[2011 Leadership Winner] Chris Donaghy

Features - 2011 Leadership Awards

A knack for adapting keeps him ahead of the pack.

October 19, 2011
PCT Magazine

How can growing up in urban Philadelphia prepare you for a career in the pest management industry? Just ask Leadership Award winner, Chris Donaghy, CEO of Residex. This company captain knows what it means to look out for your own. From working-class roots, Donaghy emerged as a respected commander-in-chief, rescuing an imperiled industry heavyweight along the way.

A Big-City Upbringing. Donaghy knows what it means to adapt. Born and raised in a working-class section of Philly, Donaghy grew up as a young city scrapper. Kensington — also home to the fictional character Rocky Balboa — was a blue-collar neighborhood with row houses, factories and more concrete and sidewalks than grass. Incomes were modest but residents were close-knit, Donaghy remembers, often conversing from their front steps while EL trains passed nearby.

The middle child in a family of three, Donaghy was also close with his older brother Rick and younger sister Amy, and remains so today. Parents Richard and Elvira worked factory jobs and rented their small house. Living in the city, Donaghy learned, while the streets can be tough, good friends and relatives have your back.

"Kensington was a great neighborhood even though we were poor," Donaghy reflects. "We had a real sense of community. People would celebrate things together."

Life changed a bit for Donaghy when he was just 8. His parents divorced, going their separate ways and embarking on new careers: Richard as a union official with the post office, and Elvira as a student preparing to become a nurse. Eventually his mother remarried and became an RN, moving the family to Florida after her new husband took a job there. Donaghy, 14 at the time, says in hindsight, the move was for the best.

"The neighborhood where I grew up was starting to erode," he recalls. Drug use was a major factor, he noted, as was the development of competitive neighborhood gangs. "Many of my friends fell prey to drugs, some died and some went to prison," said Donaghy. There were also a few who like him, made it out and became productive parents and citizens. "It was a good time to move away and it probably saved my life," Donaghy observed.

At first, the move to central Florida was a culture shock for Donaghy, who had only known the city. "Our Florida home was near a big naval base," Donaghy said. "Most of my friends were children of retired military who were accustomed to leaving their friends and meeting new friends, so there were always new kids to meet."

When it came to education, Donaghy felt his new home left something to be desired compared to the Catholic school experience he'd left behind. "In Florida, I essentially sat back and did nothing the first year in high school," he reflects. "I went from being a great student to becoming an average student because I coasted that first year." Donaghy also recalls being a quiet teenager who was choosey about his friends and excelled in soccer, a sport he played for three years.

The Path of Entomology. Always fascinated by medicine, as a youngster Donaghy often would accompany his grandmother to the neighborhood doctor. "I always thought I would become a doctor," he says. "I carried that interest through high school, but my lack of discipline was my downfall."

Donaghy's parents didn't push him to attend college. "We always knew we were on our own if we wanted to go to college," he said. So after high school graduation, Donaghy took a night job at a local print shop. For three years Donaghy worked the third-shift factory job and also attended junior college during the day studying writing and journalism. "I ran a 12-station collator in a non-union shop," Donaghy said. "I didn't like the work, but I never felt it was beneath me. I knew I could do more with my life."

Donaghy’s Deliberate Work-Life Balance

“Most CEOs keep their family out of the business and they don’t share the pain, the grief, the stress that’s involved in running a business,” says Chris Donaghy, CEO of Residex.

That’s something Donaghy has worked to do over the years. Donaghy met his wife Cynthia while in high school in Florida, although they didn’t date until years later. The couple were married in 1984 and have four daughters: Caitlin, Christiane, and twins Erin and Allison; as well as two granddaughters. Christiane is a teacher in Arizona. Caitlin, a music therapist, recently graduated from the Berkeley College of Music. And Erin and Allison are attending Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa.

One of Donaghy’s hobbies is competitive running, and in 2003 he competed in the grueling Boston Marathon. His twin daughters, also avid runners, joined their father for the final six miles of the course, meeting up with him at Heartbreak Hill, the most challenging part of the race. Having his daughters alongside gave him the energy to keep going, Donaghy recalls. “I was dead on my feet, but when I saw them I had a surge of energy. They ran me in.” Completing the marathon was also particularly inspiring, Donaghy says, because it taught him a key life lesson: “Most if not all obstacles we face can be hurdled as long as we have a plan, sufficient training, ability to adapt and the will to win.”

Donaghy wanted to attend Pennsylvania State University, however out-of-state tuition was out of the question, so Donaghy moved back to Kensington, taking a print shop job there to help him save up.

During the one-year transition, Donaghy also developed a passion for running, a habit he got into at first out of necessity.

"SEPTA [the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority] went out on strike and I had no way to get to work other than my feet," recalls Donaghy. The factory was three miles from his home, so with his work boots hung around his neck, Donaghy ran to and from work each day, until transit services resumed.

