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.
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