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Published: Tuesday, 2/20/2007

Research firm to expand work in Northwood

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Till Till
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A year after closing its suburban Toledo telephone-polling center and shaking up management locally, TNS Custom Research has big plans for its local operations.

Data centers in seven cities are being consolidated at the research giant's Northwood campus in an initiative that the firm's new North American chief said is intended to create a one-of-its kind "digital factory."

London-based TNS, also known as Taylor Nelson Sofres PLC, claims to be the world's second-largest market research firm behind Nielsen.

"We want to do things that current players aren't doing," said Kimberly Till, chief executive of North American operations.

"Part of that is technology. We think we have an opportunity to leverage technology even more. We had to decide where to build out that process. We picked Toledo."

Her comments will come as good news to employees and economic development officials locally who were unnerved by recent moves at TNS.

Less than three years after its 2003 acquisition by the British concern, the firm founded in Toledo in 1946 as National Family Opinion dropped NFO from its name.

Another Toledo connection was lost in 2004 when William Lipner, who is a grandson-in-law of the Toledo firm's founder and was executive vice chairman of TNS after the sale, left the firm.

Last February, TNS officials announced the closing of a telephone call center in Northwood. The move eliminated four full-time and 130 part-time jobs, officials said at the time.

Unhappy with the performance of U.S. "custom research" operations, company officials in May ousted a number of executives, including Jon Harding, head of the Toledo office and five members of his management team.

Mr. Harding declined to comment for this story.

The Northwood office continues to employ about 450 people, officials estimate.

Ms. Till, who is based in New York, insisted that U.S. operations are on the road to recovery.

Further job cuts are unlikely this year or next, she said. "I think it will be building back and hiring more at a pace that is business-cautious," said the executive, who was hired in May from Microsoft Corp.

TNS, which is listed on the London Stock Exchange, told shareholders recently that the U.S. unit met "revised expectations" in the second half of the year.

"Extensive progress has been made with the restructuring and reorganization plan which focuses on increasing cost efficiency of data collection and providing clients with more insight and analysis," the shareholder advisory said.

The Toledo data initiative is a big part of that, said Ms. Till.

It will allow the firm to combine and integrate results of present and past studies for clients like Procter & Gamble Co. in a way currently unavailable in the market research industry, Ms. Till said.

If, for example, TNS was hired to perform a study on online banking, it would be able to quickly tap the database for "all of the insight from past studies." It will also reduce the cost of research studies.

The firm last month began interviewing information technology vendors for the project. Ms. Till declined to say how much the firm will spend on the project other than that it will be "in the low millions." Executives expect the service to be operational by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Northwood operations will continue to conduct online consumer panels and perform other research services. With the growth of the Internet, many polls have switched over from telephones.

One industry executive, who spoke on the condition he not be identified, said clients have been "screaming" for the kind of information TNS plans - results that can "connect the dots across initiatives."

Stan Odesky, a longtime market research executive locally who formerly worked at National Family Opinion, agreed that the service could find a niche. "It is probably beneficial and will allow for a longer look at things through time," he said.

Britt Beemer, chairman of rival America's Research Group in Charleston, S.C., wants to see the kind of results TNS will be able to produce before passing judgment.

"Maybe the way they will be able to integrate data will be different," he said. As it stands, research firms commonly analyze and integrate results of studies performed over the years for particular clients.

Contact Gary T. Pakulski at:

gpakulski@theblade.com

or 419-724-6082.



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