Surviving the untimely passing of a beloved brother is the latest in a series of lifelong obstacles to be overcome by one of the industry’s most recognizable figures.
When Greg Rice was a boy, his mother would often take him and his twin brother, John, to the beach not far from their home in West Palm Beach. The A1A highway winds through Palm Beach proper, the winter playground for the rich and famous, and even as a child, Greg Rice was fascinated by the grandiose homes set back behind gates and walls.
These are homes built as Greek temples and Italian villas, replete with entire staffs of gardeners, attendants and any number of luxury cars. Jimmy Buffet, Rod Stewart and Donald Trump have houses on this road, and in the winter, Palm Beach’s streets clog with Porsches, Lamborghinis and fleets of pristine SUVs.
And Rice, even as a young boy, was intrigued by this lifestyle of the rich and the famous. By his own admission he grew up safe and cared for; his parents — a stay-at-home mom and a janitor — were hard workers and provided for their children. But driving past these homes, these people, sparked a fire in Rice that burns to this day.
“I grew up in the shadows of a very wealthy community. I was on the other side of the tracks. Most kids were oblivious to that, because it was part of their lifestyle, but I was very aware of that,” Rice said. “I would always try to catch a glimpse of someone living behind one of those gated homes, seeing them walk out to their car and wondering, ‘What do those people know that our dad doesn’t know?’”
After more than 50 years of living and working, and earning his fair share of money, Greg Rice has found out.
The Rice brothers were born in West Palm Beach in 1951 to parents who abandoned them in the hospital. For eight months, the boys were cared for by hospital staff until their adoptive parents — the couple Greg refers to as his parents — came and took them in.
“I could say we grew up here, but you can see better than that,” Rice said, smiling.
The boys were born with dwarfism, a genetic condition that prevented them from growing to more than three feet tall. But they learned from an early age that to make their way in the world, they would have to adapt.
“I wanted to have more than what our family had,” Rice said. And for a 17-year-old boy in the late 1960s, that meant one thing: a car. But, he couldn’t get the same jobs his tall friends had; he couldn’t bag groceries, he couldn’t pump gas and he couldn’t swing a hammer for construction companies.
So he picked the only job he could do: door-to-door sales, hawking home cleaning products on straight commission.
“The guy that offered me the job figured if I didn’t sell anything, he wasn’t out much, just a sample kit or whatever,” Rice said.
“It would be a lot different now, having been on television for so many years, but back then no one knew who John and Greg were. Imagine hearing someone knocking on your front door, you opening the door, looking down and seeing me — a guy who could barely reach the doorbell button,” Rice said. “So I had to sell myself hard that first 15 seconds to that person, to put them at ease with the situation, because it was something they weren’t used to seeing everyday. Some people must have thought it was a set-up for Candid Camera.”
FROM ROCK STARS TO REAL ESTATE
But even finding something he was good at — and he is very good at selling — was no guarantee of job security or even success.
“I knew that no matter what I was to do in life, I was going to have to be better than everybody else that was doing it just to be on an even playing field, because people wouldn’t even take me at face value to have the same worth as a six-foot-tall guy doing the same work,” Rice said. “I think that momentum and that drive has stayed with me all of my life.”
That realization as a teenager and that momentum propelled Rice and his brother to become stars of the Beaches long before they would see their success in real estate and, later, pest control. They never shied away from the spotlight, appearing in newspaper stories from the day they graduated from high school, and later on television.
But the Rices proved to be better salesmen than most of their standard-stature colleagues: so much better, in fact, that they were soon hired by their company to teach other salespeople how to succeed. For six years, they flew all around the world, speaking to hundreds — sometimes thousands — of people.
“We were like rock stars,” Rice said.
Then, one morning in 1977, John suggested the brothers try investing in real estate. So they took a week-long course and became licensed agents. Their goal that first year was to sell 50 homes — figuring one sale each week, Greg said, with two weeks vacation. Ultimately, they sold 57 houses their first year and went on to start their own agency. At one point, the brothers owned 130 homes, employed 130 people and had six branch offices.
