For anyone wondering how the commercial segment in general is doing, one just needed to wander through the Starnet Annual Meeting to see members were in an upbeat mood as the contract business continues to outpace the overall industry.

While business might not be booming across the country, it is picking up—even in regions that have had longer droughts, such as in the Northwest. In fact, Randy Rubenstein of Rubenstein’s Contract Carpets, said for the first time since the recession “we’re starting to have fun again.” He pointed to one of the company’s major jobs as an example, the renovation of the iconic carpet at the Portland International Airport in Portland, Ore., which represents the intersection of the north and south runways seen by air traffic controllers from the airport’s tower at night. “It’s been keeping us busy.”

BJ Stovall of Mr. David’s Flooring International, said things “are more back to normal,” noting “the stars are back in alignment.” He pointed to how general contractors “are not branching out to areas they don’t know like they had been doing during the recession. It makes our lives easier when everyone is doing what they are supposed to and not extending themselves into unknown parts of the business.”

Jeanne Matson, Starnet’s president and CEO, said this year’s meeting and its theme, “Connect…Create…Success” was designed to help members and the group’s core suppliers continue this growth by “strengthening their partnerships. The partnerships between our members and preferred vendor network are critical to the long-term future of Starnet and we are committed to making them as strong as we can.”

The Starnet membership has a long history of supporting its vendors but it seemed at this year’s meeting the message to do so was pushed even harder following the loss of The Mohawk Group as a key vendor when the two sides decided to end their relationship earlier this year.

Matson said while losing a company like Mohawk as a preferred vendor is something neither side really wanted “we believe there is enough opportunity with our current vendors to help our members grow their businesses despite the change—there is nothing our members can’t get through the suppliers we have. In fact, at this meeting members were ratcheting up their focus on suppliers who have come through with extra programming.”

Al Bear Jr. of Bear’s Rug and Linoleum Co., said, “I think Starnet is in a very important stage of its life. We need to honor the vendors that are our partners more than ever—that was the general consensus of the members.”

Umberto Aponte of Lane’s Floor Coverings & Interiors noted, “As a cooperative, it is essential to support all our vendor partners. Obviously, in view of Mohawk’s departure this would be a great time to strengthen our existing relationships with all the other carpet vendors and/or grow with those we may have not been as supportive of in the past. This could be a win-win for all. I believe our best practices will grow and strengthen even more as a result. It seemed that everyone was on the same page and is ready to show [the world] we are just as strong and even stronger as we move forward.”

He added the group’s existing suppliers supported this view. “Many of the vendors have implemented sales incentives, which I would say is a result, in part, of Mohawk’s departure as well as them trying to capture Mohawk’s void.” Aponte pointed to companies like Bentley, which “seems to be real hungry. Besides seeing some nice products, it started an incentive program.”

Dave Ruggieri of Ruggieri Brothers agreed that on top of overall business doing well, suppliers were coming to the table to show their support to the group. “Everyone is in good spirits, and business is on the up for [all of us]. It appeared from the vendors I spoke with they were all excited as well about the increase in business, and new opportunities they all can have with the departure of Mohawk from our vendor partnership.”

Though members and suppliers already enjoy good working relations, as in every type of relationship, they need to continually be nurtured. One of the ways in which Starnet is helping with this, as well as get members connected with new suppliers is through a program it started last year and expanded upon based on the positive feedback from both parties.

Prior to the actual trade show members and a growing number of vendors are given private, one-on-one meetings of approximately 20 minutes each. Members generally saw two to three vendors during this time and said they have been a great asset to both the convention and business.

Cheryl Acierno of Acierno & Co., who was named the first female chairperson in Starnet’s 22-year history, said these meetings “give members—large or small—the opportunity to get to know the upper management of our vendors much better. It can also be a time to discuss problems, and conversely, a time to share ideas on growing business together. Most importantly, it also gives you exposure to a manufacturer you may not have done a lot of business with, and the opportunity to find products that can solve many of the flooring problems we all experience.”

As with Acierno, Ruggieri “likes the personalized face-to-face time with the senior management of the vendor partners,” adding the meetings also “gave me more time at the trade show, so I was able to not only visit every booth, we had more time to discuss my business with them.”

Bear noted, “I really like the addition [of these meetings] to the trade show. It allows me uninterrupted time with a vendor that maybe I’m not able to get at during the trade show. Both the one-on-ones and the trade show were valuable to me. A great deal gets accomplished and bridges are built stronger with vendors and peers.”

Aponte said even though the meetings are 20 minutes, they are “time well spent. These one-on-ones are always a positive thing as well as the trade show. Both vendors and members seem to want to continue it.”

Matson said one key reason members saw the support they did from the suppliers is this year there were more vendor reps in attendance than any convention. “And it wasn’t just the senior management, they were getting more in-depth by bringing regional and local people to interact with the members.”

In addition to calling it “the best trade show we ever had,” Les Lippert of Lippert Tile Co., said while having a good relationship with a mill’s senior management is important, it is equally important to forge strong relationships with the reps at the local level because “one common problem is taking the relationships we develop here and bringing them back to our local markets.”

While there was certainly a great deal of action surrounding the carpet suppliers as they pushed to fill the void left by Mohawk’s departure, members were impressed with the overall support and product offerings from suppliers.

Bear “really enjoyed” moisture meter manufacturer Wagner. “It is always on the cutting edge of RH (relative humidity) and moisture testing. That is such an important part of the job process that maybe wasn’t there 10 years ago.”

Ruggieri “was impressed with Ardex providing pump services for a self-leveling project for a job—first one at a discounted price. Gerflor is introducing a product called Mipolam with an attached backing system that can handle high moisture, and I feel this will work on some of our healthcare renovation work.” While not product related, he like learning that “Dal-Tile is offering to send sales associates to Dallas for a training seminar.”

Aponte also liked what he saw from Gerflor, though he was impressed with a product called “Fastrack, which is a loose lay tile format that has very high recycled content and is 100% recyclable. It’s interlocking and it looks absolutely great.

Although it came out a few months prior to convention, he was impressed with Armstrong’s “linoleum tiles available in three sizes. These will do very well I believe. Natural linoleum is always a great product; biodegradable and has a great green story behind it.”

The end result of any convention is being able to walk away with information that can help you better your business and from that standpoint alone this year’s meeting was a rousing success.

Following a best practices discussion, Ruggieri noted, “I always get ideas from other members—on things that work and don’t work. Just little things from employee cell phone usage, health insurance and compensation questions. The best practices group created a pre-bid and pre-estimate checklist, which I just started having my estimating department use. It will keep us more organized, and help us decide if we want to chase the project or not.”

Acierno added, “I always take away good ideas from these meetings. Specifically, for me this year, I want to focus on more training for my staff, and Starnet provides regular opportunities for most everybody to participate—from project management to sales and business development.”