Making a business of destroying information

June 1, 2010
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One sunny day in May, Scott Overweg made a computer disappear.

As Kari Overweg, managing partner of the family company West Michigan Document Shredding, toured the backroom, her husband, the vice president of operations, inserted a computer into a machine that pulverized the metal and plastic box into a pile of scrap.

It was just another act of information destruction at the Hudsonville company, which Kari Overweg started in 2002 after the youngest of her three children entered school full-time. By 2007, West Michigan Document Shredding was making enough money to allow Scott Overweg to leave full-time trucking and for Kari Overweg to hire her mother-in-law, Char Overweg, to do part-time sales. Char’s husband, Ed, is a minority shareholder.

“It truly is a family business. We all do what we can,” said Overweg. Make no mistake, she said: The grind and responsibility of running a business is no life of glamour. But underneath the mountains of paper Overweg has shredded in eight years, she has developed an enterprise that allows her to remain true to her life’s priorities.

“The best thing about being your own boss? You can be yourself,” she said.

Mechanical shredders were invented in the early 20th century and saw their first widespread use during World War II. More recently, federal laws have increased the obligations of companies regarding privacy, necessitating the verifiable destruction of confidential documents. Even garbage is legally fair game for snoops, so papers that are not confidential under law but still private may need to be destroyed.

“More identities are stolen from trash cans and residential post boxes than they are off the Internet,” Overweg said.

“We do get people who say, ‘I have a ton of paper to get rid of.’ To them, a ton might be six boxes, which is really 200 pounds. (Scott) was just talking about somebody who has 1,000 boxes — they have two tons of paper, they literally do. So we deal with everything.”

Kari Overweg

Company: West Michigan Document Shredding
Position: Managing Partner
Age: 47
Birthplace: Hudsonville
Residence: Hudsonville
Family/Personal: Husband, Scott, vice president of operations; twins Katie and Kalyn, 14; son, Case, 12.
Community/Business Involvement: Hudsonville Reformed Church; previously, several chambers of commerce and Alliance of Women Entrepreneurs.
Biggest Career Break: Taking a Dale Carnegie course and having to give a speech about herself without mentioning her career.

Recently, the company added what’s known as media shredding: destroying computers and CDs. It also has handled product destruction, as long as the item fits into the shredder and makes it through the blades.

“We’ve shredded for car dealers, and license plates go through without a hitch,” Overweg said. “Hardened steel does not. We’ve learned that. It did not hurt our shredder blades, but it didn’t go through, either.”

Security is paramount in the destruction business, she said. The National Association of Information Destruction offers an annual security certification program.

“They come in and they check out our policies, our procedures. They verify that we do employee background checks, drug screens, that we’re licensed properly, we have closed circuit TVs,” Overweg said. “They want to know that those are operational, that we’ve got 90 days of backup so should something come up, we should be able to go back and find out what happened. They check the locks on our trucks.”

Her company offers both on-site and off-site service. Based on the customer’s choice, items can be shredded at the customer’s location where the owner can watch, or at West Michigan Document Shredding’s facility in a Jenison industrial development.

“Eighty percent of our customers are OK with us doing it here,” Overweg said. “Security wise, we feel more comfortable doing it here because we take it in a locked container, put it in a locked vehicle and unload it within the facility. Where when we’re shredding on-site, we take the locked container out to the truck and then the truck itself lifts the paper and dumps it within the truck. It’s all automated.

“There are just some businesses that feel more secure because they can watch it be shredded. … That accounts for about 20 percent of our accounts, and that’s OK. It’s what the customer expects or requests.”

Customers include health care providers, accountants, lawyers, manufacturing, mortgage and title companies.

“Anyone with a number of employees has records of those employees with confidential and secure information. Any payroll record should be handled as if confidential. And every industry has some type of a trade secret, has something they don’t want their competitors to find out. So essentially, an industry standard is eight to 10 employees is a business that could probably benefit from a shredding service,” Overweg said.

New customers often ask for advice on what should be shredded and when, but Overweg said she can’t provide that kind of advice and suggests seeking guidance from a lawyer or accountant.

“As my mother-in-law will tell people, just shred everything,” Overweg said. “Then you know the confidential stuff is destroyed. Because when you’re looking at two sheets of paper, you still have to decide, confidential or not? And if you just shred it all, you’ve eliminated all potential risk.”

Shredded material is baled and stacked tall inside West Michigan Document Shredding’s facility until there is enough to fill a semi tractor-trailer, about three per month. The bales are shipped to recycling centers in Wisconsin and Georgia to become fresh paper.

