If you walk through the underground stacks of a university library and let your imagination run amok, you can imagine the thousands upon thousands of books, stacked on head-high shelves, each with a different story to tell.

If you walk into the Robbinsville facility of Docusafe, you see thousands upon thousands of boxes, stacked giant high. They also have a story to tell — of someone’s happy or sad past or of some company’s prosperous or disastrous history. Records from law firms, accounting firms, and insurance companies — the box-filled racks march down the sides of the cavernous warehouse.

Looking down the middle aisle, wide enough for two trucks to pass, the 30-foot racks stretch nearly the length of two football fields. They seem to go on forever. Arching over the aisle, like the vaulted trusses of a cathedral, hang more racks, with more shelves, holding more boxes.

Parked in one corner, fork-lifts wait to zoom up and down the aisle to retrieve boxes. It’s not dead storage, it’s “at the ready” storage. The fork-lifts feed 10 trucks, which fan out daily to deliver and pick up boxes. In another corner, room-size vaults are stocked with computer tapes and super valuable documents.

Ten years ago Docusafe touted its concrete vault as merely a place to store the family silver. Docusafe is a sister company to Bohren’s Moving and Storage, which had recently moved from its in-town location on Alexander Road to warehouse territory near the New Jersey Turnpike.

Now DocuSafe has 172,000 square feet and stores a million boxes and a million computer tapes. It has four vaults, each more high tech than the concrete one. These fireproof vaults have a moisture barrier, electro magnetic shielding, and the kind of ceramic insulation core used on space shuttles. DocuSafe is not your grandmother’s storage facility, it’s an archival cathedral.

Both Bohren’s and DocuSafe are owned by the members of the Froehlich family. With two-dozen employees, DocuSafe is expanding within its existing space by putting up more 30-foot racks in the 20,000 square feet that remain empty in the existing building. By the end of next year or early in 2011, it will expand to a second facility, perhaps in North Jersey at the Raritan Center.

Ed Bohren founded the business in 1924 and was succeeded by his son-in-law, Warren Froehlich. Ted Froehlich, one of Warren’s four sons, carried the business forward and was named president when his father died. Now Ted is the CEO and his two daughters are involved in the business. Denise Hewitt is president of Bohren’s, the moving company, and Louise Froehlich is the vice president; it qualifies as a woman-owned business.

Both attended West-Windsor Plainsboro High School (now WW-P South). Denise went to Wagner College and Louise, who graduated from Westchester University in 1989, handles human resources, marketing, and payroll for 103 employees (23 of them at DocuSafe).

DocuSafe is not your grandmother’s storage shed, but it might even be less expensive than hers. When grandma made her downsizing move and put her stuff in a roadside facility, she almost certainly paid for extra space she did not use.

According to DocuSafe’s general manager, Marvin Parker, that’s because grandma’s boxes could stack only so high, and all that empty space at the top went to waste, whereas a place like DocuSafe charges by the box. Its rates are as low as $50 per month for up to 200 boxes on shelves or $65 for a smaller number of boxes in the vault.

Parker and his wife, a clinical social worker, live in Hunterdon County with their college-bound son. He grew up in Washington State, where his father was a ship fitter in the Seattle shipyards and majored in English at the University of Washington. He moved to New York after graduating in 1976. His first job was, you guessed it, moving and soon he found himself in the selling end of the moving business. “In New York I moved movie stars, such as Dustin Hoffman. It was fun and exciting when I was young,” he says. He came to DocuSafe in 1996, nine years after the company was founded, when it was storing only 50,000 boxes.

Price, he found, is not the deciding factor in getting storage contracts. You might think record storage is a commodity that gets awarded to the low bidder, but Parker says prices are comparable between giant firms, like Iron Mountain (a $3 billion company with 120,000 global clients) and smaller firms like his, which has 700 clients, representing private business, medical, municipal, state, and federal government agencies.

