Convention Q&A: Laura Simpson

Convention Q&A: Laura Simpson

PCT sat down with NPMA President Laura Simpson to discuss her family, natural disaster recovery efforts in Louisiana and why she never felt intimidated walking into a roomful of pest management professionals.

October 17, 2012
Jodi Dorsch

Laura Simpson is an avid fan of her alma mater, LSU. She’s also a wife, a mom to three sons, stepmother to two daughters, a grandmother of three and a Delta Gamma. She also happens to be the new president of the National Pest Management Association. "I don’t have a lot of spare time these days,” she said. “But most of it is spent with family and entertaining. That’s our thing!”

Simpson is owner/president of Dugas Pest Control, Baton Rouge, La., an area that hadn’t even recovered from Hurricanes Katrina and Gustov when Hurricane Isaac hit in late August. Baton Rouge is 75 miles from New Orleans, which makes the city the closest metropolitan area to New Orleans and the North Shore/Lake Pontchartrain areas.

“Baton Rouge was the staging area for all of the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts,” she said. “The first several months after Katrina, you’d see people’s houses with 10 cars parked outside because they had all their family and friends staying with them. There are so many connections between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. We had churches everywhere that were using their facilities for Red Cross workers and disaster relief workers. Every hotel in town was full for months.”

Hurricane Isaac, which hit the Gulf Coast region in late August, affected Dugas Pest Control modestly — the office was closed for just two days. And although the Dugas office never lost electricity, much of the city was without power, and schools, government offices, and most retail and commercial establishments were closed during this time. “Even on the third day (Friday), we had a lot of trouble setting appointments,” Simpson said. “People just didn't want us servicing their houses until storm damage was remedied and power was restored.”

And this most recent hurricane is impacting Simpson’s personal life as well. Her middle son, James, works in Baton Rouge as the director of disaster recovery for the Office of Homeland Security. Before Isaac’s arrival, James was still working with FEMA on Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. “James is responsible for the disbursement of tens of millions of dollars, not to mention he has about 150 employees. So he has a big job!” she said.

Simpson’s youngest son, Alex, is in the U.S. Navy. “He is currently on a submarine. Last I heard, he was in the Mediterranean, but I don’t know any more because I haven’t been able to communicate with him for weeks,” she said. “He is certainly not in danger, but it is just tough not being able to talk to him.”

And Jeremy, Simpson’s oldest son, was recently named general manager of Dugas Pest Control. Going to work is a family affair for Simpson, whose husband, Floyd Simpson, is vice president at the firm, as well. “Family is so important to me and I do truly enjoy being able to work with them,” she said.

Simpson grew up in the pest management industry, coming to work for her dad at Dugas out of college. “I just love the industry,” she said. “And because it’s the only industry I’ve been involved in, I didn’t realize how unique it was until about five years ago. Talking to other people about their industries, and the types of meetings they go to, I’ve learned how unique our industry is in its willingness to help the smaller guy. We all want to help each other improve and grow our companies and get better at what we do. Other industries just don’t operate that way. They are not willing to share and help each other the way we do.

“It’s so common in our industry to have someone from my company visit a company in another state and learn how they do something and come back and implement it. People are doing that all the time,” she said. “It was a great revelation to me that made me feel good about our industry.”

PCT Editor Jodi Dorsch recently sat down with Simpson to talk about her career and her plans for her year as president of NPMA.

PCT: How did you get into the pest management industry?
Laura Simpson: My dad, Doug MacPherson, majored in entomology in college. After receiving his master’s degree at Ohio State, he started his own franchise. When that didn’t work out, he went to work for Redd Pest Control, in Mississippi, and later was transferred to Baton Rouge. In 1973 he bought Dugas Pest Control.

When he became president of NPMA in 1979, I had graduated from Louisiana State University and began working for the company full time. He asked me to come in because he needed somebody he could trust to do the payroll, do the accounts payable and be there when he was traveling. My degree was in accounting, so it fit. I was working for a CPA at the time and I really didn’t like it.

But working for my dad at the company was just “a job.” And it took me eight to 10 years before I decided that I really wanted to do this; that I wanted to run this company.

That’s when I started going to a lot of meetings. My dad said, “If you are going to do this, then you have to get out into the community, into the pest control world, and learn the business and the people. You need to learn more than I can teach you.” So I started coming to NPMA, talking with members of Associated Pest Services and going to the Purdue conference. I came to the first (NPMA) Academy at this very hotel. So, things just evolved over time.
I became president of Dugas in 1996. Shortly after that my father moved on to a different career. He is one of the founders of LIPCA (an insurance company that serves the pest control industry) and serves as its president.
What did you learn from your dad? And how was the transition with him when you became president?
Once I made the decision and expressed to him that I really did want to run this company, he was super supportive.
He did not micromanage me and he was very hands off. He would give me a project to do — like rework our training or redo an employee manual, or rebid our health insurance. We just did a few steps at a time, so I would learn how the process worked. He let me run with it. He was very good about letting me do what I thought was best.
After only about six years, he stepped back. I’m sure it was a fortuitous thing for me that the LIPCA organization came about. He was instrumental in starting that organization, which was only a state company at first. Since he was tied up with that, it was easy for him to let go.

