AccuServe LLC’s daily grind is the stuff of TV movies.
The doorbell rings. The protagonist answers to what he thinks is a flower delivery, but the delivery agent drops the flowers and slaps a thick envelope into his hands instead.
“You’ve been served,” the agent says, then spins on his heels and walks away.
Believe it or not, the cliché is sometimes true, said Kirk Wilhite, co-owner of AccuServe, a Grandview Heights-based process service firm. But it’s not common.
“It’s true, there can be a lot of trickery to it. A lot of people are expecting the complaint or summons, so they try to evade service. It’s not uncommon for them to not answer the door,” Wilhite said.
Not that that helps them. Wilhite said in AccuServe’s eight months in business, he has a 100 percent success rate. In a nutshell, the business of process serving focuses on a brief and elemental moment in civil cases – the serving of a civil complaint, summons or subpoena. AccuServe is a small but growing firm that wants to make that moment in time big business.
With only $5,000 in start up costs, Wilhite said the company has done $20,000 in its first eight months in business.
Ohio rules require that when a lawsuit is filed, the complaint must be delivered via certified mail, in person by the sheriff, or by a disinterested third party over the age of 18 – the process server.
On one hand, the opportunities seem vast. Wilhite said there is a lawsuit filed somewhere in the U.S. every 30 seconds.
On the other hand, the field can be tough to break into because of the deep trust required of process servers. Wilhite, 28, got his start at an area private investigation firm. During his marketing efforts there, he regularly sold the firm’s process service to paralegals and attorneys
The Gahanna native’s entrepreneurial spirit led him to start AccuServe, for which a silent partner put up the startup capital and takes a percentage of monthly receipts.
The business of serving people with legal papers piqued Wilhite’s interest, but he likely won’t stop there.
“I really enjoy it – the complexities of it. There’s a lot more to it than just delivering documents,” Wilhite said. But, “I’ve had a couple different business ideas. I’m not saying this is going to be the only business I’ll ever start. I kind of jumped into this one.”
Most of Wilhite’s work involves handing court documents to corporate attorneys with no emotional involvement in the matter, but he said his vehicle has been chased by an angry defendant, and people have thrown the papers right back at him. He carries a can of tear gas from time to time, which can help with aggressive dogs as well as protect him from people.
The size of the process service industry is hard to judge. There are firms that operate in multiple states with hundreds of employees, and there are mom-and-pop operations of only one or two active servers. Private investigators often offer process service along with skip tracing and other services.
Many states have no regulation or registry of the profession in the state, said Gary Crowe, administrator of the National Association of Professional Process Servers. Crowe said he’s heard estimates of between 50,000 and 75,000 companies or individuals providing the service in the U.S.
Law firms will use only process servers they can trust, because an entire case can be on the line. First, until the papers have been served, there is no suit.
Attorneys have to be able to trust that their suit was actually served as claimed, that all of the necessary documents have been delivered, and that it was delivered in the correct way to the correct address in a timely manner. It’s a valid worry. In the past, process servers have claimed to have filed suits and actually simply dropped them into trash containers – commonly called sewer service.
In New York, at least $500 million in claims has been rendered uncollectible because of faulty process service, Wilhite said. One high-profile sewer service case involved process servers who fraudulently claimed to have made 77 service attempts on one day in locations 400 miles apart, which would have required 11 round trips covering 8,194 miles.
That scenario, obviously, is the nightmare of any attorney, so trustworthy process servers get lots of repeat business, said Nell Chambers, a paralegal with Dinsmore and Shohl in Columbus, and also president of the Paralegal Association of Central Ohio.
In fact, Chambers said, it’s most often the paralegals doing the hiring and interacting with the process server at large litigation firms, rather than the attorneys.
“I have a handful I deal with because I am so particular about their knowing the rules,” Chambers said. She adds that AccuServe is among those companies. “You’d be surprised at how many times someone has moved, the new people see the server, think ‘That’s cool, let’s accept it and read what it’s about.’ I’ve had that happen,” Chambers said.
So how does a young entrepreneur gain the trust law firms need when hiring a process server?
Wilhite has networked like crazy. He belongs to multiple associations and attends just about every event they hold, he said. He also hosts his own events, buying paralegals lunch in exchange for a quick presentation about his services.
One thing that sets AccuServe apart from other firms is its use of technology. Wilhite photographs an address with his iPhone, then sends it to a third party that verifies the phone’s latitude and longitude and gives the photo a date and time stamp. Such assurance has been legally mandated in New York, Wilhite said.
The tactics are working to bring him new clients, but Wilhite’s service has been bringing in plenty of repeat business, he said.
Professionalism is key. The process server is an important intermediary between attorneys and their clients, and has to professionally represent the attorneys to all involved in the suits, said Gary Wellbaum, a Columbus-based sole practitioner who limits his practice to family law.
Wellbaum said the majority of the cases in which he needs a process server are divorces, and a good personal process server can give Wellbaum control over some very touchy situations that a sheriff or mail delivery can’t. Wellbaum is another AccuServe client.
“Sometimes one party is completely surprised by the divorce, (and) there are often children involved. … Imagine a husband and wife living in a house with children. I don’t want the papers necessarily to show up when everyone is there. I may want the spouse served in the evening at home alone or at work, for instance,” Wellbaum said.
Or, he said he might want the server to contact the other spouse so that he or she has a heads-up that the papers have been served and when, in the event that the two spouses will be in contact later in the day. Wellbaum said he has to be able to rely on the server to make that communication promptly.
“Professionalism is important to me, too. This person will show up at their home, I want them to look decent and professional. It is the other side’s first impression of me, so to speak. And I want professionalism in terms of billing and responsiveness to my client, who will end up paying their fees,” Wellbaum said.
Wilhite said his goal for AccuServe is to expand into Indiana and Illinois within the next five years and to hit $500,000 in annual revenue in that time period.
• Business: Process server
• Based: Grandview Heights
• CEO: Kirk Wilhite
• Employees: 2
• 2010 revenue:
• $20,000 as of Oct. 10
• Website: accuserveohio.com
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