In the 1980s, to promote their business, the brothers started their own Sunday morning television show in which they would advertise homes for sale and discuss pertinent real estate tips — how to increase curb appeal, apply for a mortgage and related topics. But to give the show a little more credibility, and help pay the freight, they decided to find advertisers for 30-second spots.
So they made a list of all the businesses involved in the buying and selling of a home: moving companies, title agents, painters and pest control.
“Well, that list is endless,” Rice said. “But at the top of that list, we wrote pest control. Now, why we wrote pest control, I’m not sure. But that was at the very top of that list.”
“WHO THE HECK IS HULETT?”
The first company the Rice brothers approached was Palm Beach Exterminating, then the biggest locally owned pest control company in the market. They already had television commercials and were aggressive advertisers; they passed on the Rice brothers’ show.
A few days later, Greg was driving around town and came across the No. 2 local pest control company and its first foray into a major ad campaign. Six white billboards across West Palm Beach said in big, blue letters: “Only windshields kill more bugs than we do. Hulett Environmental Services.”
And so, driving in his car, and looking through a windshield with more than a few bugs on it, Rice wondered.
“‘Man, that’s clever. Now who the heck is Hulett?’ I’ve lived here my whole life and never heard of them. Nobody had,” Rice said. “I knew who Orkin was; I knew who Terminix was; I knew who Palm Beach Exterminating was. But I didn’t know who Hulett was.”
At that time, Hulett had 15 employees and ran its entire operations out of a house converted into an office not much bigger than the conference room Rice is sitting in now. The billboard ads were a big leap for the company, and the Rice brothers wanted to make an even bigger leap.
They wanted Hulett to advertise on their real estate show.
“They literally walked into our office. We’ve been together ever since,” said the company’s president, Tim Hulett. The brothers wrote, directed and filmed more than 40 commercials, and helped grow the company into a major state-wide player in the industry. “It took Hulett from a no-name to a well-known name in Palm Beach County and, really, in Florida. I’ll be eternally grateful,” Hulett said.
When the Rice brothers came to Hulett in 1990, the company had one office and was producing about $1 million in annual revenues. This year, it’s on track to earn $30 million from its 10 locations, thanks in part to the Rice’s signature television ads and seemingly unstoppable marketing power.
“Because (the approach) was so unique and different, it stood out, and they threw in that humor,” Hulett said. “And I was willing to take the chance on it, because I felt so strongly about them. It’s had a tremendous impact.”
The commercials, which advertise Hulett’s termite, pest and lawn services, show John Rice as a hapless homeowner who thinks he can take care of the problems himself; Greg is the level-headed voice of reason who counsels him to call Hulett. The brothers wrote, directed and starred in the 40 commercials, and often ended up dressing up as the insects and pests they were trying to eradicate (see related story, left).
The commercials have been so popular, Rice said, that customers often call the company and ask if they have them collected on tape or DVD. (The Rices’ oeuvre can now be found at Hulett’s Web site, www.bugs.com.)
The first three commercials aired in the late spring of 1990, and in September of that year, John broke his neck in a car accident. He was out of commission for nearly 2½ years.
“All we had was three commercials. That was all we had,” Rice said. It would be more than two and a half years before Hulett could film more Rice brothers commercials. During that time, other media salespeople came out of the woodwork and convinced Tim Hulett to rethink his marketing plan. “Now that people are starting to know who you are, why don’t you try something more serious,” they suggested.
“‘You’re involved in a very serious industry. You’re applying chemicals,’” Rice recalled them saying. “‘Maybe try something a little more Wall Street Journal-looking to your ads than what you’re doing now.’”
Hulett listened, and tried their new approach.
