When your dad has become a living legend in the field where you’re trying to make your own mark, you know you’ve got your work cut out for you. That reality has never shaken Scott Fortson, president and COO of Terminix Service, Inc. in Columbia, S.C., the largest independently run Terminix franchise and the ninth-largest pest management company in the United States. (With revenues of more than $110 million, the company has 1,000-plus employees working in its 54 offices.) Scott is the son of the company’s former CEO Tom Fortson, now semi-retired and holding the title of vice chairman.
“People say my dad and I are alike in many ways; that’s not surprising because he has been my mentor for decades,” says Scott. “I try to emulate the successful practices he has put into place here while being open to new growth opportunities. Our company has always been conservative, striving toward steady growth, and while I see the value of that, I also like to try different things and adopt alternate approaches that are consistent with evolving market needs.”
One of the ways Scott is evolving and growing the business is by adding services. He has added TAP insulation, irrigation, landscape curbing and mosquito services in recent years, and has tripled the scope of his repair division. “When the financial crisis hit, firms industry-wide were looking for add-on services — any opportunity to do more for customers. We were particularly successful in boosting our repair sales,” he explains.
Scott’s reference to the “Great Recession” is a reminder that he has taken the reins of Terminix Service at a time when market volatility is the norm. He is charged with navigating a variety of new challenges — as well as opportunities.
“Scott knows how to respond to changing market conditions, as he proved during the recession. When the housing market bottomed out and the economy took a dramatic turn, he focused on continuing to grow the business in any possible way,” says Chairman and CEO Lex Knox, who has been with the company for more than 40 years. “He is always looking to develop new markets and make our services more appealing to customers.”
Modest Roots. Scott’s memories of growing up are a lot like those of other middle-class American kids who grew up in the ’70s. “We lived in a one-story brick house and later bought a split-level where I grew up until I was 18,” he shares. At that time, Tom had just begun to grow the franchise to its multimillion-dollar stature.
“My dad worked hard, leaving early in the morning and coming home late at night, then putting in Saturday hours. Every other week he stayed in North Carolina to cover that territory,” Scott recalls. “I couldn’t have asked for a better dad, but I wished he didn’t have to work so much. My mom always made sure she was there for me, coming to all of my baseball games and practices, and my tennis matches when I got older. She and I got very close. I had great relationships with both of my parents.”
The other kids in the Fortsons’ neighborhood were fond of Scott’s dad as well. Scott remembers Tom’s car vividly: bright orange with a big bug sitting on its white top. “All the kids in town knew my dad. They’d see that bug coming and say, ‘There’s Mr. Fortson — Mr. Terminix,’” says Scott. “He’d let us climb on the car and mess with the bug. We thought it was great.”
Joining the Family Business. Whether the rooftop bug held that much intrigue or his dad’s business stories inspired him, Scott decided early on he would work in the business. Wanting to be sure of his choice, he opened his mind to new horizons as a political science major at the College of Charleston, where he had been recruited to play tennis. It was an interesting major, reports Scott, but three months after his 1989 graduation, he knew it was time to join the family business. He recalls: “My dad had said, ‘If you have other interests — you want to travel or try something else — do it all now, because once you come here, you need to be ready to work.’ I knew I was ready.”
“Pest control is an unusual business,” observes Tom. “It’s something you have to understand and commit to. Scott had that understanding since day one. I would have liked all of my children to be involved in the business, but Nelson became a committed firefighter, and Judd has made a name for himself in real estate. Scott has always been all pest control.”
Scott spent about a year working as a key man (universal technician) in Charlotte before taking on a commercial route for two years. He became an assistant regional manager and was promoted in 1995 to regional manager in Charleston, S.C. In all, he spent 17 years in the field before coming to the corporate office in Columbia to take over operations.
“Scott did it right,” says Tom. “He spent a remarkable amount of time working his way up the system, developing relationships and skills. He’s a wonderful people person, which is as important as any skill set. When you have over 1,000 employees, you need someone at the top who can relate at many different levels.”
Lex agrees that Scott is a strong leader. “Scott listens. He is empathetic and makes people feel comfortable,” he says. “His core values make him great at building relationships as well as making decisions. Like his dad, he trusts his instincts and handles stressful situations with a level of confidence most people just don’t have.”
