One Green Blood's State of Mind

How a wristwatch became one of my best investments of 2011

By Scott Westerman
Why would someone fly 1,231 miles to buy an expensive wristwatch and consider it one of the best investments of the year?

My grandfather was a railroad man. As Chief Estimating Engineer for the Lima Locomotive Works, he signed off on every steam locomotive that was sold. The company decided on how to price these huge behemoths based on his recommendation. If his estimate of the cost of construction was off, the company stood to lose a lot of money. And they never lost money. It wasn’t until the diesel electric age that Lima Loco closed it’s doors.

They say things like these are in your blood. And Grandpa Perry definitely passed his love for trains on to me. Whenever I come upon a railroad crossing, I hope the lights will flash, the gates will come down and it’s a long freight consist. I ride Amtrak whenever I can. And pushing the throttle in the cab of a modern locomotive is still on my bucket list.

The railroads made the continental United States possible. They were the original Internet, connecting the far corners for communication and commerce.

They also facilitated the establishment of the four Standard Time Zones we now take for granted. Before standard time, communities literally set their clocks to the sun dial. The big clock in the town square was the horological authority and the noon hour occurred at different moments depending on exactly where you might be standing at that given instant. (East Lansing, Michigan’s Solar Time is 34 minutes and 36 seconds ahead of Eastern Standard Time)

Time pieces of the day were also notoriously unreliable. They were too slow or too fast and were prone to stopping all together if they happened to sit at a certain position in your pocket. The lack of time coordination lead to numerous rail accidents and significant loss of life.

Into this maelstrom came a man by the name of Webb C. Ball. To make a long story very short, Ball was a catalyst for the adoption of Standard Time, an issue as contentious in it’s day as raising taxes is today. He created the first Time Service, where inspectors fanned out across the rail networks, inspecting the watches that railmen used  to ensure their accuracy. His study of watch design lead to significant improvements in the state of the art. For a time the Ball watches his company helped create were the standard of excellence against which all others were compared. Railroad timetables became much more accurate and accidents took a nose dive. The phrase “on the Ball” came into our lexicon as the definition of attention to detail.

After Web Ball died, his company eventually died, too. Since he commissioned others to build Ball brand watches to his specifications, there was no cultural infrastructure in his legacy. And the Ball name, like the steam locomotive faded into history.

Until Jeff Hess came along. Jeff probably the world’s most foremost authority on Rolex Watches. His unauthorized history is required reading for Rolex aficionados. He and his wife, Katrina, own one of the largest collections of classic Rolexes in existence. And Jeff was intimately aware of the life and impact of Webb Ball.

And so it was that one day he had the notion of resurrecting the Ball brand name. He found a partner in Switzerland and began to envision a line of modern Ball watches that mixed state-of-the-art mechanical movements with attractive and functional designs. He also wanted to make the Rolex vibe accessible to a market segment who didn’t want to pay $5,000 dollars for a wristwatch. Ball Watch USA was reborn.

I admit to being a horological geek. I own a dozen different wristwatches, have four clocks that are set to the cesium accuracy of the atomic clock at WWV in Fort Collins, Colorado, and have an ex-radio announcer’s appreciation for temporal accuracy. I’ve owned a Rolex, but didn’t wear it often enough to keep it properly wound and accurate. I finally sold it because I couldn’t justify keeping part of my financial portfolio in my sock drawer.

Enter Ryan Schram. Ryan is the son of my Michigan State University college roommate, Steve Schram. I’ve known him since before he was born. As he grew, I injected a good portion of my technological eccentricities into his DNA, until, as often happens, his geekness surpassed mine and he started to teach me.

Ryan’s wristwatch collection, makes mine look embarrasing. As the Chief Marketing Officer at Izea, his field of view is both diverse and wide. So in retrospect, it was natural that he would befriend Jeff Hess… and tell me about it.

As Ryan and I dug more deeply into Webb Ball’s place in history and researched the exceptional quality and style of Jeff’s reinvention, acquiring a Ball timepiece moved onto my to-do list.

