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Consummate Consumer

To Contact the CEO, Do Some Detective Work

By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2005; Page C10

Finding basic company information can be a hassle. That's what some readers said after the Jan. 11 column on resolving consumer problems by going straight to the company honcho to file an executive complaint ["The Ultimate 'May I Speak to Your Supervisor' "].

Michael Schall of Spring, Tex., says he had trouble getting the corporate address and CEO's name from his bank. "Its customer service department is like a moat around management," he says.

San Diego area reader Dennis Hull says he was getting nowhere locating the headquarters for a national company through its local branch and Web site. The executives are "pretty well insulated from outsiders," he says.

If only it were that easy. But there are strategies that make the corporate-data search easier and faster.

First, you've got to try going in the front door. While many companies use customer service to buffer the big bosses from the masses, some are more open-minded. Call the toll-free customer service number, tell the rep you are writing to the company's CEO and need the spelling of his name and his corporate address. Sometimes you get the info.

Next stop is the company's Web site. Look long and hard -- companies have become sneaky at hiding even their corporate address. One fundamental: Corporations rarely provide their address in the customer service maze. That would be like an invitation. Instead, they bury it in other site categories, such as "About Us" and "Investors" pages, and occasionally in its "Contact Us" page. So this requires diligence.

Let's say you want to write a complaint or compliment to Dell's founder and chairman, Michael Dell. The computer giant is forthcoming with ways to contact the company, from form e-mails to toll-free numbers, and it's upfront with info about its CEO. But the corporate address seems to be missing. A nice little irony: Click on Dell's "Privacy" link, scroll to the bottom, and you'll find the corporate address.

But if this online find-the-corporate-address game gets old, there are more direct approaches. Public libraries usually have the Standard & Poor's Register of Corporations, the Dun & Bradstreet Directory and other resources that list the basics for most firms.

Both of those sources charge a subscription or search fees at their online versions, but the Consumer Action Web Site of the Federal Citizen Information Center is free and provides corporate addresses, toll-free phone numbers and Web sites to companies. It has separate directories for auto manufacturers, consumer organizations, federal agencies, etc. But be careful: Some of the addresses are for customer service departments.

Another top-notch source is Hoover's. This site charges for its more extensive reports, but brief company profiles (address, phone, Web site, key execs) are free.

Thomasnet.com is a comprehensive site where you can search thousands of companies by name or by product and services and get addresses, phones, toll-free phones and Web sites, but not exec names. Still, it is thorough. If you search "Dell," it finds 42 firms with Dell in their names. So know what you're looking for.

Still haven't found what you need? Try a site that lawyers use: Coordinated Legal Technologies' Secretaries of State links to online business databases of all the state governments. If you know the state where the company is based, chances are you can find info here.

And Yahoo's Finance pages are good for more than the day's stock news. Search the company name, then click "Profile" on the left-hand column. A little farther down is "Insider Roster" for the names of the executives.

Hull found the company info he needed by first using Hoover's to get the corporate address, then clicking on the firm's Web site link at Hoover's, where he found a "Key People" category with all the top execs listed. The search strategy "worked great," he says. "Now I know exactly whom to address my complaint to where it just might be heard."

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