R. L. Polk & Co. History

1155 Brewery Park Blvd.
Detroit, Michigan 48207-2697

Telephone: (313) 393-0880
Fax: (313) 393-2862

Private Company
Incorporated: 1870
Employees: 6,000
Sales: $250 million
SICs: 2741 Miscellaneous Publishing, 7375 Information Retrieval Services

Company History:

R. L. Polk & Co. is a worldwide provider of information, particularly automotive and demographic statistics, made available through published directories, custom reports, and online interactive computer services. In addition, Polk manages direct marketing programs and is one of the largest U.S. manufacturers of calendars and other advertising specialties. Polk's activities include publishing 1,300 city directories, compiling data covering 95 million consumer households, and reporting information about 197 million motor vehicles. Polk operates facilities in the United States, Canada, England, Australia, and Barbados.

R. L. Polk & Co. was established in 1870 by Ralph Lane Polk. After serving in the Union Army during the Civil War, Polk earned a living by selling patent medicines door-to-door. During his travels, he met an enumerator in Ohio who was collecting information for a directory publisher. Fascinated, Polk took a job with the publisher and served several years in the Midwest before he moved to Detroit, Michigan, at the age of 21 to establish his own company.

Polk set up an office in the Tribune Building at 40 Larned Street. His first publication was a directory of towns located along the Detroit and Milwaukee Railroad that included town populations and the names of about 17,500 residents and 600 professionals and tradespeople. Other early publications included a gazetteer and business directory for the State of Michigan, which included the names and addresses of shopkeepers within walking distance of railroad depots. Because Polk had exhausted his own funds in compiling the information included in his first directories, publication expenses were financed by James E. Scripps, owner of the Detroit News.

Following his initial success in Michigan, Polk began producing other directories. His first city directory, was compiled for Evansville, Indiana. It included 375 pages of names and addresses, a listing of post offices, and a miscellaneous section giving information about courts, stage lines, steamboat companies, and other organizations. A Detroit city directory was published in 1874. Other early directories covered cities in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, Wisconsin, Washington, Iowa as well as the Canadian province of Ontario. By 1888 Polk's reputation as a national provider of directories was well established; at that time the company was producing gazetteers for 29 states.

Polk's expansion continued through the turn of the century with the addition of directories for cities in geographically diverse locations. The company also began publishing directories for special fields such as medicine, architecture, grain, and real estate. In 1913 Polk moved into new headquarters--a two-story building located at 431 Howard Street in Detroit. As the company grew, however, so did the building: a third story was added to make room for Polk's printing division, and later its size was increased by six more floors.

In 1916 Polk published its first bank directory, which had been purchased from Anthony Stumpf Publishing Company in New York City. The Bankers Encyclopedia, renamed Polk's Bankers Encyclopedia underwent subsequent renovations and emerged as Polk's Bank Directory, a standard reference in the banking industry.

The company's involvement with automotive statistics began in 1920 with the compilation of data from motor vehicle records in Michigan. The following year, Polk began collecting registration data in other states. In 1922, at the request of General Motors Corp., Polk began generating car registration reports; new truck registrations were first reported in 1926. Initially, data for all states was not listed, but by 1927 all of the 48 states and the District of Columbia were represented, and car model and make was added in 1928. Polk's reports were an important tool for car manufacturers because they provided unbiased statistical information with which to make marketing and production decisions.

The 1920s brought many other changes. Following the death of Ralph Polk in 1923, his son Ralph Lane Polk II, who had been working in the business full time since 1901, ascended to the presidency. Under his leadership, the company established a Direct Mail Division (later renamed the Marketing Services Division) using lists developed from directories and previously published gazetteers as well as those obtained from purchased list companies. By 1927 the division was mailing more than 20 million pieces on behalf of such customers as Willard Battery Company, Ford Motor Co., General Motors, Reo Motor Car Company, and others.

The company underwent a reorganization in 1928, when a holding company was formed to consolidate all Polk operations. Prior to that year, activities had been conducted by subsidiary corporations, partnerships, and individual proprietorships. Through the Depression years, Polk maintained about 80 percent of its directory business but abandoned the publication of state gazetteers. As the company emerged from the Depression, another reorganization in 1935 dissolved the surviving subsidiaries and consolidated them into one operating company, R. L. Polk & Co. The 1930s also brought tremendous expansion to Polk's City Directory Division. By the decade's end Polk was producing more than 1,000 city and suburban directories.

Collection of automotive statistics was suspended during World War II, when civilian auto production halted, but the process was resumed in 1945. During the war years, Polk provided mass mailing services for government departments and agencies. The company's efforts included assisting the Federal Food Administration in its efforts to distribute regulations and instructions to food product manufacturers. By the end of the 1940s, Polk operated several printing plants and had branch offices in more than 40 cities. The company's City Directory Division was publishing 750 directories and the Direct Mail Division was processing up to two million pieces of mail per day. Employment stood at about 5,000.

