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IPS celebrates 50th year

March 25, 2012
By Walt Frank ( , The Altoona Mirror

Debbie Ellis said her father would be proud.

"He built the business for us and we have done pretty good," said Ellis, president and co-owner of Investigation & Protective Service, 1201 Ninth Ave., which is marking its 50th year in business.

IPS was founded in 1962 by Altoona native W. Gene Ellis. After serving as a police officer in Philadelphia, Ellis returned to the area and set up the business with his wife, Rosemary, in their Bellwood home.

Article Photos

(Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski)
Investigation & Protective Service security guard Rick Haines at work at Investment Savings Bank, 1201 Eighth Ave., Altoona.

"He brought private investigation to the area," said grandson Robert C. Holland, a processor and security adviser for the company.

Gene Ellis wore many hats. As a private investigator, he helped to solve a murder case in Indiana County. But the bulk of his work focused on providing security for area businesses and industries.

In the 1960s he served as a bodyguard for Betty James, co-founder and former owner of James Industries Inc., the maker of Slinky Toys, and for Sonny and Cher when they visited Altoona in August 1967.

The business has changed over the years, and today the bulk of IPS' business deals with the processing of legal documents, said Debbie Ellis, a licensed private detective who owns the business with her sisters Gena Zerby, who serves as office manager, and Carol Figart.

"We serve papers, the same things that the sheriff does. This has become the biggest part of the business. We have done this to keep it going," Zerby said.

With the advent of high-tech security cameras, the number of businesses for which IPS provides security guards has dwindled.

"We had 200 guards at one time. The guards are becoming obsolete because of cameras," Zerby said.

However, IPS continues to provide security guards for several area businesses including Investment Savings Bank, 1201 Eighth Ave.

"We use them on Saturday when we don't have a full staff. That enhances our customers' experience and lets them know we take security seriously," said Lynn Fusco, vice president of operations. "They do a fine job for us. I can count on them; they are always here on time. It is a relationship we have forged over the last five years and it works well for us."

However, the company continues to do investigative work.

"We are churning along. We do whatever we can do to keep on going for our father's sake," Zerby said. "One minute we have a guard uniform on, and the next minute we are serving papers. We have many different hats."

Years ago, IPS handled hundreds of shoplifting cases at area businesses.

"I arrested over 500 people for shoplifting in just two years in the 1970s. It was big," Debbie Ellis said.

IPS has an excellent working relationship with area police departments.

"They have always been professional; they cooperate well with us. They have done a decent job when we have worked with them," said Logan Township Police Chief Ron Heller. "They will call us if they need assistance, and we work with them on investigations."

After Gene Ellis died in 2003, longtime employee Monica Crilly kept the company running until 2010 when the three sisters had a decision to make.

"We had to either close, sell or do it ourselves. We picked number three," Zerby said. "The family decided to keep it going for the third generation."

While modern technology has hurt the business, it also has helped - the company plans to sell its building and move operations into Debbie Ellis' home.

"You can do everything from the living room of your own home. The building is not really needed," Holland said.

The family members hope to keep the business running as a tribute to Gene Ellis.

"No one will ever fill his shoes and we know it. He ran his life on honesty, integrity and attitude and did it until the day he died. He was always looking for the truth," Zerby said.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.

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