I know by talking with other second generation PCOs, that’s often a problem — that their parent doesn’t want to let go. We made that transition very well because he had something else that he was truly interested in. With the learning curve for him, the whole insurance industry was new, and he loved it.

He worked out of our office for about three years. Although he wasn’t really working on the business, he was still in the loop just because he was there every day. I could bounce things off of him. Then when LIPCA built their own building, he moved his office there. And once that happened, he was really, really out of the business.

When I would call him occasionally to ask for his opinions on business, his comment to me would be, “Well you know, honey, you really know more about this than I do at this point, so I think whatever you think is probably best.”

He really was able to completely give that up. Before he moved out, in 1996, on my birthday, my parents appointed me as president of the company. That was a big deal. That was my clue that they truly thought this was the right thing and this was working. Then I bought the stock of the company from them in 2002.

Being hands off and letting that next generation run things is the biggest takeaway I had from that whole experience. And that is what I am trying to do now with my son, Jeremy. We recently made him general manager. He’s done a little bit of everything but sales is his great love. So now he is handling the sales manager role but he also is GM. I’m trying to let him do the same thing. I don’t have another career that I’m stepping into, so perhaps it’s a little more difficult. However, I'm not spending as much time in the office since I am traveling so much.

You work with your son and your husband, Floyd Simpson. Floyd formerly was a pest control regulator with the Louisiana Department of Agriculture. How did you meet?
I was president of the Louisiana Pest Management Association in 2001 when he started in that position. We met because Floyd was the chief enforcement officer. But not because I was in trouble! (Laughter.) But when we got married in 2004, he could no longer stay in his position, so he lost his job.

Did you know that he would lose his job going into your marriage?
Not really. They transferred him into a different position because they felt there was a conflict of interest. He did go to the commissioner when we started dating, and he said, “Commissioner, do you have a problem if I date one of our operators?” The commissioner said “Who? Laura?” because obviously there are not too many women in our industry. Floyd said, “Yes.” The commissioner said, “I think that’s great...but let me check with my lawyers.” He did and said, “As long as you have someone else designated in your department under you that can handle any issues that could come up with her company, then it is fine.” And that is as far as he went with it. He didn’t say “But, if you get married …”

So eight to 10 months later, when we decided to get married, Floyd gave me my ring the night we were going to the Department of Ag Christmas party. And so we told the commissioner at the party. “Come see me tomorrow,” the commissioner tells Floyd. And so the next day, he says, “You are not going to be able to keep this job when y’all get married.”

Floyd served at the pleasure of the commissioner. That meant he didn’t have the protection that a lot of state workers have because he was an appointed official. The commissioner decided he wanted to keep Floyd, so he found another job for him. Floyd went into a completely different job where we wouldn’t cross paths. He stayed until he was eligible to retire, which was about two more years. Then he came to work with me. He is now executive vice president and handling special projects.

Could you talk a little about Hurricane Katrina, from both your perspective and from the perspective of the Louisiana Pest Management Association?

As an association, it was a very different experience then it was for our company. Dugas Pest Control was not dramatically affected by Katrina. We, actually, were more affected two years later by Hurricane Gustov. We were out of commission for a week. When Katrina hit at the end of August, we only lost one day of work.

The damage in Baton Rouge was minimal — a few trees here and there — it was not a major ordeal. The major impact Katrina had on Baton Rouge was the population change. When all the people from New Orleans who had lost their homes moved here, housing prices went up 20 percent in a week. Fortunately for us, a lot of the people who came to Baton Rouge were people who had money. They came in and bought houses with cash — $500,000, $600,000 in cash was not uncommon at all. A lot of those people have stayed. So our population has grown, which was good for business. (Of course, traffic is a whole other story! It wasn’t good before Katrina and we haven’t done enough to make it better!)

As a state organization, we lost a lot of members because numerous businesses in New Orleans never recovered. They didn’t have the employees and they didn’t have the customers. The customers were just gone. They couldn’t sustain themselves through several years of waiting for their customers to come back.

So, as an association, we lost a lot of members, but the companies who stayed in New Orleans and did recover, have since done very well. Certainly, some of the staff from companies that went under went to work for other companies and some of them moved away.

Not everyone has a good friend who’s in Congress! Can you tell me how you and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) became friends?
Mary and I met at LSU where we were sorority sisters. We are Delta Gammas. We actually both served as officers in the sorority, so we served on the executive board together. At that time, Mary’s father, Moon Landrieu, was mayor of New Orleans. She had no interest in politics whatsoever. She has always had a strong will and drive to help people and she is a very, very compassionate person.

