Unless you’re talking about the giant players, pest management companies tend to have deep family roots. Ours is a generational industry, where successful operations are handed down to sons, daughters, nieces and nephews — family members who learn the business early on and are proud to take it to the next level.
But what about the businesses without that family history — the companies established and run by enterprising entrepreneurs with no previous affiliation to the pest management industry? What prompts these folks to enter the field? What challenges and opportunities do they encounter? How do they become pest-savvy? And do we as an industry welcome these “outsiders”?
CPA Turned PMP Prospers in Jacksonville
Stuart Herman may not have had years of pest management experience — or a family mentor — when he started Brandon Pest Control in Jacksonville, Fla., 20 years ago, but he certainly had a head for business. A CPA by trade, Stuart had set a goal of building a successful service business. He felt that pest management offered him that opportunity.
“Everyone you meet is a potential client, so I saw a tremendous opportunity in pest management,” says Herman. “I was confident that I could out service the competition, offer a superior product and run my business more efficiently than anyone else out there.”
Herman began by surrounding himself with pest management talent, including an experienced certified pest control operator, to help him build the company. Wanting to learn the ins and outs of his new industry himself, he also hit the books — and seminars and online courses — to get up to speed. As he educated himself, Herman worked toward building a team committed to flawless customer service. “At the end of the day, this business is about people and about doing things right — delivering outstanding customer service and exceeding expectations,” he says.
Today, Brandon Pest Control has grown to 55 technicians plus management and administrative personnel, and services accounts throughout North Florida. Herman attributes his business’ success to a handful of strategic measures:
Hiring people with integrity, knowledge and a solid work ethic. “We’ve created a culture where every one of our technicians is knowledgeable, friendly and confident,” he says. “Customers are comfortable with us in their homes, and they welcome us back.”
Choosing accounts strategically. Herman focuses on single residential and large commercial accounts. “I’ve had opportunities to take on apartments, mobile homes and restaurants, but those accounts overall don’t meet our margin requirements and are not in our model for success. I’ve stayed true to my business model, and it has paid off,” he explains.
Expanding service breadth. Brandon provides IPM and traditional pest control, as well as lawn and termite services, to provide customers with a full range of services.
Differentiating with “Brandon” the Termite Detection Dog and heavy advertising. Known as “the company with the dog,” Brandon started using dogs 18 years ago, before it became popular among pest management firms. Thanks to advertising investments in the hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, people know and sing the Brandon jingle, too: “If you’ve got ’em, Brandon gets ’em!”
Going paperless. Herman puts the latest technology to work at Brandon. Customers can view their contracts and reports online, and technicians have to check in at one of Brandon’s two home offices only once a week, because all of their paperwork is handled electronically. “If I want to grow into a new territory, all I need is a technician, a truck and a computer,” Herman says. “Technology enables us to operate and grow without a lot of cost.”
Pacing his growth. His financial instincts remind Herman daily to be cautious of the liabilities associated with growth. He has found success in managed growth, as he carefully controls the pace.
Refusing to sell. Plenty of companies have come to the table but, to date, Herman has politely declined. “I love this business,” he says. “Who knows what tomorrow will bring? Maybe I’ll pass the company along to a second generation or maybe the right partner will come along to take it to the next level. But today, I’m enjoying it too much to let go and I feel I am finally just starting to hit my stride.”
PCT talked with first-generation business owners who have built thriving businesses. Their experiences offer insights into our industry and the will it takes to enter the fray.
Why pest management? For Rob Lemoine, owner of Atlanta-based RIA Solutions, getting into pest management was a natural progression. Lemoine was running the home inspection company his father had built when a change in Georgia law opened the door to a new opportunity. In 2007, the onus of securing a termite letter shifted from home seller to home buyer. Lemoine realized that if he could provide termite letters, he could start a whole new branch of business. “Our home inspection company was strong — the largest in the state until the market turndown in 2007 — and suddenly every home buyer became a lead for pest control,” Lemoine says. “We started doing termite letters and got a ton of business. Our inspection company is a built-in lead factory.”
Likewise, as a mortgage loan officer serving Alabama, Alan Farmer knew the residential market and had a solid network of contacts, including home buyers, friends and family, and real estate agents. When the entrepreneurial bug bit him, he looked for a home-related business. After talking with his brother-in-law, who manages a pest control firm in Texas, Farmer opened FarmerGuard Pest Control.
Other operators come into the business by happenstance, and many following stints as technicians. Chris Fitzgerald, for example, had started his career in a Phoenix grocery store, then moved into landscaping and pest management. When the company he worked for sold to one of the big players, Fitzgerald opted to strike out on his own. With four years of pest management (but no business) experience under his belt, he established Critter Getter, which 14 years later holds promise as the family business he will pass along to his son and daughter.
Paths to knowledge. To meet licensing requirements, some entrepreneurs hire a licensed professional until they acquire their own certification; others put in the couple of years it takes to become licensed prior to opening their doors. Either way, industry newbies need industry knowledge to run successful organizations. How do they approach the learning process?
Conferences/online courses. One of the fastest ways to meet industry experts and peers, as well as access lots of information, is to attend state and national pest control conferences. New operators find this a relatively easy way to jump-start their educational process. Most of them also enroll in online courses developed by universities with strong pest management programs or take advantage of training offered by distributors.
