[Top 100 Event] Fostering a Culture of Innovation

Features - PCT Top 100 2012

How do you ensure your pest management firm is thriving and innovating? Take some tips from three PMPs whose companies are doing so day in and day out.

October 17, 2012
Donna DeFranco

When you think of history’s great innovators, names like Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and Henry Ford probably come to mind. Fast forward to the 21st century, and you might add names like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos to that list. Yet while each of these renowned individuals most certainly paved the way for dramatic progress, the reality is that innovators walk among us every day. In fact, it’s quite likely that you are an innovator yourself. Innovation comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, and even the smallest hint of it can spark positive change.

In the pest management arena, innovation drives business. It is the impetus behind progress and the differentiating factor between companies that thrive and those that merely survive. How do you ensure yours is one of the thriving, innovative companies? How do you foster a culture of innovation, encouraging your employees to embrace progress and the great potential of new ideas? At the PCT Top 100 Awards Ceremony and Executive Summit this past June in Chicago, three well-known PMPs sat on a panel called “Creating a Culture of Innovation.”

The Steritech Group.
“Innovation is the responsibility of every employee. If you want to build a company that everyone is proud of, each member of the team needs to look at his or her own situation and say, ‘I can make this piece of my job a little bit better,’” said Steritech’s COO Richard Ennis. “If they can’t make it better, then they should support their manager’s efforts to do so.”

Innovation has been a core value at Steritech since its establishment by John Whitley in 1986, and the principles behind the company’s innovation process are applicable, according to Ennis, to every company, “whether it’s a million- or billion-dollar enterprise.” The process is housed in the company’s innovation center, The Steritech Institute, a hotbed of new product research and development, and hub of ongoing business support.

Led by Vice President of Technical Services Judy Black, The Institute is responsible for incremental improvements in efficiency and efficacy of services, as well as for breakthrough innovation. The Steritech innovation process involves three phases:

  • Research. New ideas are evaluated during this stage. “Ideas are generally high risk and low yield, so we strive to keep many projects going at once,” says Ennis. “We give a project an opportunity. If it has potential, we advance it; if it looks like it isn’t going to pan out, we kill it.” Charlotte, N.C.-based Steritech relies on vendors to help with research efforts, including identifying areas of opportunity. The technical staff regularly attends technical conferences to stay up to date on what’s happening in the market, too. Of Steritech’s total technical spend, about 5 to 10 percent goes into research.
  • Development. The accepted ideas, whether new services or process improvements, are developed and refined during this phase, which, at Steritech, represents 40 to 50 percent of the technical budget. The Institute team stands accountable for the quality of the product or service as well as speed to market.
  • Business Support. Effective technical training is essential to the success of new innovations. Technicians must have not only the tools but also the knowledge and ability to carry out the protocol. Black’s team also provides support in the field and with particularly large clients who need customized technical support. This phase of the innovation process accounts for the remaining 40 to 50 percent of Steritech’s technical spend.

ABC Home & Commercial Services. Another pest management innovator, ABC Home & Commercial Services, Austin, Texas, attributes its progress to its business model rather than a process. President Bobby Jenkins explains: “We have branched out to provide a diverse range of services in Houston, Austin and many of our other markets. We’ve evolved from ABC Pest Control to ABC Pest & Lawn Services to ABC Home & Commercial Services to reflect all of the services we offer. Customers can get bed bug and termite service or lawn and tree care, air conditioning and heating service or handyman services — or any combination of these. In other words, we take the innovations of others and put them into practice. I tell people that we don’t invent anything; instead, we’re the ‘do.’”

Venturing Beyond Faster Horses

While it’s a great practice to listen to your customers in terms of new products or services they would like you to provide, they can’t always envision something that they haven’t seen before. Remember the words often attributed to Henry Ford: “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

Your challenge as an innovator is to identify — or better, anticipate — a consumer need and fulfill it. You should also think in terms of the greatest profit potential for your business.