My job as Head Servant at the MSU Alumni Association is all about adding Spartan value to Spartan lives for a lifetime. We do this primarily by connecting Spartans who share common interests with one another with the objective of focusing our combined energies on making the world a better place.

When Ryan proposed a road trip to the headquarters of Ball Watch USA in St. Petersburg, Florida, I began to think of the possibilities. MSU would play a bowl game in Tampa Bay over the New Year’s holiday. There was the opportunity to juice ticket sales and greatly increase participation in our game day activities by partnering with our local club on a marketing campaign. So I scheduled a dinner with our superlative club president to design a plan to add another 400 to 500 attendees, Spartans who had, so far, not responded to our invitations. Ryan’s company has a high profile at the Consumer Electronics Show that happens each January in Las Vegas. There are thousands of Spartans who attend, so I added an objective to enlist his help in organizing an Alumni event during CES. Another watch geek is my Spartan brother Clint Crook. He’s a Microsoft executive who shares my MSU passion. Perhaps time together in St. Pete might lead to a deeper engagement with our beloved Institution.

So I swallowed hard, convinced Colleen to let me allocate some discretionary funds toward a Ball watch and booked my flight to TPA.

My dinner with the Tampa MSU Alumni leadership was everything I had hoped for. Spartans are a bonded bunch and we’re all about doing whatever we can to make good things happen. We worked out our tailgate deal and within 24 hours the sign-ups started to pour in. Win / Win. Mission accomplished.

The visit to Ball USA is worth it’s own post. They are a small, dedicated group of horologists who are quietly building a momentum of awareness and excitement that is building a market share which is starting to overtake several well known brand names. They can discuss the intricacies of ETA watch movements, tritium 3H micro gas tube numeral illumination and design style with a surgeon’s expertise. They welcomed our entourage of 5 as if we were royalty.

We had all done our homework and shared the alternatives we were considering ahead of time. As we arrived at the show room, the staff had laid out these beautifully crafted works of micro-technology before us in every possible configuration. We spent over an hour trying things on, twisting dials and marveling at how Ball watches, while beautiful on the printed page, were even more exquisiete in real life.

When it came time to make our purchases, I made my pitch to Jeff Hess. Would he consider creating a limited edition watch designed especially for Spartans? We talked numbers and quickly came to an agreement to pursue the idea. Win / Win. Mission accomplished.

Clint and I spent a long and productive lunch discussing our mutual objectives. We bracketed meetings dates in January to pursue our combined vision with two of our favorite MSU Deans. Win / Win. Mission accomplished.

Both Ryan and Clint agreed to help trail boss an MSUAA alumni event at CES. Each of their companies has ties to hundreds of Spartans who can benefit from strengthening their professional networks. Some of the most innovative will be attending the conference. Win / Win. Mission accomplished.

But the coolest thing happened at our celebratory dinner on our last night in town.

Clint, Ryan and I share a common admiration for  Leigh Graves Wolf, the coordinator of MSU’s world renown Masters in Educational Technology program at the College of Education. Two week’s prior, Leigh had achieved a lifelong goal of earning her PH.d, writing a groundbreaking dissertation on the integration of technology into the classroom. Leigh is also one of the biggest techno geeks we know and she inspires young Spartans every day to dream about how “EdTech” can make knowledge accesible to every learner, everywhere. This, after all is the the purest definition of MSU’s “World Grant Mission.”

Academics, especially student academics, are not highly compensated. And as we ate and toasted our good fortune and the prospect of a huge alumni gathering in Las Vegas, I suddenly said, “Let’s send Leigh!” In less than a minute, the three of us decided that this had to be so. I texted the fourth player in our MSUAA brain trust, Henry Balanon. “We want to send Leigh to CES and pay her way. Are you in?”

I got an immediate replay, “Absolutely!”

