Innovation is key as mapmaker marks 150th year
The company has had to play catch-up as technology has improved.
SKOKIE, Ill. (AP) -- As the Great Chicago Fire was ravaging the city in 1871, William Rand and Andrew McNally saved their business by burying two printing machines on the sandy Lake Michigan shore.
No such clear-cut solution emerged to preserve Rand McNally & amp; Co.'s dominance more than a century later, when the mapmaker lost its way in the age of the Internet.
But after two ownership changes and a bankruptcy reorganization, the storied company appears to have finally regained its bearings. A sales decline has been reversed, the company says profitability is up over 30 percent since its 2003 overhaul and it is even poised to make acquisitions.
Left behind in the online mapping revolution by comparative upstarts Mapquest.com, Yahoo Inc. and Google Inc., Rand McNally is marking its 150th anniversary year by aggressively playing catch-up with a raft of new products designed to capitalize on its famous brand name.
A push into electronic gadgets and navigational software is part of the effort, including the release this fall of the Rand McNally GPS Navigator. The 500 portable navigation system is its entry in the increasingly crowded field for devices using Global Positioning System satellites.
True to its heritage, however, the world's largest seller of maps has atlases and paper maps as the backbone of the initiative. While the privately held company doesn't disclose specific figures about its business, Chief Executive Robert Apatoff says print products still account for the majority of its sales.
Anyone who thinks old-fashioned folded maps are going away should think again, according to Apatoff.
"It's kind of like saying newspapers are going to disappear," he said in an interview at the company's headquarters north of Chicago. "There's going to be some changes in how they're used, but people still want to open them and read them with their coffee.
"Same thing with trip planning. People will continue to want to be able to consume maps this way," he said, even if they use maps or atlases together with hand-held devices or the Internet.
More maps are sold now than ever before, according to the International Map Trade Association. Rand McNally is by far the best-known map publisher, with competitors including American Map and Universal Map.
Consequences remain from the slow start on the Web.
An analysis of traffic on map sites by comScore Media Metrix found just 1.6 million visits to randmcnally.com last month, down 11 percent from a year earlier and dwarfed by those to Maps.com (71.4 million), Mapquest (48.6 million) Google Maps (23.4 million) and Yahoo Maps (20 million).
Tim Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University, thinks one of the biggest problems for Rand McNally is that so many maps are available for free.
"They have an incredible history and product lineup," Calkins said. "The challenge is the world has changed so much in the last decade that the need for their core product has really diminished."
That's not the view of Apatoff, a veteran marketing executive who since arriving as president and CEO in June 2003 has tried to reinvigorate what many saw as a tired brand through innovation, without abandoning the company's strengths.
Rand McNally closed its 25 retail stores in 2003 to cut costs as part of the makeover, but it still sells maps and other paper products in over 55,000 retail stores in North America.