Recognizing an opportunity, these entrepreneurs leapt
by Will Lindner
In 1999, following a tip from his dad, Eric Flegenheimer (at right) pursued a Wall Street Journal advertiser wanting to sell a paper-shredding truck. In 2000, he and Ken Miller (below) launched SecurShred, their South Burlington business that has evolved into a company that not only destroys private documents, but also preserves them when asked.
It was a fiction that digital technology would usher in a world so fueled by wireless communication that paper would become passé. According to Eric Flegenheimer, quite the opposite has occurred.
He gained this insight in 1999 when he responded to an ad in the Wall Street Journal placed by someone selling a paper-shredding truck. Flegenheimer had first heard of shredding just the day before, when his father had called him excitedly from Michigan.
“He said this guy had come to the house, gone into the attic, and gotten rid of 30 years of bank statements and stuff — just shredded it in his truck in my dad’s driveway. He’d never seen anything like it before.”
Flegenheimer, who lives in Williston, had recently sold a business and was wondering what to do next, so he responded to the Wall Street Journal ad. Trying to square the notion of a paper-shredding truck with where he’d heard the future was headed, he asked the seller, “What about ‘the paperless society?’”
“The guy said, ‘Do you have a computer?’” Flegenheimer recalls. Yes, he did.
“Does your computer have a printer” Yes, it did.
“There’s your answer,” the seller told him. “Until there’s no printer, there’s no paperless society.”
Flegenheimer concurs. Computers make it a snap to generate documents, graphs, charts, and drawings, and print multiple copies for department heads and meeting attendees, rendering the notion of a “paperless” society one of the great illusions of our time.
He teamed up with Burlington native Ken Miller, another between-projects entrepreneur, and bought the truck. They obtained their commercial driver’s licenses, and in 2000 they launched SecurShred, driving from customer to customer in a box truck that contained a shredding machine, a generator to power it, and storage space for the tons of shredded paper they produced.
Today SecurShred owns seven shredding trucks, which it dispatches from its base in South Burlington to customers throughout Vermont and New Hampshire, into eastern New York and western Massachusetts, and as far away as Pennsylvania.
“The technology has expanded the capability and efficiency of the machines,” says Miller. “They developed a hydraulic shredding apparatus that runs off the truck’s PTO — the power takeoff. The shredding part of the truck takes up perhaps a quarter of the area, and the rest of the box is for the shredded paper. Customers can watch it getting done, and they get a Certificate of Destruction, which puts their minds at ease because if it’s hauled away in whole form it’s not as secure.”
All the shredded paper hauled off by SecurShred is recycled.
Fourteen years ago, shredding was becoming established in urban America, but it seemed, perhaps, a little pointless to do-it-yourself Vermonters. Now SecurShred provides an indispensable service. That includes the state contract for electronic recycling, says David Van Mullen, general manager. “The State of Vermont contracts for all of the services on our website: we shred, scan, store, and recycle.”
And it has evolved. Miller and Flegenheimer developed a broader vision with paper shredding as but one function in what they describe as “information management.” Besides destroying information, the company does the opposite: Scanning documents, storing them off-site for many customers, and providing the information when and how their customers need it has gained a lot of traction.
Organizations often start off doing these things in-house, says Miller, “until they see how much time goes into it. They develop an understanding of how easy it is to outsource their record-keeping to a secure facility like ours.”
That facility is a climate-controlled building in Morrisville. Some materials kept there, such as customers’ tax records, are set for “timed destruction,” while other, “legacy” materials will be safeguarded permanently.
SecurShred’s document-imaging equipment can scan thousands of pages at a time, then index, categorize, and store the data on discs easily recalled when needed. Terry Mclaughlin, chief financial officer at Shearer Chevrolet in South Burlington, says the dealership has been a paper-shredding customer of SecurShred “since the beginning,” but finds the newer services tremendously convenient.
“Sometimes the manufacturer will be looking for information on vehicles,” he says. “I give them my records, they scan them in, and they can send what’s needed to the manufacturer.”
SecurShred owns a large-format scanner for blueprints and other large documents. “It’s great for architects and town offices,” Miller explains.
There’s also a boon to the tech-averse: They’ll recycle (or e-cycle) electronic equipment, and (Hallelujah!) destroy your computer hard drive with a hydraulic punch (also known as the HD Hammer) and take the whole thing off your hands.
