BY AMANDA BRONSTAD
When Doug Williams took over his grandfather’s storage and trucking business more than 20 years ago, the company’s warehouse was loaded with old-line goods such as steel and tires.
But he saw a future in something his grandfather never imagined: storing boxes stuffed with documents.
“Manufacturing in the ’80s started to diminish; services started to grow,” said Williams, vice president of Williams Records Management, who runs the company with his brother, Mark. “And their products were paper and files that had to go off-site.”
The 83-year-old firm based in Vernon, near Los Angeles, reflecting changes in the local economy, stores not only paper files but electronic data. Among its clients are entertainment studios, law firms and hospitals, which collectively store their movie reels, legal documents and X-rays, all retrievable within hours.
And it has responded to the growth of e-mail and electronic documents by installing broadband connections, electronic equipment and a vault to store computer information and other high-tech media.
“The revenues might not be as high, but the profit margins are much better,” said Williams of the document storage business.
It’s a far cry from the original business that saw tires and other products move in and out of the warehouse on a regular schedule. Those gritty roots are evident at the first sight of its concrete warehouse, with lettering etched on the outside in cracked and peeling paint.
John J. Williams founded his company after buying a Ford truck for $25 “and a handshake,” Doug Williams said. A former New Yorker who began delivering ice and coal after serving in World War I, the eldest Williams built a fleet of trucks stationed in downtown Los Angeles and delivering steel and industrial parts throughout the region.
After World War II, the firm, then Williams Transportation and Storage Co., grew along with the increased manufacturing of tires, aluminum, steel and glass. The Williams trucks began loading many of the materials on trains bound for the East Coast.
“I’d ride with the drivers on the trucks,” said Doug Williams, who was 8 years old in the early 1960s when his grandfather turned the business over to his two sons, including Williams’ father, David.
At its peak in the 1960s and 1970s, the company had $20 million in revenues and hundreds of employees, prompting a move into the warehouse that the old Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. once occupied.
But by the time the family’s third generation took over in the early 1980s, the business faced a different world. Manufacturing had declined and inventories were being cut back, especially with the beginning of just-in-time distribution, where supplies and materials are shipped on an as-needed basis.
But the youngest Williams recognized that accounting, law and other professional service firms were proliferating , and along with it the use of fax machines, printers and computers, all of which begat a growing mountain of paper.
The brothers changed the company’s focus (along with its name). The plan was to store paper documents in the warehouse, while providing additional services such as easy retrieval.
The brothers sold the transportation and trucking part of the business while retaining a small industrial warehouse operation that made $1.2 million per year. At that time, the paper storage side of the business had no revenues and one employee: Mark Williams.
“It was doing nothing,” he said. “When we got our first account, it was $30 per month.”
After some resistance, the brothers convinced several big downtown firms that were paying top dollar for their office space to store their documents off-site for pennies per box.
One of the first customers was Loeb & Loeb, a Los Angeles-based law firm, which, like most, found that storing documents at its pricey Century City offices costs far more per square foot than storing it in someone else’s warehouse.
Firm administrator Philip Hacker said he continues to use Williams because the company offers lower prices and better service than some of the larger storage companies. He also likes being able to have old legal documents, patents or personnel files delivered to him on a rushed basis, within hours.
The company currently charges a minimum $60 monthly fee for the storage of about 200 boxes or digital tapes. Anything above that runs about 30 cents per box or tape.
Competition comes from local companies and a number of national and international firms that have made headway in the Los Angeles market, including Boston-based Iron Mountain Inc. and Recall Corp., a subsidiary of Brambles Industries DLC Group.
All told, there are about 2,000 records management firms in the United States, according to Jim Booth, the executive director of Professional Records and Information Services Management, who notes that nearly all the trade association’s members have less than $3 million in revenue. Smaller firms, Booth said, provide the kind of flexibility and customer service that big public storage firms lack. “It’s a relationship-based business,” said Doug Williams.
And it’s going increasingly high-tech. So the brothers have responded by investing more of their capital into digital storage. About a decade ago, Williams launched a Web site and installed a high-bandwidth Internet line so customers could send data to be stored directly to the company.
The brothers also installed a $1 million vault to store valuable electronic and other data. About 20 percent of its clients store compact discs, tape backups, microfilm and film reels in the vault at a constant temperature of 60 degrees. It also has security camera, controlled access , and can withstand extreme heat in the case of a fire.
Amanda Bronstad writes for the
Los Angeles Business Journal.