[2011 Leadership Winner] Judy Black

Features - 2011 Leadership Awards

Ingenuity and skill propelled this industry upstart to advance and excel.

October 19, 2011
PCT Magazine

One of the first things you learn when entering the pest management industry is that you must be comfortable with change and willing to adapt. It's part of the learning curve that everyone, from route technician to owner, has to go through.

For Judy Black, technical director of The Steritech Group's Pest Prevention Division, being adaptable and willing to explore new ideas comes naturally. After all, this is a woman who attended high school on an Air Force base in Spain while her family was living in Sardinia, Italy, and who called Alaska, California, Illinois, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Virginia "home" at one time or another while growing up.

With that background it's no wonder she can adapt to the challenges posed by pests in the high-end commercial accounts Steritech services each day. "You have to be adaptable to different situations and to change," observed Black as she reflected on how moving around so much as a child affected her career. "When I'm working on an account and an issue pops up, no problem. You just have to deal with it."

Change is a Constant. Black developed her affinity for adventure at an early age, while she and her family followed their father, Richard, a Navy chaplain, around during his career. Born in western Pennsylvania, Black and her family made stops in such far-flung outposts as Adak, Alaska — where it snowed in July — and the island of Sardinia.

"Growing up in a military environment provided a different perspective," said Black, whose mother, Marjorie, held down the home front while her dad did three tours in Vietnam. "You have a bond with friends and family that is different. You know what it is like to worry."

Black's father returned safely from his tours and retired from active duty in 1986, but the lessons learned by her and her siblings stuck. Toward the end of their father's active duty the family settled in northern Virginia outside Washington where Black finished high school. Her interest in science led her to a summer job with the Youth Conservation Corps, a National Park Service program that employs teens during the summer to help restore park lands. Black worked in Huntley Meadows Park in Fairfax, Va., where she built and repaired boardwalks for walkers and bikers through the park's swamplands. "I loved being outside and having a chance to work on protecting and bettering the environment," said Black.

Several of the park rangers assigned to Black's project were graduates of West Virginia University, and their concern for the environment influenced her to also attend the school near Morgantown, W. Va.

"I thought about being a forest ranger when I first started and I put an emphasis in environmental protection in my course work," reflected Black.

While working toward her degree in agriculture she took several entomology classes at the encouragement of a professor. And while insects had never been a fascination of Black's, a struggling economy upon graduation made her consider returning to school. As fate would have it, an assistant teaching job in the entomology department opened up that helped Black pay for graduate school. "It made my decision easy," she said. While earning her master's degree in entomology, Black taught lab classes for undergraduates which helped build her skill set in developing presentations, speaking and teaching — all things she continues to use today.

Following graduation her plan was to become an agricultural entomologist but in keeping with her "change is a constant" credo, Black realized she did not want to be tied to a laboratory. "It was not in my personality, so I looked at other options and found the pest control industry," said Black.

Working to Make a Difference. Black's first job was in sales with Terminix in Pittsburgh, Pa., and she wistfully points out she was so good at it, they offered her a service route not long after. Her work in the field got Black hooked on the industry and she credits that stretch with getting her where she is today.

"Being a technician gave me a good perspective on what it takes to get the job done right and work on behalf of the customer," said Black. "You must be practical in your recommendations, and my experience in the field allowed me to give advice that comes from real-world situations."

Eliminate Pests; Respect the Environment: Steritech Takes Part in EPA Program

The Steritech philosophy of zero pest tolerance and getting the job done with the least amount of product is a way of doing business for Judy Black and her team. It is embedded in their training and service protocols and has fostered a spirit of innovation when it comes to finding ways to eliminate pests from commercial accounts.

“Many people talk about eliminating pests, but we obsess over it,” said Rich Ennis, COO of Steritech. “We place a high priority on coming up with innovations that will separate us from the competition.”

One way the company has walked the talk is by participating in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Pesticide Environmental Stewardship Program (PESP). The program, started in 1994, is a voluntary EPA partnership program that works with the nation’s pesticide-user community to promote Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices.

“It has helped us focus on our goal to make the most efficient use of pesticides,” said Black. “Through the program we have been able to identify what opportunities exist to lessen the impact in exact instances and be able to measure it.”

She noted the program requires a lot of effort on her team’s part, especially the data collection and analysis, but the investment is worth it.

Black said Steritech has twice been recognized by the EPA for its efforts in the PESP program and that its goals, in many instances, correlate with what her and her team work on when developing service protocols.

“We need to get the message to the technicians and get them to believe in the core values we strive to deliver on a daily basis,” said Black. “Our participation in PESP, in combination with our training and service protocols, has allowed us to move the needle in this area.”

