[2011 Leadership Winner] Dr. Chris Christensen

Features - 2011 Leadership Awards

Farmhand roots and a sharp intellect helped this one-time cowboy blaze an uncommon industry trail.

October 19, 2011
PCT Magazine

Dr. Chris Christensen paused a moment to gather himself, then bent into the cabin of a pickup truck in Wrens, Ga., to retrieve his father's worn leather work gloves. The leather was of such quality, and the wearer's work of such consistency, that the gloves retained the exact shape of the hands that had used them for so many years.

Indeed, the gloves were an extension of the man, as though his actual appendages had been sitting in that truck waiting for Christensen to discover them. Holding those gloves on a fall day in Georgia, the emotion hit Christensen. He realized his father's hands, the shape of which the gloves had preserved like a plaster cast, were the same shape as his own — swollen, brawny and rough from a life of labor. And in that moment, Christensen was keenly aware of the impact his father, who had died a few days earlier on Sept. 23, 2010, had made on his life — a life that, like a Hollywood movie, has had multiple acts and countless roles, all of which left a distinct mark on the pest management industry.

Cowboy Roots. Christensen, known to friends and colleagues as "Dr. Chris," was born in 1946 in Fort Collins, Colo. The son of Edward Martin Christensen and Vincy Marie Campanile, Christensen's early life was spent on a Colorado cattle ranch where his dad worked as a labor foreman. The 70 Ranch was bisected by seven miles of crystal clear river and dotted by roaming antelope, dusty cattle roundups and cowboy characters straight out of central casting. "It was like growing up in a Hollywood Western," he recalls.

"My job every day was to come home from school and ride my horse," Christensen continued. "Mom was a great cook. She was an Italian and made pizza every Saturday. The cowboys would skip their Saturday night dates to get my mom's pizza."

Born and raised in Asbury Park, N.J., Vincy met Edward in late 1942, when the young Edward was a U.S. Marine in parachute training at Lakehurst Naval Air Station, Lakehurst, N.J. "At that time in the war they were billeting soldiers at various hotels along the Jersey Shore. My dad was at the Asbury Carteret Hotel where my mother worked at the newsstand." Their romance was immediate and by January 1943, the couple married. Just as quickly, Edward was off to war where he would serve with distinction as a paramarine sniper.

During his 28 months with the 1st Marine Division, Edward saw action in many of the Pacific theatre's fiercest fights, places like Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Saipan and Iwo Jima. In the Philippines, shrapnel dislodged one of his eyes, but a quick-acting medic stabilized him and Edward eventually regained his vision and, remarkably, returned back to the action. "He was a wild man, always has been," Christensen says of his father.

After the war, Edward and Vincy moved to Colorado, where they started a family and scraped out a hard but idyllic existence in the Colorado cattle business. "We never worried; we always had something to eat. They just got out there and hustled."

Christensen' father developed a reputation as a man who could ably handle a cattle operation and his relationship with veterinarian friend Dr. Harold Hill soon led to a big opportunity. The Union Stockyards of Chicago Company was establishing a ranch in the Bahamas, using land on the island of Eleuthera to experiment with ways to upgrade the quality of beef cattle. They needed a cagey get-it-done cowboy to manage the ranch, so they hired Edward, and shortly thereafter the family, including Christensen and his sisters, Mary Frances and Barbara, and brother, John, left the rugged American West for the lush island life.

Aluminum tycoon Arthur Vining Davis owned a sizable portion of Eleuthera and had invested untold sums in creating world-class resorts on the island. While his dad was setting up the cattle ranch, Christensen spent his days swimming in the resort's Olympic-sized swimming pool, fishing in the Atlantic and, of course, riding horses — heady stuff for a 10-year-old farm kid from Colorado.

But there was a more damaging side of island life, where wealthy free spirits from Britain and America mixed with tourists looking for a good time. "The main sports on the island were spear fishing, drinking and chasing other people's wives," Christensen said. The lifestyle proved too much for Christensen's parents, and the couple split up. Vincy, Mary, John and Barbara moved back to Colorado and eventually to New Jersey, while Christensen stayed with his father in the Bahamas. "That was an incredibly formative time in my life. I was living with this wild, crazy-assed cowboy. During that time, I just did whatever I wanted to and he gave me support and freedom to do it."

Eventually, the real world beckoned and Christensen returned to the States to attend high school. At Neptune High School in Neptune, N.J., Christensen's innate intellect showed through and he became the top-ranked boy (13th overall) in a class of 400 seniors. He gained admission to Rutgers, Princeton and Brown, picking Rutgers because of its reputation as a top agriculture school.

