How does a pest control business not only survive, but continue to thrive, for 75 years in an industry where change is the only constant?
The answer for Truly Nolen, which turned 75 this year, is that the company has always made people — including its employees and its customers — priority No. 1.
“Having a third generation own a company is uncommon, but a lot depends on how each generation looks at it: Is it a burden or an opportunity?” said Scott Nolen, president of Truly Nolen. “We’ve looked at it as an opportunity to serve. Yes, we serve our customers but we also serve our employees. To have a company of our size still have what I believe is a family feel, it is quite an accomplishment.”
In 2012, Truly Nolen of America grossed more than $100 million in revenues. Additionally, the company’s international franchise business, Truly Nolen International, has 170 franchises in 58 countries.
A Look Back. Truly Nolen is known as one of the industry’s most colorful companies, but its history started in the bleakest of times — the Great Depression. In 1938, Truly Wheatfield Nolen, a cotton picker from Mississippi with a sixth-grade education and a tireless work ethic, founded the company as part of a home improvement store in Miami, Fla.
Truly Wheatfield Nolen was 60 at the time and had lost everything during the Great Depression. One thing he did have was a reputation for solving the pest problems of customers who came into his store. So, with only $500, but an entrepreneurial spirit, he took a leap of faith. The early years were challenging, but the business soon developed a reputation for quality service. Post WWII saw the company grow as Truly Nolen handled some large fumigation jobs and the company was one of the first to use sulfuryl fluoride.
One of Truly Wheatfield Nolen’s sons to enter the business was Truly David Nolen; however, working for his father proved trying. In a 1999 interview with PCT, Truly David Nolen recalled, “Like most entrepreneurs my father was a workaholic. As a result, he was hard on everybody, particularly his sons. None of us lasted long.”
Truly David Nolen worked on and off for his dad growing up and into early adulthood, but he followed his own path, which took him to Western Industries in New Jersey. Truly David Nolen soon caught the entrepreneurial bug after reading an article in National Geographic about subterranean termites. In 1955, with little more than $5,000 and a dream, Truly David Nolen loaded up his wife and two children and moved West, to Tucson, Ariz.
Within a year, Truly David Nolen opened his first office and began turning a profit thanks, in part, to a housing boom in Tucson. During the next 11 years, he expanded the business into California, Texas and New Mexico.
An important milestone for the company occurred in 1966 when Truly David Nolen bought the elder Nolen’s business, which was based in Miami. (The company then began operating as Truly Nolen of America.) That market was rife with opportunity as the 1960s was a time when many Northerners began flocking to the “Sunshine State.”
Family Matters. As the company grew during Truly David Nolen’s tenure, he brought on board sons Scott and Truly William (“Bill”), and later daughter Michelle (Nolen) Senner. Today, Scott serves as president of Truly Nolen and Michelle is director of marketing and advertising.
Scott Nolen says shared values among family members have helped the company integrate newer generations into the business. “An example is my youngest sister Scarlett (age 26) who has a degree and background in psychology. I said, ‘You know the company is a great venue for you to express yourself and serve — to develop others — and when she saw this ability to serve inside the company it gave her great interest and passion to fulfill the next generation of this company.”
Another example is Scott’s son, Scott Truly Nolen (age 28), who was pursuing an engineering degree before joining the company. He now runs a route.
“We never make anyone join the business — it's all voluntary. The way my father explained it to me is, ‘You get a salary whether you work or not. When you come to work, you have to do so because you want to be here.’ And I thought that was pretty wise.”
Scott Nolen said that Truly Nolen — like all family-run businesses — has its ups and downs, but the key to making it work is thinking long-term. “Anytime a decision is made with a family member it is hard to undo,” he said. “You have to set the expectation that nothing is permanent — things are going to change. And we like to move people around to keep things fresh and fluid.”
Michelle Senner added that in her experience the challenges and rewards of working in a family business often are two sides of the same coin. “Knowing and differentiating the personal from the business can be difficult,” Senner said. “I work hard so our people always feel comfortable working with me and giving me real quality feedback; I worry they may not approach me because I am part of the family.”
Truly Nolen Marketing: Fun, Creative and Successful
Michelle Senner: I came to Truly Nolen to replace our computer system. It was only supposed to be a three-year gig; I had a background in consulting and it seemed like a great opportunity to help out the family. After the successful implementation of our new system I stayed on board because I saw the value I could bring, loved working with the people here and learned we’re not in the “bug business” – we’re in the people business.
