Monday, December 21, 2015
The Rebuilt Inner Tube story
A true story about rebuilding automobile inner tubes
Written 12/2010 and rewritten 05/ 2016 Unedited
In 1962 after resigning from my business relationship with Abe Zion, in Stamford Connecticut, I was now twenty three years old and unemployed, so naturally I was looking for something to do.
I had spent almost two years working with Abe, and his wisdom had opened my eyes to all kinds of future possibilities. Working with Abe had been quite an experience for me, an experience that only a few people as fortunate as me would ever have had access to.
My mother, who had observed everything I was doing, said that the education I received from working with Abe, far exceeded anything I could have received from any university, my mother was a wise woman.
As long as I had worked with Abe, I was his student, and he was my teacher. But In the end I had worked too many long hours doing Abe’s projects but I had little to show from it financially. I had learned the transmission parts business, the rebuilt wheel business, the recap tire business, the used car business, the auctioning business, and a multitude of other things, I had learned so many things that I could never list them all.
But the real important lesson I had learned, was that anything that man has made on this earth, once it is worn out, can be taken apart and rebuilt just like new again at a fraction of its original cost, and there always was a market waiting for it.
So, after resigning, my relationship with Abe I felt that to succeed, all I had to do was something I had learned from him, and all I needed to do was correct all Abe’s errors.
Unfortunately I was only twenty three years old, and I really had no idea of the value of what I had learned, it was only now after many years of business experiences that I could see that I had utilized the education he had given me. I had always heard people say they had learned at the “School of hard Knocks”, I could now relate to them as I had also attended it.
One one day I was driving through Seymour, Connecticut and I saw a small tire store with a pile of good used tires out front, so I stopped in to see if I could buy them.
That’s where I happened to meet a real nice fellow named Herb Schein, Herb owned the small retail tire business, and he was typical of many small business owners that were located in small Connecticut towns. He had been brought up in Seymour Connecticut, and everyone there knew him, and his small tire business was his whole world.
Herb was about fifty years old and just about as honest as they come. He had two employees and they sat around all day waiting for someone local to come in needing new tires, or perhaps needing a flat fixed. As we sat in Herb’s office, he asked what I was going to do with his used tires that I bought, and that led to our conversation about all kinds of tire related businesses, businesses that I had been involved in over the last few years with Abe, and that conversation led me to tell Herb all about the “Tire Breakers” that I had met in New Haven and New York. Most people wouldn’t know what a tire breaking business was, and neither did Herb, but I knew all about them, and now I was teaching Herb about them. I told him that tire breaking was a pretty big business, everywhere in New England, all they did was go to all the automobile junkyards that bought and cut up old cars and they bought the used tires that were still on the car wheels, usually they paid fifty cents or a dollar each. All the auto-mobile junkyards sold their good used tires, but they usually had more tires left over than they could sell, and having mounted tires all around took up too much junk yard space, so the tire breakers then bought them all. Then the tire breakers, would remove the tire from the wheel. So Now they had a wheel, and an inner tube, they also had a tire and the little valve stem from inside the inner tube valve.
The car wheel could be sold to people that needed a wheel, or sold as scrap iron, The used inner tubes were sold several ways, mostly the black neoprene inner tubes were sold to chemical companies, that melted them down to make chemicals. The little valve stems were thrown into a bottle and saved, and then finally there was the tire. The good used tires were sold to tire dealers who exported most of them. Slightly worn tires were sold to companies that re-grooved them with a hot tire cutting iron, those tires were sold in the south as good used tires. Worn out tires were sold to recap companies that put new rubber treads on them and sold them as re-caps, and lastly the Junk tires were sold to chemical companies like Naugatuck Chemical Company, or they were sold to companies that cut them up to make dock bumpers, rubber shoes and other things out of them. For a while some companies even chopped up the tires, and even though they were toxic, they were burned as fuel to produce electricity overseas.
Herb was astounded to hear all of this and asked me all kinds of questions, and since I had been involved one way or another with all these kinds of businesses I explained them all to him, and I mentioned that the tire breaking companies had lots of good used inner tubes, and they could be bought for about 35 cents each. That’s cheap Herb said, but what can you do with them? I told Herb that you could rebuild them and sell them as rebuilt inner tubes. I told him that a new inner tube sold depending on the size for about $3.00 to around $5.00 dollars so a rebuilt one could sell for about $1.50 each to $2.50 each, Herb listened and agreed.
The more we talked, the bigger Herbs eyes got. He said why don’t we make and sell rebuilt inner tubes right here? I told Herb that there was no reason we couldn’t do it, but in the back of my mind I knew that rebuilding inner tubes would be a fairly easy business but it was a labor intensive job, and Herb and his twos two helpers were pretty slow and easy going people, they were not really used to any labor intensive work, so I asked Herb who did he think would do the rebuilding of the inner tubes. Herb was now thinking of all the money he could make, and he was now very excited. Herb said, “All of us, we could rebuild the tubes right here in my store and we could sell the rebuilt inner tubes to tire wholesalers, and at flea markets. Herb asked if I really knew how to rebuild the inner tubes? I told him yes.
We sat and discussed the financial aspects and we agreed to split the costs and profits 50/50 each. I would go to New York and buy the tubes and Herb would donate the back yard of his store and the use of his employee’s. I would teach them how to rebuild inner tubes, and Herb and I could also pitch in to do some of the labor. So we decided to start out by buying one thousand used inner tubes at 35 cents each and we would then split the costs for any equipment and supplies we needed.
