When Jennifer Leggett graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in personnel management, a friend suggested she spend the summer working at the pest control company where Leggett’s mother worked and where Leggett herself had worked part-time during summer breaks. After that, the friend asserted, Leggett would be prepared to go out and pursue “a real job.” By the end of summer, though, Leggett had a different idea: The 21-year-old approached the owner, Curtis Lindsey, about buying his company.
“I knew that Mr. Lindsey wanted to sell the business,” she says. “And I was intent on buying it because I had fallen in love with the pest control industry, the customers and the insects. It was also a way for my mother and me to work together, something we both wanted to continue doing. It never even crossed my mind that I didn’t have a dime just coming out of college. I knew I could make it happen, and I was very grateful when Mr. Lindsey agreed to give me the opportunity.”
Lindsey stayed with his Jacksonville business for five more years, passing his knowledge on to Leggett as she worked toward her certification, which she earned in 1990. In 1992, he handed the keys over to her and her mom, Joan Leggett, who had worked at the company since 1978. The mother-and-daughter team ran the business together until Joan’s passing in 2012.
Today, Leggett is a well-respected leader not only at Lindsey Pest Services but also throughout the industry. She is an advocate and a role model for women looking to lead, a passionate teacher for technicians looking to excel, and an outspoken champion for an industry that is always looking to advance to the next level.
Blazing a Trail for Women Leaders
While one might expect the prospect of taking over a business in a male-dominated industry to be daunting to a 21-year-old woman, Leggett felt no hesitation. “I had my mother as inspiration and my upbringing as a solid foundation,” she says. “My parents and the parish community I was raised in were absolutely amazing. They never told me ‘you cannot.’ They taught me that my achievements would be limited only if I allowed them to be.” With her mother and Mr. Lindsey as mentors, Leggett committed herself to learning every aspect of the business, from servicing accounts to leading the staff and making executive decisions.
“I ran into a few issues as a technician, because customers weren’t necessarily expecting their termite technician to be a young woman,” she says, “but the funniest encounter I had was with Mr. Lindsey. He held pretty fast to the idea that women shouldn’t crawl under houses. I let it go for a while but then one day I just had to go into his office and say, ‘I’m going to own this business. How effectively can I support our team if I’m not crawling under the houses to check their work?’ It took some time and convincing to get him on board, but ultimately, he came out and crawled a house with me.”
Since that time, Leggett has made many strides for women in pest management. A past president of the Florida Pest Management Association (FPMA), past chair of Professional Women in Pest Management (PWIPM) and two-term board member of the National Pest Management Association (NPMA), she serves as a role model, mentor and coach to many women in Florida and beyond. In 2011, NPMA recognized Leggett’s achievements by presenting her with its Women of Excellence Award. In 2013, FPMA honored her with its Pioneer Award.
“Jennifer’s ‘if I can do it, you can do it’ philosophy has inspired many other women to step forward and become leaders,” says Paul Mitola, environmental consultant at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “She is a driving force behind the increasing level of women’s involvement in the pest management industry.”
Dr. Philip Koehler of the University of Florida adds, “Our female graduate students look up to Jennifer as a role model. Once they see what a powerful leader she is, they become confident that a bright future in pest control lies ahead for them as well.”
“Jennifer didn’t just open the door to women; she kicked it down,” says Nick Dennis, owner of Pro Lawn Plus, who bought Leggett’s lawn business in 2008. “You will never see her back down against her male peers. She’s diplomatic and pragmatic, but she gets her point across. She is highly respected throughout the industry, by men and women alike.”
Taking Technicians to New Heights
Leggett’s influence on the industry has not been limited to women. She shares her knowledge, insights and vision with PMPs and regulators across the board every day. She and her husband, Dr. Claude Thomas, owner of Thomas Environmental and Southeastern technical manager for B&G Equipment Co., lead volunteer training and education initiatives internationally. From bed bugs, cockroaches, fruit flies, termites and other pests to new technologies and processes, Leggett and Thomas are dynamic teachers, whether addressing a group separately or as a duo, in a classroom or in the field.
Fighting Bed Bugs for Jacksonville’s Homeless
Jennifer Leggett has been a member of the Jacksonville Bedbug Task Force since 2011. Her proudest moment? Clearing the Trinity Rescue Mission of bed bugs. “About four years ago, a representative of the Heath Department called us asking for help,” she says. “She explained that Jacksonville’s homeless population faced yet another challenge: being troubled by bed bugs when they stayed at the mission. Trinity’s Operations Director Barry Luxenberg had carried out a laundry list of efforts to try to alleviate the problem, but to no avail.”
