Information Today
Volume 19, Issue 1 — January 2002
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IT Interview •
Harrington Speaks
Given the choice of discussing recession, war, or Tasini, Thomson's CEO discussed all three
by Dick Kaser

Dick Harrington is a CEO. You can just tell it. He exudes upper-echelon confidence. Coming off a keynote address followed by an hour-long panel discussion at the Online Information meeting in London last month, he looked calm, cool, and none the worse for wear. But striding toward me, he confessed he could really use a cigar. That, too, spoke of self-assurance. 

Harrington is not just any CEO. He's the top dog at one of the biggest enterprises there is, Thomson Corp., with annual revenues of $6 billion and over 40,000 people on staff. If you had the chance to interview such a man for 15 minutes, what is the one question you would ask?

Actionable Knowledge
Harrington's morning keynote had been given in the brief, staccato style of today's top-level executive correspondence. The script, which Harrington's press aide handed me, was 38 pages long, but it could not have contained more than 2,500 words, all set large. The draft was marked "Version 7," proving that though the text was sparse, every word had been well-considered and carefully chosen. And on close inspection, it contained a lot of insight into both the business of information and the profession.

He had told the information professionals assembled for the second day of the 25th anniversary meeting, "Not that long ago, your main job was to research huge volumes of information for your organization." But ...

He turned a page, and added, "Compared to 5 or 10 years ago, you now wear many more hats: You are the information guru, you are a business manager, you are a teacher, you are an information advocate, and you are also a systems designer.

"Today," he said, "your job is to make sure your organization has access to appropriate and timely information. And increasingly that means providing your customers with tools and technology on their desktops to convert that information into actionable knowledge."

His prepared remarks rang true, in these and many other respects. But what would he say off the cuff?

Content: No Longer King
Walking briskly, confidently, stridently toward me, Harrington arrived for this interview directly from a panel discussion with three other top executives. The panel had been about industry developments, specifically the efforts of vendors to reposition their organizations in today's marketplace. He was still hyped and, looking back over his shoulder, he was talking about it with his aide. 

Of the session just ended, he said to me: "I didn't get into it, but two of the other panelists said content is king. We say content is key, OK. It's the marriage of the content with the technology that creates the value.

"Content no longer is king," he stated. "It's extremely important, obviously. But if you look at it, we've been able to move from content into technology. I bet you today we have more technologists in our organization than we have editorial people."

The aide concurred and told me the exact numbers. 

But this isn't what we had met to talk about. 

Given the CEO of Thomson, 15 minutes on the clock, and the desire to ask one good question, I made it a three-parter. 

I asked Harrington: What's having the greater impact on your enterprise, the recession in the U.S., the war on terrorism, or recent court decisions related to copyrighted material on the Web?

I switched on the tape recorder and let him speak. The following is what he said.

Recession as Opportunity
"I think the bad thing about a recession is that it's a recession," Harrington said. "The good thing about a recession is that all competitors are in the same place. So no one wins or loses. We all have to deal with the same playing field.

"Like all businesses, we will basically watch our cost structure—and all that—to be good citizens. But the real opportunity we see during the recession is to make sure we continue the integration of the businesses. 

"As things slow down a little bit, it actually gives us an opportunity to continue our investment in key areas, with the theory and, hopefully correct, that we can come out of it much stronger than we went into it. 

"In our case, basically because of all of the acquisitions that we've made, it gives us the opportunity to get these businesses together and drive them forward."

Financial Services Hit Hardest
The "acquisitions" and "investments" Harrington was speaking of include several key information suppliers, which at this conference were neatly positioned on what seemed to be acres of floor space under an overarching banner resembling a small blimp. Those Thomson companies present in London included Dialog, Derwent, ISI, Gale Group, Thomson Financial, and Thomson Legal Information (West).

Will some areas of this far-flung global enterprise be more affected than others by recession?

Harrington nodded. "Thomson Financial," he said, "should be more affected than, say, Thomson Scientific and Healthcare. Some other things are going on there, like new drug releases. There are offsetting factors in other sectors.

"Our higher education unit will be impacted slightly, but corporate training will be affected more, because those budgets will be cut.

"Legal will be affected slightly, but not dramatically ... it's mostly the financial. 

"The financial industry," Harrington explained, "was in somewhat of a recession prior to September 11, but September 11 really forced an awful lot of issues.

"The financial industry is going through such change right now. You read in the newspaper the number of layoffs they have. A lot of our information is licensed to X amount of people, so as those numbers reduce, the revenue reduces."

