SKOKIE, Ill. - As the Great Chicago Fire was ravaging the city in 1871, William Rand and Andrew McNally saved their business by burying two printing machines on the sandy Lake Michigan shore. No such clear-cut solution emerged to preserve Rand McNally & Co.’s dominance more than a century later, when the mapmaker lost its way in the age of the Internet.
But following two ownership changes and a bankruptcy reorganization, the storied company appears to have finally regained its bearings. A sales decline has been reversed, the company says profitability is up more than 30 percent since its 2003 overhaul and it is even poised to make acquisitions.
Left behind in the online mapping revolution by comparative upstarts Mapquest.com, Yahoo and Google, Rand McNally is marking its 150th anniversary year by aggressively playing catch-up with a raft of new products designed to capitalize on its famous brand name.
A push into electronic gadgets and navigational software is part of the effort, including the release this fall of the Rand McNally GPS Navigator. The $500 portable navigation system is its entry in the increasingly crowded field for devices using Global Positioning System satellites.
True to its heritage, however, the world’s largest seller of maps has atlases and paper maps as the backbone of the initiative. While the privately held company doesn’t disclose specific figures about its business, Chief Executive Robert Apatoff says print products still account for the majority of its sales.
Anyone who thinks oldfashioned folded maps are going away should think again, according to Apatoff.
‘‘It’s kind of like saying newspapers are going to disappear,’’ he said in an interview at the company’s headquarters north of Chicago. ‘‘There’s going to be some changes in how they’re used, but people still want to open them and read them with their coffee.
‘‘Same thing with trip planning. People will continue to want to be able to consume maps this way,’’ he said, even if they use maps or atlases together with hand-held devices or the Internet.
More maps are sold now than ever before, according to the International Map Trade Association. Rand McNally is by far the best-known map publisher, with competitors including American Map and Universal Map.
Oddly enough, the mapmaker didn’t start out in the business it’s a household name in.
The Chicago printing shop that young Boston printer William Rand opened in 1856 specialized in railroad tickets. Then Rand teamed up with Irish cartographer Andrew McNally and they branched out to train schedules and maps, eventually publishing their first road map in 1917.
McNally subsequently bought out Rand, and the McNally family owned the business for four generations until selling it in 1997 to New York investment firm AEA Investors for $430 million.
By that time, the mapping industry was being completely changed by the Internet and technology. But Rand McNally found itself outmaneuvered by startup ventures.
Plenty of products for everyone
Select products introduced within the past year by Rand McNally & Co.:
• Rand McNally GPS Navigator. Portable navigation system with voice-prompted directions, MP3 player and preloaded Best of the Road driving trips.
• Family Adventure Guide & Interstate Atlas. Features familyfriendly locations and car games and activities; co-developed with Disney Parks and Resorts.
• Rand McNally Classroom. Online service delivering Rand McNally geographic content, activities and teacher lesson plans for grades K-12.
• Rand McNally MONA (MObile NAvigator). Downloadable navigation application for GPS-enabled mobile phones.
• Harley-Davidson Ride Atlas of North America. Custom-built atlas for motorcycle riders, highlighting secondary roads and featuring offthe-beaten-path motorcycle rides.
• Rand McNally StreetFinder Wireless. Downloadable application for mobile phones with maps, directions and directory listings for U.S.
• Rand McNally Schoolhouse. Geography and map activity books, flashcards and other educational geography materials for consumers.
• Rand McNally Geography Baseball. Standards-based skills program combining geography concepts with baseball rules.
—The Associated Press