Carpet One section prepared by Al Stewart, editor & Michael Chmielecki, assistant editor

Ask any Carpet One member why he or she signed on, and the answer may sound strikingly familiar to the reasons given by Howard Brodsky and Alan Greenberg when they launched the company 20 years ago.

At the time, Brodsky had three flooring stores in New Hampshire and Greenberg had five in the St. Louis area. By all accounts they were savvy managers with well-run stores and loyal customers. Yet while they enjoyed being independent businessmen, they also recognized that independence had a downside, especially when dealing with large vendors. They wondered if it was somehow possible to remain independent without having to always go it alone.

"We said: Look, everybody is marketing separately, buying separately and their operations are separate," recalls Brodsky during a recent interview in his office. "We said a cooperative is probably the best fit. After that we put together a plan for Carpet One."

With that, Brodsky and Greenberg turned to their many friends in the industry. Most notably they brought on board Sandy Mishkin, who had worked on the supplier side as a vice president of merchandising at Horizon Mills and had once worked as a floor covering buyer for the old retailer chain E.J. Korvette.

Brodsky recalls that members they recruited, mostly friends in the industry, were lured with a simple promise: "Join, and if you don't like it, at the end of 90 days walk away."

Few, if any, walked. In fact the opposite was true. "When we first started we hoped that eventually there would be 330 stores and then three years later we hoped there would be 500 stores. The goal kept rising."

Now, the humble 13-member co-op that met in the drafty basement of an Atlanta hotel in 1985 has grown up. Its more than 1,000 stores collectively sold $3.3 billion of flooring and related product last year. There are stores in every state plus Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Proprietary brands include Liz Claiborne Flooring, Good Housekeeping and LEES for Living. Its Selectafloor merchandising system is widely seen as the industry standard in point-of-purchase displays.

And despite its success the company still sees itself as a work in progress; Two years ago it started Destination: Carpet One, a store upgrade program aimed at making the store interior warm, inviting and easy to shop. Now it is rolling out Revelation, an in-house information system that can analyze inventory, create marketing initiatives and streamline order processing.

The resources offered to members are designed to ensure that they do not compromise a member's independence. These and other initiatives are designed to be support systems, not mandates. And this, members say, is one reason they feel a kinship with Carpet One's management.

"They have been where I am," says Pat Martin owner of Patrick's Carpet One in Lacey, Wash. Having been in the business since 1968, Martin says he was ready to throw in the towel in 1988, but opted instead to sign on with Carpet One. "Being an independent was too difficult and I was getting discouraged. The choice for me was do something else or do what I'm doing better. I joined Carpet One and I got excited again about my business."

Al Sinclair, owner of Alfred's Carpet One in London, Ontario, says he was similarly inspired. After going solo for 20 years, he joined Carpet One 10 years ago. Now, even as competition in his area has intensified, he says there is no denying the results.

"Frankly, until I joined I was treading water," says Sinclair. "Carpet One showed me how to increase my margins, train my staff and build my marketing. They gave me the tools but they did not take away my autonomy. It required a great leap of faith to join but I landed on solid ground."

"The biggest thing for me has been education," says Roger Benedict, owner of Ruggs Benedict Carpet One, in Avon, Colo. "They have really helped me understand the business. I still feel independent but I also feel like I have someone looking out for me. If not for Carpet One I would have a much more difficult time."

This is exactly the type of reaction Brodsky, Greenberg and Mishkin hoped for when they laid the initial plans for Carpet One. The goal was not to build a retail giant but to offer a helping hand to stores that had grown tired of being dwarfed by the giants. Perhaps this was what Brodsky had in mind when he addressed members at the convention in February and described the company he helped build as "A wonderful dream come true." The loud and long applause from the audience suggested there was wide agreement that he was right.