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Filing cabinet files: Not all is up in the cloud

A thumb drive can hold the contents of a thousand filing cabinets. Yet the big boxes of metal drawers still sell.

Despite technology, filing cabinets are still great for stashing stuff. And for displaying Miss Blue Ribbon 1950, as portrayed by a young actress named Marilyn Monroe.
Despite technology, filing cabinets are still great for stashing stuff. And for displaying Miss Blue Ribbon 1950, as portrayed by a young actress named Marilyn Monroe.
Neil Steinberg for the Sun-Times

In the closet of my office at home are a pair of twin beauties: two tall, black, four-drawer HON filing cabinets, stuffed with a vast accumulation of material from past decades: press releases, clips, letters, notes, photographs, blueprints, even a baseball.

Last November, either digging something out or jamming something in, I had a thought: filing cabinets. Now there’s an industry you just don’t see analyzed in the paper much. I wonder how the whole computer situation affects their business. Are all our files up in the cloud now?

Only one way to find out.

“Dear Ben:” I wrote to Benjamin Daufeldt, marketing manager at The HON Company in Muscatine, Iowa. “This is the slowest pitch, straight down the pipe, that you’re ever going to get...”

I introduced myself, then cut to the chase.

“I want to write a column on filing cabinets in general and HON in particular. ... I’d like to talk to somebody at HON next week about filing cabinets, and perhaps visit your showroom at the Merchandise Mart.”

Daufeldt got back to me quickly. I had reached out at a bad time.

“I’m tied up this week with planning meetings, but I will be in Chicago for some meetings in the next few weeks. I’d love to meet and walk you through our showroom if it fits into your schedule. I can sent a note once I have my calendar hammered out.”

We talked on the phone. Daufeldt wanted me to interview the HON president — a bad sign, since that meant he was thinking of his needs (publicize the president) and not mine (info on filing cabinets). He asked for a list of questions I might ask which, having no pride at all, I provided. (“Any advances in filing cabinet design in recent decades worth mentioning?”) When I learned they manufacture them in Iowa, I volunteered to visit and watch the cabinets being made.

November blended into December, December into January. At times, the goal seemed tantalizingly within reach.

“I’ve been traveling to start the year but I’m pulling together a schedule for when we would be in Chicago in the coming weeks,” he wrote. “I’ll be back in touch with some options that would work and hopefully it will work out with our schedule.”

That never happened. By early February, it seemed time to play hardball.

“I think I’m going to go ahead with my filing cabinet column without HON unless you can produce somebody to talk about filing cabinets,” I wrote. “Is this possible?”

Apparently not.

It isn’t as if the filing cabinet sector doesn’t sell.

“It’s strong for us,” said Dave Jensen, vice president of sales at Hirsh Industries — another Iowa filing cabinet company, this one in West Des Moines — who phoned back an hour after I called. “We cover a broader spectrum of products. Our sales were up last year. There’s an overall slight decrease, but certain segments of the filing cabinet market are growing.”

Like Caesar with Gaul, Jensen divides their product line into thirds.

“There are three basic kinds of filing cabinets,” he said. “Vertical filing cabinets, mobile pedestal files — those are increasingly popular — and lateral files.”

Vertical are tall units like mine. Pedestal are the little rolling units that slip under desktops —big nowadays. Lateral are the long drawers found in legal offices.

“Vertical file cabinets — that market has slowed down,” Jensen said. “They’re used mainly for archival. People still use file cabinets. It’s amazing the number of people. Even those filing documents online still file them.”

I steered our conversation to HON, suggesting it is weird they couldn’t bring themselves to provide any information whatsoever about filing cabinets over a period of three months. Jensen was not surprised.

“HON is the behemoth of the industry,” he said, noting that makes them sluggish in ways other than responding to the press. “That’s why we win. Because they’re large and they don’t respond.”

Funny. Whenever an IBM gets its lunch eaten by a Microsoft, which in turn is blindsided by an Apple, which will someday fall to whatever new, nimble entity scoots past it, we turn our faces to the sky and wonder why. When the answer is clear and never changes: Being big and successful makes you risk averse — you have more to lose, so hold back and do so. Lose, that is.