Their busi­ness is a mov­ing ex­pe­ri­ence

Von Paris cel­e­brates 125 years of get­ting peo­ple where they need to be

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NEWS - By Mered­ith Cohn

It was 1892 when a young Ger­man im­mi­grant named Eligius von Paris ac­quired a horse and cart and be­gan haul­ing home goods for other im­mi­grants who landed in High­land­town and went to work in Bal­ti­more’s brew­eries.

Even­tu­ally the horses were put out to pas­ture, but the busi­ness — now known as Von Paris Mov­ing & Stor­age — will mark its 125th an­niver­sary Fri­day as one of the re­gion’s largest movers, able to trans­port home and busi­ness items most places in the world.

“My grand­fa­ther and his son, my fa­ther, saw a need in the com­mu­nity,” said Lee von Paris, the chair­man emer­i­tus, ex­plain­ing the en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit that launched the com­pany.

Lee, 87, spent more than seven decades work­ing for and run­ning the com­pany, turn­ing it over years ago to the next lead­ers. Some rel­a­tives came di­rectly into the fold, learn­ing the busi­ness in the ware­house or on a truck. Oth­ers, both men and women, have col­lected ad­vanced de­grees and ex­pe­ri­ence else­where be­fore re­turn­ing to the name­sake busi­ness.

In all, there are now 15 fam­ily mem­bers span­ning four gen­er­a­tions, and more than 100 em­ploy­ees plus driv­ers, work­ing at the com­pany.

Head­quar­tered in Sav­age, Von Paris has more than a half-dozen sales of­fices and three big stor­age fa­cil­i­ties around the re­gion filled with ev­ery­thing from med­i­cal records stacked neatly to the vaulted ceil­ing to fine in­stru­ments kept in cli­mate-con­trolled rooms.

The fam­ily says it gets a sense of sat­is­fac­tion car­ing for trea­sured be­long­ings and help­ing peo­ple get a smooth start to a new per­sonal or pro­fes­sional life.

“We can move any­one from any­where in the world to any­where else,” said John von Paris, the cur­rent pres­i­dent and CEO.

That’s a long way from the days when com­pany equip­ment was fu­eled with hay. The com­pany ac­quired a truck in 1915 and had three by 1919, one of which re­mains in the Sav­age head­quar­ters build­ing. Von Paris now has 58 trail­ers and 42 mov­ing vans and trac­tors to pull trail­ers.

Fam­ily mem­bers credit the com­pany’s longevity to care­ful han­dling of peo­ple’s pos­ses­sions and at­ten­tion to rep­u­ta­tion. But there also were busi­ness de­ci­sions, in­clud­ing ex­pan­sion through ac­qui­si­tion and di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion. (The pri­vate com­pany doesn’t re­lease sales in­for­ma­tion.)

Von Paris has added doc­u­ment man­age­ment, and more re­cently mov­ing ser­vices for se­niors.

“We’re will­ing to change,” said Peggy Feeney, the com­pany’s ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent. “We’re still a fam­ily busi­ness but now we’re a fam­ily of busi­nesses, too.”

The ef­forts helped the com­pany sur­vive wars, re­ces­sions and a slew of com­pe­ti­tion from count­less other mov­ing com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing those that con­sist of lit­tle more than a guy with a truck.

The clos­est the com­pany came to fail­ing was dur­ing the De­pres­sion. Lee von Paris said his fa­ther bor­rowed against a $10,000 life in­sur­ance pol­icy to pay the mort­gage and help the com­pany sur­vive.

That’s not to say there haven’t been other chal­lenges.

Bill Wachter, chair­man of the com­pany’s board, said for years af­ter the in­fa­mous Mayflower trucks came in the night to move the Bal­ti­more Colts to In­di­anapo­lis in 1984, fam­ily mem­bers re­peat­edly had to tell call­ers it wasn’t them.

The Von Paris com­pany did move the team that would be­come the Ravens from Cleve­land to Bal­ti­more in 1996. Though some fans in Ohio might still har­bor hard feel­ings, John von Paris said it was im­por­tant to the fam­ily that the Browns’ name and mem­o­ra­bilia stayed in Cleve­land.

Bob Eller, now se­nior vice pres­i­dent of op­er­a­tion for the Ravens, was the one who hired Von Paris. A Bal­ti­more na­tive in Cleve­land at the time, he in­ter­viewed five lo­cal com­pa­nies and said Von Paris stood out. It was the firm’s at­ten­tion to de­tail and other things, but it wasn’t lost on him that the com­pany had thrived for more than a cen­tury.

He said the plan­ning and move were mon­u­men­tal un­der­tak­ings, and los­ing or dam­ag­ing a coach’s fur­ni­ture or the team’s equip­ment weighed heav­ily on his mind. But all went smoothly, earn­ing Von Paris on­go­ing busi­ness. The com­pany still moves coaches’, play­ers’ and the team’s items.

For years, when the team headed to West­min­ster for sum­mer train­ing camp, Von Paris would metic­u­lously dis­as­sem­ble the vast weight room in Owings Mills and re­assem­ble it at McDaniel Col­lege, and then take it all back again, Eller said.

He said that level of care might mean that some peo­ple don’t know about the com­pany.

“They’re like of­fen­sive line­man: When you don’t hear their name, they’re not flagged for any penal­ties, and that’s a good thing,” Eller said.

Louis Cam­pion, pres­i­dent of the Mary­land Mo­tor Truck As­so­ci­a­tion, agreed that Von Paris’ longevity says some­thing in an in­dus­try where play­ers come and go and of­ten end up crit­i­cized on­line. Some, he said, are just not care­ful with peo­ple’s pos­ses­sions. And “rogue op­er­a­tors” that of­fer low­ball es­ti­mates only to later in­flate charges is a grow­ing prob­lem. The as­so­ci­a­tion of­fers aid in find­ing movers on its web­site.

Still, any com­pany, in­clud­ing Von Paris, is go­ing to end up with neg­a­tive re­views on Yelp and other sites. Cam­pion said mov­ing can be stress­ful, of­ten life-al­ter­ing, when peo­ple have to put some of their most pre­cious be­long­ings in boxes on a truck. They are right­fully touchy, he said.

The com­pa­nies that last tend to of­fer good cus­tomer ser­vice when some­thing goes wrong, he said.

Cam­pion said he knows of no mov­ing com­pany that has been around as long as Von Paris. The as­so­ci­a­tion has a sub­group called the Mary­land Movers Con­fer­ence, with 50 to 60 mov­ing com­pa­nies and an­other 40 or so that are sup­pli­ers or oth­er­wise re­lated to the in­dus­try.

“Truck­ing has a lot of fam­ily busi­nesses, but the chal­lenge is pass­ing it from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion,” he said. “What’s unique is [Von Paris’] longevity.”

KARL MERTON FERRON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

From left, Peggy Feeney, John von Paris, Lee von Paris and Bill Wachter pose in­side the stor­age fa­cil­ity at Von Paris Mov­ing & Stor­age. The com­pany opened in 1892.

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