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AAAAhead of the Pac : Orange County Businesses Scrabble Their Way to the Top of the Alphabet for the Yellow Pages' Coveted First Listings


Much like Clark Kent stepping into a phone booth and emerging as Superman, Gerald Wilhelmy, an Irvine dentist, stepped into the Yellow Pages and became "A AA AMAZING DENTAL LASER."

Such things happen, even to dentists, when they are dealt a surname starting with W and are alphabetically consigned to the end of a 35-page listing.

By simply changing the name of his business, Wilhelmy now leads the pack. He is the first dentist listed in the Orange County Central Yellow Pages, one of the new directories now being distributed throughout most of Orange County.

This is a big deal? Yes indeed, says Brenda Flood, product manager for Pacific Bell. She sometimes has to pacify business owners who maneuvered toward first place in their categories, only to be nipped at the finish line by a competitor. Sometimes it requires lawyers to settle the dispute.

This annual Yellow Pages derby is most competitive in Southern California, but nowhere is it more fierce than in Orange County, says Flood.

Business owners take it seriously enough that Pacific Bell considers the fine points of its alphabetizing rules to be a trade secret. "If you publicize them, you give people information on how to beat them," said a Pacific Bell spokesman.

Under the rules, A AAA Airport Transportation beat A's Taxi Cab for top spot in the taxi category. But A's isn't worried; A's is owned by A AAA. So is Arrow Yellow Cab. If the rules change, owners figure, one of their listings will still be first.

Whether all this maneuvering results in increased business is anybody's guess. "I don't think anyone's done any research on this," says Gregory Kishel, director the Orange County Small Business Development Center. "It's just something they assume is true."

"There's no way to know for sure," concedes Robert (Mac) Jacobs, whose firm placed first in one of the most competitive categories--attorneys.

Though the sign at the door of his firm in Laguna Hills reads "Jacobs & Jacobs," in the phone book it's listed as A. Just A.

Three other attorneys also listed themselves as A, but under Pacific Bell's alphabetizing rules, they all follow Jacobs. AAA Accident Advisors didn't have a chance; they follow Jacobs by 16 pages. "If you have A, you're there. Nobody can beat that.

"I don't think I've had anybody tell me 'I went to you because you were the first one on the page,' "says Jacobs. "It's just everybody has this feeling that people tend to start at the beginning and work their way along. If they like your ad, they call you, and the other guys are out of luck."

Wilhelmy says being listed first pays, "but not like a gold mine. It's not like business shot up astronomically."

But it took several attempts with multiples of A before he emerged in first place, Wilhelmy says. "As long as I'm there, I'll just keep it. It can't hurt."

Well, perhaps it can, says Kishel. "It depends on what business you're in. I'm sure not going to hire a brain surgeon who's listed as Aaaaabe the Amazing Brain Surgeon. Then again, I'm not going to hire a brain surgeon out of the Yellow Pages."

So not surprisingly, there is no name competition among physicians, although their listing is among the longest in the Yellow Pages. In some businesses, image is simply more important than advertising position, Kishel says.

So who should play the alphabet game? A delicatessen? "I don't think so. Go for New York Deli, something more descriptive of what you're selling."

A taxicab company? "I would say yes, probably go for A, because when I'm looking for a cab, I'm looking for anything to get me where I'm going. I take the first one."

An escrow company? "Go for something descriptive and relevant."

There is even the question of whether a Yellow Pages listing is worthwhile for your type of business, Kishel says.

"When I had my own consulting company and a Yellow Pages listing, most of the people who called were charities looking for money. They were not looking to hire me. Now if you're a plumber, well, I can see where it would pay off."

Competition is intense on the plumbing pages. There, A 2 Z Plumbing Services finished a distant ninth behind A AA DR LEAK.

But, in the dignified hospital listings, A 2 Z Psychiatric Hospital took first place easily. No other hospital took part in the list-me-first contest. "All I know is it works for us," says Debra De Avila, a spokeswoman for California Psychiatric Management Services, the Los Angeles firm behind the listing.

Just what it takes to win is a good indicator of the competitive tone of that particular field, Kishel says.

While it required only a C to be listed first among racket restringers and a G among quilt dealers, anything less than a lone A put you behind among employment services, eviction services, limousine services, moving companies and bail bond companies.

The top spot among chiropractors went to the ungrammatical A Accident & Injury Health Care Center. To place first among answering services, the name to beat was A Aaansafone.

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