It was settled. We would open our wallets and split the cost of her trip four ways. Four people who have richer lives because another extraordinary Spartan educator, researcher and visionary shares our orbit. Lewis and Doug, two of Ryan’s clients who came along on the trip to select their own Ball watches turned to us with more than a little disbelief on their faces. How could this happen so quickly? Why would four people so willingly step up to help a fifth make one of her dreams come true.

Ryan put it as succinctly as it could be stated, “This is what Spartans do.”

I texted Leigh a moment later, “Could you go to CES in January?”

“Probably,” was her guarded reply. I’m sure she wondered what this was all about.

“Call my cell right now,” I texted back.

When she called I told her about the graduation gift that four of her biggest admirers had in mind. She was stunned. It took a few minutes of processing after we hung up before she texted me back. “I’m overwhelmed with gratitude..”

The final icing on the cake happened later that night. In May, my son, Brandon (who is named for his locomotive designer grandfather), presented us with a grandson. I want Hudson Scott Westerman to grow up sharing my love for railroads, with an awareness of how his ancestors impacted history. As I looked at the shining new device ticking efficiently away on my right wrist, I told Brandon that, some day, I hoped Hudson would be proud to wear it on his. With any luck, it might just perpetuate the legend, and our small contribution to it, for a long time to come.

The watch turned out to be much less expensive than my Rolex, but more meaningful than my GMT Master II ever was.

As I added up the airline ticket, rental car and hotel, I came up with a number. I’m a numbers guy and  my bottom-line corporate executive mind started to calculate the “Return On Investment”. I was able to both expand and deepen MSU’s engagement with three of our highest potential young leaders. I was able to make it possible for many more Spartans to help cheer our football team on to victory. And together, four of us would make it possible for one of our favorite Spartans to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will definitely impact both her passions and her future success in life. It was a win for MSU and a win for everyone involved with this unique experience, the memories of which, we’ll treasure for a lifetime.

As I tipped back my seat on Delta Flight 392, I realized that my trip to Tampa turned out to be a totally selfish experience. My favorite definition of “selfish”. I was able to enrich some Spartan lives, initiate new, mutually rewarding relationships, and deepen my friendships with people who can help me better serve my 500,000 customers worldwide. Each of them had a total blast and went home with much the same feelings spinning through their minds as we all turned our attention toward a strong finish to the year 2011 at work and at home.

I opened up my laptop, signed on to Delta’s GoGo Inflight internet service and began to work my way through the 194 emails that had filled my inbox since breakfast.

This was a profitable trip.

Oh yeah, and I got a watch.

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7 thoughts on “How a wristwatch became one of my best investments of 2011

  • Kelly S. Holdcraft says:

    On the ball . . . as always! Happy HOYA Holidays and have a GREEN Christmas!

  • Don says:

    Wow. Amazing. Great story. Great writing. When I grow up I want to be just like you, Schram, and Balanon. I also want to know when the limited edition MSU Ball watch will be available. As always, I love your dedication to MSU, your dedication to writing, and your leadership. Inspiring stuff.

  • Joe Mescher says:

    Profitable relationships…You’re the master, Scott!

  • Frank Hartge says:

    Great story, Scott! What caught my eye was that you once had a GMT Master II. I have a GMT Master, a gift from my folks from 1983. It rarely leaves my wrist. But I’ll have to look into these Ball watches!

  • Bob Bao says:

    Terrific column Scott! Your passion for MSU and for railroad history really comes through. Learning about the Ball watch has been an education. Love the fact that the Ball Master II Diver watch design boasts quite a bit of green. Give me a shout when the Spartan edition comes out!

  • Scott Westerman says:

    I remember Zig’s maxim on how, “You can get everything you want, if you help other people get everything they want.” The thing most people miss is that it is much more fun enabling dreams and giving, especially when you truly don’t expect anything in return.

    To paraphrase my relationship guru Keith Ferazzi, your payback is exponential when you give without expectation.

    Help those who share your ethics and vision and both will advance!

  • This is an inspirational post for all men who share good friendships and a passion for history and antiquity. Bravo!