[2011 Leadership Winner] Emily Thomas Kendrick

Features - 2011 Leadership Awards

This former state tennis champion’s “go hard or go home” competitive spirit is paying dividends for Arrow Exterminators, but not at the expense of her family.

October 19, 2011
PCT Magazine

As a child, Emily Thomas Kendrick sat in on her father, "Joe" Thomas' meetings, memorizing his mannerisms and talking points so that she could later re-create them at home. Now, Kendrick sits in on the same meetings, not as an outside observer but as the third-generation president and CEO of the family business. And though she still looks to her father as a guide and inspiration, Kendrick has stepped into her own and let her unique personality and perspective bring a new depth, renewed energy and greater focus to the family company, Arrow Exterminators.

The Early Years. Kendrick grew up in Atlanta with her parents and younger sister, Stephanie. She describes her home environment as close, loving and supportive. During her childhood, Kendrick struggled in school with dyslexia, but credits this family environment with helping her overcome her challenge. "My parents, especially my mom, never gave up on me and worked tirelessly with me to get a good, solid foundation," said Kendrick. "Before long, I loved school and actually appreciated the fact that everything took me a longer time to do and learn."

A natural competitor, Kendrick's motto has always been "go hard or go home," and while she had to work extra hard in the classroom, her athletic nature and competitive edge gave her an advantage in her many sports. "Tennis was my main sport," said Kendrick, who was on her high school's state championship winning team four years in a row.

When she went off to college, Kendrick kept this "work hard, play hard" attitude, but started looking for a career path in which her "all or nothing" personality would be a useful tool. Despite operating a family-run business, Kendrick's parents gave her the freedom to choose her own future. "They made it very clear that I could be anything I wanted to be … and they would support whatever career I ultimately decided to go into," said Kendrick.

After a brief attempt at economics, she studied anthropology at Vanderbilt University with the plan of continuing on to law school. At that time, pest control was not on her radar. "It never crossed my mind that I would go into the pest control industry, but I was wrong. It was in my blood," she said. After graduating cum laude from Vanderbilt, Kendrick weighed her future options once more and decided to try her hand at Arrow. "I was hooked from day one," she said.

Once Kendrick committed to working at Arrow, however, her father wanted to make sure she gained the necessary experience. "My dad insisted that I learn the business from the ground up," explained Kendrick, "so I spent time out in the field really learning the business." Kendrick spent five years learning about all aspects of Arrow from its operations to its commercial sales, and even gaining experience in the IT and marketing departments. It wasn't until 2003 that Kendrick was named chief operating officer, and it would be another five years until she earned the title of president. In 2010, Kendrick became Arrow's CEO and president.

Perhaps this emphasis on experience stems from Arrow's history. Kendrick's grandfather, James Starkey Thomas, worked for almost 30 years with Orkin Pest Control before branching off and starting Arrow Exterminators in 1964 when Orkin was purchased by the Rollins family. When he did, his son, Joe Thomas, also worked in the field offices, gaining experience before taking over in 1978 with the passing of his father. It was Joe Thomas who grew the business from one office in Atlanta to almost 70 offices, and brought it from a one-million-dollar company to a multi-million dollar enterprise.

Today, Kendrick has her own goals for the company, and, keeping true to her nature, she is not aiming small. Currently, Arrow Exterminators is the eighth largest pest control and termite company in the United States. "Our goal is to become the largest privately held pest control company in the country," she said. And that's only the beginning. "What's going to happen when [we] reach that goal? We're just going to set the next goal," she said.

Though Kendrick claims her father is the company visionary, her leadership has brought about the means of reaching Arrow's future goals in today's world. Kevin Burns, Arrows' chief development officer, says this is one area in which Kendrick has definitely made her own mark. "She is different from Joe in that she is a huge proponent of technology and what technology can do to help us run our business," he noted.

Arrow already has invested in a state-of-the-art website and the latest products and equipment for its field personnel, and Kendrick is confident that Arrow will be able to make similar investments in other areas of pest control. "I think technology will continue to play a greater role [and] we will continue to stay on the cutting edge of technology because that will be our future," said Kendrick. She was quick to add, however, that one part of Arrow won't be changing anytime soon: "Good people," she observed, "will never go out of fashion."

And "good people" are what Kendrick relies on most. "My greatest quality as a manager is building great teams," said Kendrick, and she's not the only one to think so. Cindy Mannes, Arrow's chief strategy and marketing officer, believes Kendrick's support of the team mentality has helped her foster a sense of passion and purpose within her staff that reflects her own. "She has a unique ability to guide and direct the company while also building teams that meet the company's vision," said Mannes, "with an open and honest atmosphere of debate and challenge, every member is given the opportunity to add value."

Success is a Team Effort. Unlike some leaders, Kendrick will be the first to admit that Arrow Exterminators' continued performance and excellence is a group effort. "I don't think of myself as running the company. I just get so much support from my family, my husband, my senior management team, [and] my friends at YPO," said Kendrick. The association she referred to is the Young Presidents Organization, a multi-chapter network of young chief executives with members throughout the world. "The point of YPO is both professional and personal," she explained, "to have a group of people to question things." The eight-member group meets once a month in Atlanta for four to five hours and brings together — under strict confidentiality — young presidents who can provide honest feedback and objective insight into each other's lives. For Kendrick, these meetings have not only provided her with fresh perspectives and counsel, but also united her with others who understand the unique challenges young leaders face.

