Editor’s note: March PCT includes a profile of Rockwell Labs Ltd CEO Cisse Spragins. Below is additional Q&A with Spragins.
Q. What were those early years like for you and Rockwell Labs?
A. The first couple of years out selling D-Sect and other products was a learning exercise for me. Just the simple act of going out and selling a product, you learn a lot. By participating in trade shows, visiting distributors and interacting with PMPs, you are able to identify what’s important to people and it shortens the learning curve for developing other products. The first couple of years were very difficult, to say the least, but I viewed it as a learning experience.
Q. Rockwell Labs recently introduced a new bed bug product, CimeXa Insecticide Dust. What took you so long to enter this market segment, which has been on a dramatic growth trajectory in recent years?
A. You’re right, we didn’t jump immediately into the bed bug market and that was by design. There was a lot of product development going on in the bed bug market, and I just felt it was important to let the market sort itself out before getting involved. We thought about it over time and came up with CimeXa Insecticide Dust, which is a deceptively simple product, but one that works very well and has lots of good properties.
Q. Rockwell Labs has a very specific brand identity, reinforced by the bright colors you use in your ads and product packaging. Was that intentional?
A. Purple was the original color of the company because I like the color purple and it’s not used much in the pest management industry. I thought it would help Rockwell Labs stand out from the crowd. As mentioned previously, the business didn’t take off until 2002 when we launched InTice Sweet Ant Gel, and I wanted the package to stand out, so that’s when we put the green with the purple. I didn’t have much graphic design experience, but it was distinctive enough that PMPs seemed to respond to the packaging.
Q. So what contributed most to your company’s success in those early years, developing innovative technology or simply your will to survive?
A. I think it was a little bit of both. Like a lot of small businesses, Rockwell Labs has grown incrementally. Early on, I had a plan, but not necessarily a formal business plan. I’m not a real big proponent of formal business plans. When you start a new business, you just have to get out there and make it happen. The critical part of business is developing innovative products and successfully selling those products. If you’re not doing those two things, you’re not growing.
Q. What is it about the pest control industry that you find so gratifying?
A. I think the public underestimates how sophisticated the pest control industry is from a management perspective. It’s not completely formulaic. There’s always challenges PMPs must figure out from one account to the next because we’re dealing with living organisms. It’s not rocket science but it’s still a technical challenge.
Q. A couple of years ago, you entered into a joint partnership with LG Life Sciences, a supplier of general use insecticides. What prompted that decision?
A. It’s an area I wanted to expand so we could complement our current product portfolio with some liquid insecticides, and LG Life Sciences was a good fit. We’ve always advocated the use of liquid insecticides as part of an IPM program. Their formulations have innovative properties we appreciate. That’s why we entered into an agreement with them and I think it’s been good for both companies.
Q. What’s it like working with a large multi-national company?
A. It can be frustrating but also presents interesting opportunities. LG is a $104 billion company which has experienced tremendous growth in the past 10 years. Despite being very large, however, they’re not staid and bureaucratic. They’re accessible, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t had our challenges. LG produces mass market products and going head-to-head with the multi-nationals with those products, as well as post-patent companies, isn’t easy. It’s actually quite difficult. As we’ve grown we can definitely feel we’re more in the cross hairs of the multi-nationals. Whereas before we were largely ignored, that’s no longer the case today. My objective was to stay under the radar as long as possible, but those days are mostly over.
Q. Given the intense competitive pressures that exist in the pest control industry today, particularly at the manufacturer level, how would you characterize the overall health of your company?
A. It’s going well. We’ve had our fair share of successes and failures, and the company is growing quite nicely. It’s a big world out there and you can find places to grow if you’re willing to innovate. I have a huge amount of belief in our products.