I drove to New York City and went to see a tire breaking company, the same people I had met before when I was working to develop the rebuilt wheel business with Abe. They were happy to see me again, and they agreed to separate out all the clean, black neoprene inner tubes that didn’t have patches on them. They said they would deliver them to us the following week when their truck was delivering junk tires to the chemical company in Naugatuck Connecticut.
I went back to Herb’s store in Seymour and we set up a long cable in the tire stores back yard, it was like a clothes line. We also set up a tank of soapy water to wash the tubes. Then I went to a local paint supplier and bought five gallons of black lacquer paint and lots of thinner.
I went to an industrial supply store and bought one thousand blue poly ethylene bags, the same color plastic bags that new inner tubes came in, I bought two pounds of talcum powder, and a bag tying machine, that would tie the plastic bags shut. A printer up the street printed up a generic label and we used rubber stamps to put the part number on the label, when packaged our rebuilt inner tube, it would look just like the original new inner tubes were packaged.
The inner tubes from New York were delivered and we unloaded them by hand. They had tied the deflated tubes in groups of 50, to hang off the sides and back of their big delivery truck, the tubes were heavy and dirty, but we were excited, so Herb and everyone pitched in to help. We told the tire breakers to prepare another thousand inner tubes for us.
That evening we inflated about fifty tubes, put on a valve cap and set them out in the yard to see if they leaked. The next morning, only about ten of them were deflated, that told us they had a leak.
I instructed Herb’s helpers on how to wash the inflated tubes in the soapy water, using a hard bristle brush. They did it while Herb and I found the leaks in the tubes and patched them. Herb had a rubber patch that came from a German company called Pang. When we used the Pang patch you couldn’t even tell there was a patch. The washed tubes were then dried in the sun, I set up a pan with very diluted black lacquer paint, then with very long rubber gloves I rubbed each tube with a very light coat of black lacquer, then with bent metal hooks, we hung the tubes off the clothes behind the store to dry. Then we inflated another fifty tubes for the next day, soon here was no room to walk anywhere in the stores or in the back yard, there were inner tubes everywhere.
Next day we deflated the painted tubes, folded them up using talcum powder and packed them in the blue plastic bags. They looked just like new tubes, except our label said rebuilt. As we rebuilt the tubes, I knew that what we were doing was more work than Herb had ever expected, but he didn’t complain, however I could see his both his helpers were not happy now that they had to really work every day.
We started selling the rebuilt inner tubes everywhere, and I constantly went back to New York to buy more tubes, and that’s when I found out the tire breakers would eventually run out of no patch tubes for us. They had plenty of inner tubes with big red and orange ugly patches on them, but it was not what we wanted, so this meant I had to start shopping in other places for more used black neoprene inner tube. So now I started buying some from other tire breakers in New York City and then in New Haven, Connecticut. I soon could see that we were going to have a problem buying more clean tubes, and that meant that I would have to spend more time on the road buying used tubes.
It wasn’t long before everyone in the tire business knew what we were doing. Herb couldn’t believe he was capable of actually doing a business like this. So for a while I kept buying and bringing in more inner tubes to be processed.
One day I received a call from Lebov Tire Company in New Haven, Connecticut, they were one of the largest tire companies in New England. The owner Ben Lebov wanted to set up a meeting with me, so I met with Ben and he said that his company was expanding to Tampa Florida, and they were shipping tires from New Haven to Tampa by railroad car. The problem was there was too much wasted space and he wanted to fill all that space up with all our rebuilt inner tubes. What a wonderful offer, but I knew it was impossible as we could never produce enough inner tubes fast enough for him.
I told Herb about Lebov Tire’s proposal to buy everything we could produce, but I could see that
Herb was now tiring of it all. He said his helpers wanted to quit, and I could see that Herb was right, we had a good business as long as I stayed on the road buying used inner tubes, but when I did that, it left the bulk of the work to Herb and his helpers. Herb was a nice guy, but he was not a hard worker, he preferred selling tires, better than rebuilding inner tubes, and I knew it. Herb realized that he liked sitting in his office waiting for a housewife to come in needing new tires. He would charge her full price and his employees would take their time installing them. That kind of business didn’t require any physical work on Herb’s part.
From my perspective, I also getting tired driving to New York to find inner tubes. So Herb and I decided to stop rebuilding inner tubes and we parted company as friends.
The My Friend Harry and the Iranian Story
A true story about how a friend of mine did his business and the surprise he got.
Written 12/2015 and rewritten 05/23/2016 unedited
For most of my business career, I have been in the commercial automotive parts business, and like many other companies we always exported parts overseas. Exporting parts was for me and many companies like mine a very normal every day thing to do. However, once we started dealing in military
Vehicular parts, we learned that it was a whole different story, and the parts business was closely monitored by the U.S. government. In order to export military related parts a company needed a Department of State License. And there are many rules and regulations that must be adhered to.
One of the most important things is to keep abreast of black listed countries. This list of countries changes on a regular basis, and all U.S. suppliers are not allowed to ship anything to them. That doesn’t mean that some companies will not try and break the law by shipping to blacklisted countries, they do it all the time. Sometimes they try doing it by selling to a good country and then re-shipping to a black listed country. When they get caught the U.S. Government arrests the company owners and prosecutes them.
Many times we received overseas inquiries, and if they are requesting prices on commercial items, that may have military applications, we have to check to be sure that the country they want to sell to is not on the governments black list. If they are not on the black list, we would require “End user certification”, this is done so that if an order is placed we can apply for a Department of State license, and if it is approved we can ship.