The 1940s closed with a change of leadership--following the death of Ralph Lane Polk II, Ralph Lane Polk III assumed the presidency. Previously a manager in the City Directory Division, the new president led R. L. Polk into the computer era. The company's first computers, installed in 1956 and 1958, were used to compile motor vehicle statistical data and facilitate direct mail activities. Prior to the beginning of electronic processing, reports were produced by hand-sorting information and manually tabulating it. Improvements in printing technology also helped make the job of producing documents more efficient. As a result, employment within the Statistical Services Division peaked at 745 in 1955. Although the division's workload continued to increase, fewer employees were needed.

Polk's foreign expansion began in 1956 with the purchase of a Canadian directory company, Annuaries Marcotte Ltd. Annuaries Marcotte published directories for Quebec city and other smaller communities. The company name was changed to R. L. Polk & Co. (Canada) Ltd. Later Polk Canada served as a holding company for subsequent Canadian acquisitions.

Polk's growth continued. In 1958 the company established a Bank Business Development Division to use list information generated by the billing operations of its Bank Services Division. The new division performed promotional, research, and syndicated marketing services for banks and other financial institutions. In 1960 Polk's City Directory Division built a new printing plant in Hutchinson, Kansas. The plant was the company's first to include in-house bindery capabilities.

Based on the obvious benefits, the company was also expanding its computer applications. Polk's National Vehicle Identification Number File was computerized in 1961, the same year computer operations were converted to magnetic tape. The Eureka, California, city directory was the first one published with data processing techniques. A programming language developed by Polk's staff, called Market Area Report Generator (MARG), aided in the production of complex automotive reports.

In 1963 Ralph Lane Polk III moved out of the president's office in order to serve as company chairman. Walter J. Gardner, who had been executive vice-president since 1955, became the first non-family member to hold the position of president. Under Gardner's direction, the company achieved international recognition as a leader in the information industry. Gardner also continued his predecessor's policy of pursuing technological modernization.

Some activities of the late 1960s included an expansion within the Bank Services Division to accommodate the production of annual custom bank directories and the adoption of innovative computer technology within the Marketing Services Division to permit computer letter printing and improved list services. Demand for automotive information increased following a 1966 federal law that required manufacturers to notify vehicle owners of safety-related defects in automobiles. Car manufacturers turned to Polk for assistance in sending recall notifications. Polk's Auto List II, a semiannual auto list, replaced the company's annual list in 1967.

During the 1970s Polk expanded and improved its existing services. Enhanced computer processing power enabled Polk's staff to generate more detailed statistical profiles of major automotive markets. Polk's ability to create reports by census tract as well as by postal zone helped motor vehicle dealers defend their markets in the wake of state franchise legislation.

The 1970s also marked the beginning of Polk's activities in Australia. In 1972 Polk acquired Direct Mail Services Pty. Ltd. (DMS) of Melbourne, Australia. The company's name was changed to R. L. Polk & Co. (Australia) Pty. Ltd. and subsequently served as a holding company for later Australian acquisitions in the Melbourne, Sidney, and Canberra areas. In Australia, Polk pioneered the fully personalized computer letter and successfully lobbied for postal acceptance of poly bag mailers.

In the United States, the 1980s marked a period of aggressive growth and challenge. In 1981 Ralph Lane Polk IV was elected president, but he served only four years before his sudden death in 1985. Polk was succeeded by John M. O'Hara, who faced the challenge of a nationwide trend toward consumer privacy and resulting restrictions in the availability of motor vehicle records for commercial purposes. Under O'Hara's leadership, Polk maintained its relationship with motor vehicle departments in all 50 states.

In 1987 Polk acquired Advertising Unlimited, Inc. (AUI), the largest U.S. manufacturer of promotional calendars and a leading provider of specialty advertising products (low-cost objects suitable for custom imprinting or personalization intended for use as corporate giveaways). AUI, incorporated in 1961, originally sold Yellow Page advertising and White Page maintenance services to small and medium-sized independent telephone companies. AUI began supplying merchandise to the specialty advertising industry in 1967. Following federally-mandated restructuring within the telephone industry, AUI's telephone directory business declined, and the company increased its emphasis on specialty advertising and calendars. At the time of Polk's acquisition, AUI operated three facilities, two in Minnesota and a third in London, Ontario. Stock included such items as calendars, planners, first aid kits, personal care products, and Anchor/Wallace worship bulletins.

Another major acquisition occurred in 1988 when Polk purchased National Demographics & Lifestyles Inc. (NDL), a Denver-based provider of demographic data. NDL, founded in 1975, collected lifestyle information to create an enormous database by using product registration questionnaires. In 1990, NDL's Lifestyle Selector included 25 million names. NDL was able to provide its clients with targeted mailing lists according to customer profiles.

