Ping-Pong Magic

By Lloyd Graff.

Bud Light Super Bowl XLVIII (2014) Commercial – Arnold Schwarzenegger Ping Pong Ad

When the Internet nerds from Tumblr sold out to Yahoo, they rented a $75 per square foot space in New York’s iconic Flatiron Building. One of the first things they did upon moving in was to install a ping-pong table right in the middle of the office.

It seems like every hot Internet startup puts in a table and paddles as soon as the ink is dry on its lease. Therapists use the “thwup” of pimpled rubber on celluloid ball to calm and focus their patients. Kuka, the big Japanese robot maker, brought in a ping-pong world champion from Europe to inaugurate its new factory in Shanghai. Arnold Schwarzenegger played ping-pong in this year’s Bud Light Super Bowl commercial. The old suburban basement game of the Leave it to Beaver set is hot again.

I have loved the game since childhood. I grew up playing with my dad at home — never competitively. We would talk and kid around and try out spins. My friends loved to come over and play the game at our house. My cousin, Don, who had trouble making friends and eventually had an emotional breakdown, loved to play. He lost himself in the game and played well. We communicated through ping-pong.

I got to be a good player at religious school. I went to Hebrew school in the afternoon after regular school and they had a gym program to entice children to attend. There was a year-long table tennis competition and the two best players played for the championship at the awards dinner. I won two years in a row. I remember those matches a lot better than my Hebrew.

I met my wife Risa, literally, with a ping-pong paddle in my pocket. I was at the University of Michigan Student Union looking for some competition and had brought my own personal paddle. I couldn’t find a game so I ambled toward the music blasting down the hall from a Freshman dance. I surveyed the girls in the room and was drawn to one in particular. She evidently was not put off by the grad student with a paddle in the pocket of his corduroy sport jacket.

Table tennis has always been close to my heart. After seven eye surgeries, today I play more by feel and sound than visual acuity. I understand the allure for the Google and Tumblr sets. You don’t need to prepare to play. You just walk up and hit. No uniform, no padding, little equipment. It is not as time consuming as running. Not spiritual and solitary like yoga. It’s a social game and fun. When my children were young we would play often. When they were agitated or withdrawn sometimes the only way we could break the ice was hitting the white ball across the net.

My wife is an educational therapist and works in our house with a lot of kids and teenagers who have ADHD. When a student cannot focus or is uncommunicative she often asks them down to our basement to play ping-pong. She says it always lifts them out of their funk. I suspect it works along those lines in Silicon Valley offices.

To me the sound of the paddle striking the ball is magical. Playing invariably buoys my mood.

When I bought out my brother I vowed to buy a table for Graff-Pinkert. I am still going to do it. I wonder if we would still be partners if we had a table in 2012.

Question: Do you feel magic when you play ping-pong?

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Talent is Arriving

By Lloyd Graff.

PMPA Tech Conference 2014

I attended my first Technical Conference held by the Precision Machined Products Association (PMPA), this past weekend in Indianapolis. Some observations.

I think there are a lot of good things going on in American machining firms now. Talent is arriving, just in time to replace the tiring Baby Boomers whose feet are aching from 40 years of tending gear gnashing machines. Young people are coming in via community colleges, or out of sheer boredom of frying lettuce at Subway for $9 an hour, 26 hours a week. The message that you can earn a decent wage, earn respect, and find economic stability in machining is finally starting to get through the franchise blahs. I find this is particularly true in the Latino community, though Eastern Europeans and Vietnamese are also entering the ranks. They are bringing youth and energy in American job shops, if the PMPA is representative. Miles Free, PMPA Director of Industry Research and Technology, calls Latinos “the new bench.” I think they are first stringers already at many plants. Miles, also proudly told me his youngest son recently left University, enrolled at a community college and is now a certified CNC operator and liking it.

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Machining businesses are still male dominated, but not quite as much so as a few years ago. Women are starting to make their mark, but often come in through family knowledge. Very few are coming into management via the factory.

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Several members at the conference told me that a bit of tension is brewing within the PMPA about the growing number of “Technical Members” in the organization. Technical Members, such as my company Graff-Pinkert, are firms selling goods and services to manufacturers, who are classified in the PMPA as “Active Members.” With the “Technicals” providing the PMPA a hefty chunk of budget funds and a lot of organizing energy, they will be pushing for the perks of full membership. I think the PMPA’s difficulties in attracting a lot of new machining firms to its ranks yet strong magnetism for suppliers, will make for some interesting politics in the organization in the coming years. I imagine other trade groups have similar issues.

