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  • Jennifer Marks

It's a small world after all

When was the last time you heard a supplier gushing about tremendous opportunities for growth? Enthusing about potential new niches? Vibrating with excitement as he or she contemplated doubling or tripling the size of the business?

It happens more often than you might think. Contrary to the popular belief in this industry that if you're not No. 1 or No. 2 you're nowhere, a lot of smaller companies see themselves as fleet and flexible little war ships, able to pick away at the mighty armadas.

It was a sentiment that surfaced repeatedly over the past several weeks — at Heimtextil, the Atlanta Rug Show and even the New York winter market. While leading suppliers grind away at market share, grapple with the import vs. domestic production quandary and battle one another for major programs at major retailers, a constellation of $10 million, $20 million or $40 million independents are finding ways to grow with the retailers that the big guns consider afterthoughts.

But that doesn't mean they're locked out of the winner's circle altogether. What might constitute a test for a top supplier — say, landing shelf space at 25 big box specialty stores — is a home-run regional order for a small company.

That said, the dangers for small companies are inherently greater when they go to play in the big sandbox. A Kmart bankruptcy hurts big mills for a couple of quarters, but can strike a disastrous blow to a small supplier that has gotten in too deep.

But go after those programs they do. And for all the talk about vendor rationalization, streamlined matrixes and the like, a surprising number of small companies are doing business with the big-pencil retailers. It is sometimes astonishing in this ever-consolidating world to sit back and contemplate just how very many companies there are doing business in this industry.

It is equally astonishing in a cautious and often pessimistic environment to listen to executives at small companies describe the field as they see it: a place with footholds here and there for a new idea or better price point to latch onto. It is a contentious and bruising place, to be sure, but one that a surprising number of companies see as filled with promise and possibility.

Of course, the annals of history are littered with the dashed hopes and failed prognostications of dreamers. But the world keeps turning because of them. And while the giants of industry will always cast daunting shadows, it's nice to remember from time to time that being the biggest isn't the only way to survive and it's not necessarily the only way to be relevant.

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