Early on we learned our lesson regarding knowing who your customer is. We had received a large order for Caterpillar replacement electrical parts, the order was from a company in Minnesota that we had done business with for several years. About a year after we shipped, a U.S. Customs officer came to our office with copies of all our invoices. He told us that our parts had been confiscated while being shipped to Iran which is a blacklisted country. Worse than that, the Caterpillar electrical parts we sold, had dual usage, they also fit a M60 Tank.
The Customs agent said that our customer in Minnesota sold the parts to a Canadian Company, and they in-turn had sold the parts to a French Company and the French Company tried to ship it to Iran. They were all arrested and jailed. I told the Customs Agent that the parts we sold were commercial in nature and we had no idea they fit a tank, also I told him that we had no way of knowing who our customer was selling to, and that’s when he set me straight on the subject. He said that he knew we had no bad intentions, but when it came to parts that can be used by the military, it was our responsibility to know who our customer is selling to. He said that the law was very clear about that, and next time it happens to us, we could be in a lot of trouble, consider yourself warned, and we did.
Now on with the story.
When doing commercial business, many times, our customer request that we make a drop shipment for them, it’s a common practice. Our customer is asking us to ship directly to his customer, and he is trusting us that we will not disclose who we are. We always made sure we did as our customer requested and we always made sure that when we made a drop shipment, there was nothing in the shipment showing that it was originally bought from us
However that was not the case with other vendors. Some of them would go out of their way to make sure their name was in the shipment, hoping that the final customer would see it and next time buy from them directly. It was an underhanded thing to do, but they did it.
We had a friend named Harry, and Harry had a very successful truck parts business in Cleveland Ohio. Harry represented several large original equipment supplier, so many of his customers would buy from him and they would ask for Harry to drop ship direct to their customer. That gave Harry the unique opportunity to find out who the end customer was and steal him away.
Being the greedy guy that Harry was, he would load the shipment down with his calendars and catalogs and business cards. He wanted to make sure everyone knew he was the supplier.
One day Harry received an order for a large quantity of turbocharger parts. His customer told him the shipment was going to Dubai a non-black listed Country. The customer requested that Harry make a drop shipment for him. Harry was excited he saw this as his opportunity to stick his advertisements in every shipping crate.
About a month passed, when 2 Customs agents and 2 FBI agents walked into his company and arrested him. It appears his customer was shipping the parts to Iran, a black listed country. But Harry claimed that he had no idea of what was going on, he said that he had sold the parts to one of his regular customers, and he had nothing to do with Iran. The agents were very sympathetic, but they arrested him anyway, they knew he was lying as they had found all the crates loaded with his catalogs, calendars and business cards, so Harry was charged as a co-conspirator.
Harry told me he obtained a lawyer, and before the case was settled, and he was acquitted, he estimated that it had cost him over $385,000.00 in legal fees and he was just about to lose the building his business was in.
Needless to say, Harry never put his brochures and business cards in any ones shipment again.
Saturday, December 12, 2015
The Brazilian Railroad Story
A true story as told to me by the fellow it happened to.
Written 11/16/2015, Rewritten 1/2016 Unedited
Some time, after world WW 2 a young man from Norway, named Knut Barth immigrated to the United States. Knut had an engineering degree and had worked for the U.S. Government as a spy at the wars end. Knut applied for a job with a major U.S. locomotive manufacturer, they also manufactured railroad engines, and at the time they were building complete railroads. He had applied to enter their engineering department and he was accepted. After working in engineering for a year or so, an opening was available in their sales department and Knut applied. At the time Knut was a bachelor and the prospect of traveling around the world for the company really interested him.
He was surprised to learn that his first assignment was to fly to Brazil. It appears that the Brazilian government in their attempt to open up the Amazon had requested quotes to build a railroad along the
Amazon River. Knut’s predecessor had already submitted his companies bid and it was Knut’s job to be in Brazilia for the opening of the bids by the Brazilian Minister of the Interior. As Knut was relatively new in sales and wondered why he had been chosen for such an important event.
Knute arrived in Brazil several days early, and after walking around the city for 2 days, he was at a loss as to what to do. In the hotel lobby he saw a tourist brochure for a river cruise, so having nothing better to do for a couple of days he signed up for it. The next day was spent on a tourist boat that took him up the Amazon River and back to the hotel.
When the time came for the opening of the bids, Knute was seated in the Minister of the Interiors office, along with representatives of his competitors companies from England, France and Germany.
When the bids were opened, and the prices announced, his companies bid was several million dollars higher than all his competitors. It appeared that Knut had wasted his time coming to Brazil.
That was until the Minister of the Interior said he was awarding the contract to Knut’s company. All of the competitors protested, so the Minister told them why he had awarded the contract the way he did. He said that out of all the bidders, Knut Barth was the only person that had taken the time to travel up the river to inspect where the railroad was to be built. Knut returned to the United States as a hero, and his eventual rise to a vice presidency was now assured.
It wasn’t until four years later that Knut learned that a $400,000.00 under the table payment had been made to the Minister of the interior by his company prior to the bid opening.
The Florida Salmon Fishing Story
A true story of how I tried to fool Knut Barth
Written 11/16/2015 and Rewritten 1/2016 unedited
I had a very dear Norwegian friend named Knut Barth he was an avid Salmon fisherman. Knut spoke over 34 languages. He said he spoke more languages, but not fluently. Knut was the vice president of General Motors Military Division, and by the time I met him, he said that he had traveled to every country in the world except Outer Mongolia. By the time I met him, he was already semi- retired, but he was still traveling around the world to fish for salmon.
One day in June of 2000, we were shopping in a local Winn Dixie supermarket in Key Largo Florida.
I stopped at the seafood department, they were having a special sale. They were selling fresh whole Chilean Salmon for $2.99 per lb. Each Chilean farm raised salmon was flown in its own Styrofoam container. We couldn’t believe how cheap it was.
