The Value of PI

by Rosalyn Graham

Paul Meacham turned his gift of gab and interest in law enforcement into a full-time career

One might suppose that the essential skills of a successful private investigator would be mastering disguises or shooting straight. Not so, according to Paul Meacham III of Middlebury. His formula for successful private investigation is excellent communication skills, well-honed research ability and a big dose of discretion.

Paul Meacham III is the founder and owner of sister companies in the investigation business: Comprehensive Claims Services, a full-service PI company, and American Lenders Service Co., which does repossessions. They cover the state of Vermont and extend into New Hampshire, New York state and as far as Boston.

Meacham knows whereof he speaks. He is the founder and owner of Comprehensive Claims Services, a full-service private investigation company with its main office in Middlebury that covers the state of Vermont and extends into New Hampshire, New York state and as far as Boston.

How does a smooth-talking, discreet communicator who knows where to go for the answers get into the field of private investigation? It isn't typically on the list of possible professions distributed by high school counselors. Nor was the path to owning Comprehensive Claims a direct one, in spite of the fact that when Meacham graduated from Middlebury Union High School, he went to Champlain College to study law enforcement.

Just before graduating, he joined the Army. It was at the time of Desert Storm and he was training with the 82nd Airborne until a combat school injury changed his plans, sending him to Korea as a unit medic.

He came home, married Margaret St. Amour, the girl down the street from his father's home in Burlington, and went to Trinity College to study criminology and sociology.

After their daughter, Ashley, was born, Meacham juggled school, precious time with his family and a series of jobs with the Department of Corrections, first as a correctional officer in Chittenden County and then at the state hospital in Waterbury jobs he says helped to hone those effective communication techniques.

With college behind him, Meacham had a short stint working for a repossession company before the event that set him on the right path: a job offer from a Florida private investigation company to work in its Boston office.

"I did all their investigative work in Vermont, New Hampshire, New York and Massachusetts," Meacham says. He learned the ropes, worked hard, rose up through the ranks and discovered something about himself: Private investigation was the kind of law enforcement for him.

Margaret Meacham learned the investigation business from her husband; she handles all the financial management and has developed her own areas of specialty. An alumna of Trinity College's human services program, she credits her training at the Vermont College of Cosmetology for teaching her how to present herself well.

"I like variety," he says. "Police officers may get stuck on traffic for a long time and that's not my idea of a fun day. I do private investigation because it is a challenge, something different every day. It's putting your mind to use to figure something out that somebody is trying to keep from you. Your job is to find out how can I get that information and how can I get it in such a way that it is admissible in court."

With that realization, it wasn't long before Meacham decided to open his own PI company and coming home to Vermont to do it made sense to him. "My family is all here; I want to raise my family here."

Meacham founded Comprehensive Claims Services in 1999 as a full-service private investigation company. "Full-service" is a term that lays bare an amazing diversity of behaviors that cause insurance companies, businesses, law firms and the general public to pick up the phone and call Meacham: employees robbing their bosses, truckers slipping products into a buddy's car parked along the route, people cheating workers' compensation, actions of unsavory boyfriends. Some have questions about the backgrounds of potential employees or business partners.

Law firms hire him to provide research to support litigation, locate witnesses and investigate backgrounds. Financial institutions and insurance companies call him to do skip-tracing or to locate somebody who has moved, leaving a big debt or taking a car that hasn't been paid for.

Success in tracing vehicles and recovering them for their rightful owners spawned another company. "We decided to open our own repossession company, American Lenders Service Co.," Meacham says. "We do repossession and I use my investigative skills to find them. The two businesses go hand-in-hand; they complement each other." American Lenders and Comprehensive Claims cover the same service areas.

Contrary to popular belief, the company becomes involved in very few divorce cases. The problem with divorce investigations, Meacham says, is, "People aren't happy if they spend the money and you prove what they thought was going on. They're upset because now they know it; and if you don't find something they're mad because they spent the money."

