Share this article

print logo


It is the Buffalo area's version of the Thirty Years' War -- a battle that is waged every time a local resident reaches for a telephone directory. Since 1968, when Tonawanda-based White Directory Publishers Inc. printed its first local phone book, Erie County residents have had two choices, the telephone company-issued directory or the White Directory.

And while it may not seem like a big deal to a consumer in search of a Chinese restaurant or a plumber, the decision of which book to use, is at the core of the high-stakes Yellow Pages rivalry.

Rick Lewis, president and chief executive officer of White Directory, publisher of what's come to be known as The Talking Phone Book, said the world of alternative phone directories has changed immensely since his father, Wilbur, put out his first book in 1968.

"That first Buffalo book was just the yellow pages, so you still needed the telephone company's book in the house for residential listings," Lewis said.

White Directory, like a handful of other upstart phone book publishers, made do with that limitation for nearly two decades, spicing up its yellow pages-only offering with information not found in the "official" book. Zip codes, horoscopes and tourist information appeared to broaden the book's appeal.

But it was the breakup of Ma Bell's dynasty in mid-1980s that gave White Directory its biggest break. Deregulation made it possible for independent phone book directories to publish residential listings.

"That was a watershed event for us," Lewis recalled. "Once we had the residential listings, we were able to take a giant leap toward dominating the market."

With that 1987-88 Buffalo directory, the savvy little company saw its ad revenues soar by a whopping 500 percent. A year later, White Directory Publishers debuted its new "talking yellow pages," a system that links consumers to a range of taped information via a central phone bank.

The new audio features, covering everything from the latest weather report, to medical information, to the "joke of the day," proved so popular, the company rebuilt its entire identity around being "The Talking Phone Book."

The company's next technological feat was to take the book from "talking" to "surfing," by putting its contents on the World Wide Web and making it possible for consumers to link up to company home pages and the Internet at large.

Lewis admits his father's modest dream of offering an alternative yellow pages directory has taken off in directions its now-retired founder could not have imagined.

"The whole world of information has changed so much, and we've had the good fortune to find ways to harness the changes to build a better phone book. It's a constant effort here to come up with new innovations," Lewis said.

To mark its 30th anniversary, the just-distributed 1997-98 Taking Phone Book features its first-ever glossy cover with gold, embossed printing.

Just as its product has experienced tremendous revisions since 1968, so has White Directory Publishers Inc. The company itself has also gone through big changes, in terms of both size and scope.

Started with a $10,000 loan and 15 employees, White Directory Publishers counted $40 million in revenues in its most recent fiscal year, making it the third-largest independent directory publisher in the U.S. The employee roster has mushroomed to 320 workers.

Its territory has also exploded from an original base of the City of Buffalo, to 19 metropolitan markets in the U.S. and Canada, including Erie, Pa.; Raleigh and Greensboro, N.C., and Pensacola, Fla.

This year the local company will distribute nearly 1 million phone books. While Lewis and company are thrilled with their overall growth, it's their phone book's popularity in Erie County that ranks among their proudest achievements.

In the big world of competition between utility-issued directories and the country's now 600-plus independent publishers, industry insiders say there's no competition fiercer than the battle between The Talking Phone Book and the Bell Atlantic (formerly Nynex) directories in Erie County.

Larry Small, director of marketing services with the Yellow Pages Publishers Association, said that although the trade association doesn't track the popularity of its members books, The Talking Phone Book's success is well known.

"I can say anecdotally, few if any independents are as popular as the White Directory is in Buffalo. It's an industry anomaly," Small said.

So how big a grip does the "other" phone book have on the local phone market? If you ask Lewis, he'll tell you his book beats the phone company's phone book. He cites a 1996 consumer survey conducted by Goldhaber Research Associates which found that 51.53 percent of local residents prefer the White Directory over the Bell Atlantic book.

If you ask Robert A. Graham, president and chief executive of Bell Atlantic Directory Services Inc., he points to a February 1997 University at Buffalo study which found two out of three area consumers use the phone company's book.

"We're the number No. 1 book in all our markets," Graham said. "Sure, Rick Lewis provides us with competition, but we face competition from radio, television, direct mail . . . any medium that carries advertising."

Graham admits that the local Bell Atlantic directory now includes a number of features that were first found in the White Directory, but he attributes those additions to the evolution of the phone book, not competition.

"There's going to be common features as we all look for ways to add functionality and enrich content, but I believe we have the better book. Our brand name continues to be a significant asset, we are THE phone book," he added.

But according to Yellow Pages Publishers Association data, the Bell Atlantic folks are having to work a lot harder to convince advertisers they have the leading product. As The Talking Phone Book has gained in popularity, Bell Atlantic has dropped its advertising rates.

"Their rates are down between 40 and 50 percent in the last 2 1/2 years and they are still losing advertisers to us," Lewis said.

A count of display ads conducted by White Directory Publishers found the current Bell Atlantic yellow pages contains 2,068 display ads, down from 2,118 in the 1996-97 phone book.

Meanwhile, the Erie County Talking Phone Book has 3,283 display ads, up from 2,889 in the prior book.

As White Directory Publishers enters its fourth decade, its goals include getting two of its books into every home in Erie County -- one full-size book and one of its 6-inch by 8-inch "midi" books.

The smaller books are extremely popular among cell phone users who find the smaller book fits nicely in their cars and trucks.

"We've had people hop out of their cars at stop lights and knock on the doors of our book delivery trucks asking for them," Lewis said.

An easier way of getting one of the portable books is to fill out the request card tucked inside the new Talking Phone Book to have one delivered.