At the forefront of mapmaking


Cartography: As technology advances, David DeLorme's company finds news ways for travelers to make their way from here to there.

March 13, 2000|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

YARMOUTH, Maine -- When you stand in the lobby of DeLorme Publishing Co., there is no doubt about your place in the universe.

Dominating the three-story glass atrium that faces U.S. 1 is a rotating, full-color globe that fairly shouts YOU ARE HERE.

As one of the world's largest map producers, DeLorme is out to smash that oft-spoken Maine-ism that you can't get there from here. Not only can you get there, but DeLorme will show you how: on paper, on CD-ROM, on DVD.

Traveling sales people, sailors and outdoors lovers have made David DeLorme a rich man in the 24 years since he designed his first map on a kitchen table and peddled it from the back of an ancient Dodge van. His company, privately held, employs about 210 people and had estimated sales in 1998 of $20 million.

With his bushy gray beard, casual clothes and funky footwear, DeLorme, 53, seems like Maine's answer to those other seemingly unbusinesslike New England entrepreneurs, Ben and Jerry. And like those two Vermont ice cream makers, who gave us Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey, DeLorme has found ways to take an old product -- maps -- and make them entirely new.

He created the first world atlas on CD-ROM in 1986. His U.S. street atlas software in 1991 also was a first. He had a Web site showing the company's products in 1994. And his newest computerized maps can be made three-dimensional or allow the user to tilt or pan the image with the click of a mouse.

Sometimes DeLorme gets a little bit ahead of the market -- the world atlas was ready before most people had disc drives. He insists he would "rather be seven years ahead than seven seconds behind."

He also has gotten on the wrong side of some people -- employees and federal bureaucrats. That, he explains, is what happens to pioneers. Year in and year out, DeLorme dazzles the map-making and software worlds by finding "the balance between what could be and what can be," as he likes to say.

The man who has provided road maps for millions of people started adult life without much direction. After serving in Vietnam, he flunked out of business school and dropped out of college. Then, while on a fishing trip deep in Maine's northern woods, DeLorme came to a fork in the road. Literally. His map didn't show one.

"I can make a better map than this," he thought, and then he did.

At his kitchen table DeLorme drew his detailed vision of Maine, using state transportation maps and his knowledge of the back roads, paved and dirt. He went from store to store, selling the 1976 Maine Atlas and Gazetteer from the back of his van.

The Maine atlas was followed a year later by the New Hampshire edition and then other New England states'. Last year, the company completed the series of U.S. maps with New Jersey.

"The Gazetteers provided the economic foundation to do the other products," says company spokeswoman Amy Head.

By 1984, DeLorme was playing with computers, intrigued by the potential to put vast amounts of information on a plastic disk. His tinkering led to the world atlas, which didn't earn him any customers, but did attract the interest of the Pentagon and other federal agencies.

DeLorme's cartographers created a database and CD-ROM map of Iraq and surrounding countries in less than a week during the Persian Gulf war in 1991. The company provided a similar service for the United Nations during the civil war in Rwanda. At one point, government contracts accounted for 40 percent of DeLorme's business.

But the iconoclastic Maine native wasn't above biting the hand that fed him. In 1994, he filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to get access to more than 400 computer files used to create nautical charts.

DeLorme, an avid sailor, realized the value of the data that were used to develop the Global Positioning System, which uses a series of satellites to give exact navigational positions. His lawyers argued that everyone should have access to the digital information.

NOAA successfully blocked him in federal court, saying that the data were available on paper and that what DeLorme was asking for belonged, in part, to several private companies that had worked with the government to create it.

Last year, DeLorme paid a $780,000 fine after pleading guilty in federal court to contract violations involving the Defense Department. Federal investigators accused the company of double billing, using restricted data supplied by the military in 1987 for one project to create new software that it then sold to other federal agencies.

DeLorme officials say the company developed the software at its own expense, and that they agreed to the plea bargain to save time and millions of dollars in legal fees.

Internally, DeLorme has felt some tremors as well. More than a third of the company's employees left in 1995, some hinting that they could no longer work for the mercurial founder, who sometimes conducts business from his 65-foot yacht in Casco Bay.

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