The request is typical: A huge candy company calls Washington Researchers to find out the state of next year's cocoa bean crop in Uruguay. Back comes the answer in 10 minutes.All it took was a phone call -- to the company's own import department.
"Washington is just full of information," says Matthew J. Lesko, who founded Washington Researchers four years ago. "You wouldn't believe the information that's available here. And no one knows how to get at it. So we either supply it to 'em or tell 'em where they can find it."
In that simple proposition, Lesko has found a career that is growing like Jack's beanstalk. Bored with designing computerized management information systems, he quit his job here in 1975, sank his $5,000 savings into letterheads and ads, and sat by the bedroom phone waiting for business. He called himself a management consultant. The phone never rang. So after six months, he mailed to 2,000 companies approfessional-looking newsletter that told people how to get free information.
"That started 'em calling in, and that gave me a chance to tell what I did. I was an expert on everything."
By the second year, he had seven people working for him. A year later it was 11. Now it's 30, and he's moved into sprawling basement offices at 918 16th St. NW, and it looks very much as if he will have to hire still more people.
Today WR is a $1 million-a-year business with some 300 clients.
Everybody wants information.
As a sideline, for those who preferred to do their own digging, Lesko started publishing directories, notably the $95 Researcher's Guide to Washington (you want the U.S. Solar Eclipse Coordinator? It's Ronald R. Lacount, room and phone number listed. You probably didn't even know the U.S. was coordinating eclipses) and the $5 Federal Fact Finder, which is essentially the index of the U.S. Government Manual.
"For the first year I ran the whole business on that index. But actually, I don't believe in books. We have no library here. We don't use computers. Because the stuff we deal in isn't computerized. The answers they want aren't in books yet," Lesko says.
Another offshoot is the seminars, which consist of Lesko lecturing literally all day long, spelling out the kind of things you can find at all the government departments, in alphabetical order. It is an amazing performance, evidently well worth the $175 admission fee since he packs them in wherever he goes.
He still sends out the newsletter. Some highlights of the March-April issue: where to get a booklet on doing business with China; how to arrange to sit in on State Department briefings; where to call for bond ratings or census data on the elderly; how to set up free film screenings for research; what will be on the Federal Trade Commission's agenda for the next six months (cigarettes and oil are the big items), plus a list of free brochures available on such subjects as:
Gloves from the People's Republic of China; ice hockey sticks from Finland; processed mushrooms; skateboard platforms; clothespins; motorcycles from Japan...
The staff of Washington Researchers is mostly young (Lesko is 35), comes from all over (one is a former pastry chef, another an ex-newsman) and is skillful with words and relentless in imagination.
"You've got to be creative enough not to run out of ideas," Lesko says.
Once, a European manufacturer of syrups wanted to know how big American firms like Coca-Cola ran their franchise networks. But nobody wanted to talk. The franchisees feared new competition, the bottlers were mum, the parent company had nothing to say. So WR checked Capitol Hill.
Whaddya know -- Congress had just held a hearing on franchises, and in the exhibits, now public record, were five or six actual franchise contracts, including Coca-Cola's.
"We'll do anything for anybody," Lesko chuckles, showing off a large room where a couple of staffers are plowing through mountains of industrial information for a foreign client who wants a regular precis of his American rivals' activities. "We have about two dozen projects going on at once."
One job was to find out if consumers preferred bordered or borderless photographic prints. That took a call to a trade association which happens to run an annual check on precisely that subject. WR got the figures in 15 minutes. Charge: $10.
Another client wanted the number of cars available for lease from major leasing and rental firms. This meant checking some top leasing executives and the Department of Transportation. It took five hours. Charge: $250.
The longest job to date took 59 hours. WR works strictly by the hour, though Lesko thinks it would be nice if they could get a commission, since some companies are making a lot of money from the information they get.
What started the boom in information?
"I think it was the oil embargo a few years ago. Until then, a lot of companies viewed all their problems as internal, and they had management consultants to show them how to make more money or whatever. But the embargo made them pay attention to what was going on outside," Lesko says.
Now, more and more firms are worried about the state of the market, their competitors, government regulations and the economic environment generally.
Scrawled on a blackboard in a corridor, the day's projects and who's doing them: production figures on plastic hot containers; data on prefab modular offices; rundown on some airline routes; list of middle-range executives in government; counterfeiting in consumer products.
This last turns out to be someone wanting to know about those fake Levi jeans that have flooded the world markets. The firm wants all the published data on the subject.
Lately Lesko and his partner, Leila Kight, formerly his wife, have been trying to decide just how big they want to be. At the moment it looks as if they could keep expanding forever. But the new scale of operation means the business is changing, requiring different kinds of managing.
"A different cast of characters is needed," says Lesko. "I'm trying to get out of the way more, these days."
He doesn't mean he's retiring. He just means he's trying to get out of the way like you'd get out of the way of a jet coming down the runway.