[2011 Leadership Winner] Gerry Wegner

Features - 2011 Leadership Awards

This “silent servant” with a passion for nature is the “go-to guy” on all things pest-related.

October 19, 2011
PCT Magazine

If you want to know what makes Dr. Gerry Wegner such an esteemed figure in the pest management industry, the last person you should talk to is Gerry Wegner. This unassuming Midwesterner would rather deflect the spotlight to colleagues and mentors than talk about his own accomplishments, no matter how significant. Luckily, there are a plethora of industry authorities who are quick to speak up about what makes Wegner so special.

"Gerry is one of the most competent entomologists in our industry," says Richard Kramer, Ph.D., former director of research, education and technical services with the National Pest Management Association.

And Jay Bruesch, technical director of Plunkett's Pest Control, Fridley, Minn., adds, "Gerry Wegner deserves accolade because of his impressive body of work — books, book chapters, magazine articles and training resources. Mostly, though, he deserves to be honored for the way he leads; quietly and without trying to draw attention."

With the soul of a teacher, Wegner, Ph.D., has helped train countless technicians at Varment Guard Environmental Services in Columbus, Ohio, where he is part-owner, technical director and chief entomologist. His frequent articles and seminars have helped advance the industry's technical acumen. Further, with a spirit of service always in mind, he's helped solve innumerable problems for customers both at Varment Guard and through its Copesan network affiliations.

Just don't expect Wegner to talk much about those successes. "Gerry is the silent servant. He never asks for recognition, for anything, ever," says Jim Vaive, president of Varment Guard. "There is so much that he does that no one ever sees. I am embarrassed that those contributions go unsung as often as they do."

Inspired by Insects. Wegner's passion for insects began as a boy in the early 1950s, chasing dragon flies and catching spiders on the sprawling estate in Lake Forest, Ill., where he grew up. Wegner's grandparents worked at the estate owned by zinc industry heir Owen Barton Jones. Wegner's grandmother was a maid and his grandfather was a gardener and beekeeper. To save money, the entire Wegner family lived, for a time, in the gardener's cottage. The estate's expansive grounds provided the young Wegner with ample acreage to explore. "I don't have any siblings and I wasn't around very many kids my own age, so I spent a lot of time observing and enjoying nature and wildlife," Wegner recalls. "I have never outgrown the child-like wonder and sense of discovery that overcomes me when I encounter an animal or interesting plant for the first time."

That curiosity for the natural world took Wegner to Loyola University in Chicago, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in biology; then on to Ohio State in Columbus where he earned a doctorate in entomology. Wegner's initial goal was a job in academia or as a professional researcher, but positions like that were tough to find in Ohio at the time. So Wegner answered a classified ad for A-1 Pest Control, a four-person operation in Columbus. A few weeks later he began an on-the-job education in structural pest management. "I was their entomologist, but I also had my own route," Wegner recalls. "In the field you learn a lot about the structure-invading pests that they don't teach you about in much detail at the university level. You come out of university with a cursory knowledge of cockroaches, spiders, mice, and then you learn the more valuable practical information when you are actually involved with them."

Those early years were just as crucial for Wegner in learning how to apply entomological know-how to solving real-world pest problems, all the while dealing with customers — quite a change for someone who had spent nearly a decade studying biology and doing turf pest research. "I had to learn to be patient with people who weren't always pleasant or well informed," he noted.

Wegner recalls one particularly tough account, a bar where he had to dodge early morning barflies to treat for cockroaches. "You hear a lot of sarcastic remarks, but you just kind of smile and keep on going," Wegner says. It's a lesson he learned by observing his father, a plumber, who occasionally challenged customers. "Sometimes, from your parents, you learn what not to do. Customers would make my dad angry and he would get into a confrontation and then vent about it at home. As a kid, it was upsetting to me wanting to enjoy dinner and having dad shouting about a bad experience. I learned to think twice before I spoke once."

After four years learning pest management account by account, Wegner went looking for more opportunity. He found it in 1985 when he joined Varment Guard.

The Fab Five. In 1983, with $25 and a pickup truck, Jim Vaive and Mike Moore opened Varment Guard Environmental Services in Columbus, Ohio. Wegner joined the pair two years later as an employee, beginning in a sales role while also servicing a pest management route and working as the company's in-house entomologist.

In 1987, original founder Moore left Varment Guard to pursue another venture. At that time, Vaive and his wife, Sandy — also a part-owner — offered Wegner a chance to buy Moore's equity stake in the business, just the kind of opportunity he was looking for when he left A-1.

A Penchant for Service That Runs in the Family

The themes that imbue Gerry Wegner’s life at work — education, service and respect for the natural world — not surprisingly also extend throughout his life at home. Wegner’s wife of 36 years, Debbie, has degrees in the classics (Greek and Latin) and psychology, as well as a master’s degree in special education from Ohio State. She teaches at Chapman Elementary School in Dublin, Ohio, working with children who have learning challenges, such as autism and attention deficit disorder. “I credit Debbie for much of my social and emotional maturity,” Wegner says.

The couple’s daughter, Beth, age 23, recently graduated from the University of Florida’s Animal Science Department and is preparing for a full-time position as a zookeeper. Originally interested in sharks, Beth has worked with a wide variety of animals ranging from domestic species and livestock to primates, manatees and elephants via internships at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans and summer positions at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio. The Wegner’s son, David, 21, is a junior at Ohio State, majoring in psychology.

