October 27/November 3, 2014; Volume 28/Number 10
By Ken Ryan
Denver—Unlike the larger spring meeting in which attendance is mandatory, the fall conference of the Starnet Commercial Flooring Partnership is an optional affair. But that did not deter a large turnout of members and vendor partners here for two days of workshops, a trade show and networking.
“It was excellent attendance if we look at the percentage of members here,” said Jeanne Matson, president and CEO of Starnet.
The attendance of 309—compared to last year’s 280—included 100 vendor partners, which meant there was no shortage of quality networking and sharing of best practices during the conference. “Our members work in tandem with our vendors,” Matson said. “We have two equal parties. If both groups aren’t seeing a value in Starnet, there is a problem.”
Fortunately, everyone seemingly views the partnership as beneficial. Carlton Billingsley, vice president of Floors & More, Benton, Ark., said he has been asked in the past why it is important to be a Starnet member. His response was that anyone who has to ask that question doesn’t get it.
“If you want to be a leader, if you want to be different, there is no better group to be involved with than Starnet,” he said. “Those who are not in the group don’t understand how valuable the education and knowledge you get here is. You either continue to learn and adapt or you die. The way business worked 15 years ago doesn’t cut it today, and that is why you have to constantly learn new ways of doing things.”
“REV Up Your Business with Starnet” was the theme of the fall conference, with workshops focused on revenue generation and the bottom line. On both fronts, Starnet members say they are doing just that.
Matson called 2014 “a tricky year,” but one that will be satisfying in the end. “We didn’t see strong numbers until May and June. Now we have kicked it in and are seeing very strong business, and we see 2015 as an even better year. I looked at some industry figures today and they are very encouraging.”
Many Starnet members who spoke with FCNews said their businesses in 2014 will be up at least 10% over 2013, and with contracts and orders in place or pending, 2015 looks even more promising.
Harold Chapman, president of Bonitz Flooring Group in Greenvile, S.C., said after a slow first quarter, business has picked up substantially and the company will end 2014 10% to 14% ahead of last year in revenue, 5% to 8% on the bottom line. “We now have a backlog of orders that will carry into 2015,” he noted.
Lane’s Floor Covering in New York City saw its business climb 10% in 2014 over 2013, driven by hospitals, retail and ancillary work such as airports and law firms. Umberto Aponte, vice president, said the business “has come in waves” and summer was particularly strong.
New programs and initiatives
At the behest of members, Starnet has introduced several new initiatives designed to foster growth among its group. One such venture is the Next Gen group, which now consists of 70 members. The group comprises younger members who are currently in leadership roles, leadership-track positions or who have a stake in a company and will eventually take over the operations. The Next Gen group convenes monthly to brainstorm and share best practices. They also meet with older members who serve as mentors.
Matt Miller, project manager at Commercial Flooring Systems in Omaha, is a Next Gen member. “We’re still growing, still figuring it out. We want to make our vendor partners aware that we are their partners for the next 30 years and let them know what we can offer.”
About two years ago, Starnet members launched StarNetworking, a referral system among members. To illustrate how the system works, Randy Rubenstein, director of Rubenstein’s Contract Carpet in Seattle, referred a customer who needed a project done in Chicago to fellow Starnet member Mr. David’s Flooring International in Itasca, Ill.
“The door wasn’t just opened; the mat was laid out for me,” said Mike Gannon of Mr. David’s. He said Rubenstein wrote a letter on behalf of Mr. David’s, saying in effect, “You want to do business with this guy; he won’t let you down.”
A few Starnet members said they have benefited from the referral system, either by landing additional business or helping customers and other members. By design, there is no formal business structure to StarNetworking. Sometimes there is a finder’s fee involved; other times a referring member is looking for reciprocity down the road. Sometimes it is simply about doing the right thing.
“The beauty of this organization is no one tells you how to run your business,” Rubenstein said. “We are here to share knowledge and information.”
Two years ago, Starnet added a trade show component to its conference. At the fall meeting, 31 vendors set up tables and small booths. Space precluded a larger gathering, Matson said, but even so, the networking was brisk and beneficial to both parties.
Masland Contract, which returned to Starnet as a member this year, brought a contingent that included Dixie Group CEO Dan Frierson, Masland CEO Lee Martin and four regional vice presidents. “This is a wonderful format to build relationships in a non-pressured situation,” Martin said. “These meetings are about connecting with the owners.”
Jim Cave, vice president of national accounts for Mats Inc., agreed. “It’s a relationship show, not a buying show, so it’s a great way to see owners in a relaxed setting and be able to socialize with them in a non-business environment.”
Deb Lechner, director of commercial markets for Armstrong, was back in familiar territory at the fall meeting. Lechner worked at Armstrong from 1990 to 2002 before joining the Starnet staff for 10 years. She then returned to Armstrong in March.
“I’m coming here to see friends,” she said. “It was a seamless transition going from Starnet to Armstrong because I understand the contract market very well.”
In other news…
* During the general session, Eric Boender, director of Starnet FloorCare and national accounts, previewed a program called Starnet Mega Training, which will be held Jan. 18-20, 2015, at the Monte Carlo in Las Vegas, just prior to The International Surfaces Event. The strategy is to combine Starnet-sponsored training into a single, large event with multiple training sessions and networking opportunities. Among the speakers will be training/education experts Sam Allman and Stephen Covey.
“We think this is going to be the third main event of Starnet after the two members meetings,” Boender said.
* Bonitz’s Chapman, a board member of the World Floor Covering Association (WFCA), urged Starnet members to join WFCA. He highlighted the WFCA’s strength in, among other things, lobbying efforts for the flooring industry, and the relatively inexpensive $295 fee to join. He pointed out the WFCA pays out $500 toward education.
“A lot of people think of the WFCA as a retail organization,” he said. “That’s not true; they work for all of us. We can work in conjunction with them. There are things they can do for us that we can’t possibly do on our own.”
* Starnet has added four new members to its group and now has 173 memberships, including 13 in Canada. “We are very selective in who we bring in,” Matson said. “We want a company committed to a full-service model.”
The new members are ACS Flooring Group in Houston; Commercial Flooring in Toledo, Ohio; Prodigy Flooring in Tampa, Fla., and Jones Schlater Flooring in Columbus, Ohio.
Matson said she personally visits each new member and encourages company executives to get involved in Starnet activities. “It can be very daunting for a new member to walk into this room,” she said. “We try to help the new members navigate their way through the partnership, and involvement is a great way to do it.”