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.”
John von Paris said the company will continue to serve its customers but also look for ways to innovate. Eventually, for example, there could be driverless trucks for long-distance moves, he said.
“We’ll always need people to go in and out of homes, but autonomous transportation, it’s coming,” he said. “We’re always looking to the future.”