Stay Tuned/Climbing the Pyramid

From Eccentric Flower

 



stay tuned
 



Climbing the Pyramid
8 June 1997


[23 February 2007:] Normally I would go through this, correct the URLs, recheck the sites and see if they were still handled the same way, but I'm tired and this whole thing has been made nearly obsolete by one extant free resource: Wikipedia. If I'd had Wikipedia in 1997 I would probably never have done much of the research in this article (which might not have been a good thing, but you see my point).

So I have no idea what D&B or Hoover's is charging these days, because while they are still fabulously useful, people like you and I are unlikely to pay to use them, especially not if the only question we're asking is "Who the heck makes Tylenol, anyway?" Also, frankly, corporate websites have gotten a lot less coy about admitting who has what in the last ten years. (And in several cases, they now exist where they didn't before - for example, R.J. Reynolds and Johnson & Johnson both have corporate sites now.) I don't know why this has changed, but I'm glad it has.

InterNIC is now Network Solutions, and you'll still find a WHOIS service on their site - they hate giving it to you for free but they are obliged to, so they don't make the link easy to see, but it's there. R.J. Reynolds got its food products bought by Philip Morris, and the upshot is that now Kraft owns Nabisco, and Philip Morris (now Altria) is attempting to spin off Kraft so people won't boycott it while somehow still keeping the money. McNeil was bought by Johnson & Johnson - this may actually have happened before I wrote the original article - but has been kept as a business unit and is still credited as the owner of Tylenol.

Those are the only corrections I am inclined to make to the document below, which is presented as a historical artifact, broken links and all.


I spent a long afternoon of webcrawling the other day, trying to get a handle on ways to get a handle on who owns whom.

Read the sentence again, it'll make sense.

There's a huge pyramid of corporate ownership out there, and it's not easy to follow. In fact, sometimes it's deliberately made hard to follow. I've already reported elsewhere about corporations concealing ownership information, and I've got at least one more article left in me on the subject.

So suppose you want to get the dirt, using the Web? How do you do it?

InterNIC's WHOIS service is useful, but only for companies that have bought web domains. Unfortunately, the usual rule is that the higher you get on the pyramid of ownership, the less likely it is that there will be a web site. Nabisco you can find; R.J. Reynolds, their parent and (needless to say) a notorious tobacco company, is nowhere to be seen.

Big makers of drugstore goods McNeil-PPC have only left vague traces of their presence on the web. Never heard of them? McNeil makes Tylenol; they are one of the Big Four in "feminine products," and they make all manner of OTC and other drugs. But except for a few sites for specific products, they're impossible to find. Johnson & Johnson - another biggie I'm dying to find a corporate site for. No trace.

There are exceptions. Unilever PLC is a huge Dutch/American conglomerate, and it's represented. But for the most part, if you want to find out who's at the top of the ladder, you have to look somewhere else.


The Truth Is Not Out There

But surely someone on the web has already compiled lists of such information, right?

Well, yes. But the problem is, they keep insisting - how stubborn of them! - that they be paid for their work.

My goal, as an exercise, was simple. I wanted to go to a site, be able to search for Kraft Foods, and have the site tell me the crucial information: that they are owned by Philip Morris. And I wanted to not have to spend one red cent in order to get this information.


Dun & Bradstreet: Big Guns

The first site I tried was the obvious one: Dun & Bradstreet. They know everything about everybody, but it doesn't come cheap. D&B will charge you twenty bucks for each company report they come up with. Their GlobalSeek service, still in beta, is the closest to what I wanted: a search engine, not restricted to U.S. corporations, which produces a page of summary info. I'm not interested in the company's annual report or the names of their executive staff, after all. I just want the basics.

Fortunately, for the time being GlobalSeek is free, but that ride will end as soon as it comes out of beta. Hopefully they will set up a comparatively low charge for online-only browsing - I don't need the printouts. They're set up to bill credit cards, using a true secure server - log on and watch the little key turn blue - D&B doesn't do things by halves. If the charge were small enough, I'd pay.

Anyway, I did a search on Kraft and got many many items, because they list all branch offices as well as the HQs. Fortunately, these are very lucidly labeled and there's even a checkbox which will suppress everything but the HQs from the results.

If you've never dealt with D&B before (I had, very indirectly, in relation to my Real Job at the time), you should know that they give each company a unique number, called a D-U-N-S number. This is what database types call the "primary key." If you know this number for a company, use it here - you will be rewarded.

At the bottom of the summary page is the information we want: the three items labelled
Headquarters Parent Company D-U-N-S
Domestic Ultimate Company D-U-N-S
Global Ultimate Company D-U-N-S
"Global Ultimate Company" - I love that. You take that number, punch it back into the search engine, and poof! Out pops Philip Morris.

Well, with one hitch. Nowhere does it say that you don't enter the dashes in the number when searching. I was all prepared to write them an email, until I saw their other search engine, the non-beta one, which did have a warning about this. (OK, but make sure it's fixed in release, gents!)


Hoover's: Business Hip

Hoping for something a little cheaper, I tried Hoover's in sunny Austin. These people are smaller, hipper, and in general less intimidating. They don't convey the aura that they only want to work with people who represent big $$$ (D&B is not exactly small-consumer-oriented).

They work on a subscription basis. I never did find out how much a subscription costs, because you can search all day for free as long as you stay within the 10,000 or so "Company Capsules" - which is usually enough information for me - and don't order any of their reports.

Unfortunately, they only classify things by what D&B would call the "Global Ultimate." In other words, Kraft doesn't appear to have a record of its own - I tried by name three ways and went into about seven of the category listings looking for it. If you search for "Philip Morris," it tells you all about the Kraft holdings ... but that did not fulfill the demands of my test exercise.

I wrote about this and was rewarded with a very prompt answer from the nice people at Hoover's. They assure me that they're aware of this problem, and that soon they plan to make the text of the capsules searchable, so that, for example, I can search on Kraft and it will take me to the Philip Morris record. Kudos to them.


Knight-Ridder: Knowledge Gods

My next stop was Knight-Ridder, repository of information of all kinds. Seriously - they have an astonishing array of databases on just about anything you care to research. Unfortunately you have to provide key money - and I was so daunted by the application form (20 screens long!) that I ran out in terror. But I may go back; one of the things they seemed to imply they have (their site is also poorly organized) is a database of brand names, showing who owns each brand and vice versa. That would be useful.


Non-Profit Sources

Putting aside brief trips to the Federal Trade Commission and the SEC, just to see what they had (nothing applicable, although they're both useful sites to know), my final stop of the day was the Wall Street Research Net. These people seem to be a non-profit service, but you pay the price for not paying a price, since their "data" on a given company seems to be mostly composed of links to other reporting mechanisms, or facts obtained from same. Or maybe I'm not being fair; it may be that the fiscals-heavy information just didn't fit the peculiar information needs I had. Anyway, I found the information the least helpful of the bunch, especially since by that point in the afternoon I had already tried most of the sites they linked to.

Also, they suffer the same problem of only having records for the top sites on the "food chain" - and far fewer of them.


The Bottom Line

On the whole, I got more information for free than I realistically expected to get. Nor am I objecting to the charges - these folks have to work hard to collect that information, and they should be making some cash from it. I do think that, in a perfect world, some of our tax dollars would be going to a public agency which presents this information to the consumer in an easily accessible format, in the name of Full Disclosure.

If anyone knows of a governmental site that I'm missing which attempts to do this, please call it to my attention.


and now back to our program


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