Scott’s confidence grew from the strong support system Lex and Tom provide. “Lex is the numbers guy; I’m more operationally oriented. His personality offers great balance to mine,” shares Scott. “As far as my dad, he was my go-to guy for claims, big sales and big decisions when I was a regional manager. He prepared me for this leadership position.”
As Scott’s transition to president and COO began in 2010, the younger Fortson became more self-reliant, emerging as the go-to guy himself. “At first it was strange, because everyone was used to calling my dad. Suddenly here I was as the middle man, and everyone had to get used to calling Scott instead of Tom. It took some time but ended up working out just fine.” Now Tom comes into the office just a few days a week in an advisory capacity.
Collegial Culture. In an industry that has traditionally been dominated by family-owned businesses, there are countless management styles. The Terminix team describes theirs as “collegial” — heavy on collaboration and trust, light on ego.
“We’ve all had to go through the same thing, working from the ground up, and we’re respectful of one another,” says Scott. “We get along as a family and make it work. The values have been instilled in us for generations. My great uncles were in their 90s and still came into the office! I’m not saying I’ll still be here at 90, but the fact that these gentlemen worked together for 50 or 60 years demonstrates what a close-knit family we are.”
Scott’s cousin, Vice President of Human Services Rion Cobb, says that trust plays a huge part. “Whatever issues might arise in a day, there is never any doubt that our management team is doing what is in the best interest of the company — taking care of our employees, providing great service for customers and advancing our brand,” he says. “No one here is out for himself. We recognize that we have a responsibility to be stewards of the legacy that has been handed down to us through the generations so that we can hand it off to the next generation one day.”
Rion says that Scott seeks input from not only the management team but also the field. “Scott doesn’t think of himself as sitting on top of a hierarchy,” he says. “He wants to know what we’re thinking and what every regional manager is thinking. He talks with each of them several times a week. His approach serves as a model for all of us.”
“We ask the branches to educate us about what’s going on from their vantage points,” adds Lex’s son Trevor Knox, who took on the new position of vice president of sales and marketing last year. “This bottom-up approach enables us to be more reactive to, and ultimately proactive toward, market conditions. It strengthens our progress, keeps us moving forward.”
The only non-family member of the management team, Vice President of Finance Susan Douglas says, “The team dynamic here makes it an amazing place to work. It’s an honest, open environment, and the family is committed to doing what’s best for people — customers and employees alike. When something goes wrong, there’s never any finger-pointing. Instead the focus is ‘Let’s get it right next time.’”
Building His Own Legacy. Within the company, Scott has already made notable strides in strengthening the company. In addition to creating new profit centers through add-on services, he has grown the team by recruiting Quality Assurance Manager Tim Clayton, a former state regulator who now travels from branch to branch checking service quality and ensuring compliance with regulations and contracts. Scott also supervised the production of a corporate reference manual, which provides technicians with guidelines for carrying out every service Terminix offers.
Scott also makes a difference beyond Terminix. Now president of the South Carolina Pest Control Association and a board member of NPMA, he gives back to the industry by sharing his knowledge, network, time and talents.
“Scott believes strongly in helping his peers and doing his part to advance the industry,” says Rion. “He maintains not only professional ties but also close personal friendships with other pest management executives — in many cases, his competitors. He has a great passion for the industry and never hesitates to share his expertise and insights.”
Future Growth Plans. In spite of its already impressive size and the limits of its fixed geographic territory, Terminix Service still has a long way to go in terms of growth, say Scott, Lex and Tom. Tom explains, “Being bound by geographic area is a blessing as much as a curse in that it forces you to penetrate vertically — offer more services and focus on your set territory as opposed to believing that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. Right now, our sales penetration differs from region to region. If we can bring everyone up to our top operating level, then we have another 20 years of growth ahead.”
“We are the only pest management company in the nation’s top 10 with a fixed geographic territory,” adds Lex. “We don’t let that hinder our growth. We continue to look toward two growth areas: acquisitions and new service opportunities.”
Scott agrees. “Entrenching ourselves in the smaller communities throughout our territory has been key to our success,” he says, “but look for us to become much more aggressive in acquisitions as well. We always have our eyes and ears open for the next thing.”