While Kendrick turns to YPO for support, advice and understanding outside of the industry, she also has many role models and mentors within the industry who have helped her grow as a person and leader. When asked about her fellow industry leaders, Kendrick was quick to credit Judy Dold and Glen Rollins as being two of the top industry professionals who have supported her along the way and, to this day, act as her mentors and confidants.

And though such mentorship has helped her excel as head of Arrow Exterminators, it is her senior management team that Kendrick considers the backbone of the company. "If you surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and can get them facing in the same direction with the same goal in mind, then you will always be successful," said Kendrick.

Many of the members of the executive team have known Kendrick since she was a young girl. Jeff Singley, Arrow's chief operating officer, recalls the days when Kendrick, still in college, would visit his family in South Georgia. "Ask her about [water] skiing with gators," he joked. According to Singley, the secret to Kendrick's team leadership skills is her ability to get her team invested in the outcome of their work. "[She] builds in accountability of her team," he said.

Ray Crim, Arrow's senior executive vice president, has known Kendrick for almost 15 years and also has watched her grow and develop as a person and leader. "Emily has matured, even at an early age, to one of the most dynamic leaders of our time," said Crim. He believes her passion and enthusiasm have pervaded all levels of Arrow's corporate culture and are among her best assets as a leader. "Her passion and enthusiasm for our company and industry are unequaled," Crim observed.

Kendrick herself has witnessed a change in the corporate culture since her arrival. "I think I brought some energy, passion and intensity to it," she said.

Kevin Malone, Arrows' senior vice president of operations, also sees Kendrick as a driving motivational force for Arrow's employees. "Emily's consistent performance at a high level day in and day out serves as an inspiration," Malone concurred. "She sets high standards for herself and leads by example. This motivates and energizes all of us who work with her."

Community Oriented. Kendrick is not only concerned with building a team and community within her company, bus also protecting the communities in which Arrow is located. "Arrow supports organizations that we feel match our passion and commitment to the community," she said.

Toward that end Kendrick personally serves on multiple boards for many of the Atlanta-based non-profit organizations that Arrow supports. She is on the advisory board for the Emory University Winship Cancer Institute, the board of directors for JumpStart and serves as an emeritus board member for St. Jude's Recovery Center. "We feel it is important for our customers to see us supporting communities where we live and work. Most importantly, it is just the right thing to do," said Kendrick.

Though Kendrick has brought change to Arrow and the Atlanta community, her time at the company also has helped change her life, mostly in the form of her husband, Hugh Kendrick. They met at a leadership seminar in Naples, Fla., in 2007. "Neither one of us was looking for a relationship," said Kendrick. Despite that, and the fact that Hugh was living in Wyoming while Kendrick was fully entrenched in Atlanta, they decided to give a long distance relationship a chance. In 2009, the couple got engaged and Hugh moved to Atlanta, but two months after his move, he was diagnosed with stage four throat cancer and their plans for a big fall wedding ground to a halt. Instead, they wed two days before his cancer treatment began. "My mom and sister pulled out all the stops and put together the most amazing, beautiful, special wedding in about eight days," said Kendrick.

Kendrick refers to her husband's experience with cancer as one of the defining moments of her life. "I learned that control is for sure an illusion," she remarked. "Let's face it, I run a company. I like to control things, and there is nothing like being faced with losing the person you love most, to stop you in your tracks."

But despite a nerve-racking year of treatments and adjustment, Hugh has also brought a sense of balance to Kendrick's life. Her motto growing up, "Go hard or go home," reflects her pre-marriage mentality in which going home meant giving up, backing down and taking it easy. "I was a workaholic," confesses Kendrick. "Everything was about business. Everything."

Now, as a wife and newly appointed stepmother and grandmother, Kendrick is discovering that going home can be just as energetic, exhilarating and fulfilling as any other task. "It used to be totally possible for me to work 16-hour days," she conceded, "so everything expanded to fill that time." Now, Kendrick looks forward to going home and spending time with family instead. "We really enjoy spending time with our five-year-old grandson, Ben. He is a blast. We have him over for 'spend the night parties,' and we are exhausted when he leaves 24 hours later! I love being a Nana," said Kendrick.

On the other hand, Kendrick also credits Hugh as being the one person who has been able to make her "stop and smell the roses," while also expanding her horizons and finding new outlets for her boundless energy. "Without a doubt, I am the most relaxed when I am with … Hugh. He brings out the best in me in every way." Among the activities they enjoy together are traveling, scuba diving, skiing, hiking, and shooting at the firing range.

And while getting married has had a huge impact on her personal life, it has also helped Kendrick as a business professional and leader. Mannes has seen this change first hand. "What Hugh has done has brought in an aspect of balance. Some things that were super important because [she was] so focused on the business without that balance really weren't that important," said Mannes. Kendrick agrees that having to balance a personal life with the business has made her more effective. "If you only have this much time, you have to make it happen."

And though she has overcome many ordeals in her personal life, Kendrick also recognizes that her professional leadership is not without its own hurdles. Though she has never felt any added pressure as a woman in a male-dominated industry or as the daughter of a highly successful PMP, at 36 years old, she had a very different issue to face. "What I did encounter was challenges based on my age and experience which was completely understandable and fair."

As for her executive team, they believe the age factor is simply another opportunity for Arrow. "This is one of those times that a person's age needs to be set aside [to] look at the qualities of the person," said Burns. "Emily's dynamic leadership skills continue to improve with each passing year, making the outlook for this company look awfully good," added Malone.

In the end, "Time just takes time," said Kendrick. Under Kendrick's leadership, time is definitely on Arrow's side.