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‘One big file cabinet’


Darrell Dickinson was 50 years old when he put $20,000 down and mortgaged his house to purchase an existing Des Moines records storage business in 1977, renaming it MDS Records Management. After working in the trucking and warehousing industries for a number of years, Dickinson decided to start a new business venture at a time in life when most people begin planning their retirement.

Twenty-five years later, his company has grown to become one of the largest records storage and management facilities in Des Moines. Rows of boxes, 64 inches wide and more than 20 feet tall, fill nearly 700,000 square feet of warehouse space at MDS’ three locations.

Dickinson said his family-run business, which includes his wife and three sons, is a success because its 45 employees work together like one big family.

“Everyone is dedicated to making it a success,” he said. “It’s a good, growing business.”

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Darrell “Barney” Dickinson, the 75-year-old founder of MDS Records Management, strolls through the aisles of his East Side warehouse between towering rows of neatly stacked cardboard boxes filled with office files and says, “Think of this as one big file cabinet.”

Indeed, other companies’ clutter is Dickinson’s calling. Since 1977, MDS has helped free up the basements, file rooms and offices of Des Moines businesses by offering them an inexpensive, safe and secure place to store their files off-site. It has also allowed individuals to store everything from personal files to valuable paintings, although the majority of MDS’ clientele is insurance companies, banks, hospitals, schools and accounting firms.

MDS works much like a bank, Dickinson said. Customers can deposit (MDS operates a daily pickup service with five company-owned vans) or withdraw materials anytime with the speed and accuracy thanks to a computer system, designed to help MDS employees pinpoint a particular file in a box. Each of its three warehouses is armed with a complex security system and employees wear identification badges and memorize security codes to access certain rooms in the building.

Nearly doubling its business after buying competing Ace Record Storage in West Des Moines a few years ago, Dickinson said the family-owned and -operated MDS now competes with National Records Management as the largest records storage business in Des Moines. He credits his multifaceted company’s competitive prices (18 cents a cubic foot), well-trained and security-minded staff, which is also trained in disaster contingency planning, as well as the company’s longstanding stability and ownership of its own properties for making MDS a thriving business.

With approximately 700,000 total square feet of space in its three Des Moines locations, MDS built a 50,000-square-foot addition in September to its 1870 E. Euclid Ave. building to keep pace with the growing demands of its customers. The East Side facility houses nearly 200,000 square feet, including a 5,000-square-foot climate-controlled room for storage of old papers, reel-to-reel films and computer disks. Employees operate a hydro-thermograph to maintain the temperature and humidity of the room at a suitable level for preserving sensitive materials.

The building also serves as headquarters for the company’s 45 employees. Among them are Dickinson’s sons, Greg, Eric and Jeff, all of whom worked for their father and learned the business from the ground up before securing management positions as president, manager and records manager, respectively.

“We go through all the struggles other family-run businesses go through,” said Dickinson, who has been “semi-retired” for 13 years following heart bypass surgery in 1989.

With the storage capabilities of computer disks these days, one might think a business like MDS, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, might not see its 30th anniversary. But Dickinson said just the opposite is true, as old-fashioned paper documents are still an essential part of record keeping for the government and many businesses.

“We’re a paper world regardless of all the technology,” he said. “People are set in their ways and don’t like change.”

Greg Dickinson said society creates more need for paper than it thinks. “I hear talk about a paperless society, but I don’t think I’ll see that in my lifetime,” he said.

These days, Eric Dickinson said, companies are striking a balance between paper and computer disks. He said he encourages customers to keep papers as long as they want to, but not to keep them once they’re obsolete.

“There’s no need to keep them longer than federal or state laws require you to keep them,” he said. “We encourage customers to have a retention plan so they know how long to keep a file and can give us a destruction date.”

MDS is currently designing a secure Web site that will allow customers to access their information online. They plan to launch the site sometime next year.

Dickinson said MDS also encourages companies to develop an emergency contingency plan so they’ll be prepared should their files be destroyed. MDS employees were on call during last year’s terrorist attack when a New York client was working on a recovery plan. Dickinson said the attacks made businesses more aware of the importance of storing back up data at a location outside their own building.

“It made them realize security is important,” he said. “It’s an issue that also concerns us, which is why we chose our location away from where businesses are congregated. From a disaster standpoint, it’s a good location.”

Besides being a secured area, Dickinson said he chose the East Side for his company’s headquarters because it offered convenient and inexpensive railroad access for delivery of products. He also cited easy access to the freeway, proximity to a full-staffed fire station, better water pressure and the comfort of being located above a flood plain as additional factors in choosing Des Moines.

“We’ve been here a long time and I feel loyal to Des Moines,” he said. “We enjoy what we’re doing here.”  

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