Unlike many in the pest management industry, Kevin Pass’ parents didn’t own a pest control company. But his family does have an extensive history in the industry, and as such Pass describes himself as a “first-generation PMP and second-generation entomologist.”
Pass is the owner of Action Pest Control, Evansville, Ind., and current president of the National Pest Management Association. His — and his father’s — background in entomology has served him well as the owner of a $11.6 million firm.
Pass’ father, Bobby Pass, was a professor of entomology at the University of Kentucky (UK). Although Kevin initially wanted to study veterinary medicine at UK, he decided entomology was a better fit. He was introduced to IPM as part of an agricultural program and spent his summers checking fields and providing IPM consulting in western Kentucky.
“When I came out of school, I started a business doing IPM ag consulting. In the second year we were in that business, there was a surplus of corn and the government paid farmers not to plant because there was too much grain out there,” he said. “And that put an end to my farm consulting career.”
As a result, he started performing structural pest control as a one-man operation. He did some consulting work for R.O. Williams Company, a pest control business in Evansville. When the owner passed away, her sons sold the firm to Pass on contract. “All of a sudden I was running a five-man company,” he said.
The firm has grown steadily over the years, in part, Pass says, because the Midwest hasn’t seen the economic ups and downs that many parts of the country have. The area has steadily grown, “allowing my company to grow as a result,” he said. “I feel very fortunate.”
Personal Life. Pass has five children — a daughter Rachel from his first marriage; son Samuel and daughter Sheridan with his late second wife; and stepson Trevor and stepdaughter Marissa with his wife Della.
Pass’ second wife, Linda, passed away from breast cancer when Sam was 8 and Sheri was 5. “There’s a special space in my heart for the single mom because I got to be a single mom for a while,” Pass said. “There is no harder job than that. I recognize that in my own business because it is amazing how people do that — and do it right.
“I am now very happily married to my wife Della,” he said. “She brought two children into our ‘Brady Bunch’ and it’s been a very positive ‘merger.’
“My children call Della ‘mom’ but with total respect to their birth mother. She serves as their mother and they very much depend on her. I could not ask any more from a mother or a wife,” he said.
And just like Pass followed in his father’s footsteps, his son Sam is now at the University of Florida working under Dr. Phil Koehler. “He is going to have an entomology/business dual major that hopefully sets him up to run Action Pest one day,” Pass says. “That’s exciting.”
PCT Editor Jodi Dorsch recently sat down with Pass to talk about his new role as NPMA president and his plans for the upcoming year.
PCT: How did you get involved in NPMA?
KP: Donnie Blake of OPC Pest Control in Kentucky was an NPMA past president. I had worked with him a lot in Kentucky. He encouraged me to get more involved in NPMA and I really liked what I found. He also got me involved in Associated Pest Control Services. Associated has been incredible for my business because it is basically a “best practices” group. We share everything, all the way down to financials.
This industry is a very “sharing” industry. It’s not about a secret formula, it’s about execution. We try to encourage that at the national level with networking opportunities. That’s a big part of what NPMA offers.
Kevin Pass First Person: My Visit to Asia
During the first week of April 2013 I traveled to Japan as an invited speaker. Mr. Junichiro Katayama of Semco Co. Ltd. was my host. Semco is the largest pest control distributor in Japan and routinely conducts free seminars for Japanese PMPs. (Yes, that’s what they call pest control operators in Japan, too.) I spoke in Osaka and Tokyo on pest management trends in the United States as well as Action Pest Control’s own successes and challenges. Although I went as a representative of NPMA, there were no costs to the association.
The culture in Japan is absolutely fascinating. The first thing I noticed was a fair amount of people wearing surgical masks. I thought those were individuals who were afraid of catching the flu, but in fact it is people who have a cold; in Japan it is considered disrespectful to give another person your cold. Think about that the next time someone coughs in your ear on an airplane or subway!
Before I left I was coached by several experienced international travelers on Japanese etiquette. I came ready to bow and properly present and receive business cards. I always thought the bow was kind of hokey until after about three days in Japan the culture of mutual respect explained the concept. Almost every person-to-person interaction begins with a sign of mutual respect, the bow. It is no wonder that in Tokyo, a city that swells to 30 million with business commuters, that I spent five days without ever witnessing a single confrontation, not even a raised voice and certainly not a profanity. I even realized that I had gone the entire week without cussing — no small feat for this country boy! I made it all the way back to the Detroit airport where the service quality at American restaurants got the better of me as I swore under my breath. I was ready to head back to Japan sans the 14-hour flight.
