Rules of Engagement….How Competitors Collaborate

Stephanie Woodcock
Stephanie Woodcock

By Stephanie Woodcock

The two largest wall and ceiling contractors in St. Louis, Niehaus Building Services and TJ Wies Contracting, team up on the BJC Campus Renewal Project, a 558,000-square-foot, 12-story expansion of Barnes-Jewish Hospital and 222,000-square-foot, 12-story expansion of St. Louis Children’s Hospital.

This complex project demanded new ways of working together from the start. ACW Alliance, comprised of general contractors, Alberici Corp., Clayco Corp., and S.M. Wilson Co, came together specifically for the purpose of capturing this project. In similar fashion, the wall and ceiling scope demanded a unique relationship between top specialty contractors.

TJ Wies and Niehaus Building Services took on the challenge, but not without a few ground rules first. While neither company leader goes as far as subscribing to the term “friendly competitors,” aspects of trust and cooperation are present.

President of Niehaus Building Services Kyle Lopez, said, “Tim Wies (CEO of TJ Wies) and I have a ‘trust but verify’ deal. We were open about the rules of engagement at the beginning of the project and have stuck to them. We share this project, but we both understand we are competing on everything else. We both take pride in our work and are proud of our company’s history. From the office to the field, wearing our brands is a badge synonymous with quality and that’s what makes us both successful and able to deliver for our clients and for this project.”

Though both company brands are worn on shirts in the field, the craftspeople operate as one team. This team approach was designed before the project bid as a prerequisite for collaboration. Each company designated a point person as PM leader, and TJ Wies took the lead as contractor with Niehaus Building Services as the subcontractor.

Wies said, “we felt that our customer (ACW) and their customer (BJC) would be best served with one strong project management team, one point of contact, and therefore one set of learning curves. This project is extremely complex, has a very demanding schedule, and has a very tight jobsite footprint. With the TJ Wies/Niehaus team, we are able to provide two of the largest and most sophisticated wall and ceiling contractors, who could handle the complexity, speed / manpower requirements, and the financial demands of this large of a project. Also, by teaming up with Niehaus, neither of us are stretching our capacity to compete for and complete other projects for our other customers.”

He added that a “teaming effort would have to make sense for both parties” and “for teaming to be successful, transparency and trust are essential.” Each company needs the other for different but significant reasons. While the partnership makes sense for business reasons, it goes beyond putting numbers in a bid for the sake of securing the project.

First and foremost, each company has to trust the other, as well as create a “checks and balances” approach.

Lopez said, “both companies have assigned project managers, who work closely together to keep things balanced,” and both companies “report monthly to each other and have open books for this deal.” He calls the deal “really simple,” because “we agreed at the onset on a profit and cost split and we manage to that… with a few ground rules of course.”

Wies said, “our history helps to reinforce the trust we have in each other,” because “both companies have roots in the industry that precede our current endeavors and our predecessors have always held each other in high regard.”

History, track record, trust, transparency, and communication are all necessary elements in the rules of engagement for a successful collaboration. Those elements must be in place even before the magic of teamwork and cooperation materializes.

While Lopez called the process “simple,” getting to that point of simplicity took some work. Getting systems in place, managing and determining expectations, setting parameters and trust dynamics all happened at the top first, before numbers or bids were submitted. The rules of engagement were in place before any actual “engagement” took place.

Wies explained, “We are working as one because it comes from the top down.  Both organizations feel that this teaming arrangement was the best option for our organizations as well as our customer. This spirit of teamwork is then promoted and reinforced on the craftsperson level. A successful project is a product of successful team work.”

When asked what struggles have occurred as a result of working with a competitor, each company head demurred, explaining that having an “agreement up front” to provide their top craftspeople and team to this project has helped keep the project on track.

Lopez said, “deciding what to expose about our business was a short-term concern, but our businesses don’t run the same way. We don’t try to be like TJ Wies, and I know they don’t try to be like Niehaus, so there really haven’t been many struggles.” He added, “When you have two very competitive companies with leaders that have Type A personalities, it always makes things more difficult, but we both understand who the lead is and what responsibilities each handle.  Both teams have great estimators and project managers, and each has a unique skillset.”

In fact, the two owners talk about how the differences between the companies has become a strength rather than a detriment, as the individual capabilities of each company is learned by the other. Niehaus brought technological expertise with PlanGrid and Ipads, as well overall experience on the BJC campus. TJ Wies brought a large craftsperson workforce, financial stability, and experience with a Total Station Robotic layout.

Yet, before each company gets warm and fuzzy with the other, they remind us and each other that they remain strong competitors on all other projects. Wies summed up the sentiment well: “I am handsomely paid to try to ‘beat your brains out’ from 7am until 5pm. After that, we can have a beer and have fun.”

When asked to interpret the term “friendly competitor,” Wies said, “A friendly competitor is an oxymoron. If you compete, you compete to win, period. You can be friends that compete, but in my mind, you can’t be ‘friendly competitors.’”

Lopez agreed that the term doesn’t work for him either, saying, “This is a business deal in the purest sense. When we first sat down to discuss the deal, the first question was about our customers and the advantage for them. When we both agreed and understood that answer, the next question was about us. The two answers aligned, and we went after it.”

While they both continue to “go after it” together and “go after each other” on other projects, they adhere to their rules of engagement. “We both know the implications if we go against what we agreed to,” Lopez said.

“The negotiation on the front end proves vital to the success of an extensive collaboration. Knowing the process and expectations going into the project ensures confidence among our teams. Leadership, at every level, makes this happen.” 

As President of Seal the Deal Too, Stephanie Woodcock works with companies in overall brand development and cultivating their digital identity through electronic newsletters, social media management and websites.

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