[2011 Leadership Winner] Earl Hallberg

Features - 2011 Leadership Awards

A lifelong educator who generously shareS his knowledge with colleagues throughout the industry.

October 19, 2011
PCT Magazine

With his zoology major and botany minor, Earl Hallberg's goal in attending Iowa State University in the '60s was to be either a park ranger or a high school teacher. That is, until he got a "terrific job offer" from the Army his last year in school (translation: Earl was drafted).

Although he had enough credits to allow him to graduate, Hallberg had not yet completed his student teaching, so he was unable to attain that certification.

Fast-forward past three years as an Army Artillery Ballistics Meteorologist and two years post-service in a hospital chemistry lab, and — little did he know — Hallberg was back on track toward his initial goal of educating. Only this time, it was to be teaching, training, and consulting the pest control industry, its clients, and even judges and juries as an expert witness.

It would be, as Hallberg said, "numerous little things when somebody calls and you can put their mind at ease that they don't have a problem, or there is a simple fix."

It would be what would bring to Hallberg the recognition as a Crown Leadership Award recipient, simply because he did so well what he had always wanted and loved to do.

Attributes of Leadership. "I was really flabbergasted when I got the letter (of congratulations from PCT)," Hallberg said. "I noticed the return address and that the envelope was handwritten, and I thought it was about my subscription.

"I feel very honored to get this," he continued, adding in a bemused tone, "Wow. Leadership in the industry. Wow."

Hallberg has simply always tried to do what he felt should be done, he said. "I always looked at it as being good business to help our technicians and help our clients with the technical side of the business; to take the knowledge I have learned over the years and be able to put it into layman's language."

But it has not been only to technicians or clients of Presto-X that Hallberg has provided technical services for more than 40 years. In addition to numerous industry speaking engagements, his expertise has been a resource for state and federal officials as well as those from associations and companies across the industry.

"On several occasions, [federal and state officials] came to Presto-X — well, they really came to Earl — for our read on or interpretation of something," said President Ward Combs II. Hallberg held great skill in interpreting regulations and applying them to day-to-day application — "how you use them to do your job, keep clients happy and get results while staying within the letter of the law," he explained. Hallberg's real gift, though, was not only interpreting a regulation but explaining it "so we could understand it," Combs said. "He was our go-to guy to keep us legal."

In fact, Hallberg gained a reputation across the industry for his knowledge and expertise, not only in regulatory matters, but for anything technical. "He was very well known as technically solid, and because of that, Presto-X became known as a technically solid company. And that was because of Earl," Combs added.

Hallberg has been responsible for the Presto-X annual training meetings which are attended by all company employees. "It was a very good training conference, and I give Earl a lot of the credit for that," said Copesan Technical Director Jim Sargent, who was frequently invited to speak at the meetings.

Sargent recalled Hallberg's presentations in particular. Even when presenting a dry topic that everyone had to learn, and probably more than once, such as the biology of cockroaches, "Earl would bring life to the presentation because he would tell stories of his experiences," Sargent said. "They added so much color, so much life; they made the biology memorable.

"I have the highest respect for anything he says," Sargent continued. "He may not have a Ph.D. degree, but he has a degree with honors in experience."

A Cross-Century Naturalist. Hallberg's extensive background and interests make him a valuable resource across the industry. His knowledge of meteorology, microbiology, horticulture, zoology and, of course, entomology, along with his certification as a registered sanitarian, all come together to impart a tough-to-match synergy of knowledge.

"He reminds me of a naturalist of 100 years ago," Sargent said. "He knows a little about everything."

And it is everything that he readily and eagerly shares. "I really enjoy going to state meetings and putting on presentations," Hallberg said. And not just for the education he is imparting, but also the casual between-session talk with people from different states, to discuss the differences — and similarities — of service, problems and "critters."

"It gives me an opportunity to expand what I know," he said.

Public speaking, however, has not always been such a joy, Hallberg noted, remembering the first time he was asked to speak. Hallberg had been with Presto-X for three weeks when the owner, Ward Combs Sr., asked him to speak about insects at his club meeting. When Combs delivered the introduction, "he gave me a big build-up," Hallberg said. "And when I got up to speak, I, literally, almost got sick to my stomach.

"I remember thinking that I was getting light-headed, so I told myself, 'Quick, drink some water.' It seemed like an eternity that I just stood there. That is ingrained in my memory."

Hallberg also recalls the first time he spoke at the association meeting in Presto-X's home state of Nebraska, where his audience was comprised of "competitors." It was an odd feeling, he recalled, adding, "I've always tried to look at people as colleagues, not competitors."

In fact, Hallberg sees such industry involvement as an obligation of those in technical services. "I'm not sure how to define leadership in the technical field, except that we have the responsibility of knowledge," he said. "If I got a call from a competitor, I would answer it." Presto-X encourages that as well, Hallberg said, because it helps the industry as a whole.

The most important aspect of speaking, he said, is making sure that the material is useful to and understandable by the audience to which you are speaking. And there is actually a very easy way to discern this: "If you see blank looks, you're not getting through," Hallberg surmised. "The sign of a good teacher is to be able to restate it in a different way until they understand."

Hallberg gives a great deal of credit for his success to Combs Sr., who hired him as Presto-X's first technical director. "It was a neat opportunity for me," he added. "There was no one in the position, so I got to set up the technical department the way I wanted to.

"He put a lot of faith and trust in me when he hired me, and he always encouraged me," Hallberg continued. "As a mentor, Ward Sr. inspired me to learn everything I possibly could. Up until his passing, he was always trying to increase his knowledge."

In return, Ward Combs Jr. passed credit back to Hallberg. "A portion of our success as a company has to be attributed to him," Combs said. "His technical quality drove us and made us a better company."

A Postponed Retirement. When asked about what's next, Hallberg laughingly replied, "I technically retired in September (2010). But I came back to work in October."

In coming back part-time, he observed, "I still get to do the fun stuff."

Hallberg is also using this extended time as an opportunity to mentor and pass on the technical baton. As opportunities arise, he turns to others working their way up in the company and says, "Why don't you go do this talk." That, he believes, is the real definition of leadership — giving others opportunities to grow and to answer their own questions. Instead of directly answering questions, Hallberg will sometimes respond with questions of his own that build up to the answer. "Most of the time, they find out that they know the answer themselves," he said. "They would end up answering their own question — and that is a good thing."

Hallberg still enjoys doing some talks, but, he readily admits, "I am slowing down a little." Even so, with his "extra" time filled with volunteer work, that slowing down is not readily evident. Hallberg went back to school last year to get his Master Gardener certification and now volunteers in the gardens of the Historic General Dodge House in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

And, a fact that few people know about him, "I make quilts," Hallberg said. His grandmother taught all of her sons to cook and sew when they were young boys, he said, noting, "my father passed that on to me." So Hallberg is now part of a quilting group. "I really enjoy doing it; it's relaxing," Hallberg said. It's charitable too, as all the quilts made by the group are donated to children's services, highway patrols and others in need, such as victims of the Joplin, Mo., tornado.

Hallberg expects to retire a second time in about three years when his wife of 40 years, Vicki, retires. Both of them enjoy the outdoors, camping and kayaking, and, he said, "we would like to travel." The Hallbergs have one daughter, Brooke, who, following in her father's intended footsteps, is an interpretive park ranger at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. The couple also enjoy pampering their two dogs and two cats.