Columbus, Ohio USA
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From Horse-drawn to High Tech
Fireproof Storage Spans the Century
by Jeff Bell
January 2000

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Just a brief stroll from the gallery district, the Fireproof building at 1024 N. High Street has long been a familiar Short North landmark.

Once a horse-drawn business that moved household goods for Columbus' wealthiest families, Fireproof Records Center now uses the information superhighway to transport the business records of many of the city's leading corporations.

It now is just as common to spot a computer at the company's turn-of-the- century building at 1024 N. High St. as it is to see a furniture dolly. But some things remain fixed in time at Fireproof: 12- to 18-inch-thick concrete walls and floors, vault-like storage rooms, hulking fire doors, a tradition of family ownership, and status as a Short North landmark. After all, it's hard to miss the signature, black- and-white "Fireproof Warehouse and Storage Co." sign that towers above the front entrance of the five-story building.

A sense of history pervades the place, even though there is a definite feel of the "now" at Fireproof. The juxtaposition of past and present is evident in the company's print ads. On one hand, they say, "Since 1906: Central Ohio's Oldest & Most Experienced Records Center." Then they go on to list such new-fangled services as information management software, imaging solutions and computerized, bar-coded "real time" inventory control and indexing.

Such high-tech possibilities could not have been imagined in 1906 when the front section of the Fireproof building was constructed. Three years earlier, Orville and Wilbur Wright made their first controlled airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., and Henry Ford was working out the kinks in what was to become the first assembly line.

Fireproof was owned by the Murrin family from its inception until 1970, according to Ed James, Fireproof's chief executive officer and principal owner today. Jim Murrin served as Fireproof's president and chairman for decades.

"The business was moving and storage for all those years," James recalls. "They used wagons and horses at first and shipped a lot by rail. They bought their first truck in 1916."

That was about the time when the last section of the Fireproof building – the rear part – was completed. James says its sturdy, fireproof concrete construction appealed to the city's more affluent residents who would put their furniture, Oriental rugs, fine crystal, works of art and other valuables in storage while spending the winter in warmer climates.

Fireproof provides around-the-clock service under the direction of experienced management. Seated: Ed James, CEO; Standing: Susan Eichinger, President and Chief Operating Officer, and Michael James, Vice President

One room, heated by steam radiators, was set aside for pianos. A large, bank-style vault in the front office held the diamonds, gold, silver and other jewels that didn't make the trip south with their wealthy owners. The paintings of noted Columbus artist Emerson Burkhart were also stored at Fireproof for many years.

The building is so rock solid, James notes, that it served as a civil defense center during World War II. "No one could build anything like this today," he says. "You couldn't afford to – too much concrete."

In the 1930s, Fireproof became one of the founding agents for Allied Van Lines. Back then, Allied was a new cooperative-type concept among moving companies. The alliance gave them return loads when they ventured beyond their local territories.

It was the Allied connection that led James to Fireproof. He was a general manager for the moving company in the Dayton area in the 1960s when he became friends with William Palmer, the long-time Fireproof general manager under the Murrins' ownership. In 1970, James and Palmer formed a partnership to buy the company from Willetta Murrin.

Fireproof was still in the household moving business at that point in its history. However, it began to store business records for local companies in the late 1970s. A full-bore shift to that market niche began in 1981 after the moving industry was deregulated by Congress.

"I saw [records storage] as a better business and less labor intensive," says James, who became Fireproof's principal after Palmer retired in 1981. "Deregulation took a dramatic toll on the [moving] industry. People were pricing to get the business but didn't know what the costs were."

By 1985, Fireproof had stopped moving and storing household goods as it fully concentrated its efforts on the records storage business. James says outsourcing the management of records was a foreign concept to most Columbus businesses at that time.

"In the early years, we had to educate the marketplace about what we do," he remembers. "Basically, we sell economy of scale – you can store records less expensively off-site than you can on-site." That message appeals to companies that don't want to use high-rent office space for records that can be stored and managed less expensively in Fireproof's cavernous warehouses.

In addition to 80,000 square feet at 1024 N. High St., Fireproof has 220,000 square feet of warehouse space off West Mound Street and 84,000 square feet in Grove City. That allows the company to offer four types of storage: standard warehouse space for records, climate-controlled vaults, open-shelf filing systems and digital systems.

The climate-controlled vaults, located in the original Fireproof building, are protected with fire suppression systems to safeguard the computer back-up tapes, microfilm, and optical and digital media stored within them. Such back-ups are critical to getting a business up and running again should some sort of disaster wipe out its computer facilities.

The company also touts its tight security measures. "No one can get into this facility unescorted," says Michael James, Fireproof vice president. "That's a big policy with us. It's why people store their documents here – confidentiality and no risk."

He notes Fireproof pulls 150,000 to 200,000 items a month for customers. It makes an average of 300 to 350 deliveries and pick-ups of documents per day. Around-the-clock service is offered, and life-and-death medical documents needed by hospitals are delivered within an hour of the request.

Companies can store their documents the old-fashioned way – in a box on a shelf – or go the high-tech route. "Scan on Demand" gives customers on-line access to hard copy documents stored at Fireproof. The company's digital warehouse enables customers to convert paper documents to digital images and store them at Fireproof. The document conversion work can be done at the customer's place of business.

Fireproof also offers consulting services on disaster recovery plans, record retention policies and overall information management planning. "The challenge for us is to continually diversify," Michael James says. "Anyone can store a box. Where we excel is with all the value-added services we offer. Not many companies do all of what we do. We benefit from being a one-stop shop."

Another selling point is the expertise and attitude of Fireproof's employees, says Susan Eichinger, Fireproof's president and chief operating officer. Many of the key personnel have been with the company 10 years or more, while the bulk of the 60-person staff has been on board at least five years.

"They truly understand records and know the client's experience," says Eichinger, a Fireproof employee since 1983 and president since 1996. "We have people who just don't 'do' customer service but believe it's the right thing to do."

She and the Jameses say Fireproof's location in the Short North continues to be an asset because of its proximity to the area's major highways. They also are encouraged by redevelopment efforts that are lifting the look and image of the neighborhood.

"This building is such a plus for us," Eichinger says. "Everyone is so familiar with it. We say our name, and they say, 'Oh yeah, the Fireproof building on High Street.'"

 Jeff Bell is a freelance writer who lives in Bexley.

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