In the forward of author Tom Brokaw’s tribute to the men and women who fought in WWII — The Greatest Generation — it is written: “They gave the world science, literature, art, industry and economic strength unparalleled in the long curve of history. As they now reach the twilight of their adventurous and productive lives, they remain exceptionally modest. They didn’t think that what they were doing was that special, because everyone else was doing it too.”
Those words aptly describe Roland Rhodes, a member of the greatest generation and founder and president of Rhodes Chemical Co., in Kansas City, Kan., and a man who has touched the lives of so many people both inside and outside of the pest management industry.
Born in 1927 in Kansas City, Rhodes was one of five children and even through the tough times of the Great Depression, Rhodes’ parents raised their children to think ahead and pursue a college education.
Upon graduation from high school Rhodes attended college for one year before enlisting in the Navy. “I went in at 17 and was out at 19,” says Rhodes, who was stationed at a Seattle area U.S. Navy hospital caring for wounded sailors and Marines returning from the Pacific theater.
When speaking of his generation’s contributions Rhodes says they were taught at a young age the value of money during a time when it wasn’t plentiful and the even greater value of contributing back to the community. “Our generation’s service during WWII enabled us to do things that contributed to the country and to the greater good of all,” says Rhodes.
Like millions of other servicemen and women, Rhodes took advantage of the G.I. Bill and re-entered college following his discharge from the Navy in 1946. Rhodes enrolled at the University of Kansas and earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1949.
During college Rhodes married his high school sweetheart, Winona, and started a partnership that still flourishes today after 66 years.
Starting the Journey. Following his graduation from the University of Kansas, Rhodes worked as a chemist for a series of companies including Stokley Van-Camp, FMC’s Westvaco Chemical Division and the Cook Chemical Company.
During his time at Cook Chemical, Rhodes was the chief chemist/research and development manager and received his first exposure to the industry he would call home for more than half a century.
Rhodes developed the formulation for a fly control aerosol product sold under the company’s Real-Kil Products line. And he was responsible for setting up the national marketing program for distribution to one of the country’s growing industries — pest management.
It was during his experience marketing the fly aerosol product that Rhodes attended his first National Pest Management Association Convention in 1957 and Purdue Pest Management Conference in 1958. He also saw the potential and need for a distributor that specialized in selling strictly to the pest management industry.
“The industry was a lot smaller then and most pest professionals bought their products from agriculture distributors, but pest control was only a sideline business for most of the distributors,” says Rhodes.
In February of 1962 Rhodes, with Winona at his side, planted a flag in the ground and opened the Rhodes Chemical Co. Operating out of his house, Rhodes focused on building the customer base while Winona answered the phone for the burgeoning business. “We only generated $8,000 in sales in the first year and were fortunate to earn a slight income,” recalls Rhodes, “but we were the first distributor in Kansas City to cater solely to the pest control industry.”
By 1966, Rhodes moved the business out of his home and was able to hire two employees to help him meet the needs of the growing operation. It was during these early years that Rhodes cultivated a business plan that placed a strong emphasis on education and training, and not just writing orders.
“Most of our customers at the time were looking for information to help to get their businesses up and going,” says Rhodes. “We made it our job to help them with training and education. We went on jobs with them and showed them how to perform the various treatments.”
From the beginning Rhodes and his small team of employees knew the key to the company’s success was building long-term relationships with pest control operators.
With a foundation rooted in education and training, Rhodes invested himself in the success of his customers. “We did and still do put a lot of energy and resources into education and training,” says Rhodes. “It has allowed us to build deep relationships — second and third generation in some instances — with our customers.”
Rhodes feels the independent distributor still plays an important role in the industry, especially for the small pest management professional that make up a large segment of the industry. “The small operators look to us and rely on us to help them not only select the correct products but to help with technician training and inventory management,” he says. “We sell on customer service — not price.”
Cisse Spragins, a product supplier who has worked for years with Rhodes on various UPFDA boards and committees, says Rhodes has always made a sincere effort to help his customers succeed in managing the business side of the their operations, not just sell them products. “He has a genuine interest in advancing the careers of the people he serves including his employees, customers and industry colleagues,” she says. “He cares a lot about the people he works and does business with.”
A Life Committed To Education. Rhodes’ commitment to education extends beyond his customer base and spreads to universities across the Midwest region where Rhodes Chemical operates.
