business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Standing on a two-foot wide catwalk, 440 feet above the water of Sydney Harbor, there were a lot of thoughts going through my mind: “I can’t believe the view.” “ I hope it doesn’t rain.” “I hope this skinny little tether holding me to the bridge works.” There, at the top of the magnificent Sydney Harbor Bridge, the last thing I expected was a discussion of business.

Of course, I got one.

It came from Bernie, the Australian leading our band of 14 to the top of the bridge (on a tourist experience not to be missed if you ever venture down under.) As we moved single-file up the bridge’s ladders and catwalks, Bernie explained that this sport, unlike many others, rejects competition. Climbing, even controlled climbs like the bridge, require cooperation from the entire team. The better we cooperate, the easier the climb.

Sometimes we compete; sometimes we cooperate. Knowing the difference is stunningly important, Bernie said. Although I’m not afraid of heights and felt incredibly secure even at the very top of the bride, I saw no point in arguing. Besides, I agreed.

A number of years ago, Danny Wegman espoused a similar theory when it came to technology. As Danny put it, there are many areas where companies compete—and Danny is no stranger to that. But there are also many places where cooperation is the only way, such as deciding on technology standards that make everything from phone calls to text messages to bar codes capable of working.

But getting the reminder from Bernie in such a precarious position was extremely timely.

In so many ways, 2009 should be the year for cooperation in the midst of our pitched battles for market share. As we move through this tumultuous economic moment we need a common message preaching all the potential benefits that eating at home and smart shopping offers our stressed shopper.

We’ve talked before about the incredible opportunities that lie in the midst of the Great Recession. And while I know it is far easier said (or written) than done, we have to wonder if this is going to get addressed.

Shoppers are changing their definition of value in so many ways, as frugality is the fashion of the moment. The question is: can the food-at-home industry seize the chance to build sales and relationships or will we see specific retailers and restaurants gaining chunks of market share while others sit idly? Can we begin a dialog on healthy eating and healthy choices at a time when health care dominates the news or will we watch health clubs and others take over the conversation we should be having? Can we talk about the power of mealtime to strengthen family ties at such a moment when so many are unsettled or will that remain unmentioned?

And, of course, can we use a time when young people are looking for careers to feature ours in such a way that it changes our future labor and management picture beyond recognition and for the better?

The last point was driven home last week with the annual release of Beloit College’s examination of the world of the freshman class; that is, a compendium of facts that form the world of the class of 2013 that are certain to surprise many of us. For instance, this year’s freshmen have always lived in a world where rap music and tattoos are in the mainstream, but the KGB never officially existed. The European Union has always been around and Dr. Seuss has always been dead.

The world they enter as college freshmen or high school graduates is the only world they know; their decisions and options are only now forming. In other words, they are a new market all about opportunity as consumers and associates.

So yes, 2009 is a great year for competition. Some cooperation wouldn’t hurt either.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .
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