By Ann Meyer
Until a few years ago, Mount Prospect-based Perfection Spring & Stamping Corp. used 18 sales agencies to sell its parts.
But with the downturn, it axed most of the agencies and started to market online. Now the components manufacturer has 255 searchable pages and more than 1 million results on Google when users search for the company’s name, said Joshua Kahn, 45, executive vice president of the 100-employee company, which has annual revenue of about $18 million.
The family-owned manufacturer of metal stampings, extension springs and wire forms is one of thousands of industrial businesses that were late to the Internet party, but the company took advantage of slow sales during the recession to embrace the Web as a marketing platform. In the process, Perfection Spring has captured buyers it likely would have missed using traditional marketing methods. “Not only would we have missed them, but they would have missed us,” Kahn points out.
Manufacturers need an online presence because increasingly customers are relying on the Internet to research products and make purchases.”The industrial marketplace doesn’t want to be sold to. They want to find the information when they’re ready,” said Rita Lieberman, director of marketing communications at Thomas Industrial Network in New York.
Matching buyers and sellers
The growth of the Internet as a marketplace for goods and services has spurred development of niche search engines, such as ThomasNet.com and Alibaba.com, which aim to match buyers and sellers of manufactured goods. (Alibaba.com is a publicly traded company that operates independently from Alibaba Group. Alibaba Group is reportedly considering making a bid for some portion of Yahoo!, according to news reports.)
Manufacturers that haven’t embraced some form of e-commerce by now have seen sales decline, experts said. While sales slowed during the recession, Keats Manufacturing Co. in Wheeling launched a microsite on ThomasNet in April 2009. Thanks largely to its increased online presence, the company’s revenue hit about $24 million in 2010, up 30 percent from $18 million in 2008, said Matt Eggemeyer, chief operating officer at the 170-employee company, which manufactures small metal stampings, wire forms and assemblies. Sales quotes have more than doubled to 1,400 a year, the company said.
Meantime, at Perfection Spring, about 20 percent of the company’s quotes come from Internet users, resulting in 27 percent of its new business, Kahn said.
“The people who are finding us on the Internet are already pre-qualified,” he said, because they’ve made the determination to search for the company’s products using Google or ThomasNet.com, a search engine targeting buyers and sellers of manufacturers’ products. The company’s margins also have improved because it has cut back on cold calling and direct selling.
While manufacturers also need a presence on Google, Yahoo and other mainstream search engines, the business-to-business online directories help narrow the search. For example, typing “spring” into Google brings up restaurant listings, wellness centers and references to the season as well as competing spring manufacturers. On Alibaba, “spring” brings up more than 1 million products, including coil springs, leaf springs, seat springs, plate springs and gas springs. “Spring” on ThomasNet brings up 247 category matches, including pins, fasteners, clips, washers, wire and steel. It also includes a list of more than 300 companies with “spring” in their names.
The business-to-business directories allow small and midsize manufacturers to reach customers throughout the world, said Linda Kozlowski, director of global marketing and customer experience at Alibaba.com, which is based in Hangzhou, China, with U.S. offices in Santa Clara, Calif. The company has 115,000 so-called “gold” suppliers, who pay $3,000 year for preferential treatment, including microsites on Alibaba.com, which has 20 million users in 240 countries, she said.
The company also offers free listings, but those suppliers will be ranked lower in Alibaba’s search engine. Browsing the company’s site is free to users and Alibaba.com does not charge transaction fees.
ThomasNet also offers websites to customers and strategic guidance on Internet marketing, allowing small and mid-sized businesses to compete with larger companies, Lieberman said.
Filling a need
“What we found was a need in the marketplace for website help,” she said. “That’s how we turned our business into an online company.” ThomasNet grew out of Thomas Publishing, which for more than 100 years published print directories of manufacturers and industrial suppliers. It published its last print directory in 2006, though the company was online as early as 1996, Lieberman said.
Besides company listings and sites, ThomasNet offers more than 1,000 white papers and industry news, as well as an e-commerce platform called Navigator designed for distributors, Lieberman said. “Our mission has been to bring buyers and sellers together. We’re trying to make the process more efficient.”
For companies like Perfection Spring & Stamping, dedicated b-to-b search engines and online marketplace platforms can boost awareness, Kahn said. “The Internet is definitely a strong focus of ours,” he said, noting that the company has increased its online marketing budget for 2012. Besides ThomasNet, the company relies on YouTube videos, online press releases, e-newsletters and pay-per-click advertising. It also writes white papers, uses direct-mail post cards and participates in trade shows, Kahn said.
Meantime, as Keats Manufacturing has expanded online, it has narrowed its marketing focus, eliminating direct mail and cutting back on trade shows, Eggemeyer said. The company now shows up in the top five results on Google in a variety of categories, Eggemeyer said.
The company’s decision to focus on the Internet paid off almost immediately when the company’s online presence helped reconnect Keats with a large cell phone manufacturer that placed a $20,000 order. Now the company is adding a Spanish-language website that will promote its El Paso, Texas, facility’s capabilities.
“We’re an impatient society,” he said. “People aren’t necessarily going to fly somewhere or troll around a convention center to find me. They’re not going to knock on the door. When they want me, they’re going to find me on Google or ThomasNet.”