Do you dedicate your working life to killing-off the competition? I know I did. It’s entirely natural to see our business rivals as a horde of baddies trying to steal our clients or beat us to the next lucrative contract. But the other day I heard a story that prompted a total rethink.
It was in a conversation with Peter James, vice president global sales – pro audio, at Shure, the microphone giant. He told me about an extraordinary gesture made by Shure’s founder, Sidney Shure.
I dug a little deeper and found a video online where Shure’s former CEO described the events: “One of our biggest competitors, Sennheiser, had a major fire at one of their plants. Mr Shure heard about this, called up Dr Sennheiser, who said that a major roadblock in restarting production was their inability to access coil winding machines.
“So, what did Mr Shure do? He decided to send them a couple of coil winding machines to help them get going again. It tells you a lot about the man and just how honourable and respectful he was.”
In an earlier incarnation, every six months, I used to have lunch with my opposite number at our biggest competitor. We’d swap gossip: The state of the market, who was going where, which clients were paying well – and which weren’t.
We both gained from the exercise. As “frenemies”, our objective wasn’t to con the other into divulging leads. We were scrupulously respectful of each other’s patch, aware that out in the jungle we’d be battling tooth and nail for the next piece of business.
Competition is essential for businesses to thrive. It’s that pressure of someone relentlessly nipping at our heels that keeps us striving to innovate. And the direct beneficiaries are our customers, because it’s nimble thinking that raises the bar.
Of course, I’m talking about healthy competition; not the kind of tactics that ape the latest successful formula while cutting corners to deliver a cheaper, low-grade offering; shaving margins and driving down the market (we all know those).
Was anybody really surprised when the Government blocked the merger between supermarket giants Sainsbury’s and Asda? Not wishing to state the bleeding obvious but a single dominating force in any market not only smothers innovation but fosters complacency; depriving the customer of choice.
I’m naturally competitive. For me, everything is a race to be won. Even on holiday, I’m that bloke who tells his family they’ve got to be first off the plane and first in the passport queue (who doesn’t?)
So, I’ve got enormous respect for those plucky start-ups that enter a market dominated by a handful of big names. Lacking the heft of track record and reputation, all they have is the creativity and agility to make a splash in the established pool.
Some CEOs shield their latest developments from the media to prevent competitors from stealing their ideas. But a lot of the smartest businesses are much more comfortable with their own supremacy. By the time their rivals have caught up with, and copied, their ideas, the pack leaders are off down the road, harnessing the latest technology or entering new markets.
I’ve even known companies deliberately create their own competitors. The chairman of one leading crewing company worked with a homelessness charity to set up a new, independent crewing business, providing training and work opportunities for former homeless people. As well as wanting to support a charity-based labour business, he was interested to see how the market would react. That fledgling company went on to flourish and become an award winner.
In the scrabble for the number one spot, there has to be someone to beat, and who wouldn’t prefer the sweet triumph of outshining a worthy adversary, to ambling unopposed to the finish line, or being trounced by a leech?
As a great man once said: Love Thine Enemy. Who possibly got you where you are today.