Holst-Knudsen: ThomasNet Today
by Donovan Griffin
Mark Holst-Knudsen likes to joke that Thomas Publishing Co. is the oldest internet company known to man, but in a sense, he’s not far off. Founded in 1898, it published the Thomas Register of American Manufacturers , a multivolume directory of distributor, manufacturer, and service company information that helped connect buyers and sellers of industrial products.
So how did Thomas Publishing Co., known throughout the past century for its “big green books” on industrial product information, become the grandfather of internet businesses? It thrived by making the daunting leap from old-world physical media headfirst in to the digital age, says Holst-Knudsen.
The Industry of Online Directories
Since 2006, when Thomas Publishing released its final edition of the Thomas Register of American Manufacturers , “we’ve been lock, stock, and barrel, 100% an internet company,” says Holst-Knudsen. And it’s been a successful reorientation. The company now has more than 700,000 different suppliers for its users to call upon, and the site receives 2 million user sessions a month. “[W]e’re one of the few companies that has made a complete and successful transition from traditional media in the print world to now, internet,” he says.
“In 1898, the mission of the company was exactly the same as it is today,” says Holst-Knudsen, the new president of ThomasNet. “The founding mission of the company was to connect buyers and sellers of industrial and commercial products and to have the most comprehensive resource for doing that.”
Holst-Knudsen’s ThomasNet is part of Thomas Industrial Network, which is a subsidiary of Thomas Publishing, and has become the flagship product of the organization. At the most basic level, Thomas-Net.com serves the same function that the Thomas Register of American Manufacturers did. Buyers, usually procurement professionals or engineers, go to thomasnet.com to discover suppliers and source products that they need. Holst-Knudsen says ThomasNet helps suppliers “get in front of those buyers at the critical moments of truth when they’re doing that sourcing activity, and helping grow their business through that process.”
Holst-Knudsen’s great-grandfather, Harvey Mark Thomas, was the founder of Thomas Publishing and served as president from 1898 to 1956. He was succeeded by Holst-Knudsen’s grandfather, who was president until 1962. With his father the current president of Thomas Publishing, Holst-Knudsen is the fourth generation to take a leadership role within the company, which has been family-owned since it was created.
Holst-Knudsen received his master’s degree in business administration at New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business and then began to work with startup companies. His time with startups gave him critical experience in working with technology and innovating, both of which he credits as useful for his role as president of Thomas Net. “Although we’re an old company, [ThomasNet] has a very entrepreneurial culture, and for any industry playing in the internet space, innovation is key, so startup experience was very valuable to me,” he says.
In 2001, Holst-Knudsen came to a burgeoning ThomasNet, which had officially launched in 1995 as ThomasRegister.com. His initial role was director of project management in charge of the development of Navigator, a product catalog management infrastructure platform to help industrial companies. From there, Holst-Knudsen went on to become VP of the content solutions division be fore being named president of ThomasNet in April 2014.
Although Holst-Knudsen is a self-professed gadget-head, it’s not the web or database technology that drives his passion as the new president of ThomasNet: It’s the connections that Thomas Net helps make for its customers. He says that, typically, ThomasNet’s customers are from small and medium businesses that don’t have the resources for an internet marketing budget because they’re focused on creating the items that keep them afloat—things such as pipes, valves, or gears. By acting as the midpoint for these sorts of transactions, ThomasNet sees a lot of invigorating testimonials, according to Holst-Knudsen. “They really make your heart light up,” he says. “You hear things like, ‘You helped me double the company’ and ‘Without you guys to help me, I probably would have gone out of business.’
“But really, the passion comes from helping people build their businesses,” he says. “And when you help somebody build their business, you’re helping one customer at a time in the American economy, so that really is what instills the pride and fills the walls at ThomasNet.”