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One of the fascinating side stories of the conference was the competing open houses of the machine tool builders Index and ZPS last Monday night, both located near Indianapolis. Index is a 100-year-old German builder of high-end CNC lathes and multi-spindles. ZPS is an Italian owned, Czech builder focused on high quality, modern multi-spindles, both cam and CNC. Olaf Tessarzyk, head of ZPS America, actually used to run Index in the United States.

Index has a magnificent headquarters in the Indianapolis suburb of Noblesville, with perfect lighting, aisles big enough to play soccer, and a sanded and sealed painted floor you’d be happy to eat bratwurst off of. ZPS is smaller and a little less shiny, but still emitted a good energy.

Index’s open house had a polka band with musicians in traditional German garb. Their buffet served sausage and sauerkraut. ZPS featured a “pig roast” and an 18 foot screen showing the NCAA basketball final. Index gave away diaries, while ZPS passed out bright red tee shirts. Our Graff-Pinkert team drove to both places in a hideous rainstorm. We may have been the only folks who did.

Impossible to say who won the Monday Night Fight, but ZPS clearly had the bus-filling edge, due to its strong promotion and a drop dead gorgeous bus recruiter to shepherd the docile undecided men into their transports. She gets my MVP award, hands down.

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Lloyd’s Scuttlebutt

By Lloyd Graff.

Capital Equipment Business Slow in 2014

We’ve seen April Fools Day. My turn. What’s happening?

For machining people, the first quarter was solid if not spectacular. The harsh winter hampered production, and inventories piled up in the last quarter of 2013. Automotive was a little soft in January and February, but generally machining folks were satisfied. Not so for companies selling capital equipment.

After a strong finish to 2013, machinery and capital goods firms were looking forward to a strong start in 2014. They did not get it from the scuttlebutt I hear. Nobody knows why for sure. You can blame the rush to use the investment tax savings last year, or tight-fisted big companies who are determined to squeeze more profit out of relatively flat sales (and succeeding). Maybe it’s sticker shock on European manufactured goods, or it’s the ridiculous five-month winter. However you spin it, the first quarter was a disappointment for capital goods sellers. Three more quarters to catch up.

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We are coming off a terrific year for the American stock market. It caught everybody by surprise with 25-30% gains for the indexes. It happened with the Fed easing off the gas pedal, interest rates rising (but not a lot), top line sales growth struggling, persistent unemployment, huge budget deficits, Washington gridlock and mediocre growth in the economy. All these headwinds, yet people piled into stocks.

My own feeble answer is “where else do you invest?” Baby boomers see that retirement on interest is impossible at these rates. Real estate is interesting, but difficult for most people to get into on their own. Precious metals and collectibles are tough in times of very low inflation. Starting a business is an option for some, but a forbidding challenge for most. So people pile into index funds and hope for the best. Last year it worked beautifully.

But I always try to keep in mind that the crowd is often wrong, especially if they follow the pundits. Almost every predictor last year was certain that interest rates were going to spike when the Fed stopped priming the pump aggressively. So far, rates are up very modestly on a historical basis. Inflation continues to be almost non-existent. Commodities are flat. Copper and gold have tanked. And this is while running huge federal deficits. The old equations on inflation no longer seem to hold. I ask, can you raise the prices for your product? I doubt it.

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This is the best NCAA Tournament I can remember. Overtimes, upsets, tremendous defense. I love it. I like Kentucky with its superior athletes to win it, but I am rooting for Wisconsin.

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One of the greatest political ironies is that President Obama has only one play that Vladimir Putin will respect – flooding the world market with cheap oil and gas, plus dirty old coal. If Obama okays the Keystone Pipeline, makes it easy to drill on Federal land, and embraces fracking as the source of national power, he could scare the Ruskies silly. He could even threaten to use the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which is full, to knock down world oil prices. Oil at $75 would probably end Putin’s political career and wreck the Russian economy, which is built on oil almost as much as that of Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. It would be a juicy irony for Obama, who has catered so ardently to the Democratic Greens, to use American carbon to punish Putin on Ukraine.

Question: Are you working more for less money than you did five years ago?

