Today’s podcast is Part IV in our series about how machining companies find new work.
Our guest is Tony Uphoff, CEO of Thomas, the parent company of Thomasnet.com, an online directory of over 500,000 North American manufacturers that was founded 123 years ago. Thomas filters its listings into 72,000 categories, which enables buyers and suppliers to pinpoint the exact partners who fit their needs.
Origin of Thomas
The idea for Thomas Register came about in the late 1800s when its founder, Harvey Mark Thomas, observed some friends who were trying to build restaurants. He noticed they were struggling to source equipment—commercial ovens etc. He created a catalogue specifically for industrial supplies, which over time became the dominating platform in North America for procurement, engineering, and MROs (Maintenance, Repair, Operations). In 2006, Thomas went all in on a Web platform, ending its print format that had made it the king of industrial directories in North America for 100 years
The Online Directory
Today Thomas organizes its listings into 72,000 categories. Meta categories such as Machining or Metals are subset into hundreds of more specific categories. The purpose is to make it as easy and fast as possible for buyers and suppliers to find the exact right match for each other. Sophisticated search filters on Thomasnet.com guide users to the companies which best fit their specific needs. Users have the opportunity to view data about the listed companies to evaluate if a prospect is worth pursuing.
Thomas has around 1.3 million active registered users. The platform uses info about their demographics and interests to point users to the right search filters. It is possible to use Thomasnet.com without registering (about 30% of users do so), but a user cannot unlock the benefits of the filters unless registered.
Right now there 600,000 suppliers on Thomasnet.com. Every firm is offered a free listing, but to have greater reach Thomas offers the option of paid advertising, ranging from $500 per month to millions of dollars per year. Tony says the key advantage of Thomas is that it’s an in-market browser, so it attracts the specific type of users companies are seeking out. He says regardless of what companies spend, being listed can be valuable.
Building Industrial Websites
Thomas also builds private industrial websites for companies, independent of its main platform.
Tony says the latest data shows B2B purchasing is over 70% finished before a buyer engages with a sales rep. He says the top complaint from buyers is slow response time after they are contacted about potential work. This inspired Thomas to create WebTrax, a website add-on to help customers set up systems and standards for tracking phone calls and other communications. It organizes leads and allows companies to see who is browsing their sites.
Where Tony Uphoff Sees Manufacturing Upside
Noah asks Tony which arenas he would go into if he were to start a manufacturing company right now. Tony says he likes the automotive sector, seeing growth in related computer technology and battery fueled cars. He also sees a big impact of 5G and related technologies in the sector.
Tony also sees huge growth in the space industry, and renewable energy. Basically, follow whatever Elon Musk is doing—minus the Dogecoin.
Question: What’s been your most successful method for finding customers?
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A machine salesman helped me out with that. This was a guy who saw a side-deal or back-end deal everywhere he looked, and if he couldn’t sell a machine, he would pre-sell for me, and got me in the door several places.
His end game was to get me a lot of work and sell me a a lot of equipment. Several years later, at least 40 percent of my work comes from those customers. Unfortunately, the salesman got caught doing something even more sketchy, and was fired. Haven’t seen him since, but I’ll buy him lunch if I do.
Other than that, word of mouth.