Photos by Richard Bell

When the pandemic was declared in early 2020, it forced employees at many companies to switch from working in office buildings to working at their kitchen tables. It also encouraged document destruction firms to adjust their routines to fit a socially distanced workforce, and many say this newfound adaptability is a strength.

Pandemic impacts

For Don Adriaansen, CEO and president of Titan Mobile Shredding LLC, based out of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, business initially took a hit as fewer people working in office buildings meant less demand for shredding services. Despite that immediate change, the need for shredding services only wavered briefly.

“So, we saw a pretty immediate downturn in the routine service because people’s offices were closed,” Adriaansen says. “So, that part of it certainly changed. Our business mix shifted probably about 5 percent for a few months. And then it kind of started to even back out. Our volume for the year was down about 16 percent from the end of 2019 to 2020. Our 2021 will certainly turn out better than 2020, [but] I don’t anticipate being quite to the level of 2019.”

Because many of Titan’s customers shifted their employees to remote work, they either altered their service frequency or canceled altogether. This resulted in short-term layoffs of Titan personnel during this period and staffing issues further down the line, Adriaansen says.

“Our biggest challenge is staffing,” he says. “It has been for probably about a six-month period. Once we brought everybody back, we continue to try to hire and, for various reasons, there’s been limited staffing available.”

Adriaansen adds that staffing has been a challenge for his company and others in the document destruction industry and more generally, as well. He says it’s limiting Titan’s ability to grow.

Sandy Palmier, who works in human relations, marketing and accounting at Gateway Recycling, agrees, suggesting that many people aren’t working as a result of more generous unemployment benefits brought on by the pandemic.

Gateway Recycling is a Cleveland-based recycling company that offers mobile and plant-based secure destruction services through its Gateway Confidential division. The company serves clients in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, West Virginia and Michigan.

Jim Dowse, chief operating officer at Time Shred Services, Freeport, New York, says the emergence of COVID-19 incentivized him to better market his company to potential and current customers by investing more heavily in updating and using the company’s website. He also reached out to potential customers through direct mail promotions.

“Our business has recovered nicely,” Dowse says. “And it’s recovered because we’ve spent a lot of time doing different marketing things to get our name out there. We became very aggressive from a marketing standpoint, and that has helped us rebound.”

Because 60 percent of Time Shred Services’ business comes from its website, changing tactics to a more marketing-centric approach has placed the company fiscally ahead in comparison with 2020 and 2019, Dowse says.

“Literally any type of business you can think of, we service with shredding,” he says. “Everybody needs shredding. It’s just a matter of when they need it.”

However, for Nate Segall of Toledo, Ohio-based AccuShred, business as usual didn’t change during the pandemic, though some minor pandemic-related policies and procedures were added to the company’s daily operations.

“We had to make some changes to the way we operate; some of our policies and procedures had to change,” Segall, president of AccuShred, says. “But, fortunately, we made them and were able to continue to operate almost the same. Whatever it took to service the customer, we did.”

He says AccuShred was able to effectively communicate with its customers via a newsletter as well as through other promotional items.

Gateway Confidential prioritized the safety of its employees and customers while maintaining its shredding schedule.

“It definitely wasn’t business as usual,” Palmier says. “But I think everybody just went on with their [business], as long as they took the precautions of masks and social distancing and wipes. Safety was obviously the first priority for everybody.”

Shredding service adaptations

“About 75 to 80 percent of our business is what we call routine service,” Adriaansen says. He adds that can mean either weekly, biweekly or monthly scheduled services. “We did have to go through a process with some of our accounts to modify the service and agreements on a temporary basis. We haven’t had to do anything … on a long-term basis.”

With the pandemic shifting typical service schedules, secure destruction service providers had to adapt as much as their customers did.

“When this all started, we all thought it was going to be two, four weeks,” Adriaansen says. “We’ve tried to be as flexible as possible because we understand that [customers] don’t have a crystal ball on what they’re going to be doing.”

Adriaansen adds that he doesn’t anticipate service schedules to be “relatively normal” until after Labor Day. At that point, he says, Titan Mobile Shredding plans to work with some of its accounts that have not returned to regular in-office schedules to “get them on a service level that works for them.”

AccuShred incorporated pandemic necessities, such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and social distancing, with minimal issues.

“You get the typical PPE type of changes. We sanitized the containers when we would deliver them,” Segall says. “We stopped taking walk-in customers during that time period. We have restarted that as of probably six months or so, but now we let them only enter the foyer to pay their bill rather than coming all the way into the office with respect to servicing the customers out of the office.”

Because many offices and businesses have switched to a hybrid or work-from-home schedule during the pandemic, Time Shred adjusted its shredding services to be more compatible with its customers’ newfound needs.

The company achieved this by promoting on-call services rather than scheduled pickups and by offering shredding services Monday through Saturday. These changes made its services more flexible and saved money for businesses that were contracted for scheduled shredding pickups before the pandemic.

“We don’t lock [customers] into a schedule with our contracts,” Dowse says. “We allowed them to make changes as necessary … And then as things pick up for them, they can always go back.

“So, we’ve always been flexible for our customers because we’re not trying to force our services on them. We want to meet their needs.”

Similarly, Gateway Confidential’s sales team worked to modify services to individually contracted customers though Zoom and phone calls, Palmier says.

Profitability takes a hit

Despite a trend of businesses going bankrupt or closing because of the pandemic, that has not been the case for these document destruction companies. Most of the sources contacted for this article say their businesses experienced a hiccup before quickly getting back to normal last year.

Dowse says March and April of 2020 were Time Shred’s worst months. “Business was down about 64 percent,” he says.

Dowse says Time Shred’s ability to provide information and timely service were big advantages during the pandemic. However, the company’s profitability was still affected.

Gateway Confidential also saw its profitability take a hit, with Palmier saying the decrease in shredding volume and the pandemic led to ripple effects companywide afterward.

Photos by Richard Bell

“The pandemic impacted volume initially,” she says. “And now the aftermath is wage increases and trouble hiring, which affects the bottom line for profitability.”

Titan Mobile Shredding and AccuShred also saw their profitability decline in 2020. Despite this, the companies say they have gained skills that will pay dividends going forward.

Newfound adaptability

With many companies resurfacing and rebuilding as the pandemic subsides, shredding companies are seeing the lasting effects of the pandemic on their businesses, good and bad.

“We’ve become more adaptable to servicing our customers,” Adriaansen says. “It’s also made us review a lot of our service routes to try to make them as efficient as we can, and we will continue to do that as all of our accounts come back online. [COVID-19] forced us to review everything that we spend money on, and we had to change some of that a little bit [to be] more fiscally responsible. We’re certainly going to keep that going.”

The pandemic also led some companies to reconsider their service agreements with clients, reducing service frequencies.

“We came out of it pretty healthily from a numbers standpoint,” Segall says. “We’re still looking to grow as [the] economy starts to pick up. My one concern going forward is I think that change frequencies from some of our customers may not go back to where they were.”

Segall says flexible shredding schedules were born out of necessity during the pandemic, but having less frequent pickups can allow shredding companies to maintain a larger client base, with AccuShred steadily adding customers since the pandemic began.

Gateway Confidential took the time to evaluate and promote internal changes in the company’s structure, such as streamlining its operations to work more efficiently, Palmier says.

Time Shred Services also made pandemic-prompted changes, with an emphasis on its marketing strategy. “It made us more aggressive,” Dowse says. “So, we had to look for the business, and that’s helped us literally get through the pandemic and now exceed prepandemic levels. You had to adapt or perish.”

The author is a summer intern with the Recycling Today Media Group.