A beloved member of the pest management industry reflects on a remarkable career that spanned more than three decades.
Anyone who buys into the adage “Nice guys finish last” has clearly never met Bobby Hammel. The former co-owner of J.C. Ehrlich, Bobby helped build his organization into North America’s largest family-owned pest management company before it was sold to Rentokil in 2006. He is a shining example of what can be achieved when industry knowledge, expertise and business acumen meet integrity, commitment and genuine concern for others.
No Rat Chat at Dinner, Please
The sons of Simon and Ernestine Hammel, Bobby and his three brothers became involved in Reading, Pa.-based J.C. Ehrlich early in life. Watching their mother work in the office and their father oversee every aspect of the business, they did whatever they could to help.
“We would fill little bags with rodenticide, which we called ‘rat bait’ back then, and do other chores like sweeping the floor,” Bobby recalls of his childhood. “We were always encouraged to be part of the business – as long as we didn’t discuss rodents at the dinner table,” he says with a laugh.
By the time Bobby headed off to college in 1969, he looked forward to new challenges. “The only thing I knew for sure at that time in my life was that I did not want to go into the pest management industry,” he says.
But Bobby’s cousin, Richard Yashek, who had been with J.C. Ehrlich since 1949, convinced him to give pest management a chance, even though Bobby had hated the single entomology course he took while attending Pennsylvania State University to earn his political science degree. “Shortly after I graduated, Prentice Hall Books extended a job offer to me, to sell textbooks. But when Richard approached me about joining J.C. Ehrlich instead, I couldn’t turn him down. I committed to one year. Once I became a technician and started traveling to our various offices to perform pest management work, I fell in love with the business I had vowed not to enter.”
When it's Your Bug, it's Different
Bobby loved it all, from working with people to the technical aspects of pest management. Since he was single and didn’t know many people in the towns he was servicing, he was happy enough to work long hours. When he finally did have downtime, he found himself studying insects, like the industrious carpenter ants in the park neighboring his apartment complex.
|Love Blooms at Breakfast
Bobby Hammel shares his memory of how his family got started: “When I moved to Allentown in 1974, I would go to a local diner every morning instead of making myself breakfast. An attractive girl who was earning a teaching degree worked there sometimes as a waitress or cashier. She worked at the diner, because if she had a substitute teaching assignment, she could call off at the last minute. Unfortunately for her, but fortunately for me, she didn’t get many substitute teaching jobs. One day I asked her, “When are you going to buy me breakfast?” She said, “When you buy me dinner.” The rest is history.
Bobby recounts, “When I first moved to Allentown in March 1974, I wasn’t scheduled for a day off – not even a Sunday – until Labor Day. I was making a whopping $3.15 an hour ($4.73 an hour overtime). I got all the worst work, killing thousands of insects every day in the slums near Bethlehem Steel. Still, I loved it. One night, in my own suburban apartment, I peeled off my clothes, stepped into the shower and was greeted by a silverfish – one tiny, harmless silverfish. I freaked out completely. I learned that night that when it’s your bug, it’s different. I laughed at myself, but took an important career turn, because I suddenly understood the importance of empathy.”
The Influence of Family
Bobby will tell you that he learned the business from the best: his father, whom he describes as “the greatest man who ever lived.” Simon Hammel fled Nazi Germany with his brother, Arthur Hammel; and cousin, Alex Ehrlich, in 1938. Their uncle, J.C. Ehrlich founder Julius Ehrlich, offered them jobs; within the decade, the trio led the second generation of the business.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor,” says Bobby of his father. “He had outstanding values. He worked extremely hard, yet he still found time for civic activities. He was an officer in our synagogue and was involved in many philanthropic causes. He taught us the importance of giving back and of having balance in your life. His example led me to become the president of my synagogue later in life.”
Simon Hammel died when Bobby was only 21 years old, one month before he graduated from Penn State. Succeeding him in the post of vice president were his cousin, Richard Yashek, who had joined J.C. Ehrlich in 1949 after being liberated from a Nazi concentration camp; and Bobby’s brother, Victor.
Bobby considers Yashek, Victor and his uncle, Arthur, to be his most important mentors. “My Uncle Arthur was a very good businessman. Richard and Victor were also major influences on my life. Victor was the most influential because we ended up working side by side for so many years. He also became a father figure to my family after our father died. My mother; brothers Lee and Steve [who both pursued careers in communications]; and I relied on him for advice.”
|Bobby Hammel and his wife Bonnie worked side by side leading Ehrlich to success.
At J.C. Ehrlich, brothers Bobby, who became regional manager, and Victor, who became president and CEO, had an enviable business relationship – one that was something of an aberration among family businesses. The company co-owners virtually never disagreed.
Victor shares, “In the 35 years we worked together, Bobby and I never had an argument. Never did I go to sleep angry with him. We were in complete harmony. He was my trusted advisor whenever I needed to make an important decision. I conferred with him not because he was a co-owner or partner but because I knew he would understand potential impacts to our co-workers and customers, ensuring that we wouldn’t make changes that might harm them. Bobby always placed integrity and quality ahead of profits. He knew that was the best thing for the business as well as being the right thing to do.”
