Eric Eicher, John Whitley and Mark Jarvis have quietly built The Steritech Group into a force to be reckoned with in the commercial pest control market.
STERITECH BY THE NUMBERS
Company: The Steritech Group Inc.
Headquarters: Charlotte, N.C.
Year Founded: 1986
Total Staff: 450
Offices: 28 2002
Increase Over 2001 Sales: 6.5%
Projected Increase For 2003 Sales: 18.0%
You may not know much about The Steritech Group. But don’t worry — you have lots of company. The Charlotte, N.C.-based company is one of the industry’s largest and has a top-notch reputation among those that are familiar with the firm. And although Steritech competes with such firms as Terminix and Orkin, the fact that the company services only commercial accounts leads to some mystery among the rest of the industry.
"I think there is a bit of curiosity about our company," said Steritech CEO John Whitley. A bit of curiosity is not surprising given that the company has high revenue numbers and has consistent growth annually but isn’t involved in one important part of the market — residential pest control. "We don’t want to stick our nose in the areas we’re not involved in. A lot of the issues in the pest control industry pertain to residential work, which is not our primary focus," Whitley said.
Since the company doesn’t perform residential work, Steritech may be under the radar screen to those who don’t directly compete with the firm day to day. But, to commercial pest control customers, Steritech is one of the most recognized service providers in the marketplace. The company boasts an impressive list of commercial clients, including well known names in government and the health-care, food-processing, food-service and retail industries.
The idea for Steritech (which stands for "sterilization technology") came to Whitley when he left Rentokil, a pest control company with offices in 42 countries, in 1985. He was president of the company’s U.S. operations at the time. Eric Eicher and Whitley worked together at Rentokil and decided they wanted to start a new kind of company. "We didn’t want a name that limited us to just pest control," Eicher said. "We wanted to keep it open so we wouldn’t be restricted and could offer a variety of services."
Just like many decisions that the firm would come to make, the foresight about the company’s name proved to be fortuitous.
GUARANTEED PEST PREVENTION. Although many companies in the pest control industry have adopted a policy of Integrated Pest Management or reduced use of pesticides, Steritech has pushed this idea to the limits with its EcoSensitive® Pest Prevention program. "Our first basic tenet is total pest elimination but without a reliance on traditional, routine pesticide applications," Eicher said.
Steritech’s EcoSensitive Pest Prevention program "goes beyond pest control to guaranteed pest prevention," the company says. The program uses an environmentally sensitive system that minimizes pesticide usage and prevents infestations by correcting pest problems at their source. For Steritech, pest prevention is a partnership with its clients. Maintaining a pest-free environment requires monitoring and documentation of pest prevention efforts, making Steritech a potential partner for firms that require HACCP or other quality control initiatives.
Steritech’s service specialists, who are supported by a technical team of full-time entomologists, microbiologists and biologists, focus not only on the elimination of pests, but also on recurrence prevention and the improvement of overall food safety and environmental hygiene standards. The company provides a program of inspection, implementation, monitoring and reporting.
Just how dedicated are the company’s service specialists to this minimalist approach to pesticides? One has to look no further than the company’s technical director to see how passionately this idea is supported. "In New York in 1985, I worked with a small ornamental pest management company applying massive volumes of coarse pesticides such as carbaryl, kelthane, malathion and the worst of all, Di-Syston. Di-Syston has an LD50 of 2 to 6. It is one of the most deadly pesticides ever made available," said Mike McGuinness, Steritech’s technical director and a board certified entomologist. "One day, a trainee placed my gloves in an air-tight compartment with a bag of Di-Syston without my knowledge. I quickly ended up with some serious pesticide poisoning from the traces of Di-Syston that made it into my gloves. From that day forward, I developed an interest in designing effective programs with minimal or no pesticide use."
While Steritech’s service specialists have a complete toolbox of products, including pesticides, the company’s goal is to limit their use as much as possible. "We never apply a pesticide unless a pest is present, however, at the end of the day, pesticides are an option. We’re not purists," McGuinness said.
FOOD SAFETY. Just as some pest management firms offer add-on services to their customers (i.e., lawn care, repair work, etc.), Steritech has added an entire division related to its commercial customer base. "We really view ourselves as a food safety company with pest prevention being just one aspect of food safety," Eicher said. "If you have pests in a food premises, you have a food safety issue."
