Forging unlikely alliances? Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2007

William Shakespeare, in addition to being a great playwright, was a very savvy, strategic thinker whose writing reflects insights and valuable business concepts.

In “The Tempest,” his 1611 play about a shipwreck, Shakespeare’s lead character — who faces possible death — proclaims that “misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” As this suggests, one can forge an alliance with virtually anyone when the objective is clear and the bottom-line results benefit all involved.

Who says a partner always has to be on your side? What is necessary is that the alliance creates a win-win for each collaborator.

Another work provides further evidence of this proclamation. In “The Godfather,” Michael Corleone gives an order to his consigliere to arrange a meeting with a rival mob boss moments after the rival attempted to kill Michael. The young godfather explains that he was taught by his father to “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” And we have all heard strategists, diplomats and politicians offer similar pearls of wisdom, including, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

In the business world, you can employ these same concepts to achieve an objective, provided that, at the end of the day, you are still standing after the unexpected collaboration with your “strange bedfellow.” However, a couple of caveats do apply: Be sure the bedfellow isn’t packing heat, and avoid meeting in the back of a dimly lit restaurant near the bathroom where a weapon might be hidden that could do you harm.

Let’s imagine a situation in which you can create an ad hoc, special-purpose confederacy. Assume you are trying to get a governing body to provide an exception or allow something that has never occurred before to take place.

Say you have big trucks that exceed the weight limit for using a road that could save you 30 minutes each trip to a construction site. Instead, your drivers have to take the long way around. You also have a big competitor who needs to use this same road for a different project but can’t because of the same problem.

Working together, you could both go to the community and offer to pay for two very expensive, much needed traffic lights at either end of the road and to repair the road if the trucks damage it after the projects are completed. Voila! You would have a win for all involved, even though each party might not be enamored with either of the others.

By creating an unlikely alliance, you could gain critical mass and a common voice.

So how do you get the ball rolling? You could hire a bunch of attorneys to write a position paper on why what you want to do is for the greater good. The document could then be sent to the governing body or media to see what happens. With this strategy, you can be sure that your fees for getting to this point will be expensive, and there is a less than 50-50 chance that this effort will be successful.

While it may seem counterintuitive, you need to swallow hard and devise a plan to change the rules of competitive engagement, at least temporarily, by directly or indirectly approaching the rival head-on. If you aren’t comfortable with picking up the phone and making your pitch to your foresworn enemy, there are numerous effective methods to broker a conversation and a “meet.”

Third parties, such as mutual suppliers, your accountant or even a friend of a friend, can do the heavy lifting without you running the risk of personal embarrassment or rejection.

Do your homework and carefully outline a script for your vicar representative that succinctly explains what you want to do and, most importantly, why a coalition will work for all parties. You just might be surprised at the positive back-channel response you receive to your offer.

This scenario is played out daily in government, diplomacy and even in junior high school, with a seventh-grade boy having another classmate ask the cute girl for a date on his behalf. Don’t get hung up on this self-serving collaboration, as it does not mean that you have to stop preaching to your employees why your competitor doesn’t deserve this or that. A temporary “detente” does not signify the end of a war.

If you still can’t suck it up and be comfortable with sleeping with the enemy, just tell yourself that it’s nothing personal, it’s just business. The truth is, if you’re an innovative thinker, it really is just business — smart business.

MICHAEL FEUER co-founded OfficeMax in 1988 with a friend and partner. Starting with one store during a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide, with annual sales approximating $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in 2003 to Boise Cascade Corp. Feuer immediately launched another start-up, Max-Ventures, a retail/consumer products venture capital operating and consulting firm headquartered in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-ventures.com.