I had a terrific idea for a gag that I could play on my friend Knut. Everyone knew that Salmon was a cold water fish and not found in Florida, so I purchased one whole 20 lb. fresh Salmon.
That afternoon I posed for my wife, she took pictures of me fishing in the canal behind our house
On Plantation Key. I had purposely put a heavy weight on my fishing line so it would look like I was fighting a big fish, then I proudly stood on the dock with my fishing rod in one hand and the 20 lb. Salmon in the other hand. And I had a big smile on, like I had just that moment caught the fish in the canal behind our house.
We sent the pictures off to my friend Knut Barth in Michigan, who called us up as soon as he received them. “Nice Chilean farm raised Salmon”, Knute said. Not exactly what I had expected to hear from him. I said, how did you know it was a farm raised Salmon. Knut said, “All Chilean farm raised Salmon have clipped tails, they do it to make the fish less powerful. As soon as you hook a Salmon in Chile you can tell if it is wild or if it was an escaped farm raised fish, you can feel the way it fights.”Well, I couldn’t fool Knut, my gag had backfired, but we did cook and eat the fish.
The Uncle Norm’s Car Story1958
Written 2011 and rewritten 11/2015 unedited
A true story about my Uncle Norman
In 1957, I was just eighteen 18 years old, and in my last year of Hillhouse High School in New Haven Connecticut.
Every day, after school, I was working at the Gulf gas station, located on the corner of Whalley Avenue and Emerson Street in Westville Connecticut.
The gas station was a typical, two bay Gulf Oil gas station that was owned by the Oil Co, but leased to a manager. Its main business of the Gulf station was selling gasoline, greasing and changing oil, fixing tires, and washing cars.
As a two bay Gulf gas station we were allowed to do things like clean sparkplugs and do a tune up one in a while as well as some very minor car repairs, but none of these things added up to making any real money for the station manager, consequently whoever was leasing the station always tried to make an extra buck any way they could, and they had to do it without letting the Gulf Oil representative catch them. So over the years I watched as the different managers tried every trick in the book to make some money.
As long as I worked there, I saw that station being managed by two different guys, both of them good old local New Haven Italian guys, one was a thin fellow named Tony Navarro, he was a Korean War vet and then there was Scotty Massey who looked like a typical Italian movie mobster. The reason I mention that they were Italian was because my home town of New Haven had a very large Italian population, as well as the best Italian apizza to be found in New England,
And you can note that in New Haven it was called apizza not pizza.
I was only an employee at the station, but I had always assumed that the station was leased by these guys on a yearly basis, and then when, the managers finally realized they couldn’t make a living, they abandoned the gas station.
The constant changing of managers didn’t seem to bother the Gulf Oil Co, as they always seemed to find another unskilled guy to take their place. But for me, working for these different managers was a good learning experience. It taught me lots of things that I shouldn’t ever do in the future.
The first manager I worked for was Scotty Massey. He had an average build, was slightly on the short side, about five foot six and had an olive Mediterranean complexion. He had dark black hair slicked back, he looked like an Italian mobster and he didn’t like to work too hard.
Actually Scotty was a pretty nice guy, and always treated me pretty good, and I don’t recall him ever uttering a harsh word towards me.
Scotty uttered plenty of harsh words towards others though, and I found that his business ethics were far less than desirable. For example, Scotty had several wealthy Italian friends in New Haven, two of them being the owners of a big restaurant and motel complex.
Scotty’s best friend, who was one of the brothers that owned the restaurant and motel, drove the most expensive Chrysler Imperial available in 1958. The car was a light baby blue color, a real beauty.
Whenever the car was left with Scotty for oil and filter change, Scotty would check the dipstick, and if the oil looked clean, he wouldn’t change anything. But he billed his friend as if he had changed the oil and filter. Then Scotty would have me search under all the seats, for any pictures that were hidden there. Scotty wanted to see if he recognized the waitresses that his friend was taking to the motel.
Eventually Scotty told me he wasn’t making any money with the Gulf gas station. He said too many neighborhood customers came in and bought their gasoline on credit, and since there were no credit cards back then, many of them never paid their gas bill. So Scotty kept a deadbeat book in his desk. One day, Scotty told me to write each deadbeats name in big letters on the front window of the station, so I used white car polish to do it.
Then Scotty instructed me to put how much money they owed him, next to their name. He then walked out to the curb to look at it. I had written about ten names big enough for anyone passing by to see. Scotty never collected any of the money, but he was very pleased, and said, that as far as those ten customers were concerned, they could never drive by the station, as their bill was on our window.
One day, Scotty announced to me that he was not going to renew the lease with Gulf Oil Company, he said he was looking to move to a small no name Gas Station that was available at the end of Legion Avenue down in New Haven. I knew the place he was talking about, it was a tiny gas station with an office big enough for a desk, it had an indoor bathroom and only a single bay with a car lift in it. I knew Scotty took over the place because the rent was cheap and he lived near there. Also with only two gas pumps he had little in the way of work to do. When I came to work every afternoon, Scotty would take off, and when he came back around five you could smell the booze all over him. But he never lied about it, Scotty always said he was visiting friends at the local Gin Mill, then when he came back he would sit with his feet up on the desk and tell me how his wife was going to yell at him when he went home. Once I asked him why he didn’t just sober up before going home. Scotty said, “My father said, why build a fire if you are going to put it out.”
One afternoon, while Scotty was out drinking, I heard a loud grinding and squealing noise outside the gas station office. It noise that I was somewhat familiar with. It was the noise made when a wheel bearing on a car is burning out.
