Son Rises

By Lloyd Graff

I get to do this blog today partly because my son Noah is traveling and will not get a chance to edit my writing like he generally does.

I have the very fortunate opportunity to work with my adult son, Noah, in both the machine tool business and Today’s Machining World. I know “family business” may be passé to many people, an artifact of a simpler time when trades were passed on and farms stayed in the family because people felt tied to the land. But for a lucky few, father and child not only get along well enough to coexist in a business, the combination works to make the enterprise better.

Noah came into business reluctantly, with modest expectations. He saw himself as a self-taught filmmaker after college and living in Italy. I offered him an opportunity to work as a poorly paid member of a struggling print magazine that started out as Screw Machine World and morphed into Today’s Machining World. This connected with his artistic leanings and avoided conflict with my brother Jim who seemed to resent Noah’s mere presence in the vicinity of Graff-Pinkert.

This is the sticky and stinky part of most family businesses. Sometimes, one family member will just never accept the child of another family member. Noah made overtures to Jim, but nothing worked, even though Noah spent most of his time on the magazine side.

The longer Noah was around the machinery business, the more it started to make sense to him and even become fun, and the more the mutual resentment between him and Jim grew into hostility.

After my heart attack in 2008, Jim and his wife felt I was not going to be able to pull my weight in the machinery business and they would run it, but when I was fully able to participate it became apparent that our partnership would eventually end.

Meanwhile, Noah became more and more productive on the machine tool side and as my partner in TMW. I saw Noah maturing into a creative business person who was becoming a dealer who really got the nuttiness of the used machine tool treasure hunt every day, and was actually beginning to love it like I did.

The Obama years were pretty tough on American manufacturing and our business, but Noah made it fun most days and he was humble enough to learn some of the technical details that Rex Magagnotti was always willing to teach him.

Noah has begun to do almost all of the foreign travel, which has become crucial to becoming a global player in the business. This has been a great boon for him and the business, because my various physical maladies restrict my business travel and he absolutely loves the excitement of traveling to virtually every continent to extend our reach and our brand.

For me, watching his growth over the last dozen years has been an incredible gift. With all the surgeries and physical challenges I have had over this period, and the breakup with Jim, I highly doubt the company would still be in business or if I would even be doing this blog without him.

For me, Noah is probably the most interesting and fun person around, and definitely one of the most caring.

And now I get to the stage in my career that I have the chance to learn from him. He has a new idea to try out on me almost every day.

It is certainly a gift and I do not take it for granted.

Question: What has been your experience with family in business?

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19 thoughts on “Son Rises

  1. ESPO


  2. Marc Klecka

    Lloyd – There are many Klecka’s involved at Concentric. I would answer your question by saying that my experience (with family in business) has been one I would not trade for any other. We all have strengths and weaknesses, but together, we are stronger. We are fortunate in that we share the same philosophy and vision. I probably don’t tell my son this, but I learn something from him every day.

  3. Paul Huber

    Sometimes it does take tough love!
    I did fire my then teenage stepson after he did miss too many hours.
    Some years back I did bring him back from sunny Florida. We have been working as a team for over thirty years.
    I am proud of the fact that many customers ask for him by-passing this old fart.
    Paul Huber

  4. Nick Bowen

    I have had the pleasure of working alongside of my father for 34 years took a leap of faith leaving my comfortable engineering position at E I DuPont to join a small screw machine company it has been the best years of my life and I would not trade my time or experience for anything it seems you & Noah share the same bond and passion. What a great article and tribute to Noah and his impact it really hit home as I’m assuming several shops have family members working together.

  5. Gary Lawton

    I was fortunate enough that my father allowed me to tag along when I was 7-8 years old into the oily, machinery world that spurned out “magical” turned metal parts. Hook, line and sinker, I was reeled in.

    Worked there when I was too young to drive, and got “the business” in my blood by literally doing almost every task in the place. Cleaning toilets, spinning chips, loading mat’l, even learning how to run (not very well) a Davenport at 16.

    I would venture on to college, and took my first real job upon graduating with my dad in 1978. While we both enjoyed working together, and I learning the nuances of the business; I knew that I needed to move on to be able to experience other working environments and professions to be able to offer more when I would return. I believe one of his great virtues was allowing me leave even though I know he didn’t quite agree with the decision at the time.

    After 9 years way we both decided that it was time to make the move back together – it was the best decision I ever made, and fortunately he told me many times over many years before he passed away – it was for him too.

    We both knew of the potential pitfalls of father & son working together, but in the 15 years together my dad was not only a great mentor; but let me make decisions and mistakes that would only benefit me & the company in the long run. I know he bit his lip on a few instances knowing that my decision making might be a little questionable at times; but as he said many times – “that’s the only way to truly learn by understanding your mistakes and move forward from them”.