A growing field is theft and fraud perpetrated through the Internet. To serve that area, Meacham is about to go back to Champlain College to study computer forensics.

Another growing area of investigation involves record retrieval, a challenge in Vermont where, unlike many other states, there is no central repository of public records, and searches typically involve going to every county courthouse. Under new privacy safeguards, a private investigator has to know the right questions to ask and have cultivated the right contacts to do the job effectively.

In every facet of the business, Meacham's communications skills are key. "I can get along with everybody, " he says. "I can tell stories and talk and joke and laugh and get individuals to talk to me. It might take a two-hour conversation with somebody to get the 30 seconds of information you are looking for, but if somebody has hired you to go undercover you have to be able to keep it going."

Steve Delphia of Delphia Excavating in New Haven attributes Meacham's accomplishments as an investigator to his friendly personality. "He's funny and easy to get along with, certainly not your stereotype of a private investigator."

This is true. With his impressive size and infectious smile, Meacham might better fit the stereotype of a gourmet chef; and not looking like Sam Spade or Columbo can be an advantage when he is doing surveillance or working undercover.

Meacham says a key to his ability to talk easily with virtually everyone is his wide-ranging reading habit. "You have to be able to speak to people about all different kinds of stuff," he says, "so one day I might be reading a yachting magazine to get the lingo down."

Even with technology, he says, the old tried and true methods of private investigation are still important: leg work and getting out and talking to people. "As a well-rounded investigator you have to be adept at technology but also fall back on the old stuff and a lot of that is having contacts."

Technology, too, is an important part of the investigation business. Secret cameras catch dishonest employees pilfering. Electronic tracking devices prove that a delivery van traveled its proper route or not. Tape recorders capture conversations that prove the bad faith of a business competitor.

Office assistant Jessica Nicholson works with clients, tracks information and manages schedules for both companies.

That strategy worked for Jim McGrath of Upper Room in New Haven, a carpet retailer who took a tape Meacham made of one of his competitors defaming him, and succeeded in insisting that he stop. "He should be given a gold star," McGrath says of Meacham.

This diverse range of services is handled by a very small but multi-talented staff. Margaret, who studied at the Vermont College of Cosmetology and then human services at Trinity, learned the investigation business from Meacham. She handles all the financial management of the businesses and has developed her own areas of specialty. She likes the challenge of background searches and does a lot of skip-tracing, but she also likes meeting clients and developing the relationships that help to develop more business.

Meacham says, "We work together really well on two-person investigations. Because we're married, we can communicate very easily; we have really good rapport." He says it is useful to have a female investigator. "People will tell a female investigator a lot of stuff ," he says. "They are less intimidating."

The third member of the staff is office assistant Jessica Nicholson, who fills a pivotal role, working with clients, keeping track of the information that is collected, and managing schedules. Meacham is training another investigator for the Middlebury office, and any additional projects are staffed by investigators hired for their specialized knowledge and expertise.

One frustration of the private investigation industry is that confidentiality and clients' requirements for discretion make it hard to publicize the range of services being offered or the successes they have achieved. A business that is being defrauded by a crooked partner, a family alarmed by a teenager's drug habit, or a potential investor who wants to be sure a company is solid each wants information but doesn't want publicity.

"It would be a public relations nightmare if some of this stuff got out," Meacham says. He guards names and details zealously, but he is more than willing to share his expertise in crime prevention and business security through workshops and guest-speaking engagements with community groups and government and professional organizations. At the same time, he raises awareness of the fact that private investigation services exist in the state of Vermont. Too often, he says, he hears businesses say they have gone out of state for investigators, not realizing the expertise exists here.

Perhaps he needs to enlist the assistance of his children with the marketing and public relations. Ashley, 11, and Ethan, 8, spend time in the office and love to go along on expeditions to far parts of the state. Margaret says,"When they tell the kids at school their father is a private investigator, the kids say, 'Are you kidding? That's so cool.'" •

Originally published in June 2005 Business People-Vermont