Garry and Joanne Tank have grown Buffalo Exterminating from a modest, local business into a major presence in Western New York.
Leadership comes in a variety of forms. For Garry Tank, owner of Buffalo Exterminating, Orchard Park, N.Y., leadership is about vision and conviction. The vision was to transform Buffalo Exterminating into a market-leading, respected brand; the conviction is Tank’s classic entrepreneurial traits: drive, risk-taking and self determination.
As Jack Marlowe, president of Eden Advanced Pest Technologies, Olympia, Wash., notes, “Garry is one of those rare individuals that have the vision to see the possibilities and the discipline of focus for the details.”
Together with wife Joanne, and business partner John Zimmerman, Garry Tank has grown Buffalo Exterminating into the largest independently owned pest control company in Western New York, generating more than $5.7 million in yearly revenues and employing more than 80 people.
Moreover, he’s followed through on another long-term vision, which was to find a work-life balance that most entrepreneurs only talk about. The Tanks have turned the daily operations over to Zimmerman, general manager (and part owner), allowing them more free time (including the entire summer) to enjoy their residence in beautiful Jackson, Wyo. But this is not to say the company is slowing down; in fact, just the opposite is true. Buffalo Exterminating grew 23% in 2011, and the company is expanding regionally. In 2008, Buffalo Exterminating expanded its presence in Rochester, N.Y., (the third largest city in New York state) with a major acquisition that was rebranded Rochester Exterminating.
With a successful business model and management team in place, Buffalo Exterminating’s future indeed is bright, but it’s taken a lot of “elbow grease” by Tank and his team to make it happen. Like many, Tank did not seek out the pest control industry; rather it found him. Raised in a blue-collar Buffalo family, Tank attended SUNY-Buffalo, where he had his sights set on becoming an industrial arts teacher.
NAME: Garry Tank
COMPANY: Buffalo Exterminating
HEADQUARTERS: Orchard Park, N.Y.
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Graduated from SUNY-Buffalo in 1971 with a B.S. in education; served in the U.S. Army Reserves; has grown Buffalo Exterminating into a company on track to do $7 million in revenues in 2012; member of Associated Pest Services.
PERSONAL: Wife Joanne, and daughter Christin; an avid skier.
“While I was doing my student teaching I came to realize it was not for me. I did not like having to discipline kids,” he recalls.
Following a stint in the U.S. Army Reserves, Tank graduated from SUNY-Buffalo in 1971, with a B.S. in education. Instead of pursuing a career in teaching, he followed his passion – skiing – and went to work as a sales rep for the K2 ski company. At about this same time, Garry met Ruthann Pickhardt. The couple was married in 1973 and had daughter Christin in 1976. Ruthann’s father, Bill Pickhardt Sr., was a co-owner of Buffalo Exterminating and two other local companies (International Exterminating and Fumigation and A-1 Exterminators). At the urging of Bill Pickhardt and Garry Tank’s three brothers-in-law, he joined the company. After getting trained and certified, Tank went to work, and soon would handle some of the company’s biggest accounts. By 1977, his father-in-law, Bill Pickhardt Sr., decided to retire and sell Buffalo Exterminating to son Tim Pickhardt (Tank’s brother-in-law) and Tank. Garry and Ruthann Tank separated in 1979 (divorcing in 1982), but it was an amicable split, and from 1977 to 1982, Tank continued his business partnership with brother-in-law Tim Pickhardt.
A Drive to Succeed
By 1982, Tank bought out Tim Pickhardt’s half-ownership in Buffalo Exterminating. At the time, the company was doing about $62,000 per year in revenues, but Tank saw potential. “I was hungry. I saw opportunities. You know, see a hole and fill a hole,” he says. “And that’s still the way we grow today. I still have that drive today to want to see us move forward.”
One such potential growth opportunity Tank saw involved better leveraging the company’s name and reputation (the company was founded in 1954). “I kept hearing that we were the only company in town, and technically we were very good, but I didn’t think that we were doing enough to separate us from the other 50 or so companies in the phone book,” he says.
Changing of the guard
Garry Tank had a sentimental attachment to the old Buffalo Exterminating logo (top), but he’s come around to liking the new logo (bottom), which has proven to be an effective branding tool.
An early initiative by Tank was to put the company’s name and logo on its service vehicles, and to make sure that Buffalo Exterminating technicians were not only skilled, but well dressed. As Joanne Tank recalls, “At the time, pest control was one of those services where a technician would show up in an unmarked van. Garry thought, ‘What do we have to be ashamed of?’ People don’t seem to mind that other service providers, like plumbers or pool maintenance people, park lettered vehicles in their driveways.”
The early 1980s was a busy time personnally and professionally for Tank. In 1984, Garry and Joanne got married. The couple had met in 1980 at Kissing Bridge Ski Resort, where both were working as ski instructors. It’s been not only a great marriage, but a great business partnership. Joanne joined the company full time in 1988, bringing her much needed financial skill sets from having worked 15 years in banking. For example, Joanne has helped the company focus its sales/marketing efforts by tracking leads and analyzing data to better understand the company’s customer base.
“Garry is a true entrepreneur,” Joanne Tank says. “If he has a gut feeling, he will go with it. I am more analytical. Show me the numbers and we’ll see if it will work. I tend to rein in Garry and slow him down. We sort of balance each other out.”
