Do Rivalries Help or Hurt Our Industry?

Eric Herman Headshot
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Rivalries LgIt’s human nature – some of us, sometimes, become rivals. Whether it’s in business, the arts, sports, spelling bees or cake-baking contests at the county fair, wherever people compete, rivalries are inevitable. The classic irony, of course, is that as much as we may come to resent them, our rivals are quite often engaged in the same exact pursuits as we are, and as such, they are often those with whom we share the most in common.

Throughout my many years covering all things aquatic, I’ve witnessed literally scores of rivalries within the industry. Some have been, and remain, quite bitter, while others have been far more cordial and constructive. Because the pool and spa industry is so multifaceted with its variety of contractors, retailers, servicers, manufacturers, dealers, distributors, educators, advocates, researchers and associations, it’s not surprising that the ways the various rivalries play out can be very, very different depending on the issues at hand and the interests of the rivaling parties.

Sometimes, the rivalries are between individuals or small companies competing in the same local market, while other times it’s manufacturers trying to one-up each other for market supremacy on a national basis. In some instances, the rivalries are between trade associations competing for the same sponsorship dollars, and still in others, the battle lines are drawn between people and/or groups on opposite sides of controversial issues. Every now and then, it simply comes down to the fact that some people just flat out don’t like each other.

Likewise, the battlefields themselves are defined by the nature of the conflict. Litigation between contractors disputing the cause of a construction failure, for example, is extremely common and can become wildly embittered, not to mention expensive. For those of us in the press, we often see rivalries unfold in salvos of incendiary opinion pieces, off-the-record conversations or even highly publicized research reports aimed at debunking the “other side” of an issue — or, sadly, are clearly intended to discredit those of different views and opinions. Disputes will sometimes spill into seminar rooms, association meetings and even on the golf course. In my own experience, I once saw an industry rivalry result in a fistfight in the parking lot following an association meeting. Over the years, I’ve watched multiple people removed from seminars, sometimes forcibly, for loosing their cool and in one tragic incident, I watched an extremely upset gentleman die of a heart attack at a water-chemistry panel discussion at a national trade show.

For my part, although I’ve always tried to maintain steadfast neutrality and not take part in professional rivalries, I did once have an editor from a competing publication menacingly whisper to me at a trade show, “I’m going to squash you like a bug.” Ouch!

On one hand, there’s a strong argument to be made that all this conflict is simply the nature of a competitive free-market industry and that competition motivates all involved to up their game, improve their services and/or refine their products. Indeed, there is no doubt the combative nature of free enterprise has resulted in countless innovations that have ultimately benefited the industry and its customers. On the other hand, it’s evident that there is also a corrosive side of highly competitive rivalries.

Badmouthing the competition at the expense of the consumers’ opinion of the overall industry would be a common example of how the desire to win leads to a negative result. Competing purely on price, and not quality, is another often-cited competitive malady. At its worst, rivalries sometimes result in the spread of misinformation, whether unintentionally or by design.

For example, it’s disturbingly common for some less-than-ethical builders to plagiarize the work of others by posting images online of work by their competitors that they fraudulently claim as their own. On a larger level, we see the misinformation game play out in the form of biased research aimed at discrediting a particular type of product, service or procedure. And let’s face it, we every now and then see it in the form of misleading marketing and advertising, all of which is only exacerbated by the contemporaneous nature of the internet and social media.

To be sure, balancing the upsides and dark sides of rival interests is a challenge common to most human endeavors, great and small. In the pool and spa industry, with its tremendous diversity, and outside competing interests, I argue that it’s particularly important to be mindful of what is and isn’t healthy competitive behavior. I would never even remotely attempt to suggest that anyone should ever do anything to tamp competitive energy, spirit and innovation. Truth be told, there are always going to be winners and losers and there is never a guarantee of success. I do believe, however, that competing based on merit, integrity and creativity should be a value at the heart of the way the industry conducts itself, individually and collectively.

Being a “good rival” doesn’t mean dulling your competitive edge, but perhaps it does require seeing the bigger picture and realizing that those who compete with us in our chosen endeavors are those who so often share not only our challenges but also our fondest dreams.

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