Volume 26/Number 25; April 29/May 6, 2013
by Steven Feldman
Palm Desert, Calif.—After celebrating its 20-year anniversary one year ago in Puerto Rico, the Starnet Worldwide Commercial Flooring Partnership entered its next score seeking to build on its success and grow market share. As such, a record attendance of 630 was on hand for the cooperative’s annual meet-ing here April 24 to 27, a sign of an economy on an upward trajectory.
With a goal of strengthening its influence within the commercial flooring industry, Starnet’s membership now totals 168, including four new members at the most recent meeting. “We will continue to add members in areas where we don’t have a presence,” said Jeanne Matson, president and CEO. “The goal is to be the voice of the service side of the industry, which includes installation as well as maintenance and floor care.”
Among the initiatives this year is comprehensive member research, dubbed “Fuel the Growth.” The idea is to determine the value Starnet is bringing to its members and the type of programs they may want to see in the future, Matson said.
Basically, for the purpose of this research, Starnet segmented its members into three categories: most involved, less involved and average involvement. The determining factors in classifying each member were the number of programs in which they participated; whether they served on committees, and whether they served on the board. The results were predictable: the most in-volved members get the most out of the co-op and expect the most, while the lesser involved have lower expectations. “Many want to become more involved, but don’t know what programs to use or how to take the initiative,” she explained.
In terms of specifics, the annual meeting continues to be Starnet’s most valuable program. “This doesn’t surprise me because it is the best of what Starnet has to offer,” Matson said. “Great networking, great education and always in a great venue. What did surprise me somewhat is our newer programs, and those that are not as broad reaching—our niche programs are not valued as much.”
Jeff Hill, president of Texan Floor Service in Houston, a Starnet member since 1992, told FCNews there were a few aspects of the research he found interesting. “What struck me was how strongly people feel about Starnet, the services they use—webinars, CEUs, website, blog system—all the educational opportunities to make their companies better.”
With apologies to American Express, membership in Starnet has its privileges. Talk to any member and he or she will tell you how the networking, educational opportunities and access to top-level management of Starnet vendors are invaluable.
Peter Tucci, general manager of Sposato Floor Covering in Liverpool, N.Y., told FCNews he looks forward to the Starnet annual meeting to “catch up with people experiencing similar challenges. They offer some of their best practices which you can incorporate into your own business.”
As an example, his company is currently in the market for a project manager and designer. While lamenting on the difficulty of finding quality people, Randy Weis, president of RD Weis, walked over and talked about a specific company he uses to screen and evaluate applicants. “This can help us make a more educated decision in hiring,” Tucci said. “You can’t always rely on interviews and references. So anything we can implement to find the right candidate for the position is a benefit. I just took away from Randy that he found something that’s been successful in assisting him to discover the right applicants and hire the right people.”
Mel Hancock, president of Progressive Flooring Solutions in Tampa, Fla., has been a Starnet member since 2002. He, too, has found the networking at Starnet meetings to be invaluable. “You can communicate with the most professional dealers in the industry directly, and they can voice their problems and solutions. You don’t have to go through the trial and error; you learn what works and what doesn’t work.” As an example, he cited Starnet member Occupied Renovations in Norcross, Ga., sharing a $300,000 moisture mitigation failure. “That showed me a direction not to follow. That’s worth its weight in gold.”
Randy Rubenstein, president of Rubenstein’s Contract Carpet with nine locations in the Pacific Northwest and an original Starnet member, took a broader view. “The best thing about Starnet is the ability to dialogue with fellow dealers on a free-flowing, no holds barred type conversation that allows us to gain some insight into what’s happening in our industry and outside of our own little sphere.” Specifically, Rubenstein cited HR issues, unique marketing approaches and employee compensation.
There’s a reason why members solicit advice from other members: They are the best flooring contractors in the nation. “What really separates Starnet from everyone else is the process by which we let people into the organization,” Hill said. “We vet potential members who know their businesses and are successful entrepreneurs. We reach out to the top contractors in every city and try to bring them in.”
Sometimes members deal with national accounts that need service beyond the areas in which they operate, Hill said. “There is no way I would ever let down another Starnet member. I may get a call from a member in another city: ‘Hey, I have a 200-square-yard job in Texas. Can you take care of it for me?’ We all make sure our clients are taken care of across the nation in the most professional manner, because Starnet has the most professional companies in every area.”
Education is king
Starnet provides a litany of educational opportunities throughout the year, especially at the conference. “Education is a critical component, not necessarily for the owner, but for the key people we bring along with us,” Rubenstein said. “It’s an eye opener and great tool they don’t have access to elsewhere.”
Hancock noted a particular session from the fall meeting in Austin, Texas, where he took away powerful information. “It was a panel discussion on the importance of partnering with the A&D community, working with manufacturers to get their products specified. We do a lot of negotiated work but the spec side is different.”
He also said the meetings serve to keep him current on the latest technology. “There’s always someone to show you the latest stuff, like the iPad.”
Elevator to the top
Aside from building relationships with fellow members, having a direct link to top-level management from Starnet vendors is clearly beneficial. “If you have issues or suggestions that you think can help suppliers help you, just being able to voice that to the right person is a real positive,” Hancock said. “I did not have that access before joining Starnet. Communication in general is very important, especially how we go out in the market together to secure more business.”
Tucci sees advantages in going beyond the first line of communication with the mill. “Most often you are dealing directly with the sales rep, and the problems we run into don’t get relayed to upper management. Sometimes the problem is the rep himself. Sometimes the rep is limited in his decisions.”
Rubenstein said the ability to interact with top mill management on a one-on-one basis at these conferences bares fruit for the manufacturers, as well. “They can meet their best customers without traveling around the country. So we can provide a venue that becomes a very productive business trip. The growth of the co-op has demonstrated value to both parties.”
He also noted how the dealer-vendor relationship has grown throughout the last two decades. “When we first started, both sides were very guarded in what information we shared with each other. But through the years, we have been successful in breaking down these barriers and feel comfortable discussing certain issues that previously were held in confidence. There is a level of trust, and a willingness to share information that was unheard of 20 years ago.”
Vendors, too, attest to the value of the partnership. Tandus, a division of Tarkett, joined the group in 2009 and immediately reaped the benefits. “We have always done business with these members individually, so becoming part of the group seemed like a natural thing to do,” said Glen Hussmann, president. “The partnership has been great for both sides. Tandus has benefitted in any given project activity. We are able to work cooperatively with Starnet dealers in any given city, combining our resources, strengths and service coverage to create the best customer experience possible. Starnet members benefit by doing business with a company that has been growing its influence on the industry as a manufacturer and design leader, and with the performance reputations of our products.”
Tandus also supplies Starnet members with exclusive product. At this conference, the company unveiled two carpet tile collections in six colors developed in complete cooperation with the Starnet board. “This was a collaborative effort to get product in their hands they are excited about selling and will sell.”
Lori Dowling, president of Ecore International and former president and CEO of Starnet, referred to the relationship as “a massive opportunity for us,” particularly in healthcare. “We are focusing our efforts with our new products on healthcare, and Starnet already has existing relationships in that segment. We have to leverage those relationships and earn their business.” She added Ecore plans to unveil Starnet-targeted programs later this year.