Steritech’s food safety division started in 1994 and the company "progressively ramped up the business," said Mark Jarvis, president of the Food Safety Division. In the last three years, the food safety business has gained momentum and taken off. And in July 2002 the business graduated into its own separate division.
"Although there are fundamental differences in pest management and food safety, there are some similarities between the two — like service fundamentals and liability," Jarvis said.
There are legal reasons that food-service establishments (a large percentage of Steritech’s clientele) need to make sure their food is safe for public consumption. If a restaurant causes a food-borne illness outbreak, company officials can be held responsible. Who could forget the 1992 E. coli outbreak at a Washington state fast food chain that killed three children? "Outbreaks still claim the lives of 5,000 people a year," Jarvis added. "Authorities now have the ability to use technology, such as DNA fingerprinting, to establish the origin of the problem.
"We work with food-service operations to help them achieve the highest levels of food safety and sanitation possible. Steritech has the people, the programs and the technology to help them raise the bar," Jarvis added.
Food safety and pest prevention go hand in hand because the cleaner the environment is, the easier it is to eliminate pests without pesticides, Jarvis said.
The company employs about 80 experts with advanced degrees in food science, microbiology, dairy science, microbiology and related fields. "We position ourselves as the absolute expert in our field," Jarvis said. And there are a lot of food safety experts in the field who want to be a part of Steritech’s team. "There are an amazing number of people who approach us for employment," he said.
A Better Mousetrap
When the staff at Steritech needs a tool or product that can’t be found in the marketplace, they take it upon themselves to create exactly what they want.
“Much of the input for the final design of this ant station was from our field experiences,” said Mike McGuiness, the company’s technical director, holding the company’s newest creation. Constructed with ant biology in mind, the Steritech Ant Station features several compartments that cater to different ant species, as well as other pests, such as cockroaches and slugs.
“We created this station so that its height would be lower than a lawn mower setting,” he said. “Also, it needed to keep weather out because that’s a major problem. Ant baits can dry out or mold depending on the station’s internal humidity. We have reduced these negative environmental effects with the station’s design.”
McGuiness partnered with entomologists from several other pest control firms and Eric Snell from B&G Equipment Co., Jackson, Ga., to brainstorm ideas for a new bait station. It took about one year to develop the station’s design.
“The station supports pucks, liquid and granular baits and is easily cleanable, safe and sturdy,” McGuinness said. “It can be used on the ground or on a wall but most importantly it is quick to service and it works.”
The ant station is not Steritech’s only development. Several years ago the company was looking for an insect light trap “but there wasn’t anything out there that we were pleased with,” McGuinness said.
The company got to work on its own ILT. And, after investing a considerable amount of time and money, Steritech developed a trap it was happy with. “But then people started coming out with other ILTs. We tested ours against theirs and found theirs beat ours,” McGuinness said. The company scrapped its own ILT and began using those that were in the marketplace. “If something works better, we’ll use it,” he said.
Steritech’s food safety specialists conduct extensive audits based on regulatory requirements, industry best practices and client-specific needs. The audit covers elements of quality and food safety from employee hygiene practices to food storage and protection.
Last year, Steritech performed more than 20,000 audits for nearly 6,000 customers in North America and Latin America. "Many of our customers take advantage of the fact that we provide integrated pest prevention and food safety programs, tying in the data capture and reporting capabilities on both sides of the business," Jarvis said.
Another reason some companies may be jumping on board with Steritech is security. In addition to keeping their customers and employees safe, companies realize the importance of protecting themselves and their assets from deliberate acts of crime. Tom Ridge, U.S. Homeland Security Director, has said in the past that an attack on the American food or water supply is possible. "Biosecurity is a greater concern now and food must be protected throughout the food chain — literally from farm to table," Jarvis said.
Steritech’s Food Safety Division developed its own auditing software for data capture and reporting. All 80 of Steritech’s food safety specialists use handheld computers on a daily basis for performing audits. "We went out to the market to find a solution, but nothing met our expectations. None of the generic software applications had the power or flexibility we needed, so we built the software ourselves," Jarvis said.
TECHNOLOGY. Just like the programs that have been developed for the food safety side of the business, the Pest Prevention Division of Steritech also is highly technology oriented. About one-third of Steritech’s service specialists use palm computing and barcoding devices that can be used to document data from a job site and then moments later can be viewed by the customer on a secure site online.