I shared the program with Dr. Chow-Yang Lee of the University of Malaysia. It was interesting to note that the common pests and PMP challenges were virtually the same for Malaysia, Thailand, Korea, Japan and Vietnam, as they were for the United States. That knowledge makes it very clear why we need to work together in the global marketplace finding better pest management solutions. It is also noteworthy that finding qualified labor is also a challenge overseas. This is just another reason to work globally to promote common ideologies and combat the antagonists to our profession. I think we can learn a lot from our fellow professionals in Asia. The International Task Force that NPMA has begun is an organized effort to serve our international members and take advantage of the opportunities that the global pest management industry can offer our members.
I sincerely hope to return to Japan again and other parts of Southeast Asia. I have never had such a positive experience as a public speaker. On Friday afternoon at 5:30 p.m., I looked out at the crowd of 50 PMPs all dressed professionally and completely attentive taking notes and asking questions. That’s right; 5:30 p.m. on a Friday and not one person was fidgeting or looking at their watch. And the truly astounding thing, Japan does not require certification; they were not there for points. It was their duty to learn and be the best at their profession, a truly remarkable culture!
PCT: What do you like best about the pest management industry?
KP: What I most enjoy is helping people — whether that’s helping my colleagues, my company or my customers. You can write your own ticket every day. I decided I want to keep my company on a constant growth pattern. As we grow, it allows my people to grow and me to attract people who want advancement. It is very exciting and it’s fulfilling to see that with your people. I often point to Action Pest Control Marketing Director Sara McKinney a lot. She has really grown in this business and that’s very satisfying to me as an owner that I’ve provided a platform for her to excel.
Another thing that’s fun is solving people’s problems. It’s fun to sit down in a home or business with a person who has a pest problem and to show them the sophistication of this industry. It’s fun to talk to them and see the light come on that it’s more than a guy spraying “bug juice.” Even in working with civic groups, people are pleasantly surprised at the sophistication of our industry. And it is getting more and more sophisticated.
PCT: Can you talk a little about your dad, Bobby Pass?
KP: Dad was the chairman of the Department of Entomology at the University of Kentucky for 30 years, from 1968 to 2001, when he passed away. I think the chairman of the Department of Entomology at the University of Florida this year will pass dad as the longest tenured chair. He brought the University of Kentucky to a national level of prominence.
He always surrounded himself with the best people he could get and always encouraged me to do so. He taught me that I don’t have all the answers, so it is incumbent upon me to find the right people and to find out what they want and help them to be successful. It worked for him!
I think you’re lucky when you have good parents. Both my parents are educators. I brought that philosophy to the company. It makes me proud that when the staff of Action Pest interacts with others that they are some of the sharpest people in the room. That’s because we put an emphasis on training and education. NPMA helps us a lot with that.
PCT: What kind of training? Are you sending your staff to meetings? Or to webinars? Or internal training?
KP: Training is a continuing challenge as we grow and have multiple branches. We do all types of training. We do one-on-one job training. For example, in the sales arena, we have a guy who spends every day, all day long working with sales people on their sales skills.
Our service managers do technical training. We have a technical director whose job is hour-long training via monthly seminars. They are broadcast to all branches and are interactive. We also have self-directed learning where staff is reading, attending webinars and doing online learning. Everyone learns differently so you have to do a little bit of everything.
That is a place NPMA can be very valuable to companies as they grow. A five-man company should have all the educational opportunities available that a large company has. It helps our entire industry at every turn. I think it protects our industry when you have that. If the rising tide lifts all boats, and if everyone were a top-notch professional, how much do-it-yourself would we have going on?
PCT: What are your thoughts on NPMA’s Academy event in Phoenix in July? Where do you think that event is headed in the future?
KP: I know registration this summer was higher than last year. With that said, I think we’re kind of trending to a little bit of a different look and feel of Academy. I think it’s going to take next year to see the numbers come up to previous levels.
We owe it to Dow AgroSciences, who is very invested in this, and we owe it to our association and our up-and-coming leaders to provide such a great platform. I think what you are seeing is less emphasis on Olympics and more on substance...but without abandoning the teamwork aspect.
Personally when I shied away from Academy, I shied away from parts of the Olympics that I was just not comfortable with. I did not realize the benefit to my company (as well as others at the event) in regards to the networking and the teamwork, learning how to work with different people in a team environment. And those are invaluable.
