What is a Partner?

By Guest Blogger Greg Graves

After working for a large automation manufacturer for 20+ years, I probably got into the habit of using the word “partner” a little too often. I will admit that it was kind of drilled into me, but after transitioning into a role with a large system integrator, I have learned just how watered down my old definition of partner was.

From the manufacturer’s perspective, you were almost a partner if you simply bought my product. If you bought my product and added any value to it, such as system integration, you were certainly a partner. In this kind of partnership, we all understood that from time to time I would compete with you. You understood that I had to give your competitors their due and not show any tangible preference. Every year, I would plan with you around areas of the business that I wasn’t particularly well suited to pursue or to make money on. I held my cards pretty close to the vest. One integrator summed it up well when he told me I needed to understand the difference between being a partner and being a good vendor. Now that I’m on the integrator side of the business, there is a clear difference.

Make no mistake, our manufacturer “partners” are great, and do a hugely valuable job for us. They help us, support us, and they are mostly great vendors. But partnership has a deeper meaning now. As I observe the automation landscape and assess the risk management across a broad set of projects, it has affected how I see partnerships. It is becoming essential to our business model that we cultivate partnerships going forward.

Extended hand shake

You know by now that we aren’t talking about legally binding partnerships. I am using the word to describe a deep and sustained collaboration by parties who have common goals in mind. I am talking about businesses who want to work together because they enjoy it, learn from it, and benefit from it. In a sense, it’s personal.

Our company has a broad electrical, instrument, controls, and information capability, but it is not broad enough to meet customer’s needs. We recognize why customers see value in having a single source of responsibility for an automation and electrical scope of work. It seems that dollars, schedules, and risk management are driving some customers to question the value of traditional design-bid-build model and look more towards design-build as a viable option. With all the talk about obsolete control system infrastructure, there is a lot of work to be done. Some are seeing the economic benefit of streamlining the process that stands between their current state and when a project reaches productive operation. This makes partnerships essential.

Network of world partners

The CEO of a large automation house who is a “partner” of ours said we can all choose to buy the expertise we need, but we all should consider whether to buy, build, or borrow the gaps that we may have in any given offering. Wise comment. I see projects all the time where 90 percent of the job is in our wheelhouse and 10 percent represents risk that we and the client must manage. Sometimes the 10 percent is in a discipline that we might need one or two times a year. Hardly something we need enough to justify buying or building. However, we have partners with deep knowledge of these disciplines, and it is nice to be able to bring them onto the team, at reciprocal rates, no threat of competition, and with the expectation that we and the client manage risk more economically. In our case, we spend time defining scope, identifying risks, rather than searching for how to manage the 10 percent. Through an organization called Automation Alliance Group, we have developed the ECO system to be able to borrow just the right skill set as needed.

Here is how partnering has helped us:

  • Peer-to-peer learning that helps us and our clients
  • Global reach; our relationships help us project ourselves and deliver solutions for domestic clients in their global operations
  • Seamlessly adding domain expertise precisely where it is needed at low cost
  • Agility when putting project scopes together
  • Mobilizing project teams regionally

Clients ought to evaluate automation suppliers as individual entities, but the day is coming when that evaluation may need to include the depth of their “partnerships” that enable the benefits of large enterprise automation companies at a vastly optimized price point. Good partners drive value for each other and especially the client. I have seen it, and experienced it.