September 11, 2001 was a date no American will ever forget. I personally embarked on a treasure hunt just a month after the disaster and the destination was Paterson, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from NYC and the smoldering Twin Towers. It was a shocking environment relative to my home turf, Omaha, Nebraska. I made a deal to buy Compass Technical Services, a surplus business and small manufacturer of military equipment. The volume of a National Guard Armory, wall to wall, 2.5 floors. Loading started late October and we departed when my packing team mutinied on Thanksgiving Day. We had packed 29 semi-trucks over the month. One a day. Each maxed out to about 40,000 pounds. So the story goes.
Arthur Bernstein’s expertise, and that of Compass Technical Services, was manufacturing and repairing ships navigation systems. That is from about 1940 – 1980 technology. Dead reckoning. Compasses. Radar. R1051 receivers and transmitters. Norden Bomb Sight components. Western Union Clocks. Weathers Audio equipment. They were expert in all of these areas. And somewhere along the way, they migrated from manufacturing and support services to surplus. One could say everything in the building was 20 to 70 years old. Vintage WWII covered the bulk of it. Arthur knew what every morsel in the building was, what he paid and what it was worth. As a potential buyer, I knew very little on the specifics. I could recognize a radar dish. Arthur could identify it as the OA-493/APS-20 parabolic dish, part of the famous Enola Gay system first used in WWII. I absorbed as much information as Arthur was willing to share.
“The seasoned veteran that I am, I have learned hard lessons.”
The owners of Compass started courting me in early 2000. I had no previous knowledge of this company but it was described to me in detail over multiple calls spaced over 18 months. I was told they had been in business since the 40’s and had accumulated such a mass of material that is was impossible to describe and a visit would be necessary. This approach is not uncommon and normally we do not take these offers seriously. It is an economical method for the seller of a bloated, floundering niche business to lure in a prospect or two that will evaluate the business in terms of market value, thinking they will have a crack at the purchase. The seasoned veteran that I am, I have learned hard lessons. Traveled thousands of miles to evaluate a business, maybe make an offer. Being the first offer tendered, a buyer is seldom successful. This is always an educational process for the seller. Finding out what market value is. The second or third offer, many times years down the road, are often for less than the original. But the seller is educated and is ready to deal. One method to test the sellers level of commitment is for them to offer transportation and lodging to any willing participant. In the case of the Bernstein’s and Compass, such a kindly offer was made and I soon found myself in Paterson, New Jersey, indeed an armpit by any standard, if not worse. A rough neighborhood in a tough town.
“You always remember the highest price you had ever sold a particular part for and you always think you can get that again and again.”
I was treated like a king. All relative of course. The sell was on and everyone was more than kind. 2 days of picking, poking and prodding at an enormous array of surplus. Soon I found myself in the unenviable, almost despicable position of making an offer. Arthur had operated this business his whole life and still had a sharp memory. I can speak from experience. You always remember the highest price you had ever sold a particular part for and you always think you can get that again and again. Times 100,000 parts. Realistically, the wholesale price on a lot like this is worlds apart from that particular pie in the sky. So Arthur had a number in his head. His wife and daughter knew the business had been losing big money for years and had to go. Their number was much closer to reality. And my offer was less than that. So at that moment, I became the enemy to Arthur and the family had to try and get us together. After another day of bartering, we toasted with glasses of Arthur’s favorite port wine, in their lovely home, and told stories unrelated to the mountain of surplus that had just changed hands with a shake.
The next day I flew home. Coming up with an absolute list of supplies and people I would require to relocate this armory to Omaha was all I had to do on my return flight. You never get this right no matter how many times you do it. Three days later we left Omaha, Paterson bound, with our truck, way too few supplies and all the help I could convince to go on a 7-10 day excursion. If, in the end, it wasn’t so hilarious, I might have been sued or beaten up by the only two guys I could swindle into going on this field trip with me. One was a close friend that was retired and looking to get out of the house for a few days. The other, a new employee that had never been away from Omaha.
This National Guard warehouse was akin to the one filmed at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. When we arrived two days later, we spent the remainder of that first day sizing everything up. That night was the first attempted mutiny. We had a disagreement as to how much time it would take to pack this monster. So we set priorities on what needed to go first to last. We stayed up all night. Then we threw it away the next day and just started packing. Soon I realized we would need help so Arthur called his favorite temporary employee. This man organized an army of 10 or so guys right off the street. You are forced to adapt fast. Our normal rules for employment in Omaha were tossed out the window and replaced with a set created by my new supervisor. No drugs or alcohol, clean clothes and bathed at the start of each day. In this way a core of regulars came every day. With so many returning each day the training for a newbies was reduced to a couple a day. Packing about 580 tons of fragile surplus in 29 days was no simple feat.
“I left 10 truck loads of paid for material scattered around the armory.”
When our clean clothes ran out, we headed to the department store to restock. One week was turning into three. Then four. Their faith in my ability to find the end to the bottomless collection of goods was diminished. Mutiny soon followed. I had promised a 10-day trip and we were turning the calendar page to November. I left 10 truckloads of paid for material scattered around the armory. I did not abandon these hard working guys nor did they abandon me. It was time. We gathered our tools and thermoses, walked out the door, and started driving through New Jersey looking for a place to catch Thanksgiving Dinner, at 10 pm.
When I’m on the road loading an acquisition, I downshift into superman mode. A 25-pound weight loss is not unusual. Long hours with lots of caloric burning. The logic is we are there for a very limited time and to get packed up and out ASAP, one needs to work around the clock, minus a little time for sleep and meals. John, my good friend (before the trip) was a guardian of sorts. He looked out for me and kept me centered. So for the first few days, I let him set the schedule for what was his maximum output and the rest of us agreed. After about the third day I found myself not being able to hold back my start time to that of the group. Midday, around 7 am. So I secretly modified my personal schedule in order to put in extra time, and get home sooner, right? We had been starting at 7 and quitting about 6-7 at night. Go back to the hotel, clean up, find dinner and relax. I am an early riser so I started heading over myself at about 3 am and then I would sneak in the back entrance of the hotel and walk up to the café for breakfast with the guys about 7. I got away with this for about 2 weeks until one morning I didn’t catch a smudge of grease on my forehead and John figured out what I had been doing. The last “extended” day I had started with a routine murder outside the armory door. Police had 3 blocks roped off until a fire truck could hose human debris off of our building. After I rolled a forklift over my toe that same morning I decided to cut back to the 12-hour day.
Although I got a good look at this fascinating inventory during the pre-purchase examination, for every groovy part I knew about, 10 were hidden away. For every 10 hidden away that could later be identified, there were 50 items that escaped identification and remain, 13 years later, packed away in our warehouse. 300 pallets of unsorted material from Compass linger in the facility. Over time everything comes out, will be identified and displayed on our website. There will be deals. While most items, like the 6 new in the crate APS-20 radar systems, had functional value at one time, they now carry only nostalgic value. But what a story they can tell. A few goodies, like the spark-gap-generator found in our APS-20 modulator, actually transcend the decades and couldn’t be more popular today in builder projects like a state-of-the-art Tesla Coil. Ships ceramic insulators stood off high voltage in 1942 and do so in 2014. We have 200,000 insulators from Compass that vary in size from 1 ounce to 800 pounds. Weathers turntables that disappeared from the market in 1980 and fly off of our shelves now, as vinyl picks up speed…… again. Please watch our website as we add new parts every day.