Mentors and other experts. When Farmer decided to take the plunge, his first move was to join NPMA and the Alabama Pest Control Association. He also reached out to the Alabama Department of Agriculture, where he gained insights from the director and got connected to a couple of suppliers. “Suppliers are supportive,” Farmer says. “Of course they want to sell you products, but it goes deeper than that. They want to strengthen their industry, as all of us do, and they do their part by helping to educate us and our staffs.”
Farmer has been lucky enough to score a mentor as well. He frequently confers with NPMA President Ray Johnson, the first-generation owner of Johnson Pest Control in Sevierville, Tenn. “Ray is generous in sharing the lessons he’s learned over the past 28 years,” says Farmer. “You can’t put a price tag on that kind of advice.”
Johnson says he believes in sharing information but understands that operators within the same competitive territory aren’t likely to be swapping success secrets. “When you’re at local meetings, you’ll share the best way to kill fleas but not necessarily the best way to advertise,” he explains. “That’s why it’s important to network outside of your market. You’re more likely to find a mentor when you join a sharing group whose members aren’t competing for the same business.”
Seasoned operators are likely to share Johnson’s perspective on the importance of mentoring: “A rising tide lifts all boats,” he said. “If I mentor someone, it raises the level of professionalism in our industry and we’ll all do much better for it.”
Trade magazines and books. First-generation operators hungry for information subscribe to publications that offer them insights into what’s hot and what’s not, what’s worked for other operators, the latest legislation — everything that’s happening in the industry. Johnson says he’s never stopped reading; in fact, his library of trade magazines dates back to 1984.
Skills that strengthen. The great thing about new professionals coming into the industry is that they bring a fresh perspective and adaptable skills.
For example, when Sam Soto, one of “New York’s finest” for 20 years, retired from the NYPD as a sergeant in 2003, he brought a variety of capabilities to his new business. The transition from thugs to bugs was a natural one, says the owner of First Rate Solutions, because he uses not only his people skills but also his investigative instincts. “Whether you’re talking about a robbery, a homicide or an ant infestation, you’re walking into a situation where a problem needs to be solved,” Soto says. “The investigative, organizational, leadership and communication skills I developed on the force have helped me tremendously in running a successful pest management firm.”
Jeremy Shearer, owner, Beyond Exterminating, Atlanta, is grateful for the values he established in the Marines. “When times have gotten tough, I’ve just kept my head down and kept grinding,” he says of his first eight years in business. “The foundation of accountability, responsibility, integrity, perseverance and self-confidence I brought to this business have been vital to its success.”
Farmer’s residential mortgage experience has been a boon to his business. Intimately familiar with the closing process, he recognized that real estate agents expect termite inspections to be fast, accurate and well documented. “We offer alternative channels for requesting termite letters — e-mail, text, phone, fax. In fact, we bought a couple of additional URLs — newtermitebond.com and woodinfestationreport.com — that redirect visitors to our site. The requests are forwarded directly to my e-mail account, and I respond immediately. That level of service wins business.”
Conquering challenges. Asked to identify obstacles on their road to success, operators typically cite their lack of business experience. “I developed leadership skills in the Marines and learned the technical aspects of the industry on the job, but with zero experience in running a business, I had to learn on the fly,” says Shearer. “I did a lot of observing, seeing what was working for other operators and what wasn’t. I mimicked the good and tossed out the bad. Had I come into this endeavor knowing the business side — sales, marketing, vendor relations, hiring and training — I would be enjoying even greater success.”
Fitzgerald agrees, saying his firm has been built in large part on trial and error, sweat and tears. Yet his business savvy emerged in an important way: Recognizing an unserved niche as customers clamored for help removing snakes, skunks, squirrels, raccoons, bobcats and other wildlife from their properties, Fitzgerald made it his mission to learn all he could about the handling and transport of wild animals. Today, even his pest management competitors refer him for these sticky situations.
It was challenging for Johnson to find a profitable business model. “I did a lot of one-time services to get my foot in the door. I didn’t try to sell the client more, because I didn’t understand the value of converting them into recurring business,” he says. “People need services on a regular basis; that’s the power of our business model. If I knew then what I know now, I would have gotten on what I call ‘the recurring revenue snowball’ much more quickly.”
Lemoine says it took him a while, too, to zero in on his ideal business approach. “At first, we just took any account that came to us,” he says. “But we needed to identify our niche. Once we started turning down work that didn’t fit our model, our profitability improved.”
Soto faced yet another challenge: Potential customers were skeptical that a retired police sergeant would have the pest management experience to solve their issues. “I personally serviced every account to prove I was a pest management pro. Obviously I can’t service every account today, but I train my technicians to deliver the same reassuring level of service.”
Other challenges? Competition, capital and trying to “do it all” (most pest management businesses begin as one man and one truck). But as Fitzgerald points out, you can overcome any challenge if you keep sight of the bigger picture: “Take care of your customers — satisfy them completely — and you’ll succeed. Be professional, trustworthy, honest and good at what you do, and they’ll become loyal customers and great referral sources.”
The author is a Cleveland-based freelancer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.