"Clients go to Steritech.com and enter their name and password to view the reports," said Michael Hutchins, Steritech’s IT director. "Clients can check in on what their service specialist found during the service and then they can view charts and graphs. They can look at hits or activity and can view specialized pest reports."
Of course, different clients have different goals. This system has "simplified and satisfied third-party auditor requirements," McGuinness said. "Plus, the clients can now see some of the trends that we’re seeing in the field. Inspectors love it. It’s total verification that everything was done."
THE FUTURE. Just as the Steritech management team visualized the role technology would play in the company and the services they could offer clients, Whitley has a clear vision for the entire company — and pest management industry — which is why many of the staff on his team have been drawn to work for the company.
"I was strongly attracted to Steritech because John’s vision was to be pesticide free, or as close to it as possible, without compromising the quality of Steritech’s programs," McGuinness said.
"He has such passion that it’s contagious," said Mark Moser, Steritech’s director of human resources. "But he’s also recognized the need to change his style."
Whitley has changed his style — and his management style — throughout the past several years. He’s relinquished the day-to-day business operations to Eric Eicher, Mark Jarvis and Mike Lynch, Steritech’s chief financial officer. An avid swimmer, Whitley now resides in California, and uses technology to keep in daily contact with his staff.
"Eric, Mark and I run the company day to day and use John’s creative vision. He’s a great marketer," Lynch said. "If he could step back from the day-to-day operations and focus on the big picture we all saw that as a win for everyone."
"Rentokil taught me to run a company from a distance," Whitley said. "You have to let your team go on and do the job. My job is now, in part, to monitor quality across the board.
"The other part of my job is to keep the balance between financial, marketing and technical services, even though the company is never perfectly balanced. I am more inclined to be a hands-on operator but I’ve decided I’m no longer the best person to run operations day to day. I’m far better at conceptualizing and bringing new ideas to the table."
"When I interviewed with John I was attracted to his goals and vision for the company. I saw that he had a clear plan as to where things were going to be in five and 10 years," Lynch said. "He had this old green notebook with page after page of graph paper where he did extensive forecasts of the future. He has always been right on the money."
"John’s a very demanding person but always fair," Lynch added. "He doesn’t ask anything unreasonable. It’s all about making the company better and providing a better and safer work environment or advancing our employees to serve the clients. He’s very customer driven."
CONCLUSION. So what’s next for Steri-tech? The company plans to grow 22 percent this year but to do so, Whitley said he believes everyone in the industry needs to get on board with the idea that the pest management industry provides a public health service. "I certainly believe the industry needs a face-lift," he said. "I think the Professional Pest Management Alliance is doing a wonderful job leading us into a new era."
Protecting public health is an important part of Steritech’s philosophy. But that’s not the only thing helping the company grow in these tough economic times.
"One of the luxuries of being a private company is that we don’t have to report to shareholders quarter to quarter," Whitley says. "Many organizations are driven by their bottom line and their investors and that takes away from their focus." Not having to report to investors enables Whitley to look one, five or even 10 years down the road to determine the future direction of the company. It also means that Whitley can make a decision that benefits the company in the long term but that may not in the short term.
LUCKY 7: STERITECH’S SECRETS TO SUCCESS
Like most firms, Steritech has a mission statement under which the company operates. “Everybody in the company can quote the mission statement and everybody believes it,” says Steritech’s Director of Human Resources Mark Moser. Steri-tech’s mission statement is:
“To be recognized by our clients and those in our industry as being the very best at what we do.”
In addition, the company has seven service fundamentals that it follows:
2. Pest elimination
4. Polite, pleasant, professional service
5. Technical knowledge
6. Professional appearance
Where does Whitley get the ideas to lead his company into the future?
"I read a lot of (business-related) books but I honestly believe running a business is a lot of common sense," he says. "Focus on your people. Focus on your customers. Your people are the most important part of your business. If you don’t have the right people you don’t have anything."
Moser says he thinks part of the reason Steritech is so successful is that the message to its employees and customers is so easy to understand and follow. "The message from John is so simple," he says. "We’re going to be the best. I’ve got to be better than the competition. We need to return every call every day. And we need to deliver on our promises."
"We absolutely obsess about delivering on our promise," Whitley adds. "Our seven service principles, which were drafted in 1992 and haven’t changed since, are what we promise to our clients. We need to deliver the unexpected to our clients. We should surprise and delight them. Deliver."
The author is editor of PCT magazine She can be reached at email@example.com.