It popped up during the course of an e-mail conversation. "Personally," wrote Contractor A, "one of the things I most hate about the current business world we live in is the business survival necessities that drive wedges between companies that have supported and helped each other for years."

I knew what he was referring to. This contractor, who shall remain anonymous, pointed out that a fellow contractor (Contractor B) had a great, long-term relationship with a certain manufacturer.

However, this one-time great relationship quickly soured when Contractor B squabbled over the decision made by this manufacturer-in-question to sell its products to a retail chain. (Take your choice: Home Depot, Sears, Lowe's, Wal-Mart ... does it really matter which one?)

Contractor B felt betrayed by the manufacturer. Contractor A said he suspected that "over time that breach will heal."

Contractor A seemed to have hesitated before adding these words: "But I love and have great respect for both organizations. I understand the issues on both sides. There is no easy or right answer. Time will tell, but it is painful to me to see us all fight with each other when life is more fun, more worth doing, more likely to succeed when we try to help each other succeed."

For me, for just that split second in time, Rodney King flashed before me. It's hard not to recall the plaintive call of King, the man whose beating by members of the Los Angeles Police Department was caught on video: "Can't we all just get along?"

Time will tell.

Plato's Cave

This recent discussion turned slightly when yours truly commented, "These are interesting times."

Contractor A took this and ran with it. "The issues are real in service and construction, residential and commercial," he wrote. "The fight for customers is a difficult one. The fight for margin dollars is tremendous. Low-cost (and low-performing) competitors are a bane to the world.

"But, the great unknown is low-cost and reasonably performing or low-cost and high-performing competitors," he wrote. "Did anyone have any conception 20 years ago that Wal-Mart would be the indomitable giant it has become? Would anyone have believed that Toys "R" Us would be blown apart by discount toy retailers? ...

"Our tendency is to blow off low-cost competitors as many things," he wrote, "but a few of them are good. In contracting, it is so hard to know which is low-cost and stupid and which is low-cost and high-performing."

Then, he wrote this thought-provoking sentence: "We are all fighting in Plato's cave - tilting with shadows." (To quote from Plato's The Republic, the allegorical cave of prisoners is a place where "the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.") "Strange and interesting times, indeed," wrote Contractor A.

Your Input, Please

As I signed off with Contractor A - we both had to leave cyberspace in order to get back to the needs of our respective jobs - I could not help but think about how this industry is changing, and the fact that it will continue to change.

Contractor A was not whining - not in my book. He was just wrestling with the way the current contracting business world is evolving, for better or worse.

Can you identify with Contractor A? Are you OK with the way the HVACR world is turning and changing? How are you handling the changes?

I must agree with Contractor A on one particular point: It is painful to see segments of this industry fight with each other when, to quote Contractor A, "life is more fun, more worth doing, more likely to succeed when we try to help each other succeed."

Is it possible? Or is this just the nature of the business beast?

Mark Skaer is editor-in-chief. He can be reached at 248-244-6446, 248-362-0317 (fax), or

Publication date: 09/20/2004