"I ran through the streets and under the EL tracks wearing my Converse Chuck Taylor black high-tops in the same exact area where Rocky was filmed," Donaghy recalls.

When Donaghy enrolled at Penn State, he signed up for a full load of classes, putting an emphasis on medical entomology. "I took a lot of ag-oriented stuff," said Donaghy. "I figured I would go to grad school since I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do." He paid his way with income from various jobs combined with student loans. As resident manager of an apartment complex, he received free rent. And a job in the entomology department covered other expenses.

Even so, Donaghy still hadn't considered urban entomology as a career. "Growing up in the city, we dealt with rats and American cockroaches," he recalled. "I had no interest in learning anything more about them." Eventually, though, Donaghy began to change his mind. "In one of my classes, we began discussing entomology and I started enjoying myself."

After graduation, Donaghy was accepted into Penn State's graduate food science program, but other options also surfaced. One of those resulted after Donaghy attended a summer Entomological Society of America meeting in Williamsburg, Va. "That's where I met Dr. Bob Rummel from Western, who was on a recruiting mission," said Donaghy. "It was he who sparked an interest in me to possibly pursue a career in pest control."

Western's Tom Walters later interviewed Donaghy, offering him a job on the spot, even though Donaghy didn't have any experience and Western didn't have a position per se. Still, the prospect of a job was more appealing than grad school, says Donaghy, and he accepted the assignment as a selling technician. Promotions soon followed, and Donaghy went on to work in residential sales and as a service supervisor for Western.

Donaghy recalls how he later landed Western's commercial supervisor job: "The manager of the Philadelphia office, Mike Maglio, wanted me, but I didn't impress Bruce Nelson who was general manager of the company. They didn't think I could do the job because I was too quiet. While flying back home after the interview, Bruce Nelson was on the same flight and I arranged to sit by him. I said, 'I understand you don't think I have the guts to handle this tough Philly crowd. Maybe you didn't understand something about me. I was born and raised in Philly. I know my way around those guys.'"

Always a confident individual, Donaghy knew he was fit for the job. "Whatever I said to Bruce that day was good enough for him to hire me for the job."

Donaghy soon was promoted into branch management for Western, then moved to Residex, the company's distribution arm, in 1996. First he served as technical and business advisor, a new position in which Donaghy was charged with bringing value to customers and rallying internal support. Not surprisingly, he answered the call and was quickly given oversight of the Residex business as its general manager.

The Fight for Residex. One of Donaghy's most defining career moves came in 2004, while at the helm of Residex. Parent company Western had been acquired by Rollins, but the distribution arm was feared to be in jeopardy. Rollins, not being in the supply business, would probably cast off Residex, many insiders thought. "The 70 people employed by Residex were in a panic," Donaghy recalled.

Donaghy was offered a job to stay with Rollins on a regional capacity, but he declined. Instead he conferred with some key Residex colleagues and decided to pursue a management buy-out. But it had to be completed in 40 days.

Not one to shy away from a challenge, Donaghy strategized to accomplish the feat. Delegating the day-to-day company management to others in the organization, he focused on securing funding and closing the deal. "I said, 'You guys operate the company like nothing has ever changed and I'll do all the heavy lifting with the financing.'"

Donaghy recalls how, as a result of his team's efforts, Residex actually grew during that period. He also fondly recalls the tremendous support he received from colleagues and customers which gave him the momentum to push forward. "Nobody left even though they had no defined future with Residex, and even though they were being aggressively recruited by some of our competitors," he reflects. It was a turning point for Residex in more ways than one. "We were bound together by the values of strength, faith and unity," Donaghy adds. "It was from this experience where our spider X logo emerged."

In the end, a collection of members from the distributor group Speckoz stepped up to help Donaghy purchase the business. Speckoz member Roland Rhodes observed, "Donaghy is a competent operational leader who understands expansion, diversification programs and can fuse together management concepts. I was privileged to have Donaghy write a book about my life recently, an experience we both enjoyed." Rhodes was referring to Core Convictions: A Service Legacy, in which Donaghy chronicles Rhodes' career.

Now, at 53, Donaghy continues to lay the groundwork for the company's long-term health. The company recently merged with Turfgrass, a distributor serving the golf and turf industry, to further strengthen the organization. And, in an effort to continue his focus on strategic planning, Donaghy has subordinated his role to Todd Griebe, president of the combined organization.

For Donaghy, it's all part of being able to negotiate change. "Getting turned upside down, it doesn't bother me," he says. "I'm comfortable with change. I'm always making changes in the business and I'm often initiating it. A lot of people don't see the train wreck coming if they're not willing to change and adapt."

And adapt, he certainly has. From growing up in the city to facilitating a buyout that saved jobs and livelihoods, Donaghy attributes his success through adversity right back to his working-class roots and values. "Wealth and money is irrelevant to a sense of community," he observes. "I've tried to recreate that feeling and family atmosphere at Residex."