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`History Factory' Turns Company Lore Into Profit

BRUCE WEINDRUCH owns an unusual factory in Washington D.C. His three-story "factory" does not produce cars or toys or spaghetti. It turns out business histories for some of the nation's major corporations.

Mr. Weindruch, who founded the History Factory in 1979, maintains archives for 18 companies, produces books and videos for corporate anniversaries, and consults on history.

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Last year his firm generated $3 million in sales, up from $2 million in 1991. He has more than 80 clients, including Brooks Brothers, Marriott Inc., and the Gillette Company.

"In 1979 I didn't know anything about business or the economy," says Weindruch, a former project designer for the Smithsonian Institution. But "I was always interested in the history of business." When asked by some local companies to do historical projects in the late 1970s, he came up with the idea of opening up his own business.

Some individuals specialize in writing company histories, making corporate documentaries, or helping firms set up their own museums. But, says Weindruch, no one else has combined all these functions under one roof.

Armed with a personal computer, which enabled him to store huge amounts of historical data, he began to knock on the doors of corporations. Unfortunately, at that time companies "were extremely concerned about the economy," he says. "And the last thing that they wanted to hear was about history." But he says some told him, "If you can make our history useful, we'll consider keeping it." A sense of direction

As many companies went through mergers and acquisitions and reduced their work forces in recent years, some firms began to realize that they needed to provide their remaining employees with a sense of direction and stability. The only way to do that was to go back to the company's own history and to find out how similar challenges were faced before, Weindruch says. Corporate history includes "hidden assets" that can be used as effective tools for training new employees, for advertising, and for sharehold er relations, he says.

"History helps us shape the future of our company," says Ronald Culp, spokesman for the 53-year-old Sara Lee Corporation. Quite often, he says, Sara Lee uses statements from its founder Nathan Cummings or photos of him for promotional purpose. But the firm had a tough time finding those artifacts because of the lack of organized archives. So four years ago, it sent a tractor-trailer load of materials, such as old photos, hand-written minutes, and memorabilia, to the History Factory.

"We had no idea what we were sending them," Mr. Culp laughs.

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In the Factory, these items were classified and stored and cataloged on computer. That enables Weindruch to retrieve any historical document in seconds. Sara Lee spends $35,000 to $45,000 a year for the service, but this is much cheaper than having its own archives, Culp notes. "It literally freed up our [expensive] office space in Chicago."

According to the Society of American Archivists, about 150 corporations have their own archives in the US. Weindruch, who charges $550 per linear foot of shelf space to process business documents, says maintaining archives is a major part of his business. On average, this costs a client about $25,000 per year, he says.

At any given moment, his 21 employees are working on 30 to 35 projects. Last year, the History Factory was asked to write a book about Mallinckrodt, a chemical firm in St. Louis, as part of its 125th anniversary celebration. In 1989, the company was split into two separate firms, Mallinckrodt Medical Inc. and Mallinckrodt Specialty Chemicals Company. Weindruch says his staff had to go through the firm's entire past to figure out what history belonged to which company. History in human form

He was given less than six months to finish the project. He also produced a show at the Fox Theater for Mallinckrodt's employees. At the show he hired an actor to portray both the firm's founder and his son. By using the actor, "I brought the founder and the son back to life.... People like to see their history in a human form."

Weindruch says his firm provided background footage for the recent public television series "The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power." The program also made general use of oral histories.

That's an area for which Weindruch sees great potential. He produces video tapes of oral histories for training new workers.

"No client ever said, `Dig into our history and find all the negative things and make them available to the public,' " Weindruch says. Yet he recommends that his clients not hide the "dark side" of their company's past. For example, a chemical firm was involved with an atomic project in 1940s. Despite current public antinuclear sentiment, at that time the project was considered a patriotic endeavor. Such "negative" events can be put into the right context, he says. "You can't just whitewash history."

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