But it’s not always an easy balancing act. “I can remember one time at work we got into a pretty loud discussion. You know, lots and lots of smoke. I came home later that night and Garry met me at the door and said, ‘Oh, hi honey. How was your day?’ as if nothing had happened. I said, ‘Well, my boss was being difficult,’ to which he responded, ‘Oh, really.’ And that was that. Garry has always been able to make that separation.”
With the addition of Joanne full time, Tank was able to devote more time to big picture ideas and transforming the company into more of a sales organization. Buffalo Exterminating became a member of Associated Pest Services in 1990, and Tank credits this group of colleagues for serving as valuable sounding boards for his business, sharing their successes and failures. He’s incorporated many of the ideas he’s learned from Associated Pest Services meetings, as well as NPMA meetings, into his operation.
A passion for skiing
When Garry Tank is away from the business, there is a pretty good chance you can find him on the ski slopes.
“Actually I was a speed skater first, and then I started downhill skiing at age 14,” he said. “It’s always been a pretty big part of my life.”
After mastering the slopes as a skier, he became a ski instructor and is currently a member of the Professional Ski Instructors of America, where he is certified at the highest level. He’s also taught and trained at a ski school that had120 instructors.
Additionally, Tank is the instigator of ski trips with other members of Associated Pest Services.
Another key turning point came in 1995 when Zimmerman came on board as general manager. Zimmerman had worked for Rose Pest Solutions, Troy, Mich., but he was a Buffalo area native who was looking to move with his family back home. “What struck me about John was that he was very fastidious and organized, and I thought that he asked the right questions,” Tank recalls of his first meeting with Zimmerman.
Zimmerman has helped the company fine-tune its operations with systems and processes. He’s also built a structured management team, similar to larger companies in the pest control industry, including his former employer, Rose Pest Solutions. This team now includes: Chris Phillips, operations manager; Ian McCabe, sales manager; Christine Zimmerman, H.R. and fleet manager; John McCarthy, accounting manager; Scott Hall, IT manager; Marc Potzler, entomologist; service managers Mark Pickhardt, Hans Mann, Kevin Dunnigan and Brian Hollenbeck; and service supervisors Lou Danzi, Jon Potzler, Jeff Cummings, Mark Bachman and Justin O’Connor. “One of the benefits of that growth is that it has allowed us to bring on people and add positions in anticipation of need,” Zimmerman says.
Danzi, who has been with Buffalo Exterminating since it was under the Tank/Pickhardt ownership (1977), says the company has become an attractive employer because it offers a good working environment. “They offer a 401K program and I know Garry will personally encourage [workers] to enroll in it,” he says. “They also will set up outings, such as baseball games and lake cruises. It’s not just work, work, work. They do things to break that up and reward employees in different ways.”
Buffalo Exterminating has been in a steady growth phase the last 10 years. The company is on track to meet its goal of 15% growth for 2012 (generating about $7 million in sales). Impressive numbers considering today’s sluggish economy and the fact that the “rust belt” city of Buffalo is not a exactly a growth market. But Buffalo Exterminating continues to grow – mostly organically and through some smaller acquisitions. Organic growth can be attributed to a number of factors, including efforts to raise Buffalo Exterminating’s community-wide profile as the official pest control company of the Buffalo Zoo and donating to the Buffalo City Mission – initiatives the company has promoted in marketing materials and television commercials.
|Part of the Buffalo Exterminating team includes (from left to right) Lou Danzi, Mark Pickhardt, Christine Zimmerman, John Zimmerman, Scott Hall and Ed Labby.
The company has expanded its footprint in Western New York through three small acquisitions, and both Garry and Joanne say that growing the Rochester operation and continuing to “develop people” are immediate goals while the company explores regional expansion.
While Garry Tank remains focused on the business, he is able to do so without losing perspective on what’s important in life, which is why he and Joanne have been able to “take a step back” and pursue some of their passions such as skiing and vacationing in Wyoming. Zimmerman, who was made a part owner of the company in 2000, handles the daily operations during these and other times. “A number of years ago I made a decision to simplify my life,” Tank says. “I’d been busting my butt for so many years and I realized there were things I wanted to do – to cross off ‘my bucket list.’”
What others are saying…
Garry takes a no-nonsense approach to his business and personal life. He is a fair guy and a straight shooter, who is not afraid to tell you what he thinks. Garry’s found a good balance between work and life. I aspire to be like him.” — Joe Pestana, JP Pest Services, Milford, N.H.
You are giving the wrong Tank the award. It should go to Joanne! Seriously, if you ever thought of giving the award to a couple team, Team Tank is excellent. My impression of Garry is that he is a great organizer and strategic planner, attributes that are well disguised by his nonchalant demeanor. When he decides to check out a business opportunity, he is excellent at gathering facts and determining if the opportunity is right for Buffalo Exterminating.” — Jay Nixon, American Pest, Fulton, Md.
Garry pushes things as far as they can go, but not beyond a calculated measure of safety. He is a very generous person, but not afraid to let you know if you have crossed his line. He believes in having the right tools, is a great teacher and leads by example. He is a firm believer in quality over quantity. Garry is driven to be successful like many of us, but often reminds us that ‘we are not here for a long time, but we are here for a good time.’” — Jack Marlowe, Eden Advanced Pest Technologies, Olympia, Wash.