Other acquisitions made during the late 1980s included North Winds Trading Company, the Fordan calendar line of National Press Inc., Talbot Communications (located in London, Ontario) and a 40 percent interest in Geographic Data Technology Inc. (GDT) headquartered in Lyme, New Hampshire. Polk acquired complete ownership of GDT in 1994.

GDT was founded in 1980 to prepare computerized maps. Its first digital maps were used for defining political and census boundaries in Florida. By 1983 GDT had completed boundary files for all U.S. counties and towns. Computerized maps were used to predict store site values, plan election campaigns, target direct mail promotions, and establish routes for buses and delivery vehicles. The company generated revenue by selling long-term licenses for the use of its files.

In other areas, existing products were upgraded and new products were developed. For example, Polk's REGIS (Registration Information System) database, which was first developed in 1982, made information accessible to customers who were linked to Polk's mainframe computers using PC network technology. By 1990, Polk reported that 40 companies subscribed to REGIS and its other interactive databases. Interactive databases gave users the flexibility needed to look for specific information on a task-oriented basis.

Another interactive product, TELE-PLAN, made information from Polk's National Vehicle Population Profile (NVPP) available to subscribers. Users of TELE-PLAN included suppliers to the automotive aftermarket industry. By combining information from the NVPP database with their own parts catalog and inventory, suppliers were better able to make accurate inventory decisions. Benefits included reducing the number of returns based on obsolescence and reducing back orders.

To accommodate its growth, Polk's corporate, executive, and accounting divisions moved into new headquarters in 1990. The offices were slated to occupy the top two floors of a new $32 million building, constructed during the second phase of a three-phase office project at a 20-acre complex formerly occupied by Stroh Brewery in Detroit. In addition, in 1990 the Polk family returned to the presidency with the election of Stephen R. Polk. Stephen R. Polk, a great-grandson of the company's founder, had served as executive vice-president since 1985.

Under Stephen Polk's direction, the company moved toward providing full-service data and marketing services. In 1980 revenues had been split equally between automotive and non-automotive customers, however, according to one estimate, by 1990 automotive accounts represented about one-third of the company's total revenues, judged to be $285 million. A reorganization of the Statistical Services Division and Marketing Services Division led to the formation of a new Automotive Marketing Group and a Direct Marketing Service division. The Automotive Marketing Group was able to provide coordinated services to automotive customers while the Direct Marketing Service met the needs of the company's non-automotive clients. Hoping to improve the efficiency of its interactive services, Polk also began a centralization process aimed at combining its four databases at one site in Taylor, Michigan.

In 1992, Polk introduced a new information product called Decision Point. Decision Point was designed to help large retailers locate new stores or dealerships by coordinating census, income, and auto registration information. Special software, licensed from the University of Leeds in England, enabled users to retrieve needed data and analyze it.

A service designed to help combat fraud associated with auto salvage was unveiled in 1993. Auto fraud was sometimes perpetrated by operators who purchased wrecked cars, rebuilt and repainted them, and then transferred them to states where new titles without salvage designations could be obtained. The rebuilt cars were then resold as non-salvage vehicles. According to a report in Crain's Detroit Business, approximately 3 million wrecked cars were resold annually. Consumers who unwittingly purchased salvage vehicles faced increased repair bills and potential safety hazards. In a test of a limited version of Polk's title database conducted by Anglo American Auto Auctions of Nashville, Tennessee, 15 vehicles per week (out of 1,000) were identified as having improper titles. After the auction company's ability to discover bad titles was made known, the number reportedly fell to about five per week.

Polk's leaders expected the company to continue to grow. Although they anticipated some growth would be achieved through acquisition, they also looked to internal development to provide the rest. This included making the company's vast information databases available in a greater variety of formats.

Principal Subsidiaries: Advertising Unlimited, Inc.; National Demographics & Lifestyles Inc.; Geographic Data Technology, Inc.; R. L. Polk & Co. Ltd. (Canada); R. L. Polk & Co. Pty. Ltd. (Australia).

Further Reading:

  • Child, Charles, "Facts to the Max," Crain's Detroit Business, August 2, 1993.
  • ------, "Polk Attacks Car Fraud," Crain's Detroit Business, June 14, 1993.
  • Doll, Lesa, "Data Deluge," Corporate Detroit Magazine, December 1991.
    A History: R. L. Polk & Co., Detroit: R. L. Polk, n.d.
  • Prater, Constance, "Publishing Firm Relocates to Stroh Site," Detroit News, December 7, 1988.
  • "R. L. Polk & Co.," Automotive Marketing, December 1991.
  • "R. L. Polk & Co. Since 1870: A Brief History," Detroit: R. L. Polk, n.d.
  • "R. L. Polk--Triad Contract Will Lead to New Automotive Database," PR Newswire, January 27, 1994.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 10. St. James Press, 1995.