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William L. Shannon, Editor

William L. Shannon, Editor of CISCA

Three Equals, Why? Who Really Benefits?

October 2000

"We really like your product but we need three equals"! Every member of our industry, who has ever been involved in public work, has heard this phrase. The original intent was undoubtedly to assure the owner that they were receiving a competitive price and not subjecting themselves to inflated pricing generally associated with a proprietary product. Is that really the case? Is the public being served?

Let's look at the situation from a logical point of view and compare the public process to the private sector process. If, in reality the use of unique, specialty or proprietary products always resulted in inflated, non-competitive prices, would private industry be foolish enough to live with the results?

Imagine if this archaic concept were applied to every phase of our daily lives. It's time to purchase a new automobile, a new computer, computer software, a stereo, or a television set, would we settle for one of three choices? A family is planning their "dream home", carefully examining their needs and desires, can you imagine them accepting one of three or more alternate products for each phase of the construction process?

In a recent conversation with a professional specification consultant, we were discussing this very issue. The comment was "that the concept of three equal products levels the playing field". Levels the playing field for whom?

For most cities, and towns, the construction of a new school building, public safety building or town hall is one of the largest capital expenditures facing them. The end product will be continuously used for thirty, forty or more years, and imagine that the process is dominated by the concept of low bidder, and three or more equals for every product. This approach virtually guarantees that the facility will not benefit from the innovations available to all other building projects.

It is obvious that the public has to be protected from unfair competition, and inflated prices, but is this the most beneficial approach?

Creative manufacturer's, contractors, distributors and Independent Manufacturers' Representatives make their living by innovation, promotion, and problem solving. It is interesting to note the different approach by all of these groups when working on a private corporate project vs. a publicly bid project.

It seems that a change in attitude and the approach to public project design, bidding and construction could assist the public in receiving the most innovative products at the most competitive prices. This change would greatly benefit the innovative members of CISCA!

When legitimate professional organizations are bidding a project how do they evaluate the products available for the project if the specification lists eight, ten or more potential manufacturers? They are virtually forced to carry the low price without regard to the fact that the product(s) may not be appropriate for the project, do not meet the specification and ultimately cause them tremendous problems in completing their contract. This also forces the contractor, architect and owner into an adversarial position. If the contractor carries the low price and it does not meet the design intent or specification they are forced to defend a substandard product and damage their working relationship with their customer.

It is time for the professional community to carefully select products based upon their merit and performance, and to produce very specific technical specifications. If only one company produces the appropriate product, then it should be specified! If a proprietary or unique architectural product is successful, it is a virtual certainty that competition will follow and the level of quality and sophistication enhanced!

If we examine the tremendous gains in technology and productivity in the world in the past ten years, it is apparent that the positive results are based upon innovation, not the proliferation of three equals, or "me too products", basically guaranteeing the use of the lowest common denominator for building projects!

Try to imagine any of our businesses if we were not in the position to utilize new technology. Innovation leads to competition, increased productivity, new opportunities and generally higher profits for all members of our industry.

Why do we accept a lesser standard for public projects than we would for a similar private project? It seems that individuals involved in our industry tend to forget that we are the public, public projects are our projects, paid for with our taxes. Why accept mediocrity?

The three equal concept does not benefit the owner, architect, general contractor, sub contractor, manufacturer, independent manufacturers' representative or distributor. There has to be a better way!

Hopefully we can and will learn from other sectors of the economy, stay ahead of the innovative curve, and lead our industry into the new millenium. CISCA Members working with CISCA Members.

William L. Shannon CSI, CISCA
President of Shannon Corporation
Recipient of the 2004 De Gelleke Award

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