Overweg got her shredding start back in 2002. The energetic mom of teen-age twin girls and a tween boy, she was ruminating about how to spend her time after her son started school full-time. That’s when her husband came up with an idea.

“He was driving a truck in Detroit and some talk radio show interviewed a document shredding industry guy. And he called me: ‘I got it!’ On the phone, I’m like, ‘Do what? Who’s going to pay us to shred their paper?’”

Still, the business seemed like a good fit, with Scott’s background in trucks and Kari’s in business. As a business-to-business enterprise, it offered regular hours, an important factor in raising a family.

“I think we deliberated for about a week and I … checked (online) and, sure enough, there was an industry. People did this, and the competition in the Grand Rapids area didn’t look too stiff, and we could probably handle it…

“Instead of us doing the loan thing … we started with what capital we already had,” she recalled.

“He continued the truck driving and I did it all from home. We had an on-site shredding truck, so I would go to our clients; I would shred it there. I would bring the paper — there’s a couple different spots in town that accept shredded paper for recycling. I would dump the paper. I’d come home; I’d do the billing. On the days I didn’t have a route, I’d cold-call and try to make arrangements to pick up paper.”

Overweg converted a bedroom into an office, and used her cell phone to take calls on the road. An uncle who worked in sales suggested making a minimum of 10 cold calls per day. So that’s what Overweg did. She looked for articles about local companies and, figuring they must be doing well, called them. She started attending meetings at chambers of commerce and the Alliance for Women Entrepreneurs. She attended “Shred School” in South Carolina, run by veteran shredders.

“They teach you what’s important about the shredding industry. And so I’m now a Shred School graduate,” she said.

Eventually, the business moved from on-site locked document storage and shredding to a secure storage unit for off-site work.

“And then at one point, we booked a job that we knew would pay the month’s expenses, and that’s when we made the decision that we were going to do it full force — this was going to be our sole providing income,” she said.

Her company now employs her husband, one other full-time and several part-time workers.

A Hudsonville native, Overweg and her younger brother grew up as the children of Ken Gernaat, a manager for General Motors, and his wife, Karen, a homemaker. In addition to his regular job, Gernaat maintained a hobby farm.

“More of my shredding lessons have come from that hobby farm,” Overweg said. “And I used to complain, complain, complain about what I had to do on that farm.”

Her major chore? Bale hay.

“That was the worst. I’ve hauled and baled and thrown more boxes around here. It just reminds me of the hay. You bale hay when the hay is ready and the sun’s shining, and you go get the boxes when the customer calls. You don’t set the time; you don’t turn the rain on and off. I learned those lessons, and now I use them again.”

After graduating from Hudsonville High School, Overweg landed at Kettering University, then General Motors Institute, in Flint. Still primarily an engineering and business college, GMI offered a program that mixed school and work experiences. Skeptical at first, Overweg said that after one week, she loved it.

“One of the things that worked when I was at GMI was I felt like I was among peers. I hadn’t felt that before,” she said. “It was a good program for me.”

Armed with a bachelor’s degree in industrial administration, specializing in finance, Overweg took a job at GM Rochester Products in Rochester, N.Y.

“It was good for me to get out of town,” she said. “Good for me to decide, you know what, Hudsonville ain’t so bad. It was OK living there, but it wasn’t home.”

So she returned to Hudsonville, with no job. Eventually, she found a job at a family-owned Holland company. Then she met Scott, a Unity Christian High School grad. They married, and once they become parents, Overweg put work on the back burner.

“When we first married and our kids were real little, we laughed because we were one of the few people who could, on Christmas, see our entire extended relations and not travel more than 20 miles: three sets of grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters.”

After work is done, Overweg spends time with her children, watching them play sports such as Little League and football. An avid reader, she also is an enthusiastic volunteer with a weekly preschool program at her church, Hudsonville Reformed.

When she returned to West Michigan after working in New York, Overweg took a Dale Carnegie course. As part of that, she was asked to give a speech about herself without mentioning her career.

“That probably was huge to me, learning to identify myself, at least internally, as to who am I, not what do I do,” she said. “Then when I went on to the next step, I could say, ‘These are things I know I’m strong at.’”

Overweg is a devoted destroyer of her own excess paperwork.

“I shred everything. I have a small container under my desk that I just put all my stuff in. I tried to keep track of how often I fill it, but I lose track. I had a little calendar going for a while. Then that fell into the container, and I shredded it.”

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