    I could go on and on, but feel very blessed and very fortunate that my experience in the “family business” has turned out so well. We meshed together on a personal level, as well as a business level as it was a true partnership.

    I do miss his presence every day, but as you wrote: it was certainly a gift and nothing that I took for granted back then, and even today.

    1. Kim

      The company I work for is in the third generation of leadership; when I started it was in the second. I found it interesting that you mentioned going out in the world to do something different before coming back to work in the business. I think it is great that you did that and felt it was important. Getting an outside view, working elsewhere for a while is something I’m told happened in the 1st to 2nd generation transfer where I work, but got skipped in the more recent transfer from 2nd to 3rd generation. I think it was a mistake to miss that step. There are some definite challenges as our current president has transitioned from a colleague to a boss. I’m sure it is not easy to assert the position of authority when some colleagues remember him running around as a child, or even just previously working more in a similar level relationship. (He’s now in his 40s and became president in his late 30s.) Also there is much to be learned about how things work differently in other environments, including what it is like to be a “regular” employee without any special connections to the boss.

  6. Misterchipster

    We’ve been in business since 1947 and the third generation is now deeply involved in the business. One of the two founders (brothers) is still alive (just turned 95) and spends a few hours everyday “at work”. Each generation has brought to the table new ideas and technology, enabling a competitive edge and depth. Dealing with “family ” has it’s challenges but if you are up to it, it can be very rewarding.

  7. Andrew B

    Lloyd- Great article and a lot of insight in the comments. I consider myself to be very fortunate that I have been able to work alongside my father for many years. He helped me get started in the machining business when I wanted to open my own company. It has been a very fulfilling journey thus far. I can honestly say there isn’t a cross word said between us, I think we have our moments when we may get aggravated occasionally, but it never leads to raised voices. We respect each other, and we both know that we can be wrong even when we think we are most right. I know of a lot of others that have an abrasive working relationship with their fathers, so like many said up above, I don’t take what I have for granted.

  8. Vicki Bohl

    Great article about an interesting topic. My father manufactured cranes and industrial buildings for years in suburban Chicago–a company he inherited from his father. Like my two brothers, I took summer jobs there in high school and college which gave me an insight into his company and into what he was like at work. When my brothers grew up, like his father before him, my dad looked at my brothers to inherit and bypassed the lone daughter. After much consideration, his two sons declined, doing other great things with their lives. The daughter, however, works in manufacturing. No regrets! We have fun things in common, including a few customers.

  9. Michael Topolewski, Jr

    Great article. I have been fortunate to work for and with both my grandfather and now my father in the same business (along with my brother). Fourth generation in the industry. Navigating the business climate over the years has been challenging and having a family business during these times has brought different stresses; but also, tremendous support. You learn to work together and bring differing perspectives. When it’s right, it’s right. Wouldn’t trade my experience for anything.

  10. Lloyd Graff

    Thank you all for the comments. They are wonderfully frank and authentic. You honor me with your honesty.
    Every family endures stresses and they play out in the business setting. For me it was with my brother which was probably much more upsetting for him than for me. There was an underlying competition which was never overtly addressed but festered under everything we did. My father papered it over, too and that ultimately also took its toll. Family businesses are not for sissies.

  11. Ihaveacouch

    Curious…….Noah with a capital N but jim with a lower case j.
    Freudian slip or intentional?

  12. Mike Birdwell

    Great article. My son was in High school when I quit my day job to start a cnc shop in our rental house’s garage. He worked for me then and I work for him now. We used to argue about who should be the boss, I finally let him win that argument and rarely ever regret it. The shop has grown a lot with him mostly in the office and me mostly on the shop floor, thirteen employees currently. My mother is our book keeper and my father is her delivery man so I get to talk to and see them regularly. My dad was totally against me becoming a machinist, he wanted me to go to college and get a good paying job. Now he sees what we do and understands the joy we find in the work and the beauty of the parts we create makes up for the mediocre pay. At the end of the work day my granddaughter comes to the shop after daycare. It is awesome for me to get to share my life and the passion we have for the work with all of them.

  13. Dave Bradley

    NEVER, NEVER, NEVER again will I work in a family owned business. The nepotism was ridiculous. When I left, I told the shop foreman that worked for me, that after 16 years, I still felt like an outsider. His response was, “I have been here for over 50 years and still feel like an outsider”. I had a 12 page letter to the man in Chicago, that owned our parent company, telling him of the shenanigans the president and his son were putting this business thru and how wasteful they were. One of the VP’s got wind that I was going to send it to the big guy in Chicago. He begged me not to send the letter as he believed that in a matter of less than a week the man in Chicago would shut down the business in Columbia City and all would be out of a job. I had nothing to gain but vengeance by sending the letter. But that president and his kid are 2 of the most underhanded people I have ever met. Here’s hoping that Karma has it’s way with them.

