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The Carfax data center off Lemone Industrial Boulevard in east Columbia has 120 workers taking care of a swiftly growing online database of more than 5 billion records. And it’s just the type of business the city wants to recruit.
Columbia’s Regional Economic Development Inc., or REDI, recently paid Angelou Economics to conduct a site-selection analysis that evaluated the city’s viability for hosting data centers such as the one Carfax uses. After examining the area’s relative cost of power, labor availability, disaster risk and land cost, Angelou concluded in an October report that Columbia has what it takes to recruit data centers and that the city should target that industry.
Of course, the city didn’t have to recruit Carfax. The company was founded here 21 years ago, though it moved its administrative headquarters to northern Virginia in 1993.
At Carfax more than 75 computer programers work in an open office environment known as “extreme programming.”
The environment allows workers to be more productive and produce higher quality software by working together.
With help from a patented database program developed by Ewin Barnett III, Carfax uses the 17-character vehicle identification number, or VIN, located on dashboards and in title documents, to generate a detailed history report on any used car or light truck. Reports cover accident history, flood damage, odometer readings, ownership and lien activity for use by consumers, automobile dealerships, auto auctions, licensing bureaus and vehicle inspection stations.
The company that began with 10,000 vehicle data records and 14 auto dealer customers has mushroomed to include more than 2 billion data records and a Web site that boasts more than 50 million hits annually.
A newer, larger data center opened in Columbia in 2003 to accommodate the processing of Carfax’s 2 billion data records, and a second expansion project was completed earlier this year. “I came to Columbia five-and-a-half years ago, and we had 45 employees. We doubled that figure in four years,” said Gary Lee, vice president of the 23,000-square-foot Columbia data center. “Today, we have 120 employees” locally and an additional 230 workers nationwide.
Lee describes Columbia Carfax as a nationally recognized, high-tech employer based in a progressive community—a community to which the company is committed.
Since Carfax originated in 1986 it has compiled more than
5 billion records. Fun record plaques commemorate the 4
and 5 billionth vehicle identification numbers.
“I don’t want to be one man up on a soap box here about outsourcing to other countries, [but] what we do here couldn’t be done elsewhere,” he said. “The way we program is called ‘extreme programming.’ It’s very high quality, very rapid and more cost effective that outsourcing overseas. We are all very blessed to live in a community like Columbia, Mo., and work for a nationally recognized company like Carfax.” Lee said he works with the University of Missouri, REDI and other entities to recruit and retain good employees.
“Five years ago, almost all of our employees were local. Today, about half of our employees are local, a quarter are from within Missouri, and a quarter were recruited nationally,” he said.
To enhance hiring efforts, Lee is working with science and technology organizations and career fairs. “Not enough students are getting into engineering and computer science to meet the demands,” Lee says.
According to Carfax Communications Director Larry Gamache, all the data generated by Carfax is housed in Columbia. “We have two data farms in Columbia, Mo.,” he said. In addition to the facility at Concord Business Park, Lee said, the company operates a second Columbia facility that does not house employees.
For operational and security reasons, Carfax maintains two separate data banks. “We are set up to withstand any emergency, from a backhoe accidentally clipping a cable to an F-5 tornado,” Lee said. “We have generators, back-up batteries, security systems, two different routing systems—all to keep us up and running.”
Every hour and a half programmers take a break from their intense work to rejuvenate themselves. The company provides table tennis, disc golf, a basketball court and even a walking trail for employees
The general sales manager for University Chrysler Jeep Subaru, Mark Hodges, said Carfax has changed drastically during his 15 years in the business. “It didn’t used to be Internet-based,” he said. “It’s very user-friendly now.”
According to Hodges, the car-buying public is much more aware of Carfax. “Customers are asking for a Carfax report more and more now.” Hodges said that University Chrysler uses Carfax primarily to check for prior accidents on a vehicle they are considering purchasing. University Chrysler also uses Carfax when they purchase cars through on-line auto auctions.
Although Carfax was the first company to offer vehicle history reports, others since have entered the marketplace. Rusty Drewing, used car manager for Joe Machens Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, said his dealership currently uses AutoCheck.
Gary Lee reports that the extreme programming environment creates a camaraderie well suited for work and play.
“Carfax is No. 1 in the industry, and AutoCheck is No. 2,” Drewing said. “Because of our volume and number of dealerships, it was a cost issue. AutoCheck charges us a flat fee.”
Regardless of which service a company uses, Drewing said, consumers should get an automobile history report prior to purchasing a used car. “I run a check on every single vehicle I purchase. It helps us get a higher quality product. If I find that a car had a prior accident, I do not purchase it,” Drewing said.
While consumers typically pay a $25 fee to access Carfax’s vehicle history reports, Gamache said consumers can often avoid that fee by working through autotrader.com or other Internet auto malls. He also recommends that car buyers ask car sellers to supply the history report.