Holst-Knudsen says ThomasNet’s competition usually breaks down according to the different segments of its business. ThomasNet can act as a full-service digital marketing agency for the suppliers that need it, he says, and in doing so they compete with local web vendors and professional marketing agencies. When it comes to general internet marketing, ThomasNet competes against pay-per-click advertisers such as Google AdWords and Yahoo Bing Network.
ThomasNet may compete with the big search engines in terms of inter net marketing, but Holst-Knudsen is quick to point out that it is not a search engine and does not want to be seen as one. “We’re the farthest thing from a search engine you can imagine,” he says.
For users who need industrial product information, Holst-Knudsen doesn’t see much of a competition between ThomasNet and a general search engine. “The fact is that the general search engine serves a very broad mission—they eventually serve every single user that opens up an internet browser no matter what they’re searching for,” he says. “We only serve one type of person, and that’s the buying professional in the industrial and B2B space.” Despite having search-like features, ThomasNet is more of a “rich, functional, and detailed platform and set of tools,” according to Holst-Knudsen.
Tom Greco, VP of ThomasNet.com, describes ThomasNet as a free platform for supplier discovery and product sourcing. “At the core of the platform is our supplier discovery application, which is designed to get buyers and/or engineers to a short list of suppliers that meet the exact qualifications they’re looking for,” says Greco. This core functionality is what grew out of the Thomas Registry of American Manufacturers , he says.
But a collection of recently released features to the website has made the discovery service into much more than just an online version of the “big green books.” The supplier discovery page has been upgraded to allow searching with many different sorts of criteria, including search by location, manufacturer, original equipment manufacturer (OEM) distributor, and quality certifications.
ThomasNet can search by more than 80 different certifications, according to Greco. These certifications are divided into three categories: ownership/diversity, quality certifications, and other certifications/registrations. Among the ownership/diversity certifications, buyers can search specifically for subcategories such as veteran-owned businesses, minority business enterprises, and disadvantaged business enterprises. Other certifications can be used to narrow down businesses that are registered with Six Sigma or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
“Most other solutions that publish diverse suppliers actually cost thousands of dollars to access a month,” says Greco, and he notes that larger buyers looking for diverse providers have access to 60,000-plus suppliers in that category.
“The other application that we’re very excited about is custom quotes, which are designed for buyers and engineers to find custom manufacturers,” says Greco. Users fill out a “smart” request for quotation (RFQ) form by designating the type of material they need, as well as the capabilities and size, and the request goes directly to an engineer at ThomasNet. The engineer will then do an analysis of the user’s choices and match that user with custom manufacturers that will produce the part directly for him.
Often, says Greco, engineers using RFQs on their own aren’t necessarily picking the most appropriate custom manufacturer for their stated needs. That’s why representatives from ThomasNet now consult with those buyers over the phone, providing engineering consultation for free (“at least for now,” according to Greco).
Greco’s also pleased with the search technology within ThomasNet’s product-sourcing application. It’s built on proprietary classification technology, he says, and “it really gets the user to that specific part.” The sourcing application contains detailed product content from more than 28,000 suppliers, has 106,000 catalogs, and boasts 100 million-plus items.
The core mission of ThomasNet won’t change in the future, says Holst-Knudsen, and neither will the main challenges of making end-user interaction easier. But the new president recognizes that ThomasNet could be moving closer to the work process of the users they engage. “The fact is that in many cases these folks are not permitted to or they don’t prefer to conduct their sourcing activity on the open web,” says Holst-Knudsen. “A key to what the future holds for us is how we essentially integrate our services and our tools with their procurement tools and ERP [enterprise resource planning] tools, and what they use on a daily basis, as opposed to just having a site on the open web.”
Despite ThomasNet’s success in its purely online form, Holst-Knudsen is still aware of a misconception that the company is a “stodgy, old book company has-been.” To that, he points out the company hasn’t had print revenue streams for the 8 years since it discontinued the Thomas Register of American Manufacturers , “[a]nd the technology we use to create that content, to manage it, to maintain it over time, and then to publish it for consumption by the end user is quite sophisticated when you get it under the covers.”