by Matthew Spieler
Fajardo, Puerto Rico—Twenty years ago, changes were taking place that still reverberate today: In politics, Bill Clinton and the Democrats were taking office; in entertainment, Jay Leno replaced Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show,” and in flooring, 12 flooring contractors got together to form what is today the Starnet Worldwide Commercial Flooring Cooperative.
To celebrate the numerous trials, tribulations and, ultimately, successes, Starnet and its members have had over the last 20 years, members, vendors and guests gathered on the tropical island for four-days of reminiscing and business-related topics—education, networking and vendor trade show. And, as if in a nod to showing how much of an impact Starnet has made since 1992, the fact the meeting was held offshore did not deter anyone as the event saw more people than ever before attend a Starnet meeting—686.
“We were hoping we’d get to 700,” noted Jeanne Matson, Starnet’s president and CEO, “but we’ll take it.”
For charter member Harold Chapman of Bonitz Flooring Group and chairman emeritus of Starnet, “I remember when we were fortunate to have 40 people attend. It’s hard to believe with all that happened in the mid to late ’90s we are where we are today. People were saying Starnet was dead—and we did have two feet in the grave.”
But thanks to the perseverance of the original dozen members—all of whom are still with the organization—and the help of core vendors such as Armstrong and Mannington, which were Starnet’s inaugural suppliers and remain key components today, he said the group managed to hold its own so that when the dust settled, Starnet was more than just standing, it was leading. “I don’t think the goal of Starnet was ever to take charge of what’s going on in the industry. But I do believe we’ve assumed a leadership role. Whether it’s innovation, new ideas, doing something better than we used to do it, I think the members—and the industry as a whole—are going to continue to look to Starnet for that leadership.”
During his farewell address, outgoing Starnet chairman Randy Weis of RD Weis Cos. gave the two original vendors and early members credit for keeping the Starnet dream alive. “[Armstrong and Mannington] stayed with us through thick and thin—the distribution revolution, 9/11, the recession. When I joined in 1997, we had 27 members, what was left after we were gutted, and they were mad—determined—as could be. Today, we have 165 members in 300 locations and are strong financially. It’s a remarkable feat Starnet has come this far.”
While the attendance figure alone points to the group’s leadership role, it was most on display in two areas—the way manufacturers came to the meeting with not only new products and innovations, but programs designed exclusively for Starnet members, and with the educational sessions offered during the meeting, such as “Using the iPad in the Workplace,” and “Transitioning Your Business: Learning from the Experiences of Other Starnet Members.”
As Weis noted, the fact every session was filled to capacity during an afternoon when people could be enjoying the sun and sand of Puerto Rico says a great deal about the group’s leadership. “Two years ago, most people wouldn’t have thought about using their iPad for work. Today, people were standing outside the room trying to get in the session.”
The seminar on transitioning one’s business was actually just one of two items on the agenda dealing with planning for the future. Starnet has, at recent conventions, been holding a special meeting for what it calls its NextGen group. These are people who are stepping into leadership roles within member companies and “are the future of Starnet,” Weis said. “We want them to be engaged with each other and with the organization. As we have found out, the ability to share information and knowledge is key to our long-term success.”
Moisture mitigation continued to be a subject Starnet pressed as members quickly pointed out if it is not the No. 1 issue they face on a daily basis, it is right near the top.
Dave Triepke of Universal Metro and a 10-year member of the group, noted, “Not only has moisture always been an issue, it seems like it’s getting worse—from fast track construction to things like remodeling projects in which plumbing trenches are made for new pipes, there is no time being allowed for the concrete to dry. It’s good to see companies are taking an active role and coming out with innovations to help solve the problem.”
Aside from what was being shown by manufacturers, a session on floating floors and “How to make them work for your business,” was a topic of discussion.
“This is a mega trend,” Weis said, “and like carpet tile was to help address installer incompetence, floating floors will help within a number of ways, in particular moisture issues.”
He added when it comes to moisture mitigation, it is an area Starnet has “tried to own. We went around the country a few years ago doing seminars for local A&D people on how to avoid the problem as we feel an organization like Starnet is in a position to drive the message because day-in it is one of the most arduous issues we face.”
When it came to the group’s vendors, Bob Sabosik of M.E. Sabosik Associates and former Starnet chairman, said, “I’ve never seen a greater commitment—from product to programs. They realize our ability to spec a job and get it right the first time, which not only allows everyone to profit, it enhances all our reputations.”
There was a great deal of talk about an exclusive program geared to the healthcare market from Mannington. Alex Jauregui, vice president and general manager of carpet business and international development, said the Healthcare Solutions program was “a collaboration between ourselves, Starnet’s board and about a dozen leading de-signers from around the country.”
The result is more than a coordinated, two-collection program of carpet and resilient products—rubber, LVT, sheet and more. It also comes with an exclusive app for the iPad. “It is a great selling tool,” he said, in that it gives Starnet members total access to the program wherever they are, and it allows them to give professional presentations to prospective clients.”
Mohawk also came to the table, not just with products but an extension of the successful 20/20 incentive from last year. Darrell Albright, commercial vice president of buying groups, said 20/20 “worked so well we’re stepping it up this year.” Part of the incentive was on display in the company’s booth—a Harley Davidson Fat Boy V-Twin. “We have a great relationship with the members, and while sales are part of it—especially if you look at what the industry did last year and what we did with Starnet—it is also about customer rapport and building long-term partnerships, something the members do extremely well.”
On the product side, Mohawk was showcasing its new SmartStrand Contract. “Smart-Strand has been a great product for the residential market and now it is available for commercial applications. The members have really picked up on it as they understand its environmental story—an area that is huge in commercial.”
Both members and suppliers said networking is also a large part of Starnet’s overall success and the annual meeting provides a great forum for all types of face-to-face interaction.
Triepke said, “It’s great to see all the management and leaders from the vendors. It’s very beneficial for them and us as we get to put a name with a face and that always helps in relationship building.”
Another area that has helped solidify relationships at all levels—from manufacturer to member to architect and designer—is Starnet’s annual Design Awards. Now in its 12th year, the event honors “creativity and talent of professionals in commercial flooring and interiors.” The awards are shared by the major parties involved in the job. In fact, Starnet officials travel the country following the event to present awards at the local level to the winning projects’ designers.
While Starnet’s “rich and colorful” past is something to celebrate, Weis said it is the future that looks bright. But, “we have to continue to lead the industry; we need to challenge ourselves and our vendors. We want to be ahead of the pack, not with it. The industry is changing; the world is moving fast and Starnet will not only help the industry keep pace, we intend to set the pace.”