“It was like starting over again,” Rice said. The change, an effort to re-brand the company after a couple of year’s worth of the brothers’ ads, was a drastic one. It created a change in the company’s business, but not the change they were expecting. “After those new ads started to play, the phones just quit ringing.”
After John was able to work again, Hulett shot four new commercials, and have produced four new ads each year since.
Those commercials have been credited with pushing Hulett to its prominence in the Florida pest control industry; in 2004, it acquired its main competition, Palm Beach Exterminating. But the ads also have drawn the ire of many in the business as silly and portraying the work of pest control operators as novelty.
“Our commercials stand out. I mean obviously, you’ve got two three-feet-tall guys that were running around doing crazy, zany things. It does make them stand out,” Rice said. “But, for doing it for 17 years, if it was just the novelty of the size and nothing else, it wouldn’t have had the appeal that it has — because it appeals to such a broad segment of the market.”
BEING THE BRAND
The Rice brothers brought to Hulett the same thing they had been doing for years for themselves: They took an established business — home cleaning products, real estate and, now, pest control — and made it stand out so much that consumers had to take notice.
“I don’t think there have been many companies in this industry that have grown to the same degree this company has, in as short a period of time as this company has, without doing a lot of things right,” Rice said. “And I think one of the first things that anybody that has studied Hulett’s success will have to say is, the commercials make this company stand out, they’re our logo. No matter where I go, I’m a walking a logo.”
John and Greg appeared in each of the company’s commercials; their faces are on every billboard, every truck and every ad in the Yellow Pages.
But that branding came into question in 2005. After falling outside his Palm Beach bank, John Rice broke his leg. He would die a few days later during surgery. Flags in Palm Beach were lowered to half staff, and hundreds turned out for his funeral.
But Hulett didn’t know what to do about the 40 commercials the Rice brothers had produced together. He put it to Greg.
“I didn’t have to think twice about what I wanted to do. I wanted the commercials to stay on. Because, these were little vignettes John left behind that people enjoy, I mean people truly enjoy,” Greg said. And so, six weeks after John’s death, the company started playing all the old commercials again.
“I knew him better than anybody, and the last thing in the world he would want is for those things to be put up on a shelf somewhere collecting dust when, first of all, people enjoyed them,” he said. “And second of all, there are hundreds of people that work for this company whose livelihoods and family’s livelihoods depend on making that phone ring.”
WHAT IT’S ALL WORTH
Greg Rice turns his custom SUV off the A1A and pulls away from the beach. He’s headed back to the office, past the same mansions and the same glittering ocean he passed decades before as a child. But now, he’s part of that gated and once mysterious world. He’s adapted to — and succeeded in — an outsized world, but he’s done it on his own terms, thanks to the grounding advice his parents gave him and his brother when they were young.
“You might be smaller but that doesn’t mean you can’t be worth more. They instilled in us the motivation to do all we’ve done,” he said. “You can only do something about where you end up.”
Celebrity Status Fueled by Hulett TV Commercials
The Rice Brothers are probably best known in the pest control industry for the dozens of ads they wrote, produced and starred in for Hulett Environmental Services since 1990. They dressed as everything from cowboys to hockey players, the Star Trek crew, Elvis and a pair of termites on Noah’s Ark, winning a Pesty Award from the National Pest Management Association and making them local celebrities in the process.
The Rice File:
Company: Hulett Environmental Services
Location: West Palm Beach, Fla.
Position: Director of Marketing
Career highlights: Co-host of real estate show called “Television Home Hunt”; accomplished real estate investor; played a landlord with his brother, John, in the 1981 sitcom “Foul Play”; co-founded Think Big Inc., a company specializing in motivational speaking; produced more than 40 commercials that helped grow Hulett Environmental Services to a $30 million company ranked No. 22 on PCT’s Top 100 List.
Personal: Girlfriend Lori Miller; son, Gregor Rice; an avid NASCAR fan and barbecue expert.