The Starnet staff attended the 2019 Dodge Construction Outlook conference (which seems like 100 years ago) and it was full of optimism and positive messages for the commercial construction business. One of the keynote speakers was Byron Reese, author of The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity. Reese shared how we should think about the topics we are all facing directly in 2024: automation, changes in employment, creative computers, and artificial intelligence (AI) superintelligence. His keynote was inspiring, and the staff was looking to push through the committees at Starnet all these exciting themes. Then society was disrupted in radical ways starting in the year 2020. 

In order to revive these futuristic themes and the impact they will have on commercial flooring contractors, another futurist was put in front of the Starnet stakeholders in the October 2023 Fall Membership meeting: Scott Steinberg. From Steinberg’s keynote, some enthusiasm from the flooring contractors came from the anticipated impact AI technology will have on our clients in the commercial real estate business and the architectural design community. By working out possibilities for the impact AI tech will change the ways our clients work, some of our members anticipate similar impacts in the management, sales, and administrative functions of the modern commercial flooring contractor.    

These trends will impact their clients and their own businesses. It is important for commercial flooring contractors to search for guidance from groups like Starnet, their contractor peers, and the industry focused service providers supporting our specialty trade. To take advantage of AI, rather than be a victim of its creative destruction, a flooring contractor will have to earnestly deploy technology end to end in a commercial flooring project life cycle. Technology tools can unleash a contractor’s talent and operating model for scaled success, lower costs, and enable sustainable profit. 

No matter where a flooring contractor is on the path to scale, it requires excellence in four areas: talent, operating model, technology, and data. All Starnet members have the talent and the operating model for their current success, but most have not achieved their goals in technology and data. Lack of excellence in technology and data limits talent and operating models. Those limitations then cap opportunities to scale profitably. This can be observed in the extended time it takes for a new sales associate to develop a book of business, the ceiling veteran sales associates hit on revenue, or the different client experience provided at branch locations in different states.  

The flooring contractors involved in Starnet are in a great position to take advantage of various specialty technology providers that support the cooperative as a focused client market. 

Spaces in the new flexible workplace are modular, movable, and multi-use. They include dozens of interior products that flooring contractors must manage through the construction life cycle. Each product on a project has overwhelming technical, documentation, estimating detail, pricing, sample and submittal processes, shop drawing obligations, and various legal contract obstacles. In the past, a contractor had no choice but to throw a team of experienced staff at the workload. 

Today there are several service and technology companies serving commercial flooring contractors that address many of these challenges. The foundation of this support can be found in Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software providers that manage core business processes for contractors. These companies include C/F Data Systems, Pacific Solutions, and RFMS. Each of them provides the foundation for running the business and solutions to unique challenges in commercial flooring contracting. They offer a compelling solution to eliminate duplicate work and errors in the life cycle of a project. They also allow a contractor to move away from cradle-to-grave sales over to a team selling model, which is easier to scale.

These ERP solutions can be supplemented with additional capability provided by industry specialists. Estimating is vital to the day-to-day operations for a commercial flooring contractor but existed as a general software tool in the past. Early generations of estimating software did not focus on the needs of the flooring contractor specialist. This created another productivity drag in a contractor’s business with endless spreadsheet variations to be managed by more staffers. For example, the variations of common and tile and stone estimating confound the off-the-shelf estimating software products. 

Today, the ERP companies provide solid estimating solutions integrated into their suites. In addition, specialist companies such as Measure Square, JengAI, Roomvo and Spec-ID provide solutions to ever more challenging parts of the business. These companies help a contractor manage the massive amounts of source data and contract specific requirements for commercial flooring materials. They offer ways to create efficiency in the pre-construction and close out processes. They have shown a collaborative path for technology support to optimize the sourcing, selection, and management of building material data. In support of these software systems, Quantify NA has established a trusted position to outsource estimating. Quantify NA allows members to supplement their internal capability on demand through a remote working business model. Quantify NA also offers contractors the option of choosing which output format from the available formats mentioned above, which creates seamless handoffs if the project is secured. 

Lastly, even more niche specialists supplement all these capabilities with mobile applications in support of the field work. Clearstory and Floor Cloud have developed mobile solutions that can be deployed at the action level in the field by any installer with almost no technology training. Floor Cloud is an industry- focused jobsite climate intelligence solution that can enhance the productivity of field teams and dramatically reduce risk. Floor Cloud technology also provides the opportunity to embed standard operating procedure behavior in the field for hourly or subcontracted labor teams. Clearstory has developed a tool that automates change order communication by tracking and reviewing change orders in real-time between flooring contractors, general contractors, and owners. Change order risk no longer hinges on a series of manual, time-consuming, and paper-based processes. Clearstory has fundamentally changed how flooring contractors can get change order requests and time and material tags processed and closed.

One might argue for an all-in-one solution to our endless industry technology needs, but the membership prefers this à la carte approach to our challenges. The specialist companies are working hard on best-in-class solutions, work collaboratively, and have committed to serve the unique needs of commercial flooring contractors. Large software companies are unlikely to create elegant products for our industry needs. In the grand scheme of things, the commercial flooring contractor market is too small for the big industry players that are household names. 

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After the last few years of disruption, the professional flooring contractors of Starnet are focusing on the implications of macro-economic cycles and the chatter around the AI revolution compounding the disruption of hybrid work models. Researchers and academics have cautioned about the impact of AI on businesses built on words, images, numbers and sounds (WINS.) This is due to the incredible developments in artificial intelligence to approximate human effort in these areas of work. A huge part of our modern white-collar economy is built on these fundamentals. The day-to-day operations of flooring contractors include these functions as part of the value creation effort. Outside of the physical logistics and installation process, how much of the commercial flooring contractor’s business will be impacted by technological changes, including AI? Technology remains undefeated. Because of that fact, a modern flooring contractor must deploy technology effectively to remain a viable partner in the future of commercial construction and interiors. The good news is that the industry has many partners stepping up to create the current Golden Age of technology solutions in the commercial flooring industry.