Wegner also credits his parents, Jerry and Mary, with teaching him much of what he knows about service, problem solving and creativity. “Both Mom and Dad always worked hard, giving their best in their pursuits,” Wegner said. During World War II, Wegner’s father served in the U.S. Navy as a waist gunner aboard a B-24 patrol bomber in the Philippines, while his mother worked in payroll at Abbott Laboratories in North Chicago, Ill. After the war, his dad worked as a union plumber while his mother managed the home. Today Mary, age 87, lives in Florida. Jerry passed away in July of this year at the age of 87.

“Dad had always been emphatic about not ‘blowing your own horn’ and not pretending to know about something when you really don’t,” Wegner reflected. Even so, both of his parents cultivated a variety of interests and were skilled in arts and crafts. His mother painted in oils while his father was experienced in metal-working, wood-working, leather-working and gem-working. Wegner picked up those artistic qualities: One of his hobbies is designing and building one-of-a-kind clocks.

In total, Varment Guard is owned by a group of five: Jim and Sandy Vaive; Wegner; John Livingston, who now oversees the company's bird management operation; and Scott Steckel, who joined the ownership group in 1996 after Varment Guard acquired his family pest management business.

Having five separate owners might normally be a recipe for conflict, but in the case of Varment Guard, they've learned to make it work, primarily by maximizing each owner's unique strengths. "We complement each other in our different areas of responsibility and we fight very seldom," Vaive says. "Of course, we've had to learn the very complicated nuances of each person's personality and expectations," Vaive adds.

Today, Varment Guard employs 72 people and produces annual revenue of $5.6 million. Sales are split between 60 percent residential accounts and 40 percent commercial. The company primarily handles general pest issues — ants, cockroaches, bed bugs, silverfish, springtails and more — which represent 70 percent of revenue. Remaining sales come from rodent, wildlife and bird work (23 percent), along with one termite technician, who produces about 7 percent of revenue. Varment Guard's service area covers all of Ohio as well as portions of western Pennsylvania that lie along the border with Ohio.

Troubleshooter. Operating a business of Varment Guard's scope requires a diverse set of skills. Jim Vaive oversees sales efforts, Sandy Vaive handles financial management, Scott Steckel manages the company's branches and serves as the information technology guru while John Livingston manages the company's wildlife and bird management operations.

While his four co-owners each bring a unique business specialty to Varment Guard, Wegner is quite happy overseeing the firm's technical, in-the-field expertise. "I am the least business-minded of the five co-owners. I work to keep Varment Guard current with industry information, trends and technology. I help promote Varment Guard's reputation to the public and within the structural pest management industry," Wegner says.

Again, it's a case of Wegner being modest. In truth, Wegner has helped train some of the industry's most proficient technicians, and, as a board certified entomologist, he supports them daily as an in-house, on-call, 24-hours-a-day troubleshooter. During our visit to his office, for example, Wegner's phone rang several times with technicians seeking counsel.

"Gerry is a master of all facets of entomology and pest management," says Plunkett's Bruesch, who works with Wegner as part of the Copesan network's Technical Committee. "Gerry is the guy you want to go to when you need a straight answer in plain English. Whether your question is about spiders or stored product pests or mites or anything else, Gerry has a wealth of knowledge and practical experience with exactly the pest you're dealing with."

In addition to solving tough problems as Varment Guard's in-house pest expert, Weg-ner is responsible for selecting equipment and procedures the company's technicians employ, and he conducts regular technical and safety training sessions. "We like to emphasize that we are there to protect people's health and property, not just kill bugs," Wegner says. He often invokes the image of Sherlock Holmes, emphasizing the need for technicians to observe the entire property and get to the root of a pest problem.

What's more, Wegner also sees that new technicians-in-training spend time in each area of the business, such as customer service and the business office, to get a first-hand look at how their work impacts others, even when it's something as simple as the clarity of their handwriting.

Wegner's willingness to share his expertise extends well beyond Varment Guard's employees and customers, however. With an eye toward advancing the industry as a whole, he's held leadership positions in numerous industry organizations, such as the Entomological Society of America, the National Pest Management Association, Pi Chi Omega and the Ohio Pest Management Association. He's authored technical and how-to articles for national and regional pest management publications, wrote a spider identification field guide and helped revise chapters in the Mallis Handbook of Pest Control. He's also a frequent presenter at national, regional and state pest management conferences. And in his free time, Wegner makes wall clocks decorated with interesting pest specimens at the hour markers, which have raised thousands of dollars for entomology scholarships at auctions and industry events.

Ultimately, Wegner hopes his accomplishments in pest management will leave a legacy of service among customers, employees and the industry. "I would like my customers to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I care about solving their pest problems without jeopardizing their health and safety. I want them to see the Golden Rule exemplified in our business relationship," Wegner says. "My partners and I strive towards our company's vision — to be regarded by both customers and employees with appreciation and caring for being trustworthy and able to solve problems."

In a reality-show world where celebrity is often bestowed on those of little substance, Gerry Wegner stands in stark contrast — a man whose actions tell a far more compelling story than anything you'll catch him saying about himself.

"Gerry is soft-spoken and unassuming, such that you'd never know from listening to him that his colleagues around the continent admire him and seek his advice," Bruesch says.

Co-workers say Wegner's greatest contribution is his upbeat, unselfish approach to life. "Besides the obvious contribution of his knowledge and training, Gerry's very presence at Varment Guard has made us what we are today. We would not be here in the industry without him. Once in a lifetime you meet someone that just shines from the inside out with a joy of life," Vaive says.