“Early on I started selling the idea of security,” says Parker, speaking in a telephone interview on September 11. “We were talking about it two years before 9-11, and we made it a big deal afterwards.” His opening line: “I ask whether the company had valuable records. Would they like them secure?” One brokerage client confessed that she had not been interested in storage but the promise of security aroused her concern — and no previous storage company had raised the issue. He got the contract.

Parker made the counter-intuitive decision to go low key and emphasize anonymity. The firm has no names on its trucks, no name on its building, and its drivers wear plain uniforms. “We have a building along the highway, and you don’t know that there are a billion boxes of files in it,” he says.

That DocuSafe has a low profile is just fine with its Princeton clients, who tend to be a conservative bunch, not known for glitz and splash. And it was his Princeton clients who led him to install one of DocuSafe’s key differentiators: an absolute adherence to standing operating procedures (or “standard” operating procedures, as they are often called).

SOPs are required in Princeton’s two strong industries — pharma and finance. With an SOP in place, you do everything exactly the same way every time. No exceptions. He learned from his clients. “A clinical research organization said it was going to audit us and look at our SOPs,” Parker remembers. “We didn’t know what they were. Most record storage companies don’t have SOPS, but by developing them, I got bigger and bigger clients.” Now DocuSafe has an SOP for almost every procedure.

For instance, a driver comes into the building, gets his scanner, downloads his work orders, and uses the scanner to verify the loaded material that was pulled for him. “The scanner won’t let him proceed if he doesn’t have an item; he has to find it.” He loads the truck and at his first stop he scans a physical barcode on the work order, finds the three boxes, scans them in the client’s building, and prints a receipt. If he is picking up boxes, he scans that order, scans the boxes, and prints two copies of the receipt, stapling them to the paper work. We each have identical copies. That prevents loss.” Back at the plant the driver reverses the procedure. “He unloads the returns and scans them for refile. If he has missed a box, he has to go back.”

It’s all done by bar codes, not by the newer RFID technology. Parker says that is because RFID scanners can’t efficiently reach boxes that are stacked three to a shelf and are more appropriate for warehouses with pallets.

Boxes are randomly filed according to what space is empty. If there were a fire, the sprinklers would rain down on the affected rack. Only part of a company’s holdings — not all of its boxes — might be on that rack. “Random filing allows us to have a greater capacity. If a slot is open, we don’t have to hold it for your box to come back,” says Parker, “and it is more secure.”

Twelve years ago DocuSafe’s business consisted of just boxes. No tapes. Now the vaults store 1 million electronic tapes. As the tape business grew, DocuSafe built vaults. The smallest is 25-feet square and 12-feet high and the others are double that size. The vaults have racks with 10 vertical drawers, each drawer holding 324 computer tapes. The smallest vault, 25 feet square and 12-feet high, has 20 rack units, each holding more than 3,000 tapes.

One client has 300,000 tapes that rotate in and out in groups of 500 on a weekly or daily basis. In carriers that range from the size of a briefcase to the size of a footlocker, they go direct from the vaults into trucks set to the same constants, 68 degrees Fahrenheit and 30 percent humidity.

Other candidates for vault storage are the precious lab notebooks that pharmaceutical companies keep. In case a rival firm tries to claim it made a discovery first, the lab notebooks, carefully annotated and dated, can prove ownership. And yes, the vaults do still hold some family silver.

In order to keep up with its global competitors, Parker aims to broaden DocuSafe services. For instance, it does electronic imaging and retrieval for its clients, small and large. With an IT system supervised by Stephen Fletcher, DocuSafe can scan their documents and make them available, online, on DocuSafe’s own web page, which is securely backed up in four different locations. “The client can log into that system from everywhere,” says Parker “It saves them the expense of imaging.” The system works well in an emergency: the client can ask for a particular document to be retrieved from a box, scanned, and sent electronically. “We are records managers. We understand indexing, scanning, and software access,” he says. “We can look at the inventory, pull a box, get a particular file and scan it, load it into the site, and send an E-mail that the document has been scanned. The client clicks on an icon and the file opens.”

