men’s group that I kept up with for 10 years. I got real insights from my peers there, and even though they were not in family businesses, they all had fathers.

I have come to the conclusion that there is no easy entrance to a family business. Add siblings and marriage partners to the mix and it gets even more complicated.

For me, a major issue was receiving public recognition from my dad. How I hated going to a function and being lauded by my father. His praise made me feel like a little boy being taken to a Cubs game. It infantilized me and I didn’t know what to do with his authentic pride. I felt like an ungrateful child if I recoiled from it.

The irony was that I felt his love and caring, but in the business setting it eroded my manhood.

As time rolled on, my dad’s partner, Aaron Pinkert, retired and Jim and I bought his interest in Graff-Pinkert. Business was generally good and the money lubricated family friction. I established a consulting arrangement with a sage outsider named Bel Small, who knew the machinery business from A to Z and had an intuitive understanding of the dynamics of our company and family. I talked to Bel two or three times a week. He questioned and confirmed my ideas, and enabled me to develop a constructive consensus in the business. If it wasn’t for my talks with Bel I doubt I could have tolerated my dad’s huge mood swings as his health gradually deteriorated following heart bypass surgery when he was 57. Despite a myriad of health setbacks, my father worked 20 more years, until he was 77.

And now I get to work with my son, Noah, on Today’s Machining World. We have our issues as much as we love each other. He has told me many times that TMW is my dream, not his. Each year we work out a fresh new contract.

So, Nate Montana discovers that it isn’t easy to follow dad to South Bend. The kid might have been better off at another school. Then again, Joe Montana also began as a third string quarterback at Notre Dame.

Lloyd Graff

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One thought on “Afterthought : The Family Business

  1. Dan

    Lloyd, great article. I too was the “son of the boss” for many years, the only difference being that the authentic pride was not there, One of the reasons why I got out of it was the fact that there was never going to be any positive change in the business. Sometimes it makes me feel worse than a disgruntled employee….


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