Bad Mapmaking Directs Four To Profitable Enterprise

Bringing Attention To Low-quality Work Invited A Challenge

April 07, 1991|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Staff writer

Scott B. Edmonds thought a piece of junk mail would be a great teaching tool, but he had no idea it would start a business that would gross $1 million a year.

The mailer he got in 1985 was from Federal Express, and it contained a map that Edmonds decided to use as an example of bad mapmaking for a cartography class he was teaching at the University of Maryland.

He and four colleagues in the university's Cartographic Services returned the map to Federal Express with a critique and suggestions on how to make a better one.

"I thought they were going to call back and rip my head off, but they called back and they were very interested."

At the time, Edmonds recalls, "we never thought about breaking away from the university."

But when Federal Express executivesgave them a purchase order for $300,000 worth of maps, "it was either turn down the contract or break away."

So the cartographers borrowed $40,000 on the strength of the contract and opened their own operation in 3,500 square feet of office space on Red Branch Road in Columbia.

Five years later, Edmonds and his fellow cartographers, as Maryland CartoGraphics Inc. in Columbia, are still doing business with Federal Express, as well as with some of the nation's largest textbook publishers and the world's largest hotel chain. Edmonds says he knows of only two other companies in the nation that compete for the same type of business.

Now president of the company at age 38, Edmonds recently returned from the Paris headquarters of an internationallaw firm that has commissioned his company to map boundary disputes between the warring African nations of Libya and Chad. The

maps will be used in arguments before the World Court.

Since opening, thecompany has taken three major steps to expand and improve its business.

First, it increased its production speed two years ago by spending more than $100,000 to buy four Apple McIntosh computer workstations and begin a slow conversion from traditional hand-scribed mappingto computer-generated maps and the new service of graphs and charts.

The computers cut about five hours off of their average manual production time of about 14 hours.

The company also shifted from direct-mail marketing last July when it hired a cartographer as its first sales representative.

"Some places, until they see a face, don'trecognize you as a company," Edmonds said.

In October, the company outgrew its original office and moved to a 6,000-square-foot officeon Rumsey Road about a mile from its first home.

At $35 an hour, Edmonds says Maryland CartoGraphics' rate is competitive and the company still enjoys a 15 percent to 20 percent profit margin.

"There are a lot of people who will make maps in their basement," he explains, but those small operations can't deliver when publishers call to say, 'Here's 150 maps. We need them in 2 1/2 months.' "

With 15 cartographers, Edmonds' company can easily turn out 100 maps a month.

Unlike road map companies such as Rand McNally and the locally dominant Alexandria Drafting Co., CartoGraphics does not publish its maps.Rather, it composes maps for other companies to publish.

About 70percent of the company's business is from a dozen or so textbook companies, most notably Houghton Mifflin Co. and McMillan Publishing Co.

The company also creates maps for Choice Hotels International, formerly Quality International and franchiser of more hotels than any other chain in the world.

Choice publishes a travel guide every sixmonths, and the guide includes separate road maps showing directionsto each hotel.

With 2,561 hotels open or under development in 20 countries, that client alone is sure to keep business humming for theMaryland CartoGraphics' staff.

"We have been opening a hotel for one a day on average for some time, so these people have lots of workcut out for them," said Eileen McCarthy Griffin, spokeswoman for theSilver Spring-based hotel chain.

Besides jobs for corporate clients across the nation, Maryland CartoGraphics has also done some work for the Rouse Co., creating maps that show developments in the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

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