Scanning clients include doctors’ offices that are shifting from paper to electronic records. Potential clients could be retailers that need to coordinate human resources records and vendor receipts.

What about errors? “There are systems in place. We can confirm the number of pages scanned, but errors can be made,” says Parker. If a client needs more than 99 percent accuracy, they can pay an extra fee for that.

Another service that provides DocuSafe with an income stream is that it can index or shred the records. The client provides a description of what’s in the box and notes any changes. The client gets a CD with the indexed contents. Parker advises clients on document retention policies. At the determined time, DocuSafe notifies the client and, if so directed, shreds the box.

The record storage business would seem to be recession-proof, but not quite. In a recession clients don’t take their records out of storage. In fact, that’s the problem. DocuSafe makes much of its income on retrievals and deliveries. If storing up to 200 boxes is $50 a month, the retrieval fee is $2 per box, and the delivery fee is $17.50, so to deliver six boxes costs $30 each way.

Deliveries have gone down. There are still 10 delivery routes — including those to New York, center city Philadelphia, and Valley Forge — but a truck driver that used to get back to the plant at 4 p.m. now gets back at 3 p.m. They get paid for a full day because there is always more shelving or scanning to do.

Nevertheless, DocuSafe earns extra money by selling 100,000 boxes a year to new and existing clients. Its special “record center” box is sewn together, has strong handles and doesn’t use glue. It costs $1.49, 50 cents more than at Staples. But glue, Parker says, attracts little critters. It makes the box fall apart if, heaven forbid, the box gets wet.

And weak handles don’t last long when the box totes 30 to 35 pounds, or 50 to 76 pounds for the legal size. Perusing the shelves, you can really see the difference between the “good” boxes and the inferior ones; they’re the ones with the torn handles.

What about the competition? Iron Mountain is like IBM, says Parker and recalls the famous advertisement, “Nobody gets fired for hiring IBM.” But he points to problems that Iron Mountain’s facilities have had, involving computer tape security and fires, and he cites the catastrophe in 1997 in South Brunswick when two warehouses caught fire within days of each other. The second fire, an arson job, incinerated 850,000 cartons, many containing government records.

Reached in Boston, Iron Mountain spokesperson Dan O’Neill admits that, of 1,000 facilities around the world, a building recently burned down in London (the result of criminal action) and roofing contractors started a small fire in Ottawa (where less than three percent of the records were damaged). But O’Neill says his firm, which helped set the standards for fire protection, uses in-rack sprinklers and technology that detects smoke or heat. As for the 60 million backup tapes that his firm stores, “our reliability rate is greater than 99.999 percent in pick up and delivery. “Nothing is more important to us than security,” says O’Neill.

Indeed, the 1997 catastrophe sensitized everyone to the special hazards of document storage. “Iron Mountain was a whole new type of storage,” says Alan Laird, who was on the fire fighter team in 1997 and is now the South Brunswick fire marshal. “It changed the codes here and around the nation.” Iron Mountain did not rebuild in South Brunswick, and the township has no other document storage facility but Laird believes that even the township’s current codes would not totally protect against arson. “The sprinkler system is not designed to put out fires. It is meant to contain a fire until the fire department gets there.”

Parker stakes his safety claim on the 10,000 shelves that were specially designed for by a firm in Michigan. The shelves have holes that let the water pass on top of and around the boxes, shelf to shelf, top to bottom. In the Iron Mountain fire, water cascaded down the outsides of the shelved boxes because it couldn’t pass through the shelves. The boxes might get wet but don’t burn as well, and their contents can often be saved.

DocuSafe Records Management, 3 Applegate Drive, Robbinsville 08691; 609-259-8290; fax, 609-259-8291. Marvin Parker, general manager. Home page: www.docusafe.com.

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