A Leader by any other Name
At one point in his career, Bobby was offered the opportunity to fill the number-two post in the company, vice president of operations, but he declined – not due to lack of drive or dedication but because he saw a better path to business success. Bobby deferred to a candidate he believed was more qualified in that role and kept himself positioned where he was confident he could do the company the most good: on the front lines.
“I spent time in the field with service technicians, sales representatives, managers and customers for quality purposes and to ensure we all had a sense of reality and a feel for our customers’ wants and needs,” Bobby says. “I loved going out into the field with the techs and enjoyed talking with them. I think they trusted me, too, because they knew I wasn’t going along to try to catch them doing something wrong. I genuinely wanted to help them. I was their biggest fan.”
Explains Victor: “He respected his co-workers because he fully understood the responsibilities of their jobs. He had worked in each position himself, not on a trial basis, but as he worked his way up the J.C. Ehrlich ladder. He was a pest technician, termite technician, fumigator, operations manager, sales representative and district (branch) manager before becoming the regional manager of what he would build into the largest and most profitable region within J.C. Ehrlich.”
NAME: Bobby Hammel
COMPANY: J.C. Ehrlich Company
HEADQUARTERS: Reading, Pa.
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Earned Bachelor of Science degree in political science from Pennsylvania State University; joined J.C. Ehrlich Co. in 1973, progressing to the role of Regional Manager; developed the Ehrlich Year ’Round Protection Plan, which was sold to tens of thousands of customers, during what became known as the most valuable breakfast in the company’s 84-year history; former Vice Chairman of the Copesan board; currently Board President at the Jewish Community Center of Allentown and President of the Jewish Federation of Lehigh Valley.
PERSONAL: Wife Bonnie; sons Simon, Aaron, Benjamin and Nathan; and daughters-in-law Elaine, married to Simon, and Tracy, married to Benjamin with one child, Lucas. Enjoys community relations and service work.
Bobby didn’t talk much about the pivotal role he played in building his regional empire, though. In fact, he tended to shun the limelight. “Bobby was an outstanding leader because he was extremely humble, sympathetic and in touch with people at every level of his organization,” says Dodson Pest Control President and CEO Bert Dodson Jr. “He honestly loved working on the front lines, and his commitment to developing and strengthening the employees of J.C. Ehrlich was genuine.”
Bobby was committed to customer satisfaction as well. He never hesitated to pick up the phone to find out what was on a customer’s mind. “Customers were surprised to hear from me, but I wanted to hear firsthand what their challenges were – what they liked, what they didn’t, and how we could improve service to them.”
His quest for continuous improvement led him to focus strongly on quality assurance. “Quality was not a business buzzword to Bobby,” says Victor. It was a way of life. Although he was co-owner of North America’s largest family-owned pest management company, he chose to spend much of his time working with technicians and making quality assurance inspections.”
He also spent his time listening to what the other members of the J.C. Ehrlich team had to say. “Our senior management, which included Victor and I, along with regional managers, vice presidents and other senior leadership, truly worked as a team,” says Bobby. “One time, Victor and I wanted to keep the sales commission structure the way it was – paid up front and in advance. Everybody else wanted it paid month-by-month until the work was done. We were outvoted, so we made the change. To this day, I think it was a mistake, but majority rules when you work as a team. After all, there’s no point in having meetings if you don’t listen to everyone.”
This sense of fairness, coupled with his selfless support of his co-workers, is why Bobby Hammel will forever be known as one of the strongest leaders of J.C. Ehrlich, as well as the pest management industry. His mission was always collective success. “I felt lucky to be part of the team. I got up every day and just did the best I could. I don’t think anyone ever called me the boss. I would not have liked it if they did,” he says.
Bobby Hammel is all about long-term relationships. He built those with not only J.C. Ehrlich co-workers and customers but also his industry peers. As a member of the Copesan board of directors, eventually rising to vice chair, Bobby became widely known for his unique brand of humor (he emceed many a Copesan banquet night) and his sincere commitment to finding solutions that were in the best interest of all Copesan members.
“Bobby made a point of calling us before the Copesan board meetings to see what was on our minds, and he always made sure our voices were heard,” says Gregory Pest Solutions Chairman and CEO Phil Gregory, who has known Bobby for 25 years. “He has been an inspiration to me and countless others in the industry. With solid morals, integrity, honesty and tremendous industry knowledge, he is the professional we all aspire to be. He is one of the finest people you could ever meet.”
Presto-X President Ward Combs adds, “In every meeting I ever attended with Bobby, he was well-prepared. He knew his stuff and was ready to share his insights with others. He wasn’t just about helping his own company succeed; he wanted to help the whole industry thrive. He has always been a real contributor – the kind of person who makes our industry strong.”
Retired from J.C. Ehrlich since 2007, Bobby reflects on his career: “I’m most proud of the fact we built an ethical business that treated its co-workers and customers fairly. The people I used to work with are enjoying their lives – thanks in part to the living J.C. Ehrlich provided. Their kids have gone to college, and they have the peace of mind we all want. They succeeded due to their own hard work and ingenuity. We helped by building a really, really good business.
“I think we were one of many, many companies that helped raise the image of the industry,” he adds. “Credit NPMA and PPMA for raising the public image of what we do and what we did. Pest management is a terrific industry. I hope people would say we were a credit to the industry and we did things the right way. I’m very proud of what we accomplished at J.C. Ehrlich.
“I think our dad would have been proud, too.”