During her time with Terminix and as a traveling regional technical specialist for the company, Black found making an impact on a customer's home or business very rewarding. "This industry is something you grow to love working in," said Black. "The industry does not give itself enough credit for helping others improve the quality of life by protecting their home or business. Who wants to eat in a restaurant or go to work in a pest-filled environment?"

After six years with Terminix, Black was ready for another challenge and she set out to find it. She applied for several positions around the country, including one as a branch entomologist for Steritech.

Even though the position was filled by another candidate, she impressed Steritech enough that they offered her a position with the company anyway with the promise that they would "find something for her to do."

Black soon came on board at the company's Washington, D.C., branch. Shortly thereafter, she met John Whitley, founder of Steritech and a 1996 Crown Leadership Award recipient. During their 1994 meeting, he shared his vision for the company, relating how he wanted to reduce pesticide use in the coming years and break the mold on the traditional practice of heavy-handed baseboard sprays to eliminate pests.

"At first I thought the goal was a little out-there, so I asked him how he was going to accomplish it, and he said, 'I'm hiring people like you to figure it out,'" recalled Black.

Upon joining Steritech, Black was thrown into the mix working on the Pentagon account. "It was a challenging account to say the least," said Black. Steritech was charged with reducing pesticide use in the massive facility while maintaining a pest-free environment. Because of the strong relationship with the client, they were able to test numerous treatment strategies, not all of which worked, but allowing Black to exercise her creative skills nonetheless.

The challenge of reduced-pesticide pest prevention played into a passion Black had since she was young and carried a backpack with an ecology logo patch to school. She still remembers the 1970s-era public service announcement in which a Native American sheds a tear while watching pollution build.

Since joining Steritech Black and her colleagues have worked tirelessly to reduce the amount of pesticides used and lessen the impact on the environment. They created protocols that became the company's EcoSensitive® Pest Prevention program, the first structural pest management program recognized by the U.S. EPA with an excellence award (see related story below).

"It was John's vision that pushed us down this road," said Black. "John felt it was the right thing to do for our employees, customers and the environment. We were green before being green was cool."

Delivering on the Promise. Following her time in operations in Washington, Black became a regional technical manager for the mid-Atlantic region where she worked with a wide array of accounts and was able to expand her hands-on experience. Then in 2000, Black headed west as Steritech expanded its presence, continuing in her role as a regional technical manager. Her responsibilities grew and she eventually became general manager — Steritech's first female general manager — for the Pacific Northwest Branch, an office that covered seven states at that time.

Her hard work led to the 2005 promotion to her current position, and the opportunity to work across the entire Steritech pest prevention organization. Now the core philosophies of Steritech push Black and her team of project managers, trainers and analysts to be innovative and expand the boundaries of their service and training protocols. "We feel a deep responsibility to provide our specialists in the field with the best processes and treatment methods, and to find the most efficient way to eliminate pests," Black said.

Steritech's strict training regimen has new specialists spending time with one of the company's certified trainers where hands-on, field training takes place in addition to class work. Black stresses consistency in training protocols, so essential since Steritech works with such a diverse client base nationwide.

She feels the hardest training challenge facing her team is teaching new specialists to solve complex problems. "Specialists need field experience to dig in and learn how to problem-solve for the customer," said Black. "We give them solid fundamentals which help, but nothing replaces being in the field and learning first-hand."

Black also noted how the Steritech specialist's role has expanded to include gathering information along with providing service. The company has done that, in part, through the use of hand-held devices designed to collect accurate high-quality data.

"The quality of the service reports from our specialists in the field has improved significantly and it has been a big bonus for us in reviewing and analyzing what's working and what's not," said Black. "It is also a plus for customers since we can tunnel down and share valuable information on exactly what is being done to eliminate pests."

Rich Ennis, Steritech's president and COO, said Black's work developing innovative specialist training and service protocols is second to none. "She has developed training programs and service protocols that are world-class, and she sets up our specialists for success," said Ennis. "Our company has a zero-tolerance approach to pests and that blends well with Judy's competitive nature."

Ennis noted the commercial sector has its ebbs and flows, and Black, no stranger to stopping on a dime and changing direction, is always willing to put the extra effort into finding the right solution. "Her work ethic is tremendous," Ennis continued. "She has become a mentor to many in our organization and she is a terrific ambassador not only for our company, but our industry as well."

For Black, her work is a labor of love and being able to do so with an organization where commitment to excellence and respect for the environment go hand-in-hand is an added bonus. "I want to make an impact for the people I work with, the customers we service and the environment in which we live," said Black. "It is a very basic premise but I want to make sure the work we do will make it safe for my mom and other moms and families to eat in restaurants and not worry about the safety of their food."