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A Prayer For Baseball

By Lloyd Graff.

Bull Durham: Baseball Cliches

At the beginning of our observance of the Jewish Sabbath last Friday night, we said the customary opening prayers over the Shabbat candles, wine and bread. I then had the impulse to add one more prayer called the “Shehecheyanu,” which is a special thanks for surviving to that day. It is also tradition to say it when doing something for the first time that year. My wife asked me why I had taken this moment to say it. I said, “Risa, it’s opening day of the baseball season on Sunday. I get to celebrate it again.” And she knew I really meant it.

I know I’m hopelessly sentimental about this stuff, but baseball is a secular religious experience for me. It signals another chance to win, another hopeless challenge against impossible odds as a Chicago Cubs fan. But who knows? Last year the Pirates made the playoffs and Boston went from last in 2012 to winning the World Series behind a Japanese reliever who barely made the roster and David Ortiz who batted .600 in the playoffs after everybody thought he was washed up before the season. Miracles can happen. Kansas City could win it all this year, maybe the Twins. God knows.

Do I know my team, the Cubs, stink? Of course, but it’s April, I still have hope.

One of the things I love about baseball is the language and literature of the game. No other sport has anywhere near the library of books, essays, plays and movies as baseball. I grew up reading THE BABE RUTH STORY, then THE LOU GHERIG story. I was no bookworm as a kid, but those books captivated me. I graduated to Bernard Malamud’s The Natural later, but honestly the movie is better than the book. My favorite movie is Bull Durham, though I loved it more the sixth time I watched it than the first. My runner up flick is the less acclaimed but equally wonderful For the Love of the Game, also starring Kevin Costner. I also strongly recommend book (and film), Moneyball, by Michael Lewis, which is great, but not even his best baseball book. Lewis’ story about his high school baseball mentor, Coach: Lessons on the Game of Life, published in 2005, is his best piece of work.

It seems like something really cool comes out every year. Last year 42 came out, the story of the great Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier. I rate Robinson one of the most important figures of post war America. The movie is no classic, but worth seeing.

The long article in Sunday’s New York Times on Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees’ huge signing of the off-season, is a worthy read for anybody who likes baseball or is intrigued by Japanese culture. Reporter Barry Bearak went to Itami, Japan, near Osaka, to really get into the life of Tanaka, who signed a $154 million contract after going 24-0 last season in the Japanese Major League. He was a catcher growing up who was considered a prodigy by 5th grade. In Japan, youngsters are recruited for baseball like LeBrons. The Japanese national high school baseball championship is the equivalent of our NCAA Basketball Tournament in prestige and national following. Tanaka could have gone to high school anywhere in the country, but chose to go to Hokkaido to learn the game–a place so cold he literally took grounders on ice and routinely hit in the snow.

Tanaka ultimately turned to pitching at the urging of his high school coach, but credits growing up as a catcher for some of his success. He decided to come to America for the huge money (three times more than he could get in Japan), the competitive challenge, and to follow his model, Yu Darvish, who signed three years ago with the Texas Rangers. Darvish is A favorite to win the Cy Young award this season.

Baseball is back. The planet has cycled. More is right with my world.

Question: Should college athletes be paid?

Bull Durham: Baseball Cliches

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Home Alone

By Lloyd Graff.

Sting

Two friends sent me David Brooks’ column, “Going Home Again,” which appeared in last Thursday’s New York Times. Rarely does one person recommend a column out of the blue, so when two astute people send me one I take notice.

Brooks wrote about hearing the British writer-musician, Sting, speak at the TED conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. Sting spoke about how years ago he lost his creative juices. He just could not come up with fresh exciting music. At first it was a short flatness, then weeks and months of drought. It stretched into many years of producing nothing vibrant, nothing that made him happy or excited an audience.

Finally he started thinking about his childhood in the north of England. He lived on a street that led down to a huge shipyard where giant ocean-going vessels were built. He circled back to childhood and his muse returned. He has a new musical, “The Last Ship,” which he is performing in New York and will soon be on Broadway.

The point of Brooks’ column was the value of circling back to our youth to find inspiration. It is not just the memory, it is the experience we bring to the images of our past. He evokes the Robert Frost poem about the path not taken in the woods to illustrate how older people go back in memory and “impose narrative order on choices that didn’t seem so clear at the time.”