PCT: Like you did in the past, some people have shied away from NPMA Academy because of the athleticism required at some of the Olympic events. What has changed in that regard?
KP: Everybody has a different thing that they’re into. For example, last year I needed a knee replacement, and I couldn’t participate in all of the events. For some people, it’s awkward enough to be put in a team environment and meet new people and then have the potential for embarrassment. So, I think NPMA staff leadership has recognized that and we are trying to get that message out that there is a new look and feel to the event.
There has been a conscious effort to make a change from physical events to other sorts of team building. What people don’t realize is NPMA doesn’t hire a meetings/conventions company to come up with all this stuff. They do it all themselves. They get and bring the supplies themselves and it’s a monumental effort that they put forth to make this come off. You have to commend them for that.
To me, there could be twice the attendance, easily. This association, and the number of members, can easily support two to three times the numbers we have at the event.
PCT: How many first timers were at Academy this year? How do you get more “repeat customers”?
KP: Our Academy mission is to go back to those people who have attended and have not returned. I think the Olympics may be a part of that. But also the time of year (July) is a busy time.
I think it will take a little bit of time for the message to get out that, “Hey there’s a new look and feel to this event.” It is a very valuable experience for your middle managers or emerging leaders. And as NPMA converts to a new database, it will be easier to market to those people without researching, copying and pasting, and manually figuring out who’s attended in the past. The other thing you see with Academy is people send Bob and Jane one year and the next year they send Sue and Tom. And so, yes, they raise their hand that this is their first Academy. But how many would raise their hand if the question was, “Is this your company’s first foray?”
That would be an interesting thing to look at as well because you would see a difference there. Not everybody can send the same people every year.
PCT: What do you want to accomplish in the next 12 months as NPMA president?
KP: The No. 1 thing I’d like to see is more involvement and more engagement with more of our members. We have to get people involved in every aspect of the association, whether it be Academy, convention, committees, leadership development, government affairs or legislation in all the regions. We can engage with more people.
As far as what we want to accomplish, we are working through a strategic plan. Our board meeting formats have promoted a lot more ideas — and all of the tasks we’d like to address is a little overwhelming. I could give you a 20-point answer to that question.
I think by and large the biggest question I keep hearing is, “How do we get the message out that pest control is a viable, attractive career for more qualified applicants?” NPMA member companies need more applicants walking in the door applying for jobs. That’s going to be true for the next 20 years.
I think you look at PPMA and how well they get the message out. We definitely can do that by reaching out to the college, high school and technical school placement services. We need to show students that this is an attractive career and that they can build a company in this industry. We also need to tell them what they can learn from NPMA.
That is a challenge for an industry that people don’t grow up in wanting to be a pest control operator. You have to start putting that out. This is an attractive career and it is a knowledge-based industry that needs educated people. That keeps us going on the path that we have been going on for 20 years.
As part of that, one of the things I’d like to see is more of a diversity program within NPMA. We started that discussion at the board meeting in July at Academy. We’re going to develop a committee/task force to work on our diversity program, not only reaching out to more minorities to apply for jobs, but also reaching out to more minority-owned companies to get them more involved in leadership and committees; just reawaken that initiative. If you take a picture of our membership and a picture of the demographics of the United States, they should be pretty similar.
PCT: I like the term “re-awaken” because in the past there was a separate NPMA minority group.
KP: I think it was it was a mistake making it a separate group. We want it integrated into all aspects of NPMA. It’s good the professional women have PWIPM as a separate entity, but they are also very integrated into everything. If you look at the NPMA board, the association’s leadership and committees, females are very well presented. Women see that they can be very successful in this industry but that’s not as much the case with minorities. I think we have to say to ourselves, “What do we need to do to open ourselves up a little bit more and get more people involved?”
PCT: Can you talk about NPMA’s strategic plan, where it stands and how it is moving along?
KP: If you will look at the NPMA board of directors’ agenda, the mission of the organization is restated in every section of the agenda. For years, the board meeting became staff reports. We’ve cut a lot of that out because we can send those reports by email. You can read that stuff on your own.
We wanted the board meeting to become engaging and involve everyone to make sure we are staying on track with the strategic plan. We also wanted to ensure that we are spending the money, resources and staff’s time of NPMA going in the right direction. So you see those tenets listed through the board report that kind of guides the conversation and keeps people focused on who we are and what we are doing.