Academia Calling. "My intention was to study animal science, but I needed a job while in school and Dr. Elton Hansens, an entomology professor, was looking for someone to help with some field research. He loved the fact that I was a farm boy who wasn't afraid to get dirty, and I ended up changing my major to entomology and working with him for four years," Christensen recalls. In 1968, with a bachelor's degree in general agriculture, graduate school seemed like a natural for the bright and ambitious Christensen. He received a delay of active duty from the U.S. Army and along with his new wife, Deborah Lynn Pritsky, Christensen went to Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., to work with Dr. R. C. "Dobby" Dobson.

With a master's degree in entomology, Christensen went on active duty as an artillery officer to test his mettle in the jungles of Vietnam. "There was a shooting war going on and I was not going to miss that. I just wanted to know if I could do it. Everything I learned as a kid in the Bahamas, such as using a machete to penetrate jungle, using ropes and swimming, I used in Vietnam." In fact, Christensen earned numerous commendations throughout the war, including a Silver Star, which he earned following an ambush that led to the capture of more than 20 Vietcong, along with several important documents and a VC payroll.

When he returned from combat in January 1972, Christensen completed his Ph.D. at Purdue. In 1974, as a freshly minted Ph.D., Christensen landed an entomology extension position at the University of Kentucky, working under the legendary department chair Bobby Pass, who quickly introduced Christensen to the structural pest management industry. "I didn't realize it at the time, but Bobby had made a promise to the PCOs that when he hired another extension person, it would be a young extension professional who would work with them. That turned out to be me."

As is the case with much of Christensen's life, the timing of his introduction to structural pest management proved to be fortuitous. In 1975, increasing scrutiny and mandates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency threatened the existence of many PCOs. "All of a sudden, everyone had to be certified to apply restricted-use pesticides and there was no grandfathering. Some of these guys were scared to death. They had been in the business for 25 years and all of a sudden they might be put out of business."

True to his cattle ranch roots, Christensen rolled up his sleeves and got to work. He organized regional seminars that traveled around the state to help educate Kentucky PCOs and prepare them for certification tests. He upgraded UK's newly formed pest management conference — now known as the UK Pest Control Short Course — by inviting highly respected speakers and suppliers, while boosting the bang for the buck by adding cocktail parties, down-home meals and good old-fashioned Southern hospitality. But most of all, he used his salt-of-the-earth roots to connect with Kentucky's PCOs. "I had a really terrific relationship with the pest control industry," he says. "I could talk to them, and they accorded me the respect of a professional when really I was just a snot-nosed kid."

Through nearly 20 years at UK, Christensen helped build the Short Course into one of the industry's most successful and highly regarded conferences, while simultaneously authoring hundreds of articles in a variety of consumer newspapers, industry magazines and extension publications. "When I first started at UK I had a conversation with Ken Evans [also a UK extension professional]. I said, 'Ken, I want to be that guy that everyone calls when they need information about insects.' Ken said, 'No, Chris, what you want to do is develop the printed training materials so that those guys will have the information and not have to call you.'"

In 1983, Christensen authored the first edition of the PCT Technician's Handbook to the Identification and Control of Insect Pests, a successful pocket manual that lives on today in a revised version authored by Dr. Richard Kramer.

Kevin Pass, owner of Action Pest Control, Evansville, Ind., says part of Christensen's legacy lies in his ability to translate entomological knowledge into real-world information. "Dr. C. is a fabulous educator and trainer. He has always worked hard to elevate the professionalism of our industry, whether it was teaching to hundreds or working one-on-one with a fellow PCO who needed help," says Pass, whose father, Bobby Pass, first recruited Christensen to UK.

Moving On Again. For lesser men, a successful career in academia might be an invitation to slow down and coast on a hard-earned reputation. Not Christensen. Outspoken and never accepting of the status quo, he could sense it was time to move on and try his hand at a venture in the private sector.

Stint as Media Spokesman Leads to New Business Pursuits

For several years in the late 1980s, entomologist Dr. Chris Christensen became an unlikely media darling. American Cyanamid contacted Christensen to serve as an expert spokesman for its Combat Bait product, appearing on local television news broadcasts in cities across the country. "They hired guys like me and Austin Frishman and Pat Zungoli to appear on local television stations all around the country to talk about cockroaches," Christensen says.

"Some of the experts they hired would beat around the bush and talk about cockroaches in general because they didn't want to be commercialized. But I figured it out and got good at mixing the information with the product promotion. American Cyanamid loved it, so I ended up doing that for about four years."

Christensen was staying at nice hotels and making the kind of money he had never seen before in academia. "I realized the money to be made in this industry and it was the first time my eyes were opened to the possibility of going into business."

Not long after his "TV years," Christensen left his job as a University of Kentucky extension entomologist and founded Christensen's Urban Insect Solutions.

"In the late 80s, they just stopped running the University of Kentucky the way I thought they ought to. And I became a pain in the ass to be around. There's a stage in your life in your middle age where you kind of know where all the skeletons are, and instead of seeing all the positive things about people around you, you start seeing the negatives."