I think back to high school baseball, being benched by my coach after a disappointing pitching performance, and then quitting the team in anger. It was perhaps an immature response by a 16-year-old boy, but it quickly led to writing sports for the high school paper, which led indirectly to becoming Sports Editor of The Michigan Daily, which inspired me to be an off-and-on writer for 50 years. The seeds of our creativity lie in our childhoods but they are nourished by experience.

And from an economic and esthetic standpoint it is creativity that gives us joy and success. When I visit my sister, Susan, I always ask her to play the piano. She is a gifted musician and I love to hear her play. Her music stirs my memory and my soul. She plays songs from the great musicals like “My Fair Lady,” “The Sound of Music,” “South Pacific” and “Oklahoma,” and I sing with her and cry. It brings back memories of singing with my Dad and Sue when we were kids. There is a strength lingering in those memories.

I still sing a lot even if I forget the lyrics. It gives me pleasure and ease. It makes me feel more connected to myself. When I have that feeling of peace and connectedness I feel more access to my uniqueness and personal vision of the world.

I had a discussion today with a fellow who builds special attachments for screw machines. He gets fired up when he talks about thread milling. Now he’s starting a new screw machine rebuilding business. I told him he was crazy to get into rebuilding because he is deflecting himself from his creativity to focus on the mundane, for which he was going to be paid by the hour.

I sincerely believe if you have a muse you need to use it and use it hard, or it will evaporate or hide. I hope you all are in touch with your special gift. If not, maybe you should follow the bread crumbs back to your roots.

Question: What songs bring back sweet memories for you?

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Why We Can’t Get Along

By Lloyd Graff.

I admit I was surprised at the tempo and fervor of the comments on my last blog (“Working For Nothing“). I thought I was writing a little piece about the challenge to wages by technology. But what you, the readers, took off on was the generational divide, which apparently lurks below the economic and political issues of the day like an active volcano.

Younger folks see a structure rigged to protect the entrenched interests of fading older people who want all the goodies for themselves as they work longer than they should, and then draw on fat pensions. Older folks see yuppies who don’t want to pay their dues like they did. As the aging see their strength ebb they want to hang in there at all cost. Let the younger generation wait, they have time on their side.

The way the insurance companies played Obamacare only abets this drama, because its linchpin is that younger healthier people will support older sicker ones. But the younger folks have not followed the script, apparently shunning supposedly favorable rates and gambling that they can beat the game by staying healthy or trusting the emergency room at the hospital. Perhaps we would have been better served by Medicare for everyone, but in the end we are all stuck with the Obamacare compromise brokered by big insurance companies which everybody dislikes and the young are trying to game.

Then there is the minimum wage push, labeled “income equality,” by self-serving Democrats going into the next election. The statistics all show a widening gap between rich and poor, and a shrinking middle class. Today’s Europe has addressed income inequality with heavy progressive taxation and wealth redistribution through social programs. Americans still viscerally hate government intrusion, so European-style Socialism is generally still unpopular. But lousy entry level pay and a more distant path to a “middle class lifestyle” is pitting the young versus old in this country.

I see neither political party able to figure out how to maneuver the young versus old resentment because both are victims of their traditional cronies. Unions straddle the age divide, as the UAW Chattanooga vote epitomized. The young Volkswagen workers voted against the Union because they saw it as siding with the older $28 per hour workers in the North. Unions “talk the talk” for the poor but keep shrinking in popularity. But they are potent politically because they ladle a lot of money to politicians. Unions advocate prominently for a rise in the minimum wage, but the economists remind them it will shrink their memberships. The Republicans are not dead set opposed to a rise in minimum wage for exactly the same reason. They know it means more efficiency. Apple may make the next iPhone battery here, but it will be in a robotized factory. Tesla’s huge new battery plant will employ a few folks, but they will be sophisticated and well paid.

I am writing this piece at my local Starbucks. The $10 per hour employees, most of whom work less than 28 hours per week, are smart, personable and mostly on their way up. Many are in school. Few will make Starbucks a career. I do not see the resentment at Starbucks that appeared in the last blog, but now I know it seethes below the surface. But what really took me by surprise in the blog’s comments was the anger of the older folks–and they were all men, I think.

So I wonder whether the older guys, who used to have the economy all to themselves, may be resentful about the onslaught of smart younger women challenging them. Maybe we are labeling the conflicts as intergenerational and are missing an equally significant backlash against the tide of women making their mark in the economy.