Miller, 58, grew up off North Avenue in Burlington, exploring the shores of Lake Champlain and playing in the woods with his brother and sister “before Leddy Park was Leddy Park, before there were TVs and computers, when all entertainment was homemade.”
His role model was his father, a World War II veteran named Kenneth Warren Miller (Miller is Kenneth Warren II, and his son, who works for a Burlington Internet firm, is Kenneth Warren Miller III). Miller’s father bought and sold real estate, opened a night club on Pearl Street, and converted a camera store on Church Street, which was owned by the family of Miller’s mother, Rhea (known as Peg), into Ken’s Pizza and Pub. When the 1980 winter Olympics were held in Lake Placid, N.Y., he invested in a Mexican restaurant, Casa Del Sol, to serve the tourists.
It didn’t take Ken the Second more than a semester or so at St. Michael’s College to realize he was cut from his father’s cloth, so he left school in 1973 and took some responsibilities at Ken’s Pizza and Pub. In 1985 he opened Amigos Mexican Restaurant on Shelburne Road, and two years later another Amigos in Middlebury. Then there was a western wear store on Church Street. These enterprises came one after the other until, in 1999, he sold the last of them, did some contracting, and pondered what should come next.
Then he got the call from Flegenheimer, who had, until recently, owned and operated The Net Result, a seafood market in South Burlington, for 10 years. He grew up in the Midwest, attended Albion College in Michigan, then worked in public relations in Toledo, Ohio. Still young and adventurous, he ditched that job and set off on a road trip with a friend in 1986.
“We were pretending to look for jobs,” he recalls, “but what we were really doing was playing golf and chasing Billy Buckner.” Buckner was the Boston Red Sox’ first-baseman who made a historic error during the ’86 World Series. Flegenheimer was caught up in the Sox’ quest to “break the Curse of the Bambino” and win a World Series title, and he was there the night Buckner booted the ball in Fenway Park.
He then found himself in Burlington, where his traveling partner was interviewing for a job. “Nice place,” he recalls thinking. “I can see myself moving here.”
Before long, he did. And when he owned The Net Result, one of his wholesale customers was Ken Miller, proprietor of Amigos. Independently, and by their own choices, they were both “between jobs” in 1999 when Flegenheimer’s dad called from Saginaw.
“Kenny and I were both very hands-on,” says Flegenheimer. “We drove the truck, we ran the shredder, we baled the paper.”
The business grew at a leisurely pace until around 2003 when HIPAA, the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, kicked in with strict requirements to protect patients’ privacy and medical records.
“That was a game changer,” says Flegenheimer. “The hospitals, who we’d been approaching all along, started calling us back and saying, ‘What is it exactly that you do?’”
Miller recalls that HIPAA was just the tip of the iceberg. Then came the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act requiring financial institutions to protect customers’ financial information, then more state and federal privacy laws. With growing identity theft and computer-security threats, small businesses and individuals sought to eliminate traces of their personal records.
“When Eric went to our first NAID conference — the National Association for Information Destruction — in 2000, I think there were 50 people there,” says Miller. “Now those conferences draw thousands of vendors and attendees.”
Shredding has become institutionalized, and Miller and Flegenheimer have never looked back.
They have, however, stepped back. Neither is intimately involved in the daily running of the company. They have turned those duties over to Van Mullen, who started off baling paper in 2003 and knows every cranny of the business.
“For me it’s been a great journey and I’ve learned a lot,” says Van Mullen. “When I started, there were maybe three other employees. Now we have just over 30.”
Miller pulled away first, taking time three years ago to nurture his father through a terminal illness, then, tragically, doing the same for his wife, Esther, who died early in 2013. He has since turned his attention more to community efforts, serving as “giving chair” of the cancer patient support program at Fletcher Allen Health Care, and donating platelets from his blood to the Red Cross. He’s a fisherman and golfer. His son remains nearby, and his daughter, Molly, lives in Australia.
Flegenheimer, 54, stayed at the helm at SecurShred until March, then decided it was in good hands with Van Mullen. He has served on the board of the Flynn Theatre for a decade, has been active with the Humane Society, and is the treasurer of the church he attends with his wife, Liddy, in Williston. He, too, is a golfer. Their son, Graeme, lives in Los Angeles.
Both men say they’re not sure what comes next, but each feels that there’s something out there with his name on it. The business they nurtured, growing from information destruction to information preservation, is itself proof of a world of possibilities. •