With a $40,000 payout from his civil service pension, Christensen and his second wife, Marijo — also a former UK entomologist — started Christensen's Urban Insect Solutions in 1990. Christensen admits that at first he was intimated by business and a bit humbled by starting all over again. "We had no idea what the hell we were doing. I had always been scared of business. It seemed like a black box to me, but my dad told me that business was easy. He said, 'Just find something you like and keep working at it.'"

So Christensen worked and worked and worked some more. For a full 10 years after leaving UK, Christensen was in the field every day and night, often for 18 hours straight, essentially working as a technician for the company he owned.

The first year in business, Christensen met Critter Control founder Kevin Clark and signed on as a franchisee for the entire state of Kentucky. "Kevin is the ultimate entrepreneur and he just loved the idea of two Ph.D.s being interested in his business." The franchise cost was $10,000, which Christensen paid off the first year, even though the business only made a total of $17,000. "That's one of the most important things in my life. We only made $17,000, but we didn't know that wasn't enough money. Marijo still had a salary from UK, and there was no way that we were going to quit. The next year we did $40,000 and within a few years we did $100,000."

When the Cincinnati Critter Control franchise became available, Christensen purchased it as well, tripling the office's revenue in the first year. Christensen also purchased a Truly Nolen franchise, though that started slowly; annual revenue from general pest control amounted to only about $50,000 a year. "Bill Nolen [then Truly Nolen of America's franchise director] must have cried every time he saw my royalty statements," Christensen recalls.

Christensen was spending five days a week in Cincinnati, about an hour-and-a-half drive from Lexington, Ky., where Marijo managed the Kentucky office. The distance and long hours took their toll, however, and Marijo and Christensen divorced. He bought out her portion of the business over a couple of years, which, according to Christensen, "just about killed me."

Marijo's departure, however, forced Christensen to spend more time in the office managing the business, while hiring others to work in the field. "It got my hands in the actual business and more involved in what was going on," he says. As a result, Christensen immediately found a way to save $1,200 a month in telephone bills by restructuring his phone contract. He saved $17,000 a year on vehicle insurance and several thousand on workman's comp. He realized he had about $65,000 in accounts receivable; he quickly collected $15,000. "The real change in cash flow management came when we instituted a policy of getting a credit card on file for every customer. Now our receivables are close to zero."

Around this time, Christensen promoted his second-born son, Matt, to vice president. Matt had been working in the business as a technician. He also hired a dedicated salesperson, Mike Geiman, offering a generous compensation package if he could power up sales.

Christensen and his team began setting annual goals, focused on improving marketing, regularly attended franchise meetings, and put more emphasis on sales and customer service training for employees. He became a classic example of deciding to run the business instead of letting the business run him.

From there, things took off. Annual growth rates have been as high as 80 percent, even during the recent economic downturn. Last year, Christensen's Urban Insect Solutions earned $1.7 million in annual revenue, with $1.2 million coming from wildlife work and $500,000 from pest management.

Along the way, Christensen served as president of the Kentucky Pest Management Association, helping the industry in his state navigate several tumultuous, regulatory-heavy years.

"He is one of the very few people — in fact off the top of my head I can't think of any others — who transitioned from professor of urban entomology to owner of a pest control company. This has given him a unique vantage point in terms of both the science and business of structural pest control. Very few have trodden that path," says Dr. Michael Potter, extension entomologist at the University of Kentucky.

A key to Christensen's success, Potter says, is his hands-on approach. "Chris has the hands of a worker, not a pencil-pusher. After a handshake, you think to yourself, 'it looks like he just wrestled a raccoon or something.' But I think that reflects the way Chris approaches the profession: hands-on, in the field, and working shoulder-to-shoulder with his employees and his customers."

Bill Nolen, who's watched Christensen evolve as a small businessman, says that above all else, he has great respect for Christensen' core values. "He is what old-fashioned America was all about: Stand on your own two feet. Be honest with people," Nolen says.

Once while spending the day in the field with Christensen, Nolen witnessed how Christensen's background as an educator translates to exceptional and ethical customer service. "He is very forthright. He could have sold this particular customer a lot of work, but instead he gave them a lot of advice. And when he does see a customer's need for his services, then he charges the appropriate amount. He is one of the guys I really admire because he's not afraid to charge what he and the work is worth," Nolen says.

At age 65 and the father to four sons: Chris, Matt, Sean and Blair, as well as two stepsons: Joe and Jeremy Wilson, Christensen has crossed a unique threshold. His time in business, 21 years, has surpassed the duration of his former life in academia. It's a milestone that's caused the entomologist turned entrepreneur to be particularly reflective, with thoughts turning to the influential father he lost last year, and the worn work gloves he found in his father's truck.

"Those gloves embody him. He was a worker, and I learned how to work from him. That's why when I left the university I wasn't afraid, because I knew I could get dirty and outwork any problem. Every year that I've been in business, I've realized how little I really know about it, but I've never looked back."