Question:  What bugs you about older/younger workers?

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Working For Nothing

By Lloyd Graff.

Workers sew at typical sweatshop in Guatemala City. Photograph: Jaime Puebla/AP.

I read a provocative article by Jeremy Rifkin in last Sunday’s New York Times, “The Rise of Anti-Capitalism.” His thesis is that much of work as we know it is being devalued by the use of machines and robots. Things and services are also trending toward zero in price. The old view of the scarcity of commodities and labor is being turned on its head by the unlimited availability of stuff at almost no cost. He cites robotics and 3D printing using discarded plastic as feedstock as evidence of the trend towards endless deflation of prices. Rifken understands better than Barack Obama that a $10 minimum wage is becoming steadily more uneconomic in the age of Fanuc factories that produce a billion dollars of controls with virtually no people and car making plants like Tesla’s that are highly robotized.

It is a bit terrifying for me, a baby boomer who grew up in a time that almost deified the “work ethic,” to see the promise of abundance for the many without the rigor of work. Consider the dilemma of China, India and Bangladesh (with its $.40/hour pay rate), which have built their economies on cheap labor as they witness the value of human labor steadily devalued. Potentially I see traditional storehouses of value like copper,  protein and hydro carbons trend down because of replenishable substitutes.

Intelligence will also be a purchasable commodity, as significant advances in artificial intelligence over the next 15 years occur. Many predict that by 2029 a robot will actually be able to hold a “real” conversation with a human.

I recently saw the movie Her, which brilliantly explores this theme of the “human” machine. My son-in-law Scott, out in Palo Alto, is working in this field and thinks it may be sooner than you think.

Jeremy Rifkin’s old school socialist point of view is that the government should guide people into non-profit, charitable pursuits, because profitable work will be so hard to find.

I am not in his corner, but I do believe that the steady deflation of the value of labor, stuff and money is going to change life as we know it. As a practicing “worker by choice” I am scared and baffled by the promise of this brave new world. Are you?

Question: Do you “work to live” or “live to work”?

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Cars, Cry Babies, Crimea

By Lloyd Graff.

Robotic manufacturing of the Model S at the Tesla Factory in Fremont, California.

Automotive is back. America has become a great car-making mecca again. Almost every major builder has a manufacturing presence here. The market for cars is solid, if not exuberant. The industry has headed to the South in Tennessee, the Carolinas and Texas, and even further south into Mexico, which has integrated itself into North American manufacturing like Canada did 25 years ago. The UAW is no longer such a dominant player in the car building scene. The recent rejection of the Union by Volkswagen workers in Chattanooga is representative of its marginalization by younger workers who see the UAW as a vestige of hobbled Detroit that protects its bureaucracy and the interests of its older highly paid Northern workers, at their expense.

An interesting parallel to the UAW civil war among auto workers is the battle auto dealers are waging with Tesla. Tesla rejects the entrenched system of auto franchisees who are bestowed the right to sell cars in a given area. Somewhat like the Starbucks model of company owned stores, Tesla thinks it should own its distribution, create the selling atmosphere it wants, and keep the middleman’s profit. Cry baby car dealer groups are fighting this approach with big expenditures for clout and lawyers. While Tesla is a small player in the market, it has tremendous caché and visibility. If Elon Musk wins his right to sell from company stores, or even by mail-order or in malls, it could erode the value of traditional dealerships, which are already hurting from Costco intruding and Internet price shopping. The specter of Amazon Prime selling Honda Civics also has to be scary for dealers.

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Automotive business is strong, but not everybody in the industry is happy. Aluminum, plastics and composites are trampling on steel all over the car. Weight reduction to meet gas mileage requirements is forcing every component maker to experiment with lighter weight options. Steel is the target. Ford’s F-150’s aluminum bed is the symbol of the switchover, but weight reduction is being considered for every component.

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We are seeing better mileage everywhere, yet gasoline prices stubbornly stay high. While we are pumping more petrol out of the earth in North America, refining capacity is static. Oil is also being exported to a world market that sucks it up. Fracking has been successful but has not ramped up as fast as people expected because of politics. President Obama still sits on the Keystone XL Pipeline from Canada. The Ukraine standoff is as much about petroleum as it is about Vladimir Putin and his ego.

