July 3/10: Volume 32, Issue 2
By Steven Feldman
Chicago—NeoCon 2017 played to rave reviews last month, with just about every flooring supplier extolling the virtues of a show that saw increased traffic from 2016, matched only by the quality of those visiting their spaces. Their sentiments were confirmed by show management which reported an uptick of 7% in attendance shortly after the close of the event.
“Our take is that NeoCon is busier this year,” said Michel Vermette, president, The Mohawk Group, whose third floor space was bustling from start to finish over the first two days. “This year there are more end users. Major players. A lot of tech companies and financials—major groups that have big projects,” and it all has to do with the economy. “There are substantial projects out there. I think everyone wants to take advantage of these better economic times to catch up on some things they may have left behind for some time.”
Ralph Grogan, president and CEO of Bentley Mills, which showed product in its 10th floor space as well as its Kinzie Street showroom located within steps of the Merchandise Mart, went so far as to say this was the “best show ever for us.” Or at least since Grogan took the helm four years ago. “The traffic has been great. It seems like we’ve seen more people than we have had in years past. We definitely have seen more end users come by who are working on big RFPs.”
Even exhibitors on the 7th floor, which houses the temporary space, were pleased. Milton Goodwin, vice president of commercial sales for Karndean, agreed the show was busier than last year. “We looked at leads generated over the first two days, and they were significantly more than last year. That’s how we initially gauge it, and down the road how much business we got.” He added that Karndean saw a blend of attendees. “You have people coming with projects as well as some tire kickers. We love the ones who are doing the immediate-gratification jobs.”
What bodes well for the contract side of the flooring business is the fact that projects are coming from all segments. “Corporate was a bit soft last year but seems to have rebounded a good bit this year,” said David Jolly, CEO, J+J Flooring Group. “We are still very strong with our Kinetex product as well as carpet in both education and healthcare. Those are the three segments we focus on and this year they all seem to be pretty robust. It’s especially nice to have more interest and energy in corporate because that is 50% of what we do.”
Bentley’s Grogan also welcomes the corporate rebound, which he attributes to greater profits. “We are bigger into the corporate market vs. some others. We have always thought corporate profits are the biggest indicator as far as how people are spending money. Most companies over the last two quarters have been doing really well. Stock prices are up for a lot of companies. So we are seeing people spend money. Millennials want good workstations, so people are investing in that.”
Russ Rogg, president of Metroflor—which markets its Aspecta brand to this audience—told FCNews every commercial segment in which the company plays has been positive. “Certainly retail has been a big part of our success. Healthcare and hospitality are growing very fast, maybe a little less on the corporate and education sides.”
Mohawk’s Vermette has seen strong demand in corporate and hospitality thus far in 2017. “But education this summer should be strong with the extra bond money in Texas and California, among others. We are very optimistic.”
What specifiers want
Designers come to NeoCon seeking, well, good design. Of course, service and price are also key components. But the good news is price, while still important, is less of a driver than it was coming out of the economic downturn. But there are other hot buttons for this audience on which manufacturers must deliver.
“You are seeing more projects with multiple SKUs on it,” Vermette said. “You see some custom projects, but less and less. You see more designers using multiple components to create a custom layout or custom office space or hospitality area, so they are very creative with your running-line pieces.”
He added that it’s not just carpet anymore; rather, it’s a hard/soft combo. “We make sure we can meet that requirement across the board. That gives us an edge over some of the carpet-only mills. It’s something we have been doing for over four years now, where our carpet tile matches up to our resilient tile. You don’t need a transition of any type. We make sure we have some products that color coordinate and also complement each other in size. We also make sure the life cycle of our products match up. If we decide to do something with a particular carpet tile or resilient tile, we still make sure there’s a coordinate that replaces it with a fresher, newer look.” As for price, Vermette said you always have to be relevant, “but it’s definitely not the concern it was during the downturn.”
Randy Merritt, president of Shaw Industries, noted that designers want product, service, innovation and, yes, price. “Is price the most important thing? Probably not. But everybody has a budget. There are a lot of projects where the design firm specifies one thing and when it is time to start doing the project they talk about value engineering. That’s the big term. That means lower price for a cheaper product.”
Jolly believes the big focus at NeoCon is always design. “That’s where it always starts, but every designer will tell you his or her project budgets matter. So I’ll still argue it’s design, but it’s design with value. It doesn’t just mean low-end pricing. Also, knowing what will enhance their customer’s brand or work experience.”
Karndean’s Goodwin is finding visitors want testimonials, like where a particular product is being used and whether they have peers using it as well. As for cost, “In this arena, price is important, but they are usually talking in terms of a general price. For the audience here, it is predominantly design that is the driver.”
Ask any executive about business in the first half of the year, and most will agree it has been good, not great. J+J’s Jolly called the first six months of the year “very good” driven by product design. “We introduced 36 products last year, which is a lot for us. We really worked hard on corporate and education and it’s paying off for us this year. Those segments are still very strong.”
At Shaw Contract, Merritt was a little less bullish. “Healthcare has been pretty good still. Hospitality has been pretty good. Retail is a battle, and corporate is OK, not great.”
Karndean’s business is up in every commercial category, according to Goodwin, but multi-family is what’s really driving the success. “Healthcare is also a great category; there is lots of upheaval in that marketplace. And with education, colleges just let out and have a three-month window to get the business done.”
The numbers also bode well for Metroflor, but Rogg cautioned that Aspecta is a relatively new brand so posting high-percentage gains is easier at this stage. “We created this Aspecta brand to go specifically after contract opportunities only four years ago. So when a brand and a collection is this new for a manufacturer, incrementally our percentage of increase year over year is pretty nice. The first quarter was good, April and May a little slower, but we have seen orders in late May and June pick up.” He cited Iscocore as driving the lion’s share of the brand’s growth.
Meanwhile, over at Bentley, the company is enjoying a good first half but still is trying to overcome the perception the company is strictly high-end, expensive broadloom. “We completely reinvented the company the last four years, but we still need to educate our customers that we can compete with anybody in terms of styling, product pricing and just making sure people are aware we are big players in the carpet tile market,” Grogan explained. “We have doubled our carpet tile business in the last three years. We are doing a $2.5 million expansion to double the capacity on our tile line. We need to educate our customers on what Bentley has to offer.”