Rand McNally image loses a bit of luster

December 11, 2020

John Bendel


Recent problems with Rand McNally’s ELD services – almost a weeklong shutdown that forced thousands of drivers back to paper logs – reminded me of how fondly I always regarded the company. You see, I love maps. Always have. Not a bad trait for an LTL driver.

But Rand McNally, despite its admirable efforts at transparency and crisis control, came away with something like a black eye.

Many of my working maps were not Rand McNally but from a publisher called Hammond Maps that printed spiral-bound atlases of New York City and surrounding counties. Since I often found myself filling in for sick or vacationing drivers, I carried around a small stack of Hammond atlases. I still recall navigating a B-52 Mack and 40-foot trailer full of dog food for a dozen Brooklyn bodegas holding a Hammond map on the steering wheel. It was snowing heavily. Not the smartest thing I’ve ever done.

According to Wikipedia, Hammond was launched by Caleb Hammond, who based the company in Maplewood, N.J. At the time, Caleb worked for another map company that was so angry with him they did not show the name Maplewood on their maps for decades.

That company was Rand McNally.

Yeah, it was a stupid thing for them to do, but as good as Hammond was, Rand McNally was still my favorite. The name sounds like a Scottish action hero, doesn’t it?

I liked seeing Rand McNally in small letters at the bottom of free gas station maps, the one-piece kind. Young people don’t remember them, but we older folks recall that once you unfolded a one-piece gas company map, you could never refold it right.

Rand McNally began in 1854 in Chicago as a printer of train tickets and such. The company published its first map in 1872. So, Rand McNally was a resource in trucking from its earliest days. In the 1930s, Rand McNally became deeply involved with trucking.

Back then, the truckload industry as we think of it did not exist. Poor roads made much city-to-city traffic impractical while LTL moved by rail. Small shipments moved through the Railway Express Agency. Larger LTL was handled by commercial car loaders. Freight was sorted by destination as it would be at an LTL terminal and loaded onto box cars for line haul. Local haulage at both ends was provided first by horse-drawn wagons and then by trucks.

Among the first true truckload carriers were household movers who priced the linehaul portion of their moves by the mile. It was the only way to set rates that could reasonably be compared by customers like the U.S. War Department (now the Defense Department).

In fact, the War Department began pushing household movers to come up with rating standards.

So, in 1936, the Household Goods Carriers Association (now the American Movers and Storage Association) asked Rand McNally to solve the problem.

Rand McNally found the only reliable way to establish road miles was through government data at the county and state levels. County road departments maintained most roads and assigned work by segment, which might begin at one crossroad and end at another or maybe at a familiar landmark. The records for each segment included its length in miles and information like weight and speed limits.

Rand McNally gathered and consolidated segment records from all over the country. In places with hundreds of roads, there were thousands of segments. Rand McNally had records on millions of road segments they could superimpose on maps to add up actual mileage on a route. Now, of course, computers add up mileage, create routes and reroute as necessary on the fly. Road segments, originally created to help county road crews do their job, became the bedrock of truckload cost structure.

Rand McNally was once the biggest, baddest map company on the continent. But Rand McNally’s business was upended by the internet when people began using free online map services. The first with a major impact was MapQuest, which launched in 1996. Maybe it was coincidence and maybe not, but the following year, the McNally family sold their majority interest in the company.

MapQuest was probably a challenge Rand McNally could have overcome.

But Rand McNally was an ink-on-paper publisher, and MapQuest was just the beginning of a massive shift to pixels on computer screens. Maybe the McNally family was just not up for the investment that a fight like that would cost.

Rand McNally did make their software and maps available electronically, but not for consumers, at least not at first. Large fleets and other customers were served over private connections. Sticking to that system too long in the face of massive adoption of PCs put Rand McNally at a competitive disadvantage.

A young startup challenger named ALK Technologies put maps on the internet for truckers with PCs and laptops. Rand McNally had to follow suit, but with less vigor and fewer resources than ALK and others. Today the company remains overshadowed in both business and consumer markets by competitors like Google Maps.

In 2003, I visited Rand McNally headquarters as an editor for Heavy Duty Trucking magazine. The building had gone up in 1952 to house virtually all the company’s functions, including printing. By 2003, things were different. The company president I met was the sixth in 10 years.

The six-story building itself felt ghostly. Rand McNally occupied only part of it. Other unrented parts were empty. It would be sold five years later, and the Rand McNally name, while still recognizable, would fade in the public consciousness, especially in the consumer realm.

In trucking, the Rand McNally name is still recognized, but with less enthusiasm than in prior years. The company’s recent bout with what it called a “cyber incident” hasn’t helped restore that enthusiasm.

Even with services restored, Rand McNally has suffered another blow to its image. Our Scottish superhero has taken one on the chin. LL