Crimea has enormous frackable oil reserves. Ukraine has not developed this incredibly valuable resource, but Putin may do so if Crimea ends up part of Russia, which appears likely now. Even if Russia doesn’t develop Crimea’s potential oil reserves (if it acquires Crimea), Ukraine would be at Russia’s mercy without petroleum.

Obama and John Kerry are talking tough, but if Germany, which gets much of its fuel from Russia and provides three quarters of Russia’s investment funds, does not get tough with Putin, Ukraine will be isolated and cold. Putin will probably not be a big winner in this tiff, but he will not be a forsaken loser. He will be seen as a power-hungry thug in the West, but still an important world player. Russia has a lot of negatives – decreasing population, rampant corruption, un-democratic politics, but its control of vast hydrocarbon resources will probably keep it going for at least a decade or two.

Question: Is GM still way behind its competitors?

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Basketball Time

By Lloyd Graff.

I spent a lot of my weekend doing just what I really wanted to do. Watching BASKETBALL.

I watched the college game, the pros, even a little womens ball. Loved every minute. I’m a junkie, I’m a basketball nut. I actually think basketball may have saved my life.

As a kid I played almost every sport. Started with baseball. We played on the sidewalk, in the street, on the golf course between the 6th and 13th hole of the Jackson Park course across 67th street, next to my house. In my teens I played golf on that course for $3 a round. Touch football was fun too. Tennis with my dad, and ping pong in the basement was a passion. But it was always basketball that drew me like a bug to a light. It may sound crazy but the pimples and seams on the balls have an almost sexual allure for me. The sound of a swish and the thump of the dribble still excite me. I love the game.

My dad built a cement court in the backyard when I was 10 and I played almost always alone – perfecting my shot. I had some height, growing to 6’2” with a little bit of hops, decent hand-eye coordination, and an absolute joy of the game. I just loved to shoot the basketball. I’d shoot at 7:00 in the morning or 9:00 at night. I started to feel the angles in my fingers. My hands got strong and I could palm a ball and shoot with the ball almost completely in my fingertips. I became a fan of the sport. I used to listen to a scratchy KMOX in St. Louis late at night to hear Harry Carey do the St. Louis Hawks NBA games because Chicago did not have a team. I loved to watch Bob Pettit, and I copied his quick-release jump shot. Wilt and Bill Russell were thrilling to observe. Bob Cousy enthralled me with his behind the back passes, but Bill Sharman was my favorite because of his impeccable shooting.

I played basketball in high school. It was the first time I had ever played on a team. I really didn’t understand how five men interacted on the court, and the pick and roll, basketball’s most basic play, was a geometry problem I never cracked in high school. But I was rewarded with playing time because I could do something the athletic guys had trouble doing. I could shoot and score. I had the touch. The other stuff, like defense and rebounding I learned – rather slowly. But a team needs scoring to win. That I could do.

I was a nice high school player, but I knew that’s all I was. At the University of Michigan I wrote sports for The Michigan Daily newspaper and the highlight of my college days was traveling to Portland, Oregon, for the 1965 Final Four on the Wolverines’ team plane.

At the tournament I closely observed the incredible coach, John Wooden, guide UCLA to the Championship over Michigan, with Gail Goodrich scoring 43 points. I saw Princeton’s Bill Bradley score 56 in the runner-up game to set the record that still stands in the NCAA Tournament. Bradley and Goodrich were so fundamentally perfect as shooters, I just watched them in awe from my courtside seat, the perk of being press in 1965.

Now, almost 50 years later I still have my zest for the game. It is a little bit of a different game today – so totally athletic – and still a joy to watch. Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and now Kevin Durant joining the club, have just made the sport better.

The NCAA Tournament starts in a few days and I’m starting to get excited. Because the best players tend to go pro after their Freshman year we now have a chance to see dark-horse teams surprise everybody and actually have a chance to win. Little Butler of Indianapolis made it to the Finals two straight years with teamwork and a brilliant coach. Last year Wichita State’s Shockers amazed everybody by getting to the Final Four, and this year, I’d like them to win it all by going 41-0 for the season. They are that good and they have the advantage of having gone to the Final Four last year.

If Wichita does not make it I hope Creighton, out of Omaha, wins it all. Another basketball unknown except for spawning Kyle Korver a few years ago, Creighton has Doug McDermott and little else, but McDermott is terrific.