I have a group of about 12 to 15 of my closest friends in college that still get together regularly, talk on the phone, email...we are still very close. Mary is a part of that group as much as she can be. Obviously, she has so much more on her plate than the average woman. She is not able to join us as often as she would like, but we do get to see her at least once a year. Now that her children are older, she has a little bit more free time.

Has it been helpful to have a friend in Congress? Do you see eye to eye?
I’ve been a regular attendee at NPMA Legislative Day for a long time and I always get to see Mary then. We may not always get to sit down with her when we go to the office, but I always let her know ahead of time when I am coming and she at least pops in for a few minutes to say hello. I know that whatever issue I have, it will get a little extra special attention. Mary has been a great friend to the small business person and to our industry. She understands the value of pest control and understands that there are a lot of things in place with EPA that keep us safe. She understands that the judicious use of pesticides helps us greatly.

She is a proponent of small business and has done great things for the state of Louisiana. There are issues that we don’t agree on and that is OK. When we’re together socially, we don’t usually discuss politics.

Have you ever felt intimidated coming to an industry meeting where there are thousands of people?
Because I’m second generation and my father was very involved, I never felt intimidated in any way. I think that’s because of my father’s involvement as a leader in the industry and the way he let me go do my own thing and always supported me. I was always very confident about what I did. I suppose that both of my parents helped to instill that confidence. I never felt intimidated or uncomfortable walking into a room of all men and expressing my opinion. I never had any issues with feeling like I was treated in a less equitable manner. I don’t know if that is unusual or if it’s just the way our industry is. I think a lot of it is our industry. I think people are very respectful of one another and so willing to share.

I think you probably are in the minority. How do you get those “newer” people to dip their toe in the water and not feel intimidated?
I think we need to encourage them to participate. It has to start on the state and local level — getting them to take that first step by coming to their first meeting. Then it's the responsibility of those of us who are involved to step outside your box a little bit and reach out to pull that new person into the group. That is not always easy to do. It is easy to get caught up in seeing all the people you know and it is easy to forget about this person who is there for the first time. Having that mentor, someone to latch onto when it is your first time, to help guide you around, introduce you to people, help you find the places you want to be, and so forth, is very important.

Which of NPMA’s initiatives are most important to you? Which will you focus on this year?
The piece of our industry that I’m most passionate about is raising our professionalism and our reputation in the eyes of the general public. There are a lot of pieces to raising that bar and PPMA is one of them.

One of the reasons I’m so passionate about this is I can remember when my children were in high school, they were adamantly opposed to coming to work in our industry. They would say, “I’m not doing that! Ekk! I don’t fool with bugs!” When I asked, “Are you embarrassed that this is what we do?” well, no, they wouldn’t admit to that. I want the future generations of our industry to be proud of what we do and to continue the family-owned businesses in our industry.

The more professional we can become, the higher caliber employee we can attract. It will snowball and it already has. Certainly the last 10 years have seen a tremendous increase in all of those areas.
Because of the inaccurate perception that people have about what we do, it's often hard to get the right potential employees in the do to apply for available jobs.

Yes, when you write a “help wanted” ad, it sometimes is difficult to explain to potential employees all of the good things that the pest management industry does.

Yes! Things we ask in our help wanted ads are “Do you like to solve problems? Do you like to help people?” to pique their interest. That’s not something that people generally think about when they think of pest control.

What is the biggest challenge facing the industry now?
The potential out there for regulation, both in the manufacture of pesticides and the application of pesticides, is a big challenge. The other big challenge, I think, is our work force — finding the right people. That’s a problem that I’m hearing about all over the country. People are having a hard time hiring and it just doesn’t match up with the fact that unemployment is so high.

Why do you think that is?
I think there are two problems. There is a layer of our workforce that is uneducated and not capable of living up to the higher ideals of professionalism that our industry insists upon. On the other hand, the more educated people out there who are looking for jobs don’t see the level of professionalism within our industry and therefore are not really interested in coming to work for a pest control company.

To combat this problem, we need to get our industry more involved in the education process, so that young people coming up, high school and college age, better understand what our industry is does and understand that there is a great career opportunity. It is a big industry and it makes a difference in people’s lives.

PPMA is working towards that and the Pride and Professional video is an awesome testament to what the pest control industry contributes to society in general. We just showed that to our Dugas team a couple of months ago, and plan to show it to applicants who we interview. People need to understand that it’s not just a job spraying bugs. It is helping society; like firemen and policeman, we help build safer communities.

It all ties together for me in that raising the bar, increasing the professionalism of our industry and the perception of our industry to the public is going to benefit us in so many ways. This will make it easier to attract good people into our industry. It will also increase our customer base as society decides to hire professionals rather than trying to taking care of bugs themselves. It is a big spiral that will continue to increase our knowledge and professionalism as we move forward and we will be able to hire higher caliber people to perform our duties.