Working closely with Luxenberg, Leggett led the task force’s efforts to address the issue. She reached out to manufacturers to donate product, and supplied technicians from her own firm to donate labor. Her team wiped out the bed bugs, and continues to service the mission’s pest management needs today.
“Knowing these people can once again sleep at night makes you feel fantastic,” she says. “Plus, we established the foundation of a lifelong relationship with the people at the mission. Building meaningful relationships like this is what makes working in pest management so fulfilling.”
“Jennifer captivates audiences,” says Thomas. “She has a gift for engaging PCOs and making the subject matter very personal to them. Because she speaks PCO-to-PCO, her insights are extremely relevant — meaningful and memorable — to her audiences.”
Leggett says the growing number of tools and increasing levels of customer knowledge make ongoing teaching vital to PMPs. “It’s our responsibility as an industry to make sure every technician out there understands insect behaviors and the evolving set of tools available to manage pests,” she says. “Plus, it’s all so exciting: There are always new tools to try; it’s so much fun learning about them and then sharing that knowledge.”
In her quest for new tools, Leggett is known to tap into the research efforts led by Koehler at the University of Florida. “Jennifer has adopted a lot of our ideas, particularly for bed bugs. We created a bed bug heat box that she liked so much, she turned it into a bed bug trailer,” he says. “She has also been very generous in collaborating with us. We did a study with her involving Jacksonville’s homeless shelters, where she helped us test a variety of bed bug traps, for example.”
Sharing Information for the Greater Good
A member of the Pest Control Enforcement Advisory Council of the Department of Agriculture since 2007, Leggett collaborates with regulators, keeping them abreast of what’s happening in the trenches. “PMPs and regulators are both protectors of customer property and the environment. We all work toward the same goals, just from different angles,” she says. “Regulators need to know the realities we deal with every day at our accounts. The better they understand us, the more mutually beneficial our work can be.”
Mitola agrees. “Jennifer helps us see issues in the field so that we can direct our enforcement where it can do the most good. She is very vocal about how we can all work together to help make the industry stronger.”
Some of Leggett’s most impassioned work with regulators has been in the area of lawn care. During her tenure with FPMA, she recognized that the challenges of this segment were in many instances not being addressed. She leveraged her visibility and network to shine a spotlight on these issues.
NPMA CEO Bob Rosenberg explains, “While regulations for applying pesticides in Florida are limited to the state and federal level, lawn care ordinances can be enacted by local governments like cities, towns and counties as well. Operators doing business in four or five counties might be serving dozens of cities, each with its own set of regulations. Working under these conditions was becoming impossible. Jennifer played a pivotal role in bringing these circumstances to light with the state association and engaging its members to work toward solutions.”
This is only one example of the influence Leggett has had. “She doesn’t just join a board and attend meetings,” Rosenberg says. “She brings ideas and takes action. Very few small business owners become so involved. It’s not that she has the luxury of hundreds of employees; any time she spends on these efforts is time away from her business, time that she makes up by working into the night. That’s just who Jennifer is.”
Making Family Her Priority
Leggett describes her company as “a big family” — a family that encourages its members to develop their talent, pursue their dreams and take care of their families at home. “Nothing tickles me more than to see a request for time off to attend a field trip with their child or attend a luncheon at their child’s school,” she says.
Leggett comes from a big family herself. The youngest girl of nine siblings (she has one younger brother), she grew up amid “a lot of chaos.” Her dad, whom she describes as a hard-working family man, instilled the entrepreneurial spirit in her as the owner of Leggett Painting. “We were never allowed to answer the home phone with ‘Hello,’” she laughs. “I understood from an early age that owning a business was truly a responsibility.”
In 1994, Leggett married Dr. Claude Thomas at the Jacksonville Zoo, a venue as unique as the way their relationship began. “I had bought a foamer and didn’t know how to use it, so Claude showed me,” Leggett shares. “That was our first date!”
“The day I married my marvelous husband, I became both mom and grandmother. Now we can add great grandmother to the list.” In addition to their children, Shawn and her husband Cyril, and Jon and his wife Tracey, plus many grand- and great grandchildren, Leggett and Thomas open their home to both of their extended families, as well as friends who feel like family.
“Everyone is family when you come to the house,” says Dennis. “Nieces, nephews and everyone else in the family look to Jennifer as the matriarch now that her mom has passed. She is a delightful hostess, and Claude is an amazing cook. You can always count on them to welcome you and feed you! They live life to the max. Enjoying life with family and friends is what they’re all about.”
Thomas adds a final note about Leggett: “I have shared the world stage in the pest management industry with Jennifer, and I never stop being amazed by her exuberance and knowledge. On the stage as in life, if you just wind her up and let her go, magic inevitably happens.”