Q. Now that you’ve been in business for more than a decade, would you say you’ve made it?
A. When it comes to operating a successful business, everything is incremental. From the beginning I wanted to build some enduring brand legacies. Bell Laboratories is a great model for how to do that in the pest management industry. They’ve successfully built enduring brand legacies where people are going to intrinsically trust their products because of the reputation they’ve built in the marketplace. I want to do the same. When Rockwell Labs introduces a new product, I want my customers to expect it’s going to be a great product because it’s coming from a great company.
Q. Can Rockwell Labs be successful if it’s not growing?
A. I don’t think so. It’s not our wish simply to be well regarded as a company. We can’t innovate without sales, so the goal is to continue to drive sales while investing in innovation. I’m not going to say when we get to “X” millions of dollars in sales, we’re a great company. We want to maintain an aggressive level of growth, while still producing quality products. We have over 30 products now, including a lot of niche products, as well as several core products. The goal is to continue innovating and meeting market needs, while at the same time driving sales.
Secretary of State Spragins?
As the owner of her own business, Cisse Spragins logs a lot of air miles, crisscrossing the country promoting Rockwell Labs and its products at industry trade shows and educational events. That doesn’t leave much time for other things, but she has made time to get involved in the political process, running for Secretary of State in Missouri as a Libertarian Party candidate this past November.
While acknowledging she had little chance of winning, Spragins said as the owner of a small business she felt compelled to offer an alternative to the two-party system that has resulted in what she calls a “train wreck” at both the state and national level.
“I have extremely strong political views and I’m willing to lend my credibility to the Libertarian Party because I believe in Libertarian principles,” she says. “And running for office gives you a platform to promote those principles.”
Spragins finished third in the four-way race, garnering 70,000 votes and losing to Democratic candidate Jason Kander, but she remains undaunted. “It’s not about me. It’s about promoting Libertarian principles. Running for office magnifies your voice for liberty.”
From the early days of Rockwell Labs, Cisse Spragins understood it was critical she develop a strong relationship with industry distribution. With a modest product line and virtually no market share, Spragins had little leverage with distributors in the early days of her business, yet she soldiered on, eventually winning over many in the distribution community.
“She is one of the most dedicated suppliers in the industry,” observes Karen Furgiuele, president, Gardex Chemicals, Etobicoke, Ontario, developing innovative technology for “key niche markets that don’t always get the attention they deserve. As another professional woman in the industry, I really admire the achievements and gains she has made in both her business and (her) standing in a still male-dominated business.”
Jacqueline Angulo, vice president, Superior-Angran, Inc., San Juan, Puerto Rico, is impressed that Spragins is so readily accessible. “She is very available to talk to,” she says. “(There is) no middle person; just her.”
Roland Rhodes, president of Rhodes Chemical Co., Kansas City, Kan., also admires Spragins’ commitment to the industry. “She’s involved in so many different associations — RISE, UPF&DA, Pi Chi Omega — you see her everywhere.” And when not traveling the country exhibiting at industry trade shows, she’s working with her staff on various research products and “constantly coming up with new products,” Rhodes says. “She really has amazing energy,” a sentiment shared by Valera Jessee, executive director of UPF&DA.
“When Malcolm Stack introduced us to Cisse Spragins, we already knew she was special,” Jessee said. “His confidence in this young industry leader was well placed as she has far exceeded the most ambitious entrepreneur model. Cisse has shared her expertise with UPF&DA serving on our board of directors for many years and loyally supporting the association.”
Rockwell Labs Unveils Enhanced Website
Rockwell Labs recently launched an enhanced website (www.rockwelllabs.com) with expanded content and improved navigation. New sections include a combined MSDS and label page for easy access to all of Rockwell’s product information; a resources section; a blog by company founder and CEO Cisse Spragins; and a news page for keeping up with the latest news and product information from the company.
The site also features links Rockwell’s Twitter feed and Facebook page, as well as a registration section to sign up for the company’s e-newsletter. “We’re excited to launch this new user-friendly website,” Spragins said. “Like our entire product line, we’ve designed it for the busy PMP, so they can quickly and easily obtain the information they need to help improve their business.”
To learn more, visit www.rockwelllabs.com.