I looked out the side window of the office, and I saw my Uncle Norman driving a 1949 Chevrolet, and he was pulling right into Scotty’s little gas station.
I already knew from the terrible noise his car was making that a right front wheel bearing was completely burned out.
Now my Uncle Norman was about as nice a mild mannered guy as you would ever meet. He was married to my mom’s younger sister Lillian.
So I went out to greet my Uncle as he got out of the car, Norman had a broad smile on his face. “It sounds like something in front is making a noise,” he said.
Yes, I replied, it sounds like a right front wheel bearing, I think it’s burned out.
“Can you fix it?”
asked me. Norman
“Sure,” I said, as I was very anxious to show my uncle Norman that I was a good mechanic, and I knew that fixing a wheel bearing was not too difficult, depending on how much damage had already been done to the car’s front spindle. I put a rolling jack under the right front wheel, lifted the car, took off the hub cap and then with a hammer, I knocked off the metal grease cap, and removed the front cotter pin and nut. Then I removed the entire tire, with brake drum attached. This now exposed all the burned out ball bearings that were making the loud noise.
As I did this, all the burned out little steel balls from the ball bearings fell out and on to the pavement. I could see the bearings were so burned out, that all the individual balls in them fell out. Then I saw that not only were the bearings burned out, but they had also worn out the car’s front spindle. It appeared to me that my Uncle Norman had been driving around listening to the noise of the bearings and spindle grinding up.
I then told Uncle Norman that just replacing the bearings would not fix the problem, the car’s front wheel spindle needed to be replaced. Norman was looking over my shoulder, he could see that everything was worn out, and what I said was correct.
Uncle Norm, I said, you need a new spindle and new inner and outer ball bearings.
“How much will that cost?” Norm asked in a very negative tone of voice.
I said, we can buy a used spindle from a junk yard for about thirty five dollars and I can install it for free as long as Scotty didn’t come back and catch us.
Norman pondered the situation, and finally said, “Put it all back together, I am going to wait.” When I heard that, I had to stop and gather my thoughts.
What Norman was asking me to do, was almost an impossible task, as all the burned out balls from the bearings were laying everywhere on the pavement.
Norm, I said, I don’t think I can put it back together, as all the bearings are broken and burned out. Norman’s reply to me was very stern, he said “I drove in here alright before you took it apart, didn’t I”
So I went into the station and got a hand full of thick lubricating grease and a couple of wiper rags, then picked up each individual burned out ball from the ground, and wiped the dirt off it and I used the grease to hold the balls on the spindle, then I carefully replaced the brake drum and tire.
Without saying another word
backed out of the station and went on his way. Norman
I never asked Uncle Norman how far he got, before the bearing fell apart again, and he never said anything to me about it ever again.
The Colombian Cocaine Story
A true story involving one of my Colombian customers
Written 4/2010 and rewritten 05/10/2016 unedited
During the 1980’s to the 1990’s our company Automotive Parts Industries was very busy exporting automotive parts to Central and South America. Our being located in Miami Florida, was the perfect location for us to export parts into South America.
We had parts dealers and brokers from all of the various Latin American Countries coming to Miami to do business with us. Many of the Spanish speaking importers liked doing their business in Miami, because they didn’t need to speak English, all of their business could be transacted in Spanish. However there were some of the more enterprising Spanish businessmen who would only make Miami only their first stop, before heading up north to do business in other places like New York City.
Usually they would stop in to see us, buy something, and we would see them again when they returned to Miami, as Miami was their last stop before flying back to their own countries.
Some of these customers would make purchases in several cities, and then they had everything shipped to Miami where we would consolidate it into one shipment for them.
It was quite a heady time for us, as sometimes we had so many Spanish speaking customers waiting their turn, that we didn’t have enough office space or desks to sit them all down at. On some days, we would have several customers visit us, all coming from the same country, and they didn’t want each other to know what they were buying, or how much they were paying.
In those days, it was normal procedure for the overseas customers to come to Miami with an attaché case filled with U.S. currency. However their getting U.S. currency in their countries was not so easy. One of the most common ways was for them to get American money was from U.S. tourists visiting their country, or they could buy U.S. currency from money brokers. Money brokers were guys that had agents chasing after American tourists in the streets, trying to buy their dollars. Our customers told us they had to pay a premium of 15% to 20% just to get the U.S. dollars from the money changers. Thus, when the importers finally got to us in Miami they had lots of bundles of wrinkled, and well used $1.00, $5.00 and $10.00 bills, but they had no choice, it was the only currency that was available that they could buy.
So to get enough U.S. Currency to make a trip to Miami was always a real problem for them, and it was a costly problem as they had to pay so much to the money brokers, and the problem was even worse as the importers never knew what the money would cost them from day to day, as currency prices changed daily.
Now, traveling to the U.S. with an attaché case full of U.S. currency was legal, but was also a big risk, as there were criminals just looking for South American and Central American people that they knew were carrying a lot of money in their attache cases.
So to solve all these problems, the Colombian Cocaine drug dealers came up with a solution. They had lots of U.S. currency that was already in the United States, and as drug dealers they ran a big risk when sending the U.S. money back to South America, the money could be detected and confiscated by U.S. government.
So the Colombian drug dealers devised a scheme that was perfect for the Latin Americans that needed U.S. Currency. You would call a telephone number in Colombia and tell them how much money you needed in U.S. currency. Then you told them where they could find you in the U.S. The Colombian businessmen would then pay only a 10% premium and they could pay for it in their local currency. This money exchange business was good for the drug dealers, especially in Colombia, as they didn’t have to ship the U.S. currency back to Colombia, and they made an additional 10% profit.