Of the $6 billion in revenues that Thomson earns annually, 20 percent comes from financial services—that's $1.3 billion, not all of which, of course, is on the line. Given that the softness in the financial sector is offset by another $5 billion or so in revenues from other Thomson companies, Harrington's optimism about recession being an opportunity is perhaps not unfounded. Large publishing enterprises, with their diverse portfolio of information companies, may in fact be better positioned to weather an economic storm, which should be good news for those who depend on Thomson services.

Impact of Terrorism
Thomson was directly affected by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Does it also affect Thomson going forward?

"As you know," said Harrington, "we lost 11 people (at the World Trade Center). We had 2,500 people displaced from our offices in New York. All but about 300 are back in their offices as of today. Some were back in a week, some in 6 weeks.

"The real impact going forward is not so much with the office space, or even the way (the attacks) sped up the recession, the real thing is all the psychological issues our people who have to live and work in those areas have to deal with. 

"Don't forget [that] our offices (at 195 Broadway) are at Ground Zero. You take where the World Trade Center complex was, there's the Millennium Hotel, and the Millennium Hotel backs right up to us. So we're very close. Our people are down in that environment every day. We're obviously providing the appropriate counseling and whatever we can do to help."

On Authors and E-Texts

With regard to legal decisions—and I was specifically asking about the Supreme Court's Tasini decision, which affects the reuse of freelance materials in computer databases—Harrington noted that, "We don't necessarily comment on (legal) things while they're still live.

"But," he said, "to be honest with you, we're mentioned in those cases, but we're not directly involved. We license information from The New York Times and other vendors--but we're one step removed. We'rementioned in the lawsuits, because we're the ones who sell it (the full-text articles). And of course all of our agreements with publishers say that they had the right to vend the information to us. 

"What we've done—and this is by working with the appropriate publishers--is that any author who wants their article removed from the database, we've removed it from the database.

"My guess is that newspapers, magazines, and other vendors who use outside contractors to write articles will probably just work some arrangement to protect the outside author in that scheme."

A Tasini-Proof Empire
I asked: Given the Tasini decision, you must be feeling that divesting your newspapers a while back was a good idea?

Harrington laughed. "The company was founded on newspapers—Roy Thomson, 1934, founded the newspapers—but if you look at what we were trying to do strategically, newspapers just didn't fit the strategy. 

"We decided to sell them. But no, if you look at those newspapers, we were number one in growth, and number two in profitability. That's not a bad place to be. So, it wasn't that they were bad newspapers or that they didn't make money. The problem was that over time we could see the financial model was going to change ... and then we couldn't add value.

"Newspaper publishing was a different business than the information industry. Technology played a role in maybe getting the newspaper out faster and cheaper, but it didn't play a role in the way we worked with the customer. So, given that, we thought it was best to exit that and put all our eggs in the information publishing basket."

A 100-Percent Electronic Strategy
"We're not 100-percent electronic, but our strategy is 100-percent electronic. We embrace it," he said. "We were really one of the first ones to embrace it fully and to utilize it. We'll do over a billion dollars in Internet revenues this year.

"We were always leaders in trying to go electronic. The trouble was we always had to go through a LexisNexis, or a West Group,or a Questel, or some other vendor. Now that we've acquired the assets, we can actually drive it ourselves.

"Now that we have assets like the Westlaw platform, like Dialog, like Gale ... and then what we've done at ISI, Derwent ... that really allows us to drive it now more so than in the past."

Role Reversal
My time was up and the interview was over. As I rose to leave, Harrington asked if he might ask me a question. I guess that's only fair.

"Tell me what the perception of Thomson is out there," he said. But then he answered the question himself. 

"I hear people sometimes say we are a big gorilla trying to buy up everything that we can possibly buy up. We have a defined strategy and we move toward it.Acquisitions are just part of it." 

Harrington had concluded his keynote address with a call on customers to think of Thomson not as a supplier but as a strategic partner. "The only solutions we care about," he told the audience, "are the ones that solve your problems.

"The industry," he said, "has had consolidation, and there is more to come. But the consolidation that has taken place, in my view, is at a level where suppliers can achieve the scale necessary to fund the ongoing investment you demand in technology, tools, and applications and to provide the products and services that address your needs.

"What is changing is that as the competition narrows to a handful of major players, the players that listen best, that command the deepest understanding of your needs, and have the greatest flexibility to fulfill them will be your partners of choice."

Thomson clearly wants to be one of the chosen.

[Next month, hear how Derk Haank, chairman of Elsevier Science, answered the same question.]

Dick Kaser is vice president of content at Information Today, Inc. His e-mail address is

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