Making Industrial America More Productive

Who are we talking about?
More than half of the companies who responded to a recent survey have either stayed the same or performed better in 2009 than in 2008. How did many of these small to medium-sized firms do it? They’re maximizing their presence on the Web.

You won’t find most of them with their products on or That’s because the companies surveyed are at the heart of the American manufacturing sector. They’re the manufacturers of bearings and industrial cleaning compounds and metal stock. They’re the “mom-and-pop” tool and die shops that used to supply a much larger demand by automotive. They’re the businesses that politicians refer to when they talk about small business being America’s engine of growth, who need to succeed and start doing well enough to hire more employees.

The Big Green Book goes online

The Thomas Register circa 1905.

These are the companies that back in the day were lodged deep in the thousands of pages of those big green books in the local library reference shelves labeled “Thomas Register.” At the same time, those big green books were at the fingertips of industrial buyers who needed bearings, industrial cleaning supplies and metal stock.

In the mid ’90s those buyers began discovering something called the World Wide Web. They got to it via something else equally geeky called the Internet. And they started calling the folks at Thomas Register and asking when the big green books were going to go online.

In 1995, according to Linda Rigano, Thomas’ executive director of strategic services, Thomas started to do just that -“ and eventually changed its name to ThomasNet.

“We call ourselves the 110 year-old Internet marketing company,” Rigano says. “Our mission of connecting buyers and suppliers hasn’t changed at all in those years, but the delivery mechanism has changed completely. Buyers were the driving force as the Internet began to evolve as a quicker way to source things and get more current information [than was available in print]. The Internet helped them do their job better and faster. We’re reaching more buyers today than we ever did before.”

About a million buyers each month go to now. Some 600,000 suppliers of both products and services are listed there for free. There are 67,000 different product categories.

Even Thomas Register evolves and diversifies
Thomas has also evolved with the times while keeping its focus on its core audience of buyers.

Rita Lieberman, director of marketing communications and Linda Rigano, executive director of strategic services of ThomasNet.

“Buyers would get to the Web site of a manufacturer or distributer and they were hitting the equivalent of a black hole,” says Rigano. “You saw a lot of pictures of the facility, and what amounted to ‘brochure-ware.’ We saw a need in that marketplace and we developed a technology arm of our company called ThomasNet Web Solutions Group. We help companies leverage Internet technology to improve their Web site. We can help design the basic Web site, an online catalog, put e-commerce in place if that’s appropriate, put CAD drawings online -“ whatever is necessary to make it easier for a buyer to find them.”

“We have all these years of experience in dealing with buyers,” chimes in Rita Lieberman, ThomasNet’s director of marketing communications, “so we understand how buyers need to look for information. With all that history, we’ve created a Web application that gives them a variety of ways to do that. So they can look for a specific product with a certain dimension, they can look only for products that include CAD drawings with a bill of materials.”

ThomasNet provides a menu of options from which a client can choose. The results are then integrated into the client’s existing Web site.

Other strategies to maximize a Web presence
Taking a clue from the Google ad-word playbook, ThomasNet also allows clients to purchase ranking points that will allow them to move higher in the rankings if a potential buyers searches, for instance, for a bearing 3/16-inch nominal inside diameter, half-inch long (with a really tight tolerance of 0.005) and able to withstand an operating temperature of up to 500 degrees. The companies that purchased the ranking points that come closest to the search terms show up higher in the search results.

“Having features such as an online catalog, CAD drawings and other rich content will also help a company rank higher with search engines such as Google,” says Rigano. “They might show up as being listed in if they’re listed with us or they might show up alone.”
ThomasNet is also maximizing its positioning on Google as one of their largest purchasers of keywords -“ “just about a million words” explains Rigano.

Another component of a successful Internet strategy for smaller industrial firms says Lieberman is that the Web “levels the playing field.” One company that ThomasNet works with has just landed a large sale with one of the Fortune 50. “He talked to the company’s buyer, who had found him through his Web site, and asked if he could have ever gotten the sale in the traditional way. ‘There’s no way we would have ever seen you!’ replied the buyer.”

Taking the pulse of a changing industrial America
As noted at the beginning of this article, twice a year ThomasNet surveys selected industrial companies to take the pulse of that still important sector of the economy. Perhaps the most important news is “the industrial sector is growing faster than the national economy,” says Rigano. Of those companies that see recession clouds lifting 15 percent attributed their ability to either stay even or grow this past year to moving into new industries. As just one example, companies that have long supplied the auto industry are making inroads in the medical device or alternative energy sectors.

One reason they’re able to gain visibility into those emerging markets is because they’re using their Web sites as a “salesforce that works 24/7,” Rigano says. “They’re putting money there,” amplifies Lieberman.
“Some people can see a return on their investment within a month, a quarter, a year,” continues Rigano. “It depends on what they’re selling, on their product’s lifecycle.” Rigano cites one company that attributes 40 percent of its revenue directly to its online presence.

Another company that ThomasNet works with gets a 90 percent return on the requests for quotation (RFQ) that they receive via their Web site. The Florida company sells steel and other heavy metals “and the weight of the product doesn’t impede their sales at all,” explains Lieberman. “They are also doing a large percentage of their sales overseas and are well on their way to double-digit growth this year,” she says.

That prompts Rigano to say that another trend they’re noticing is the number of companies, particularly auto suppliers, who are selling to overseas auto manufacturers and other companies all via their Web sites. One company that makes air pollution and contamination control equipment never even talked to a Mexican buyer -“ everything was conducted online without even a phone call.

Customer service is critical
“We call it ‘customer service before the sale,'” says Lieberman. “It’s about putting everything a potential technical buyer needs to know online so that they can get the answers they need to be able to make a purchase.” In an online video explaining the ThomasNet Web service, an employee explains that it’s not possible to reverse engineer a client’s product by downloading the CAD drawings. “We make them functional enough to drop into a buyer’s purchase documents but remove enough proprietary information to protect our clients’ intellectual property.

“It’s also being able to manage the Web site so that everything is completely up to date,” Lieberman continues. “We can provide a client with the tools to keep the information on their catalog pages current with available inventory, potential ship dates -“ again it’s all about providing buyers with all of the information they need and doing it in real time.”

“This also compresses the buying cycle at a time when people want everything yesterday,” says Rigano. “One client, who was used to a buying cycle of anywhere from a month to a year was getting serious orders four days after putting his catalog online. That’s huge.”

The word from the e-trenches

Alistair Brixey of Bunting Bearings.

Alistair Brixey is vice president of sales and marketing of Bunting Bearings, an Ohio company that was founded in 1907 and a ThomasNet client. Business, says Brixey, “is going great, especially in our Portage, Michigan plant. We have increased our staff and we have invested in new machinery to keep up with the growth in sales. We’re seeing an across the board increase with all customers, but one area in particular is export. This I would put 100 percent down to our Web site.”

Brixey explains, “Our marketing is now much more Web-based. Giving customers more data is making it easier to do business with us. We are now syndicating our product data to some of our distribution partners. This allows them to have the most up to date information on their Web site.

“Additionally,” Brixey continues, “we have the ability to have an online catalog with all of our product information, and can supply our customers with 2D/3D CAD downloads and the ability to send us RFQs 24/7.

Customers have stated that being able to obtain all the technical information they require, coupled with the ability to be able to download a drawing, is saving them both time and money. In the last four months over 430 people downloaded drawings, many of them then sent in RFQs with a sales value of $64,000 -“ and growing.”

Growing right now is all any of us can ask for.