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Mapping Their Future : Technology Puts Thomas Bros. at a New Frontier

May 01, 1996|GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — Employees call it "the war room," a high-tech lair that looks like a miniature NASA control center. It's where Southern California Edison Co. dispatchers map power outages on giant computer screens.

But beneath those flashing lights and colored images of transformers, circuits and substations lies a rendering of Southern California's landscape that millions of motorists would find very familiar. They may even have the low-tech version, known as a Thomas Guide, tucked under the seats of their cars.

Thomas Bros. has been making maps since 1915, and for the first 75 years very little changed. But satellites, computers and an array of emerging technologies have ushered in a new era in map making, and the small Irvine-based company now finds itself at the precipice of an expansive but confusing frontier.

The thick, detailed guidebooks still account for 85% of the company's $20 million in annual sales. But just three years ago, that number was 100%.

Since then, the company has introduced a bundle of new technology-driven products, ranging from maps that can be viewed on computers to the licensing--to Edison and others--of its growing digital database. A few years from now, these products and others could account for half the company's revenue, said Glen Jansma, vice president of business development.

"We're not inventing computers or computer technology," Jansma said. "We're just using it."

Indeed, the company's quiet offices these days look more like a software house than a map-making enterprise. Cubicles and computers have taken the place of pens and drafting tables, and most employees are more comfortable wielding a mouse than a ruler.

The Thomas Bros. transformation began about eight years ago, when Warren Wilson, an attorney for the Thomas family who has owned most of the company since 1955, ordered the sleepy enterprise to go high-tech.

The aim was to find a more efficient and accurate way to produce the company's well-known guidebooks, but Wilson and others also knew that transferring Thomas Bros. maps from pen-and-ink drawings to digitally stored data could lead to dozens of new ways to use the same information.

The war room at Southern California Edison offers a glimpse at just one of those new applications. Others include a system that allows customers to place orders for custom-made wall maps over the Internet, and a computer edition of the Thomas Guide that sells for $400 and allows customers to locate addresses, zero in on neighborhoods or plug in the locations of their company's customers.

Thomas Bros. also has its eyes on what could be a huge market for in-vehicle navigation systems--dashboard displays that use global positioning satellites to show motorists where they are and how to get to their destinations. Thomas Bros. won't make the displays, but will sell the CD-ROM-based map data the devices play.

"When they want data to go into cars, we think we're going to be there," Jansma said.

Thomas Bros. is not alone in rushing into the market for digital map data. In fact, while it hurries to complete its digital database for California--the company's traditional stronghold--a couple of Bay Area firms are busy erecting databases for the entire U.S.

One of those companies, Menlo Park-based Etak Inc., already has licensing contracts with big phone companies, including Nynex Corp. and Sprint Corp., as well as regional power and shipping companies.

Etak, owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., also has its sights set on the in-vehicle navigation market. Howard Koch, the company's head of marketing, said Etak's data is already included in navigation devices built by Sony Corp. and that the company hopes its efforts to build a nationwide database will give it an edge over regional players such as Thomas Bros.

"Companies like Sony want to cover the entire U.S.," Koch said. "They don't want to just cover California."

But Thomas Bros. executives said their prominent brand name will help them keep control of the California market and that the company is poised to expand across the U.S. when the market ripens.

Indeed, six months ago Thomas Bros. took its first step outside its cozy West Coast territory when it won a $2-million contract to develop a digital database of Washington and neighboring counties in Maryland for the region's real estate association.

"The biggest question in my mind is how fast the consumer demand for digital map products is going to grow," Jansma said. "We're not going to lead the market with investments upfront, but we're poised to move quickly."

Beyond the shifting technologies of map making, Thomas Bros. also appears headed for more fundamental changes. The business has been independently owned since it was founded in Oakland 81 years ago by George Coupland Thomas. But Wilson, who bought the company from Thomas' widow in 1955, said he hopes to sell Thomas Bros. stock to the public within five years.

He has been preparing for the move by doling out $20,000 chunks of stock--the most allowable without incurring heavy federal gift taxes--to his five children annually in recent years. Two sons-in-law, including Jansma, work for the company.

Still, there is one thing about Thomas Bros. that won't change, Wilson said. Even as the company rolls out dozens of new high-tech products, it remains committed to the trusty Thomas Guide.

"That's always been the foundation of this company," Wilson said, "and it still is."

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