  14. Herbert J JOKA

    A well and open minded family business where “plain speak” and mutual respekt is certain and, where customers are not just numbers or, a source of contribution to cash flow and return on capital employed, has the opportunity to develop, to grow “organically”. If the individual´s role is clear, it is clear. Period. You don´t need to fuzz anymore about this any time anew…
    In German, we have this proverb: “blood flows thicker than water”, meaning that family links normally are mich tighter and stronger to the others, rather than with a person to whom you are not related with. And, which can be gone the next day after having left the company. Which might fired the next day, who might be exchanged by someone else.
    Not to forget, on the other hand, there are families with its ties around a globe which live their network around the globe. In times before phones, cars, plains, it worked too and, highly efficiently by trust and shared values.
    Just look at the dynasties who managed to succeed over generations, being on “hot stand by”, when it is needed. It is the result of a growing philosophy that needs strong characters to keep the family with all its individuals together. Even in times of heavy sees.
    And, not seldomly, there seems to be a “family gene” whichs pops up when looking, say 10 generations backward in your individual history. You may start recognising intuitively some kind of patterns fitted into the historical frames of the epochs. Mentalities, talents etc. which showed and show their patterns adapted to the historical epoch ancestors lived then.
    Not to underestimate to keep talking, to communicate as this also conveys the narrative of a tribe or, branch of a tribe which may have split 6, 7 or more generations before into their branches: the spoken word, the sound and melody of persons you have talked to as a child, or, things you heard but weren´t able to understand that time, all of a sudden form a crystally clear picture of the content of the message or, comment you heard.
    It also the values the invisible ties of a family which mostly turn out to be strong and, to be able to count on, when it is needed (blood flows thicker than water). It´s the glue that can help running a company over generations. If individual freedom is always respected, not just “accepted”.

    A family owned company in which family members are managed by rules and maybe even a system of an accepted “patron” or, equally, a lady, has excellent opportunities to use the trust as one can avoid all the red tape of the digital age which grows and grows even more. A close knit community – just the quick call, being on the green, over the labor day weekend – whatever – one is quickly tuned in…

    One thing is pretty sure: no one could even dare to think about to run a family business as anonymous as a company with its shareholders. And sometimes, if two strong characters meet, why not found another company?

    The inner workings of family businesses do offer opportunities and strengths, if the family members vow to establish and obey mutually developed and set “standards” such as which uncle will be called and asked for mediation if to stubborn family members have locked their horns? Can you fire them? If yes, what is the price for that in a family business?
    In a share holding company it may literally be spoken, “just a dime away” to drop the dime into a public phone, leave your message on the answering machine “Sorry xyz, I got to tell you you don´t need to come to work anymore, you are fired. Sorry. Don´t call me anymore, thanks! Bye!”. It can even quickly mutate out of a sudden mood to a kind of “undie-management” if you have choleric in the statt: if you feel it is necessary, you just change it. Don´t believe this? Just ask lawyers who are in the business. On both sides of the atlantic.
    Internationally, family operated companies can be very successful by just living their philosophy and rules of mutual respect which certainly cannot be as anonymos as in shareholder´s company

  15. Nancy

    The article and replies were very interesting and frank. The need for trust and open communication stood out. I liked that there were replies from non-family members working in a family owned and run business and see another article in the making about that perspective– working someplace where you are likely to never be able to get beyond a certain level if there are family members present or entering the business. And yet I’m certain there are success stories here too. And that word –succession planning.

  16. Bryan

    I agree with Dave, I never want to work in a family owned/run business again if I can avoid it. In the past I have worked for 3 family run organizations. Way too much family conflict that the employees have to endure. No up side to working there.

  17. KR

    My husband and I have been working together for 27 years. When he started the business he put my name on it even though I was working outside of the business to support us. It was his dream and initially I was just helping with paperwork. Over the years I have taken on more and more responsibility and it worked well for several years. Then he cut back on what he does and works part-time due to some health issues. However, for the last few years even when he’s in the office he’s just goofing off or doing personal things which I think is horrible for moral. He also doesn’t handle things that he should. And even though he talks about it being ‘our business’, because I never worked anywhere else in this industry, nor do I have some of the technical knowledge he dismisses my ideas. I’m fed up at work and it’s impossible not to carry the lost respect and resentments home to our personal life. We can’t talk about the issues without fighting. We are so dysfunctional I’m not sure if even getting counseling at this point would do any good. But after 38 years of marriage and all the years I’ve put in here I’m not sure how I would support myself otherwise.

  18. Lloyd Graff

    The husband and wife model must be fraught with time bombs. Thank you for sharing your predicament. I wish you well and hope you can find a resolution or some way out.


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