Here are two examples of innovations from Steritech that have been successful both in fulfilling a market need and in boosting the bottom line:

SleepEasy Thermal Chamber. This bed bug heat-treatment process spent six months in research and about 10 months in development. Introduced to the market in October 2010, it generated a million dollars in revenue the first six months. An innovative alternative to Steritech’s conventional bed bug treatment program, the Thermal Chamber offers the benefits of 24-hour turnaround, one-person operation and improved efficacy (all room contents are saved).

Bird Management. Tapping into his expansive bird knowledge gained through raising and selling birds of prey for many years, Mike Givlin, the company’s vice president of its North American Bird Program, spent a year developing a humane trap that leverages natural pigeon behavior. Since its release to the market two years ago, this bird management tool has helped Steritech expand its customer base and sell more deeply to its established clientele. The program generated more than $2 million in 2011.

The secret to succeeding with this type of business model, says Jenkins, is providing the services customers want and excelling in every service category. “If we become more valuable to customers, they become more valuable to us,” says Jenkins. “Our goal is to keep all of the customers we have and provide more services to them so that we have a deeper, longer-lasting relationship.”

The ideal relationship for ABC? A customer who uses two to four different services. As an incentive to get more customers to that level, ABC offers a rewards program. Every service they buy earns them points they can use toward trying any of the other services offered by the company. To ABC’s credit, the more they try, the more they buy.

“If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re going to keep getting what you’re getting. The culture of our company is to continually ask ourselves how we can improve. Innovation is part of the whole model. These new services are not add-ons; they represent businesses we are in — businesses that have become very significant for us over the past few years,” Jenkins says.

Each of these businesses has a division manager who is part of the ABC management team. The team has regular meetings to discuss how they can leverage the synergies among them and brainstorm ways of increasing business in each division. But they’re not the only ones weighing in with innovative ideas.

“I listen to our guys out in the field — lawn specialists, pest management specialists and such. They are always thinking, and we embrace that attitude,” says Jenkins. “We also get a lot of ideas from our customers. We survey them, talk to them. I get letters and phone calls asking if we’ve thought about going into this or that. The ideas flow because we have the reputation that makes people wonder, ‘What’s ABC going to do next? What’s the next thing they’re going to bring to the marketplace?’ We also have the reputation that if we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it in a way that is of real value to the customer.”

Sprague Pest Solutions. Alfie Treleven, president and CEO of Sprague Pest Solutions, Tacoma, Wash., keeps the culture of innovation strong at his company by meshing science and ingenuity. “We’ve created a culture based on education, research, data and outside learning opportunities, and we’re comfortable challenging the status quo,” he says. “We look at how other service businesses — not just those in pest control — do things and see if we can borrow or modify their ideas for our business. I bring the bat and ball to the game, and then try to stay out of the way as our team members come up with cool new ideas. Freedom is important to ideation.”

Once the ideas come to light, the key to bringing them to fruition is evaluating whether they can be replicated across markets and whether they will generate enough revenue to make the related efforts worthwhile. “Unfortunately, sometimes even great ideas get chopped because there’s no real way for us to make a model of, or make money from, them,” says Treleven.

A number of Sprague’s most recent innovations have been centered around efforts to minimize pesticide usage. In certain instances, Sprague has succeeded in reducing pesticide usage from hundreds of gallons of chemicals to nearly zero.

Keeping his team excited about innovation means keeping them proactively involved, says Treleven. Team members Jeff Miller and Kathy King have spearheaded a leadership program through which participants, who are selected on a rotating basis, are charged with researching and evaluating proposed ideas to decide whether they merit development. “It’s a great learning experience for these employees,” says Treleven. “They see firsthand what attributes an idea needs to have to be viable. This sharpens their instincts when they’re out in the field; they recognize good ideas and bring them to the table. The key to our cultural strength is believing in our employees and giving them the tools they need to contribute to our innovative efforts.”


The author is a frequent contributor to PCT magazine. She can be reached via email at ddefranco@giemedia.com.