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Keep Your Enemies Close: When to Suck It Up and Partner with Competitors

More than ever, companies that compete for work on most occasions are combining forces on other projects. If you’re not doing it yet, you will be. Here’s how to make it work for you, your competitor and, most importantly, the client.

The simplest reason competitors get together on projects, says Wilson, is the lack of skills in a particular area that another company has in spades.

“There’s no shame in calling us when you feel like you’re going outside your core competency,” he says. “We’re matchmakers at the end of the day. The camaraderie you see at events like the BLC extends throughout the year. NSCA has helped competitors set up joint venture arrangements, others where one company serves as a subcontractor and others where one company supplies the other, as a few examples.

“Because we’re so diverse, with 18 subsystems represented in our membership, it’s a natural breeding ground,” adds Wilson. “You don’t have to extend yourself in an area you’ll likely screw up.”

Betsy Jaffe, senior VP of member services for InfoComm International, says the organization is always trying to help companies find opportunities to collaborate.

“One of our main objectives at InfoComm is to help industry professionals meet each other to develop business relationships,” she says. “By forging alliances, both formal and informal, our members are stronger than they are on their own and able to meet the needs of clients, which are growing in complexity and geographic diversity.”

“If companies are going to work together, it has to start with the ownership.” —TOM BERRY JR., VERREX

InfoComm’s AV Executive Conference includes “activities to promote interaction and problem-solving between participants” and “social settings so you can get to know people and how they run their business enterprise,” says Jaffe.

“When you see inside someone’s mind and get to observe how they operate, it is far more valuable than an entry in an online directory,” she says. InfoComm’s newly revived councils “foster interaction and allow professionals to trade best practices” and trade shows such as Integrated Systems Europe in February and InfoComm’s main show each June “bring people together from across the channel, leading to lucrative opportunities that can expand the network of anyone looking to make connections.”

David Labuskes, InfoComm’s executive director and CEO, isn’t surprised to see more companies that typically compete for work deciding to partner on specific projects. “As the needs of our clients become more complex, our members are finding many instances where working together rather than competing helps everyone,” he says. “Every business has strengths and weaknesses. Every portion of our value chain is involved in partnering to provide complete solutions: manufacturers working with other manufacturers, consultants with other consultants and, of course, integrators with other integrators. Developing the essential relationships necessary to deliver solutions in this dynamic, growing business climate is a core benefit of industry events such as InfoComm’s.”

All About the Client

Although it may still seem unorthodox and counterintuitive for competitors to work together, Rogina says it’s all about making customers’ lives easier.

“The clients’ biggest concern is who they go to when there’s a problem,” he says. “Typically, we can be the ones in that role, but we’re comfortable either way.” Spinitar hopes to find a partner among its competitors for a project in the California court system, says Rogina, noting that will be different than its typical jobs with its competitors. In most cases, Spinitar is supplying labor for East Coast companies that don’t have a major presence out west.

HB Communications CEO Dana Barron has been working with competitors on select projects for about 25 years, he says, and the discussions on whether to go forward with it starts with the companies’ ideologies. He’s seen an increase in partnering in recent years and expects it to become even more common in the future “because of the need geographically to be national and global.”

Many of HB’s competitor partners “may not compete on a regular basis, but they have offices that may be advantageous to you,” says Barron. “Clients today want a unified approach. We work hard on developing standards on how we provide support and want to replicate that everywhere.

“A partner comes in as feet on the street and they serve as the local support for the client to give them that continuity they want. It’s almost transparent for the client if you have it set up the right way,” says Barron, noting North Haven, Conn.-based HB has similar setups across the U.S. and around the world.

Business leaders have to get over their aversion to helping others in their industry, says Tom Berry Jr., president, CEO and chairman at Verrex, noting his Mountainside, N.J.-based company works “with dozens and dozens of our competitors.”