This was also good for our Colombian customers as they knew their exact cost of U.S. currency was going to be 10%, and they no longer had to shop for money, or deal with the money brokers on the streets. Nor did they have to carry large sums of money when traveling to the States and run the risk of having it stolen from them.
By 1995, our export parts business was starting to slow down, due to several reasons. One reason being that the Japanese automobiles were now replacing the American cars in the Caribbean, Central and South America, and another reason was that the local currency in many South American Countries had been devalued, making many formerly wealthy customers into poor people. The currency devaluations were so bad, most of our long time South American customers couldn’t even afford to fly to the U.S. anymore.
One day, we were surprised to see that one of our regular customers named Omar had come to see us. Omar was from the Colombia and we always remembered him because he carried an attaché case with all sorts of colorful automotive company decals plastered all over it.
That morning Omar had arrived at our office with a friend, and we all sat down in our office talking over old times and how the automotive business was changing.
Neither Omar nor his friend spoke a word of English, but they told us they had made arrangements to receive $35,000.00 in U.S. currency when they arrived in New York City. Omar said that he wanted to look over our stock of parts that we had for sale, and then he was going on to New York City. He said that it was in his hotel room in New York where he was going to pick up the $35,000.00 in U.S. currency that he had purchased from the drug dealers back in Colombia. He said that he would pay us for what he bought on his return trip from New York when he had the U.S. dollars.
About a week passed and I received a call from Omar, he said he was in New York City. He asked if I would please send him $300.00 by Western Union just as soon as possible. He needed the money for food and bus fare to Miami and he said he would explain everything when he got to Miami and saw me.
Omar and his friend arrived at my office a couple of days later, and he told me the following story.
When they arrived in New York City, they headed to their regular hotel, where they always stayed. Omar said he always reserved the same room, and it was that room where he was supposed to receive the $35,000.00 in U.S. currency that he had paid for in Colombia.
The hotel clerk said that Omar’s regular room was under renovation, but they could have the room next to it. Omar said he thought it strange, as he wasn’t told about any of this when he had called in his reservation a week earlier. So he told the desk clerk to be sure and advise the delivery boy when he came, that there had been a room change, the desk clerk assured him that it would be taken care of.
The next morning there was a knock on their hotel room door, it was a delivery boy carrying a bowling ball bag. Omar knew his money was in it, so he invited the boy in and they opened the bag on the bed to count it. In the bag were bundles of U.S. $20.00 bills, which Omar then spread out on the bed to count, he wanted to make sure it was all there.
At that moment their hotel door came crashing open and a swat team with guns drawn stormed into the room. Omar, his friend, and the delivery boy, were thrown on the floor and handcuffed, and while this was going on a huge German Shepard dog jumped on the bed and chewed on the bag and the money. Omar said he was so scared, he thought he was having a heart attack right there on the floor. They were all placed under arrest and taken to the police station, and as Omar and his friend spoke no English, an interpreter was called in to translate for them.
The Interpreter explained to Omar that the money had traces of cocaine on it, and they were to appear before a Magistrate in New York City that very evening.
That evening, they explained to the Magistrate through the interpreter, that they had bought and paid for the money in Colombia, and Omar explained that they were in the auto parts business, not the cocaine business. The Judge appeared very sympathetic to their story, and told them that they would be released. But the drug money was to be held as evidence. They would be informed when there would be a hearing, to set a trial date, and Omar could then hire an attorney if he wanted to.
Omar said he was in a state of shock, the money was all his working capital, and he really didn’t fully understand what was going on, and that’s when he called me for me to send the $300.00. Omar said he didn’t know what happened to the courier, but he did know he couldn’t afford to hire an attorney, and he couldn’t afford to return to New York for a trial. Omar was afraid that if they found him guilty, he could end up going to jail. He said that he also knew he couldn’t complain to the drug dealers in Colombia as that could be worse than the Police in New York. Omar said, all he wanted to do now was get on the next flight home to Colombia.
Omar never mentioned the $300.00 I had lent them, and I have never seen Omar again.
The Florida Keys House Railing Story
This true story should be called the 4000 easy steps in doing a renovation project in the Florida Keys.
The story was written 2010 and rewritten 05/03/2016 unedited
In September of 2001, we purchased a property located in Venetian Shores, it is on the island of Islamorada in the Florida Keys.
When we bought it, we knew that every square inch of the existing house, its seawall, and its overgrown landscape, were in such bad shape, that they would all need to be completely renovated. We bought the property because its location was just perfect, it was a large corner lot at the end of one of the fingers of land in the Venetian Shores subdivision, and it overlooked the “Snake Creek” waterway.
The Snake Creek waterway in front of the house is the main artery for all boats traveling from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean or the reverse. So we knew whatever time, work or money we had to use in order to renovate the property would be well worth it. We also knew that because we had once heard that Michael Eisner the former president of Disney, he had said, “You can never go wrong buying waterfront property,” and we knew that he was right.
When we bought the property we had erroneously assumed that there was going to be no shortage of designers, contractors, and craftsmen available in the Keys to help us. We thought trade people would be anxious to want to work with us on this big renovation project. Even the realtor that sold us the property recommended an architect-designer that we could work with. We thought that, because we always saw homes that were being renovated in the keys, there would be a lot of good people we could work with. That turned out to be our first assumption that was completely erroneous.
The first recommended designer we hired had to be fired, after three months he had done absolutely nothing. Naturally, beforehand, we had been warned by everyone regarding “Keys Disease”, a situation where Keys people fail to show up to work, or fail to do what they promised, but since we had never experienced it ourselves, when the Keys Disease actually happened to us we were kind of surprised.