Currently, Rhodes and his wife support scholarships for entomology students at Purdue University, University of Illinois, University of Missouri, Kansas State University, University of Nebraska and Iowa State University. “Giving back to the industry is very important to Winona and me, and we want to do our part to make sure the next generation of industry leaders can benefit from the experience and knowledge of those who have gone before them,” says Rhodes. “We view it as a long-term investment in the industry’s success.
Rhodes also supports the Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas, named after legendary Senator Robert Dole, a close personal friend. The institute promotes political and civic participation to high school students.
The former Senator and presidential candidate has been a friend of Rhodes ever since the early 1970s when he called on the Senator on behalf of the pest control industry during the critical days when the EPA was formed.
“I started visiting Senator Dole during my frequent visits defending the vital role the pest control industry plays in protecting public health,” says Rhodes. “We have developed a mutual respect and friendship over the years.”
Being an active participant in the industry’s ongoing efforts to tell its story to elected and regulatory officials in Washington or at the local town hall is another endeavor Rhodes feels strongly about.
Rhodes recently completed 16 years of service on the Kansas Board of Agriculture as an advisor to the governor on agriculture matters and how they impact the state.
“You better know your elected officials and advocate for your cause,” says Rhodes. “But you need to remember that sometimes you win and sometimes you lose — that is just the way politics is.”
Family Matters. The saying behind every successful man is a strong woman and supportive family rings true in Rhodes’ case. Rhodes and wife Winona not only started and built a successful business together but in the process raised four children — Christine, David, Alan and Debbie — and today enjoy 10 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. The Rhodes never pushed their children to work in the family business and today only daughter Debbie is involved, serving as a vice president. “Family businesses can be tough and we raised our children to be entrepreneurs and to do their own thing,” says Rhodes.
Over the years many industry associates have become almost like family to Rhodes and their respect for his body of work is considerable.
“Roland is an icon of honesty and professional integrity, and is looked up to by everyone who has had the chance to work with him,” says Valera Jessee, executive director of the United Producers, Formulators and Distributors Association, a group Rhodes help found (see sidebar) and who has known Rhodes for nearly 25 years. “He plays no politics and will tell you the truth even if you don’t want to hear it.”
UPFDA: Moving the Industry Forward
When Roland Rhodes started his distribution business, Rhodes Chemical Co., it was one of the few in the country that specialized in selling to and servicing pest management professionals.
The relationship between industry suppliers and the distributor channel was also in its infancy. Manufacturers did not focus on developing products specifically designed for the structural pest control industry and industry professionals were used to buying from distributors whose main business was selling to farmers.
As Rhodes grew his business, he and his fellow distributors discovered there was a need for better collaboration with manufacturers to serve the greater good of the industry.
“We needed to open the lines of communication between distributors and manufacturers,” says Rhodes. “Instead of distributors just stocking shelves and selling what manufacturers had to offer, we wanted to collaborate on what products were most beneficial to PCOs.”
This desire to serve the greater good of the industry led Rhodes and other distributors to form the United Producers, Formulators & Distributors Association (UPFDA) in 1968.
The association includes the industry’s leading product and equipment manufacturers, formulators and distributors working to bring a standard of excellence and enhanced professionalism to the structural pest control industry, as well as be an advocate for the industry with the regulatory community.
Rhodes has served in a variety of officer and leadership capacities with UPFDA over the years and remains an active member of the organization.
In 2005, Rhodes was given the association’s Malcolm Stack Integrity Award for demonstrating the highest levels of integrity when promoting the general welfare and image of the pest management industry.
UPFDA Executive Director Valera Jessee says Rhodes’ leadership skills and commitment to his profession have contributed greatly to the association’s growth and development.
“Roland’s best quality is his deep sense of responsibility for his employees and the industry as a whole,” says Jessee. “When Roland says he is going to take on a project or lead an effort, you know he will follow through and deliver.”
Jessee says working with Rhodes on the UPFDA board for all these years has taught her a lot about how to treat people and work collaboratively toward a common goal.
“If you have Roland’s support you have reached a level of achievement,” says Jessee who recalls with a laugh how she felt the first time she received a Christmas card from Rhodes. “I knew I had arrived.”
Finding the balance between work and family is something many Americans, PMPs included, wrestle with. The demands on a business person’s time and talents are under increased pressure as technology, competitive pressures and a do-more-with-less philosophy permeates the business world.
How has Rhodes struck a balance raising a family while continuing to grow his business? The modest Midwesterner offers this simple advice. “Stay involved and keep a balance,” he says. “Don’t let your business overrun your family.”