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The Shift from Pre-Competitive to Competitive

Industries go through a particular transition that often isn’t visible until after it happened. However, the transition is deadly to most players that are there at its onset. To help those players, I decided to publish my 26th Playing to Win/Practitioner Insights (PTW/PI) post on The Shift from Pre-Competitive to Competitive. (You can find links to the rest of the PTW/PI series here.)
What is Pre-Competitive?

In pre-competitive businesses, multiple competitors generally co-exist in relatively happy state. While they compete for business, when they lose a piece of business, it isn’t a particularly significant thing. Although not nice, losing a piece of business doesn’t alter the competitive dynamics. There is always other business to win.
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This sort of pre-competitive scenario would describe waste collection before Waste Management Inc (WMI) (WMI). There were thousands of little rubbish collectors across the country. They may have battled for business at the outside of their domain, but it wasn’t all or nothing competition (unless maybe in New Jersey!). The same held for video rental stores before Blockbuster.

In the mid-1980s, my industry, strategy consulting, was pre-competitive. In addition to the main competitors of the day, McKinsey, BCG and Bain, there were many smaller businesses competing, including my firm, Monitor, but also Corporate Decisions, Strategic Planning Associates, Oliver Wyman, Marakon, Parthenon, etc. There seemed to be a half-dozen strategy boutiques in our office building off Harvard Square alone.

There are still a number of industries that aren't competitive now. The market for corporate legal services in New York City is now pre-competitive. In New York City, there are still a number of white shoe law companies, all of which have partners who make a lot of money from their individual practise. They compete, but not to the point of death, because each of them is content with their current business model and share of the large, profitable pie.

It isn't simply small businesses that are affected. Only recently has the car sector progressed beyond the pre-competitive stage. There have been a slew of contenders from all around the world since its start. Until recently, the world's largest market share was scarcely more than 10%. Even with a global consolidation occurring, co-leaders Toyota and Volkswagen have only a 13 percent market share.

Garbage collection, video rentals, and strategy consulting in the 1980s and 1990s, automobiles in the previous decade, and corporate legal services today all claim to be in competitive businesses. They both are and aren't. They compete, but not in a combative manner, as if survival is at risk.

Increasing your competitiveness

But survival will be at peril because, one day, some person — either from within or as a newcomer — will take a step that triggers a transition, which rarely ends once it begins. The goal is to manipulate a scale button in such a way that remaining a small player becomes nearly impossible, if not impossible.

WMI's Wayne Huizenga transformed the competitive dynamics by buying up clusters of local garbage collectors, establishing centralised repair depots, and receiving significant volume discounts on his trucks. Because scale gave such huge advantages, WMI continued to grow and become more competitive until most of the smaller firms were pushed out of the business — and now WMI, Republic, and Stericycle compete in a competitive market. In general, WMI makes a lot of money, Republic makes a respectable amount of money, and Stericycle produces little or no money.

It happened in strategy consulting, with McKinsey at the helm. When McKinsey declared that it will spend an amount equal to our total revenues on R&D/product development every year in the mid-1990s, I was co-head of Monitor. That couldn't possibly be good! Free work was added to the mix to get a client began. You used to sell them a study to help them figure out the answer. To win the relationship, you had to give them the answer for free up front. Then you went to India and created a low-cost analytical capability. In addition, there will be a Global Institute to develop new intellectual property. All of these competitive weapons required a scale that made McKinsey's job relatively easy, BCG's job difficult, Bain's job even harder, and Monitor-sized competitors impossible. This was clearly a strategic consulting exercise in pushing the scale button.
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The consulting behemoths McKinsey, BCG, and Bain, as well as the massive broad-based professional service organisations Deloitte (which absorbed Monitor), EY (Parthenon), and PWC, now dominate the market (Booz). The few remaining mid-sized firms (OC&C, SDG, LEK, Mitchell Madison, Roland Berger) exist on the outskirts of a competitive sector, their futures in jeopardy because the big boys have hit the scale button and the tiny guys can't keep up.

It's finally occurring in the automobile sector, thanks to the large investments required to participate in the shift from gasoline-powered vehicles to electric vehicles (EVs) and subsequently autonomous vehicles (AV). Tesla has shown that either you make massive investments in electric vehicles or you don't get to play at all. With its Waymo business, Google is aiming to prove the same thing in AV. It spent tens of billions of dollars of its own money before enlisting the help of outside investors to invest another $2.25 billion in a project with little guarantee of success. Fiat Chrysler's (FCA) and Peugeot's (PSA) combination is their response to a competitive environment that will necessitate massive expenditure.

The quality that distinguishes a market as competitive is that losing a piece of business weakens you competitively while strengthening the competitor to whom you lost the business. While corporate legal services in New York City are pre-competitive, I believe the proxy solicitation area is competitive. The competitors are more obviously pitted against one another due to the restricted domain. A smaller group of specialists fight it out there, including well-known figures like MacKenzie, Innisfree, and D.F. King. When one loses an assignment as the solicitor for a high-profile proxy war, it boosts the winner's reputation and provides the required expertise to make the next beauty contest easier to win for the winner and more difficult for the loser. A series of losses can lead to a steep drop from which it is difficult to recover. They must compete as if their lives are on the line.

The transition from cooperative to competitive might occur swiftly at times. When Canadian legislation changed to allow large life insurance firms to demutualize, I advised my law firm client to go all-in on the first big one and have one of the company's top partners head the file. They were perplexed as to why I was so adamant, because supplying legal services to Canadian insurance companies had never been a huge deal because they were sleepy mutual firms that just needed basic legal services, which the insurance companies handled internally. But my client listened, gained the business, and built up the proprietary know-how that allowed the firm to dominate the change of the Canadian life insurance market to public firms based on that initial experience. In this scenario, the legal services market in the insurance business changed from pre-competitive to competitive in a single swoop.

Perspectives from a Practitioner

The most crucial piece of advice for practitioners is to avoid assuming that the degree of competitiveness in your business is natural — as it should be — or steady — as it will remain. It has the ability to change quickly. The laws of competition are constantly changing, and the consequences are soon becoming unavoidable.

It's a one-way street. It will be irrevocable once it becomes competitive. I've never seen a competitive industry revert to pre-competition. It could happen in the future, but I'm not holding my breath.

The threat of the transition from pre-competitive to competitive has defensive and offensive ramifications.

On the defensive side, being particularly suspicious of and sensitive to a competitor — existing or new to the market — pressing a scale button in your industry is vital. On-line MBA programmes had to identify early on that, unlike their old model, which offered limited benefits to scale, on-line players had a model in which increasing scale increases cost effectiveness. Many traditional MBA programmes are shuttering, and the top on-line players are already multiples of the size of the biggest MBA programmes — and this is just the beginning of the shift.
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