We really couldn’t even imagine that all of the contractors we were to meet in the Keys were going to be as bad as they were, but as we went from project to project we did find that most all of them were pretty bad, and we found that everything we had heard negative about them, was true, and Keys Disease was only one of the many problems they had.
Besides from the lying, and the poor craftsmanship, we found that overcharging was a common practice, and some of the contractors we found were in collusion with local lumber yards working together to overcharge the customers and split the profit. It was an easy thing to do as most of the homeowners in the Keys are not there to watch what’s happening.
Then, besides from this overcharging problem, there was always the problem of the poor workmanship, so we found that trying to get anything done in the Florida Keys was in many ways probably like to trying to get something done in a foreign country, and our being outsiders, actually living in Miami, compounded all the problems as we were not there every day to see that work was being done properly.
Once we saw what was going on, we thought that we could probably solve the problem by getting qualified workers from Miami, but we found that the travel time to have them come to the Keys just added to the overall costs. We found that very few Miami contractors wanted to travel to the Keys. Then another problem we found was that many of the Miami contractors didn’t have Workman’s Compensation Insurance which was required in the Keys. So due to a combination of all the problems, including the criminality and the poor craftsmanship in the Keys, it started wearing Katherine and myself out, and eventually, whether we liked it or not, we were forced to look for labor to come from Miami, and of course almost none of that really worked out well for us either.
Every project we did renovating the property in Venetian Shores, became worthy of writing a book about, a book for others to learn from, and the house railing story I am going to relate to you is just one of them.
The “Florida Keys House Railing Story” is all about our project of putting up an aluminum railing around the house once we were finished doing the exterior renovation. Originally the house had two inch steel pipe railing which didn’t meet the current building code in the Keys, so an aluminum railing had to be designed to go around the total exterior of the house, with all its stair cases, balcony’s and walkways.
The railing should have been a relatively straight forward project, as all we needed to do was to have our contractor let us pick out the railing we wanted from a local railing company catalog and they would come and install it. Well it was not quite so simple, we needed to decide on a design, and as we were renovating an art deco style house into a Mediterranean style, not all railings would look good. So to get some ideas, for several days, Katherine and I drove all around the Keys streets, just looking at railing designs.
The way it started out, our contractor first took us to a railing store that stocked standard every day aluminum railings. They showed us stock railings that mostly comes preassembled and look pretty much like what is on every other contemporary house in the Keys. The problem was that our house wasn’t contemporary, and the other problem was, their prices weren’t cheap, the
Railing stores had all jacked up their prices to include a percentage for the contractor, the whole situation was enough to make you sick. The estimated cost of railing was way over $100,000.00.
So when we turned it all down, our contractor then introduced us to another one of his railing friends, I saw that his welding quality was so poor, that a person would have to be crazy to even consider using him. We came to understand that we would never be able to find what we wanted in the Keys, as our contractor was only taking us to where he received a commission.
While we were looking into the railing situation, we noticed another serious problem going on throughout the Keys, it had to do with the railings installation. All the railing installers in the Keys, used steel screws which eventually started to rust, not one installer had the craftsmanship or cared to do a rust free job. As you drive around the Keys, all you see are houses that are stained brown from the rust, and it’s all simply coming from the bad railing installations.
To eliminate the rust problem, the obvious solution is to embed the aluminum railing into the concrete, or use stainless steel hardware, but finding a railing installer in the Keys to do this was impossible, so after several months of just going around in circles, we started looking at railing fabricators in Miami.
While we didn’t find anyone in Miami that actually wanted to do the job, we did find a sample of the Mediterranean bird breast style railing that my wife wanted, and we were able to finally draw on paper the style of Mediterranean railing exactly as we had envisioned it. But by now we were wearing ourselves out talking to people about the railing, several months had now passed by, and nothing was happening.
We again measured, the house, and determined that we needed over five hundred linear feet of aluminum railing for the exterior of the house, and we needed more aluminum railing for two balconies on the third floor, and besides all the exterior railing we also needed quite a bit of steel railing for the house interior, we found that we needed steel railing from the first floor to the second floor, then a curved railing from the second floor to the third floor and about another twenty five feet of railing on the third floor interior balcony.
Our intention for the interior railing was to do it the same as we had done on our previous home. We would use steel railing painted white with realistically painted two foot tall coconut palms mounted about two foot apart. We already knew that the coconut palm design would look good, as we had done our last house that way, and when we sold the house the new owners wanted to be assured the interior railing with the pretty painted coconut palms stayed with the house, everyone loved it.
As the days passed, every free moment I had, I continued to contact railing fabricators in Miami, but they all said that working in the Florida Keys was like working in a foreign country, and none of them wanted to do the project.
One day, one of our former employees named Hector stopped by to say hello. Hector was an excellent machinist that had worked for us, and we had taught him how to weld. Over the several years that Hector had worked for us, he had been involved in several altercations with fellow employees, so Hector had developed the reputation of being a bit of a hot head. While we all liked Hector, when he said he was leaving to work elsewhere, no one tried to stop him.
When I saw Hector visiting our company, I was happy to see him, as he was driving a new pickup truck, so I assumed he was doing well, and I went over to say hello.
I asked Hector what he was doing for a living and believe it or not he said, “I’m making and installing railings.” I couldn’t believe it, so I said, Hector, do I have a project for you, and I proceeded to tell Hector all about the railing project we had in the Keys. Hector said, he would have to come down and look the project over, so I invited him to come down the following weekend, which he did.
Hector who spoke little English, came down to the Keys house bringing his wife with him.
