Shredding Then and Now: A World of Difference

It’s fascinating for anyone in the shredding industry to talk with an experienced owner of a contract shredding service about the differences between shredding “in the old days” as opposed to today.

Tim and Paula Oberst, Co-Owners of Ohio Mobile Shredding in Columbus, Ohio, certainly qualify as experienced owners. Starting with a single truck in 1988, they now have an off-site shredding system in their 10,000-sq. ft. facility and run two mobile trucks using Allegheny shredders.

Tim began the business after graduating from Franklin University in Columbus, Ohio, a private school noted for its business programs. Previously, he had attended Ohio State University for several years, studying both Engineering and Electrical Engineering. “I changed my major to Business because I knew I wanted to start my own company,” he says.

“After graduation, I heard about a business in St. Louis that shredded paper for companies. That sounded interesting, so I drove down and met with John Walsh, owner of St. Louis Data Destruction. His company is very successful today, of course, but at that time he was using a very small truck and a stand-up office paper shredder. After seeing his operation, I thought, ‘This is a business I could do.’ I realized that I was living in the capitol city of Ohio, which was filled with government agencies, colleges, hospitals, law firms, and businesses of all kinds. Columbus was a natural market—all I needed was a bigger truck and a bigger shredder.”

When considering which shredder to purchase, Tim quickly settled on Allegheny. “Even back in 1987, when I started talking with people about shredders,” he says, “Allegheny was the most recognized and respected name in the industry. I could tell by their reputation among customers that they knew what they were doing.”

He was convinced by his first visit to the factory that he didn’t need to go anywhere else. “But my first real contact with the company was when Robert Wagner drove a big Allegheny bus right to our house. Allegheny was using the bus at the time to display its shredders. It had different types of shredders, along with generators—everything needed to put on a demonstration. Afterward, we went inside and talked at our kitchen table.”

When Tim and Paula informed Robert that they wanted a mobile shredder, Robert immediately said that Allegheny would work with them to design and construct it. Tim and Paula’s truck would become one of Allegheny’s first mobile units.

Tim created a business plan and was promptly turned down by several banks, which thought that giving a loan for a shredding service was too speculative. Tim persevered, however, refining his business plan. In 1988, one of the banks that had turned him down approved his loan. A loan officer at the bank was impressed with Tim’s plan, and believed that shredding was an up-and-coming industry. He told Tim, “I bet you’ll be back within a year needing another truck.” That turned out to be accurate.

With financing completed, Tim and Paula purchased their Allegheny shredder and had it installed in an 18-foot truck. “The first thing we did,” says Paula, “was try to place an ad in the Yellow Pages. But we had to talk them into creating a new heading for Paper Shredding—that’s how new the industry was then.”

The business was so unique in the Columbus area that when Tim shredded for companies outside their buildings, it often drew a crowd. “I actually rented space in a parking lot, for $50 a month, and shredded there,” Tim recalls. “People were always gathering around, asking what was going on. All the local media interviewed us. One thing led to another, and we appeared on all the major TV networks—CBS, NBC, and ABC. We received tremendous coverage, and it certainly helped establish our business.”

When asked the main difference between establishing a new contract shredding service 15 years ago and establishing one today, Tim notes: “Then, I had to sell the concept of ‘why to shred,’ whereas today, everyone knows there’s a need. At that time, people were recycling their documents, without destroying—and receiving payment from the recyclers. This provided a revenue stream, and they didn’t want to exchange that for a shredding service they had to pay for. Now people understand that they have to destroy their information. Lately, legislation has come out mandating destruction. And there’s been Enron and other highly publicized events that prove how important it is to shred.” Even with the rise of many larger shredding services, Tim believes that a small, one-person company can make a successful start-up today. “A one-person truck can still make it in this industry,” he says. “A person can handle 200-300 companies and make a good living.”

But there’s certainly more competition today, he notes. Because of this, a new company needs to market well, to be especially responsive to customer needs, and to be discreet, polite, and professional in every instance. “You never know when you’re called to a company’s location if you’ll be working directly with the president or with a janitor at the loading dock. You have to be ready for all circumstances.”

When asked the five most important things a new contract shedding service should do, Tim listed the following:

  1. Know your market. Conduct research to determine the need of local companies, the type of companies in your area, and determine how you fit in with that mix. Don’t just start a shredding service based on what you “think” customers need. This information should be the basis for your marketing.
  2. Know your competition. Find out what they’re charging, their level of service, and what they provide in the way of containers, on- and off-site shredding, etc.
  3. Join NAID and learn from what other people in this unique industry have experienced.
  4. You need good employees from the start. Train them, retain them, help them grow, and make them feel like part of your team—which they are!
  5. Buy Allegheny equipment. “We mean that from the heart,” Tim says. “Allegheny is there to help you. There’s very little maintenance on their machines, and they have a wealth of information about the industry that they’re willing to share.

Tim and Paula insist that some things in the business haven’t and won’t change. “People want service,” they say. “You need to be flexible and people oriented. And customers need absolute assurance that you’re protecting their documents.

Above all else, the goal of a shredding service is to protect confidential information. Each piece of paper is vital. One bad mistake can destroy a company’s reputation. We’ve had some customers for 15 years. That doesn’t happen by accident. A new company has to compete with established companies that have that kind of record. This business is open to new companies—and by providing service and confidentiality, they can grow and thrive.”

Tim and Paula Oberst, Co-owners
Ohio Mobile Shredding, Columbus, Ohio