Networking and relationship building has always played a key role in helping people and companies succeed. In today’s tough business environment this is especially true—and not just with customers, but with suppliers as a strong bond between a local business and its vendors is vital to ensuring jobs are done on time and in the most professional way possible.

This was the thinking behind Starnet’s recent annual meeting in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., as the commercial buying group departed from its usual format and used the event to help its members and suppliers build stronger relationships under the theme, Inspiring Greatness.

Jeanne Matson, Starnet’s president and CEO, told Floor Trendsthe changes were the result of feedback from both members and vendors requesting more networking time—both informally and via specifically scheduled one-on-one meetings to discuss items among themselves.

“The spirit of the meeting,” she explained, “was to allow our members and suppliers to really connect in ways they might not be able to do during their normal working days as well as to help members find products they might not be aware about but could use in their individual markets.”

And with approximately 600 people in attandance, members wholeheartedly said there was certainly a great deal of inspiring taking place as a result of the new format.

One of the changes included holding 20-minute one-on-one sessions between specific vendors and members prior to the opening of the group’s trade show which takes place at the meeting.

John Stanfield, president of Resource Colorado in Denver, likened these to “speed dating sessions,” and noted they were “worthwhile from a strategic standpoint as well as providing an opportunity to discuss market conditions and positions.”

Umberto Aponte of Lane’s Foor Coverings & Interiors in New York, said, “Knowing that this is a relationship driven industry I thought the new format was great. It was more focused on getting the vendor/member relationship to an even higher standard and to solidify our individual relationships with each of our partners.”

He also felt the vendors came to the event well prepared to meet his and other members’ needs. “Some of the vendors really went above and beyond their call of duty. For example Mohawk had 12 representatives at this meeting. Wow! I have always taken something positive away from these trade shows and continue to believe they are an important part of the conference.”

Harold Chapman, president of Bonitz Flooring Group in Greenville, S.C. and chairman emeritus of Starnet, felt “the extra time and focus on our vendor partners was a great idea. From the member roundtable discussions to the one-on-one sessions and the trade show, I saw a lot of enthusiasm. Several of our vendor partners commented the extra time spent with the membership was really awesome and they loved the format.”

He added, “Several of the vendors had multiple lines to whet our appetites. It seems the focus is still on medium priced, high style products that perform. It would be unfair and almost impossible to name every partner and their product lines displayed but it was one of the best overall collection of products I have seen in many years.”

Carlton Billingsley of Floors and More in Benton, Ark., agreed with Chapman’s assesments of his co-members. “For me, the networking opportunities are always a great way to learn from my industry peers about the issues/challenges they’re faced with in their respective markets as well as growth opportunities that we should investigate as a fit to our corporate makeup. Being able to sit down in a non-competitive environment affords us much decision-making opportunities to strategize the next two to three years. Learning what’s hot, pitfalls to avoid and basic business sense is worth more than the price of admission, and I always come away with many notes, thoughts and challenges to myself and our business.”

When it came to what was being presented by suppliers, he said it was like looking at the future as “so many of our vendors are working hard to continue to be innovative in solving industry issues. My biggest observation is how many have developed products that will shorten the time installation mechanics will be on their knees. With floating applications, spray adhesive products, etc., not only is the movement toward a less fatigue installation, but a cleaner and greener installation.”

Leonard Zmijewski, CEO of Mr. David’s Flooring International in Chicago, felt the goal of the convention was “accomplished and then some” by pointing to both the group’s annual Design Awards contest and training opportunities, not to mention the fact “Starnet gives us a direct line to the most senior management of all the mills.”

When it comes to designers, he said, “I really think involving the design community in our organization is incredibly important as they support dealers and our vendors in a huge way and making sure we show appreciation is key. And Starnet has been beneficial in helping us reach this community in ways we never thought were possible.”

On the training Starnet provides, Zmijewski added, it “improves our employees abilities, creating efficiencies that lead to an improvement on day to day business.”

Matson pointed to a few key areas where the group is working to help members in their day-to-day operations as well as for their long-term health. The group has begun a project leader certification program to help “bring up the standard to a consistent level across the membership.” This will help when it comes to dealing with national accounts, she noted, because “they will feel comfortable and confident knowing they are getting the same level of professionalism across the country.”

Stanfield said programs like this are a great benefit because “the ability to work with national accounts on installation and maintenance with other members is an asset for everyone. We partner with other Starnet members several times a month, which is a plus for our business.”

Looking toward the future Starnet continues to push its Next Gen program as a way to help owners transistion their businesses to the next generation when it comes time to retire. “It’s no secret our members are getting older and many are seeking succession planning,” Matson said. This program is two-fold she added: “First it allows members to share with each other strategies and success stories on succession and, second, it brings together the owners of tomorrow so they can get to know each other and build relationships like the current owners of the group have.”

When it comes to these types of initiatives, Robert Sabosik, president of M.E. Sabosik Associates in Point Pleaseant, N.J., said, “Starnet must continue to evolve to maintain our status in the marketplace and by having innovative programs that create opportunities for both the members and the vendors we will maintain our leadership position in our industry.”

In the end Aponte felt “we achieved the goal for this meeting. We strengthened our vendor/member and vendor/cooperative relationships. We learned and took away a great deal of information on technology, we had a glimpse of what our vendor partners have in store for us in the next couple of months as far as product. We also continued to grow our cooperative by adding a handful of new members in various regions including Canada.”