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 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 Inc. and Google Inc., 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.
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 account for the majority of its sales.
Anyone who believes old-fashioned folded maps are going away should think again, Apatoff says.
"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.
Apatoff, who since arriving as president and CEO in June 2003, has tried to reinvigorate what many saw as a tired brand through innovation, without abandoning the company's strengths.
Rand McNally closed its 25 retail stores in 2003 to cut costs as part of the makeover, but it still sells maps and other paper products in more than 55,000 retail stores in North America.
The trademark road atlas, now in its 83rd edition, remains its best-selling product by far. That's one reason the company isn't striving to become like Mapquest, Yahoo Maps or Google Maps.
"We're the only ones (of that group) that actually sell product in the store," said Apatoff, 47. "While we encourage people to go online, it is truly a different business model."
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 family-friendly locations and car games and activities; codeveloped 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 off-the-beaten-path motorycycle rides.
* Rand McNally StreetFinder Wireless: Downloadable application for mobile phones with U.S. maps, directions and directory listings.
* 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.
Milestones in the 150-year history of Rand McNally & Co.:
* 1856: William Rand opens Chicago printing shop.
* 1868: Rand and partner Andrew McNally establish Rand McNally & Co. to print railroad tickets and timetables.
* 1871: Rand and McNally rescue two printing machines during the Great Chicago Fire by burying them in sand, saving the business.
* 1872: First Rand McNally map appears in December issue of the Railway Guide.
* 1880: Enters educational publishing with line of maps, globes and textbooks.
* 1917: On a Peoria, Ill., map, introduces highway numbering system that became model for system still used nationwide.
* 1924: Publishes first Rand McNally Road Atlas.
* 1952: Moves headquarters to suburban Skokie, Ill., from Chicago.
* 1997: Sold to New York investment firm AEA Investors Inc. for reported $500-million.
* 1999: Acquires Thomas Guide publisher Thomas Bros. Maps, bringing the two leading map publishers together.
* 2003: Undergoes Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization that gives majority ownership to Leonard Green & Partners LP, Los Angeles private-equity firm.