Doug McDermott played high school ball in Ames, Iowa, with Harrison Barnes who overshadowed him and was considered the best high school player in the country. Doug’s father coached Iowa State with middling success. Before ISU he had been at Northern Iowa. Son Doug was headed up to Northern Iowa to play, but switched to Creighton when the Jesuit School of 6000 offered his Dad, Greg, a 10-year coaching deal. It didn’t hurt that Doug decided to drop his commitment to Northern Iowa and play for his Dad at Creighton. Now 3000 points later Doug is a two-time All American and Barnes is a somewhat forgotten pro after leaving North Carolina following his first season.

Some would say College Basketball is tarnished by a $6 billion contract with CBS and one and done stars, but I still love the excitement. I love the kids standing for the whole game and yelling and painting their chests and faces. And because the great high school players come and go before they refine their games, teams like Wichita, Butler, and Creighton have a chance to win the Tournament.

I will close this homage to basketball with another personal vignette. When I was in the hospital for heart surgery not knowing how things were going to go, I was breathing with the help of a respirator for 12 days. I could not talk and felt isolated in the ICU with its commotion. What I found most useful was closing my eyes and drawing on my memory bank of shooting hoops and the sensual repetitive feel of the ball floating light off my fingertips, banking smartly off the backboard and falling feathery through the twine. It was a silent meditation, solace though the scary times. It helped sustain me. Basketball. I cherish it.

Question: Have you ever had a coach or mentor who has changed your life?

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Selling From the Heart

By Noah Graff.

Selling cookies from the heart.

I’m still a relatively inexperienced salesman, as I’ve been selling machine tools for only two years. But I do believe I have the potential to be a decent one. I’m not afraid to talk to strangers, I think I’m a decent listener, and a lot of people appear to find me worth talking to.

At the Precision Machined Parts Association (PMPA) Management Update in Las Vegas in February, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Ron Karr, a famous sales expert and author who has been on the lecture circuit for 25 years. I was surprised by several things Karr told us, but overall I thought his philosophy made a lot of sense.

I wanted to take advantage of Karr’s expertise as much as I could, so during the lecture I volunteered to do a therapeutic roleplaying exercise in front of the 200 people present.

I went up on stage and Karr asked me to tell him about my business and show him my sales approach. I said that I sold multi-spindle screw machines to machine shops. Then I asked him what type of machines he ran.

He told me that I was “speaking from the head” rather than “speaking from the heart.” I tried again to give my pitch, with more “heart.” I said, “I want to help your business make parts faster and more easily, and help you make more money.” He again said I was still “too much from the head,” but slightly better.

I made several more attempts to speak from the heart as Karr coached me. He eventually instructed me to say something along the lines of “Hi, I’m Noah Graff. The reason I’m here is to share some strategies on how you can make parts more easily and make more money.” He also suggested I open a conversation with customers by asking, “What are the three biggest challenges your business is dealing with?” Karr claims that by asking a question like that it brings the conversation to a higher level, thus making the salesperson into more than just a vendor. I understood the concept behind that, but to me the opener came across as canned and unauthentic, thus ineffective in initiating a conversation. I pictured myself calling a machine shop out of the blue, getting connected to a manager on the shop floor, and giving that spiel right off the bat. I believe he would hang up on me within 15 seconds, and maybe yell at me for wasting his time.

If I knew the customer already, if we already had a rapport, I could see how such an approach could work. I’ve tried to work these types of questions into my sales calls in the last week and a half since the conference, but not as conversation openers. It’s hard to know at this point if it has had a positive impact.

Despite disliking Karr’s conversation openers, I thought some of his concepts were brilliant. He said that a salesperson should focus the conversation around issues brought up by a customer rather than the advantages of the product for sale. He said that only 10-20% of an interaction with a customer should involve explanation or demonstration of the product for sale. He said that humans have the tendency to feel that the more they talk, the more power they have, and that this belief is usually false. According to Karr, talking too much actually diminishes the power of the salesperson because the customer will not have a chance to tell the salesperson what they really need and will feel like his needs are being ignored.

I think the “heart” Karr wanted me to convey is a genuine desire to listen to a customer. If I show “heart” by talking less, I will listen more and sell more — that is, if I can get through the door.

Question: If a sales person called you and the first thing he said was, “What are the three biggest challenges your business is facing?” would you give him the time of day, or would you hang up?

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