MS: Truly Nolen really had a knack for recognizing the power of creative marketing and he developed a great base for it and encouraged everyone to keep feeding that out-of-the box thinking. Our philosophy is to really own, build and evolve our brand and to do smart marketing and advertising. Being true to ourselves has to be at that core.
MS: “Nite Nite Termite” is a sentimental favorite. I grew up with it and love seeing it on our trucks and termite brochure. I keep a lot of “oldies” and incorporate them into what we still do, but everything evolves. The “Good Citizens. Ruthless Exterminators” campaign yielded a great response from our people. We expanded our Good Citizen program and have all our branches participate in a company-wide “Good Citizen Week” every quarter in addition to all our community events we already do. We launched “Get TRULY Protected” this year and it continues to grow and expand and we anticipate it to have a long shelf life.
MS: Absolutely! We track just about everything we do and measure what works where – there is no “one size fits all” so we have to be very smart about our marketing plans and be willing and able to change them when something isn’t working. We now develop different programs for different markets and have to consider our franchisees so that we can best support them. We also have to recognize how consumers select their pest control company keeps changing so being changeable is vital.
MS: Our creative was always strong and fun; we work to stay true to that while expanding our advertising. The marketing mix changes with all the options out there – both in traditional and new media. We track everything we do and build flexible programs so we make adjustments based on the feedback we get from the numbers and the field. Technology continues to facilitate that with both the tracking component as well as the developments in online and mobile advertising options.
MS: We are most excited about how closely we’re working with the operations team on strategic marketing decisions and developing our advertising packages with each individual market in mind. I am thrilled to announce that we’ll be adding a mouse bus in addition to our growing fleet of mouse car limos!
Growth Engines. In addition to family matters, what is Truly Nolen’s secret to success? Scott Nolen said what drives the company is something tangible (innovation) and something intangible (company culture).
Truly Nolen has a track record of doing things its own way, including the development and implementation of innovative services. For example, in the 1990s the company introduced Tru-Guard, a tentless fumigation treatment for drywood termites.
Another example of innovation is that the company was an early adopter to the “green movement” and was one of the first companies in the pest control industry to offer an “environmentally friendly” program for its customers.
“We’ve developed some really creative services — ways of applying products and solving problems that are really innovative and our people take a lot of pride in doing what others can’t,” said Scott Nolen.
Truly Nolen also was one of the first companies in the pest control industry to franchise internationally (see related story, page 36) and the company has been successful franchising domestically.
“It gives us the largest footprint of any pest control company in the world,” said Nolen. “Other pest control companies have [expanded globally] but those are mostly company-owned stores. I think they are at a bit of a disadvantage because of cultural differences and local politics. We’ve found that franchising is a good way to go about [expanding globally]. Of the 170 franchises Jose has opened only five have failed.”
“We knew that the world is a very big market and it costs a lot of money to advertise. Franchising is a great way to help get your name out there and expand and make your advertising dollar go farther,” said Scott Nolen.
Innovative marketing is definitely a Truly Nolen trademark (see related Q&A, table above) and perhaps the firm’s best example is its trademark Mousecars — the yellow Volkswagen bugs that have been redesigned/retrofitted as Mousecars. The germ of the idea for the cars came to Truly David Nolen during the company’s westward expansion in the 1960s. The Mousecars were originally red, so the company made them look like an ant. From there, the company added big ears and a thin tail and made it into a mouse. Throughout the years, they have added eyebrows and the other features.
The other important factor in the company’s growth, Nolen said, is harder to measure — pride in company culture. “If you don’t have the right culture in place it is difficult to grow,” Nolen said. “I define culture as the things that people feel and talk about at work — and it’s not always about what’s going on at the company. It might be what they are doing in their personal lives. I think we’ve been successful at creating a culture where people want to belong, want to be involved and want to see the company grow.”
One way new hires learn about Truly Nolen’s innovative services, as well as the company culture, is by taking training courses. The company has invested heavily in training. In 2005, Truly Nolen opened Truly University, a $5 million, 14,000-square-foot training center in Orlando. A couple years later the company opened its second Truly University, this one located in Phoenix, Ariz.
Truly Today. Prior to the 75-year milestone, Truly Nolen of America hit a major mark in 2012 when it recorded $100 million in revenues.
Looking ahead, Scott Nolen said the company still has room for growth. Internationally, Brazil is “growing through the roof” and Nolen said African markets such as South Africa, Mozambique and Kenya, are growing at impressive rates.
Domestically, the growth focus is heavily organic. “The focus remains continuous double-digit growth and so we are going to be examining and fine-tuning our processes and I think we’ll be able to achieve that,” he said.
The author is Internet editor and managing editor of PCT and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.