‘Fred’ is Threatened: Competition Turns Ugly

Everyone has competition, and how the competition deals with one another, or conducts themselves “out in the open,” speaks volumes.

In early November I was chatting with the gent who delivers fuel to my home in Vermont about the competitive dynamic between local fuel companies. I commented that the fuel industry is relatively small, particularly here in Vermont where we have 600,000 people in the entire state and maybe 100 fuel companies selling fuel oil and propane.

With those numbers, it is fair to say that anonymity is hard to come by.

The gent delivering my fuel, who is originally from out of state, said that he makes it a point to wave in a friendly manner to other oil truck and propane bobtail drivers he encounters on the highway.

“Good practice,” I said, and told the driver that in our neck of the woods, we often rely on our neighbors – including people we have never met — to pull us out of the ditch on a snowy day, so keeping things civil is wise.

When I asked him whether drivers from other fuel companies were courteous in return, he said, “No, not always,” and added that a certain company “always gives me the finger when we cross each other on the highway.”

“No good deed goes unpunished, right?” I said.  

The driver laughed.

“I have friends like that too,” I said, tongue-in-cheek, recounting tales of living in rural Vermont, where one has a good chance of actually knowing the person in the oncoming car and “mutual bird tossing” between friends is an accepted, if off-color, custom.

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it,” legendary investor Warren Buffet has said. “If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

The better part of a year ago one of my colleagues, hereinafter referred to as “Fred,” who like me is a consultant and provides services and training to the propane industry, told me a story about being threatened by one of his competitors.

Fred was involved in a project that was new, and a colleague of his, someone he had known for decades, called and left a menacing voicemail. The colleague chastised Fred for being involved in the aforementioned project. The caller also made no bones about the likelihood that Fred’s fortunes would take a turn for the worse – at the caller’s hand – should Fred continue to be involved in the new project.

The message was clear: “Don’t do this or you are going to pay the price, by our hand.”

At this point I had not heard the voicemail message. I was surprised as I know the caller and the company that he represents. To Fred I said, “Sounds like something right out of ‘The Sopranos.’” 

And I thought: Maybe it’s not as bad as it sounds. Then I heard the voice mail. I was stunned. Speechless.  Astonished.

Fred was putting on a happy face, even making light of it all, but I could tell he was dumbfounded and angry — and who would blame him?

Given that this colleague had the state of mind (or lack thereof) to make such a call and leave it on voicemail made no sense. It still doesn’t. The caller and Fred have been working in the same space for a long time, and nothing like this had ever happened before. Not even close, Fred told me.

Not that it in any way makes it OK, but our theory is that the caller was pressured by his superior into making the threat — “just following orders.” But that’s no excuse for an unwise decision and a despicable act.

Worse yet, the root of the issue was not Fred, per se, or the project, per se. Rather, it was that the project Fred was working on involved someone with whom the caller’s company competed.

Fred was understandably furious and disappointed that the colleague would do such a thing and, worse, that the company responsible would encourage, much less allow such behavior, though probably we will never know how exactly this all came about.

Fred opted to let it go. His relationship with the caller and the caller’s company will never be the same.  Any and all goodwill between the caller, the caller’s company, and Fred was obliterated in a matter of seconds.

“Can’t put that toothpaste back in the tube, can they?” I asked Fred.

“No, this can’t be undone,” Fred said. – Shane Sweet

​Shane Sweet is principal of Shane Sweet LLC, a Vermont-based energy consulting firm to the propane, heating oil and motor fuel sectors. The company represents select products and services, works with trade associations, and, in April 2020, co-founded VirtualPropaneExpo.com. In addition to 15 years in the retail oil and propane business, Sweet served as the executive for the Vermont Fuel Dealers Association, the New England Fuel Institute (now the National Energy Fuel Institute), and the New York Propane Gas Association. Sweet can be reached at shanemsweet@gmail.com.

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