To answer your question, the strategic plan will always be a work in progress. But I think the mistake some people make is they make a strategic plan then they put it on the bookshelf and never look at it again. The NPMA staff has done an excellent job of keeping that out there in front of everybody, making sure we’re checking things off as we go.
A lot of things with the strategic plan and a lot of the activities have been internal and setting the stage for the things we want to do. The new database that NPMA is working on is going to be huge because it is going to govern the website and bring our efficiency levels up quite a bit. With all the different things NPMA does, and membership classifications it has, it is a pretty complicated data set. The new database is being customized — and it is huge.
That database is being built for us now and it will allow us to launch the new website and be able to grow without having to add administrative staff. My company’s bookkeeping department is the same staff for a $12 million company as it was for a $6 million company. We have been able to build in efficiencies, which is what NPMA is doing now. A lot of that background work has been going on at a rapid pace but you just haven’t seen it yet. It is incumbent on the board, leadership and staff to keep that rolling so those benefits become something that the membership sees.
PCT: If you went to a board meeting two years ago and then went to one at the NPMA PestWorld this week, what is different? How has the mood in the room changed?
KP: When you go to a meeting and it’s purely reporting, it’s a little dull. Here you have a group of 24 people who now sit in a circle. Past presidents who are members of the board will sit in that circle and guests are all around that circle.
At the board meeting at NPMA Academy in July — it was my first board meeting as leader of the board — I tried to make sure I paid attention to who had contributed and talked, shared their opinion or weighed in on an issue. It may have been the first time that not only every board member had weighed in and talked, but everyone in the room had weighed in on different issues and talked. That’s a reflection of how the room is set up, and a big reflection of how NPMA developed the agenda. We actually approved the agenda at the beginning of the meeting so people kind of recognized that we were going to be following this…here’s a place for strategic discussion, here’s a place for comments. Not only are we asking, we’re telling them we’re going to be asking.
People who get to share their opinion are engaged. I am looking to get more people engaged with the association. It truly is what you put into it. There is a lot of expertise in our industry and that is where a lot of our materials and benefits that go back out to the membership come from. We’ve got a lot of projects going on but we really want more involvement.
PCT: Now that he’s been on the job about a year, can you talk about how Bob Rosenberg is doing in the role of NPMA executive vice president?
KP: I have sought out other people’s opinions on what they are seeing…the NPMA staff, board and executive committee’s opinions. And everyone says he’s been doing a fantastic job. He is working a lot of hours because there is such an enthusiasm of staff and such a myriad of projects and the strategic plan. It’s a little overwhelming.
Bob’s not the new kid on the block; he is an extremely intelligent person and he’s well spoken. No matter how spirited things get, you know if you have Bob in the room it’s going to be OK. He’s going to summarize the next step. He does a fantastic job and is taking good care of his staff. Staff doesn’t report to the board, staff reports to Bob. We provide him feedback on how things are going. He’s done a great job stepping up and providing leadership and support to staff. He added staff where needed. We needed to add more people; the current staff was overwhelmed. It didn’t allow them to dig in and produce a lot. That’s been very exciting to see.
We wish Bob would be here 10 more years. He took the job with a retirement date in sight, so we will have a transition down the road. His contract is for two years with a third year for a transition. If he has to stay a few extra months, that will work out fine. None of us like to think about transition and succession plans, because it represents some of the scariest changes, even in our own companies. It’s a scary conversation. You need to start early. We’ll probably be starting in the next six months developing our game plan how we are going to go about it.
Bob is a really fun person to work with. He stepped up to make it a smooth transition and lead us with new efforts, new branding and a strategic plan. I don’t think we could have designed a better person.
PCT: What piece of advice would you give to someone new to the industry (like your son Sam in four years)?
KP: In the short introduction I gave at NPMA Academy in July, I said “Force yourself to be involved.” The first Academy I came to, I did not get involved and I shied away. I was maybe introverted at the time and did not force myself into an uncomfortable situation to get involved and I walked away with no more contacts than I started with. And it was a big mistake. Today, I’m very engaged. I know a lot to people. I strongly encourage people just to get involved. Wherever you’re comfortable, start there and get involved. Let staff or me or a board member know that you want to become involved. There is an opportunity out there for you. It truly is, the more you put into it, the more you get out of it.
People ask me how I like being the president of NPMA. It’s a big undertaking. It doesn’t pay a dime, but the intangible things that it pays, the relationships, the people that you meet, the knowledge you gain from them is worth a lot more than the monetary.
The author is editor of PCT magazine. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.