Hectors wife was a lovely girl who was bilingual, she spoke English fluently and had a job working for a government agency. So we explained everything to Hector, about how we wanted the aluminum railing, to be painted with white powder coat, and all upright supports were to be imbedded into the concrete with no steel hardware used anywhere. Hector said he understood perfectly, and he also measured inside the house for the steel interior railing.
The following week Hector came to our office in Miami with all his prices. He said he needed $13,000.00 for materials, $13000.00 for installation and thirteen thousand dollars for profit. I asked Hector when he could start the project, I would write him a check for materials that very day.
Well, that’s when Hector hit us with the fact that he didn’t have Workman’s Compensation Insurance, and that meant he couldn’t get caught working weekdays in the Keys, but he could work on weekends when no one was looking. It was a bad situation, but at that point had no other alternatives, so we agreed to it.
About thirty days passed and on a sunny Saturday morning Hector arrived with five six foot sections of our new aluminum white railing, he also had with him a brand new machine for boring holes in the concrete as well as a tall lanky Cuban helper named Miguel.
They arrived around ten thirty in the morning and it took around three hours for them to drill several holes in the concrete and install the few pieces of railing. So at around two in the afternoon they opened their cooler and broke out the Heinekens. After a few beers they put together their fishing poles and began fishing off the corner of our property, and they followed this exact same routine every single weekend they came, until about half the exterior railing was installed. They always came around ten thirty, started drinking around two and then went fishing off the seawall. Sometimes we would hear Hector and Miguel’s truck leave for Miami about two in the morning.
The job was taking a long time, but we were very happy to see the railing getting done, that was until one Saturday morning when Hector’s wife called.
She said that Hector had been in a minor altercation on the Florida turnpike, it was really nothing she said, and Hector would be back to work on the railing the following week. So we waited for him, and the next Saturday and Sunday came and went with no Hector showing up.
After two weeks had passed, I noticed Hectors truck was sitting in front of our building in Miami. It appeared that Hector had stopped by again to say hello to some of his old friends.
I went outside and Hector was sitting behind the wheel, so I asked him in Spanish what the heck had happened, and why he hadn’t shown up. Hector said that he was in a minor accident, and all of it would all be resolved shortly, then he waved a yellow paper in front of me. I couldn’t actually read the paper, but I saw it was a bail bond contract. It appears that Hector had just bonded out of jail. So, when Hector left, I asked his friends what had happened and they said that Hector had been in some kind of accident and attacked the other driver with a hammer. We never saw Hector again, so I suspected his problem was pretty serious, and they had put him in jail for a long time.
So now after over more than a year had passed, and here we were with our railing half up, and no one to complete the job, we had no idea where Hector was, and we didn’t even know where the rest of our aluminum railing was stored. So we tried calling Hector’s home, but his phone was disconnected and no one seemed to know anything.
It was about that time when we were told that the price of aluminum had tripled and it now became of critical importance to find out where Hector had stored all of our aluminum, so that’s when I suggested that we try looking for Miguel, Hector’s Cuban helper.
Our shop manager Luis, took on the responsibility of calling all the Miami railing companies, and luckily after five calls he found the company where Miguel was working, and Miguel promised to come to our office with his new boss the very next day, which he did.
Miguel’s boss, was a very tall thin Cuban fellow also named Miguel and he seemed to know all about our project, he said he knew where all our aluminum was, but he wanted to ransom the aluminum to us, and then he also wanted triple the price to finish the railing job Hector had started. These guys made me so mad, I told them to leave our office. I am sure they thought we were desperate and going to be an easy chicken to pluck, but they both left the office.
The following day, Miguel, the helper called us. He changed the story, he said the tall guy he had brought, wasn’t really the railing company owner. He said the real owner of the railing company was a Nicaraguan fellow who was also in the trucking business and he was financing their company, Miguel wanted another meeting with us.
At the next meeting both Miguel’s agreed to finish the railing, and the price was to remain the same as with Hector, so we all agreed to it and shook hands.
About two weeks passed and on a sunny Saturday morning, unexpectedly an open truck showed up, not only did it have a load of our finished railing, but also they had brought down several young helpers. That day the work went quickly, however, just like before, about two in the afternoon the Heineken beer came out and they all retired to our seawall on Snake Creek to fish.
This same exact ritual with the beer and the fishing went on for two months, sometimes Katherine and I would order pizza for all the guys, and after supper they would all stay late into the evening sitting on the seawall fishing. We could eventually hear their truck leaving around two in the morning.
By now Katherine was getting pretty aggravated, and she constantly asked me to say something to them, but I didn’t, I just wanted the railing job to be finished. Then suddenly, everything changed, the workers started showing up with their whole families, their kids and all. Working on our railing was becoming more like a picnic to them every weekend. They set up big bright construction lights on the seawall so they had light to see at night while they were fishing, and I think they actually started staying all night fishing.
Katherine was now complaining to me every week, as our property was becoming a picnic ground with people fishing all night, but again, I was always afraid to say anything as the railing job would never get finished.
Finally, I agreed with Katherine, I had enough of it, and I called their boss the Nicaraguan money man. He came down to the house in the Keys with his wife, he saw what was going on and he agreed to have them stop fooling around and finish the job.
At first we were very happy meeting Nicaraguan finance man and his wife, he appeared to be a man of means and said he was the owner of several companies, so one night we invited them out for supper. That’s when he told us his brother was in jail for cocaine smuggling.
After more than two years of torture the railing was finally finished. Just before he left, I asked the tall Cuban Miguel to give us a price on putting up a circular aluminum stairway to the roof of the house, so he spent better part of the day measuring everything exactly, and said he would call me with a quote, we never saw or heard from him again.