Value Added: The History Factory Brings Companies' Pasts to Life
One of my favorite subjects is business history. And one of my favorite books on that subject is Joseph Frazier Wall's biography of steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie.
I could go on about Carnegie, who wasn't perfect but was a business genius. His philanthropic legacy includes Carnegie Hall, the Carnegie libraries, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and -- believe it or not -- the precursor to the TIAA-CREF retirement fund. Look it up.
When Bruce Weindruch, founder of a D.C. area business called the History Factory, told me it was Prof. Wall who launched him on his career path chronicling the history of business, well, let's just say Bruce and I had a lot to talk about. Weindruch is a business-history junkie who can wax for hours on the financial genius of Andrew Mellon (Alcoa, Gulf Oil) or the organizational skills of Alfred P. Sloan (General Motors).
Weindruch, 55, has done a cool thing. He has taken the subject of business history and found a way to build a successful business around it. The History Factory builds Web sites, makes films, writes books and creates exhibits for clients around the world, be they massive oil producers such as Saudi Aramco or the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel in downtown Washington.
He leads a team of 35 historians, archivists, library scientists, writers, curators, designers and businesspeople at the company's home office in Chantilly. And he makes a nice living doing it.
"This is what you do when you commercialize a traditionally academic discipline," Weindruch said.
When clothier Brooks Brothers wanted to mark its 175th anniversary, Weindruch's team combed the company's records to publish a book and create a corporate celebration. When Shell Oil wanted a sprawling museum for company offices in Houston, the History Factory designed it.
The company's 30,000-square-foot storage facility is a mini-Smithsonian filled with corporate memorabilia. Want to view an early film from inventor Thomas Edison? How about the original conceptual drawings of a Subaru? What about iconic packaging from one of America's favorite household brands?
The storage facility represents "a very considerable revenue source" for the History Factory, which Weindruch said will gross more than $10 million this year. Weindruch, who owns half the company and shoots for a 20 percent profit margin, draws a salary that I estimate to be in the mid-six figures.
Projects range from $50,000 for archive research to more than $1 million for a full-blown multimedia exhibition or museum. Most fees range from $500,000 to "low seven figures."
"Our clients tend to be . . . those companies that have extremely strong cultures, loyal employees and customers," he said.
Weindruch comes from business. He grew up in Iowa, where his grandfather founded a grocery chain that was eventually sold to Sara Lee. He studied under Wall at Grinnell College, where Wall complained that business history was not adequately covered in college curriculums.