[2003 Leadership Awards Profile] Rick Bell

Features - PCT News

October 17, 2003

How does the son of a superior court judge wind up a highly respected pest control professional? Richard (Rick) Bell, the man in question, is Arrow Exterminators’ quietly effective vice president of technical services, and has long been an active and influential member of city, state and national pest control associations. Arrow coworker Kathy Villano describes Bell as a steadying force for his company and a "hands-off manager who is both a good communicator and troubleshooter." Bell credits his late father with his introduction to pest control and his subsequent successes in the industry.

"After I graduated from Mercer University in 1977 with a B.A. degree in pre-law, I moved to Colorado and was basically a ski bum for a couple of years," he admits. "I came home one summer and because my dad was flying out of town, I drove him to the airport. There we met a family friend who, with her husband, owned a pest control company in my hometown of Macon, Ga. She asked me what I was doing for a living, and before I could answer my dad replied that I wasn’t doing anything and asked her if she’d give me a job. The judge was always direct like that. And she asked me to come and talk to her."

Bell went in for an interview, was hired and worked there that summer, enjoying the termite and general pest control work he was asked to perform. "They encouraged me to take some training courses at Stephenson Chemical Co. in College Park, Ga.," he recalls, "and then had me purchasing chemicals as part of my job."

That fall, while he was getting set to return to Colorado, a college fraternity brother who happened to be an executive recruiter, convinced him to apply for a full-time position with Stephen-son Chemical. He got the job and started an eight-year stint with the company, first as a sales representative, then as a manager of sales and service, and finally as director of their Weed Control Division.

After leaving Stephenson, Bell and a partner created Safety First Environmental Services, where they successfully marketed a flea control program to veterinarians and later expanded into general pest control. "I enjoyed being in business for myself," he says. "I felt great pride in seeing something I created achieve some measure of success. In four years we did about a quarter of a million dollars of business. We had five employees, and a typical route size was worth about $10,000. But it meant long hours, low pay and a lot of responsibility. It was a big undertaking with major liability because we treated the inside and the outside of homes."

After four years, he sold his interest in the firm to his employees and Bell went to work for Arrow Exterminators, where’s he’s been for more than 15 years.

"When I decided to stay in this industry, my dad thought that pest control was a small pond and I should try to be a big fish in it. He said I had an opportunity to advance in the industry if I chose to work hard at it."

Judge Bell was right about the industry’s and Rick’s advancement potential. His son has ably proved that point and then some.

A LONG ASSOCIATION. The younger Bell started with Atlanta-based Arrow in 1988. He had known Arrow’s CEO Joe Thomas for a long time and considered him a good friend. "He told me, even when I had my own business, to come to him if I ever decided to leave my business. And that’s what I did and he hired me," he says.

The company at that time was a full-service pest control operation with a strong desire to expand its operations. The 1980s’ booming national economy meant rapid growth for Arrow as Thomas led the company into its expansion stage. They had opened their first branch office in Lilburn, Ga., and two years later opened another office in Woodstock, eventually establishing 10 branch offices throughout Georgia. Today there are more than 18 offices serving the greater Atlanta area. In 1988, Arrow expanded beyond its state borders, acquiring a company in Chattanooga, Tenn. Ten years later the company purchased a Phoenix, Ariz., pest management firm in an attempt to grow nationally. Towards that end, it recently acquired pest control companies in Nevada, Texas and Florida. All told the company, with revenues exceeding $63 million, has made more than 60 acquisitions during a 12-year period.

JACK-OF-ALL-TRADES. Bell’s first position at Arrow Exterminators was as a troubleshooter, working with the company’s technicians and sales reps. As the company grew, however, so did his responsibilities.

"I had been at Arrow for about a month when one of our commercial pest control techs broke his ankle. I worked his commercial route for a couple of months until he came back and then I worked a residential route for about three months."

When Arrow opened its Conyers branch, Bell was named the manager of that office, and two years later added their new Dunwoody office to his growing responsibilities. From 1994-2000 he served as corporate director of quality control, and since 2000 has been vice president of technical services.

"When we perceived the need for quality control and I became manager of that department, it was similar to being a troubleshooter again," he says. "But the responsibilities include training, chemical and equipment selection, branch inspections, technical issues related to treatment standards, safety issues with OSHA and DOT, and fighting litigation on damage claims."

In his new role, Bell was right-hand man to Bob Russell who had been Arrow’s vice president of technical services for many years. He was promoted to that position when Russell passed away three years ago. "Bob once told me that if anything ever happened to him, Rick was the man for his job," Arrow President Joe Thomas says. "Rick couldn’t have had a better endorsement than that."

"Working under Bob was a great experience and was a great benefit for my career," Bell says. "He was a legend and I was honored to deliver his eulogy at his funeral. Coincidentally, he and my dad were good friends in high school."

A HISTORY OF SUCCESS. Over the years, Bell has been instrumental in Arrow Exter-minator’s rise to prominence, becoming the largest independent termite and pest control company in Georgia and one of the ten largest public or private termite and pest control companies in the United States.

During his time at Arrow, Bell has been very active in state and national pest control affairs. "Arrow has always wanted to do its part as far as association work goes. That’s good for our company and good for our industry," Thomas says.

"I first got involved with the pest control associations when I ran my own business," Bell says. "Chuck Tindol introduced me to the NPMA’s Leadership Development Group and as a result of that I got to be a director-at-large in the association. I’m now chairman of the NPMA’s QualityPro technical standards committee, which has developed a ‘seal of approval’ for the industry."

Bell also has served as president of both the Georgia Pest Control Association and Greater Atlanta Pest Control Association. He currently co-chairs the Georgia association’s Legislative Committee.

Thomas says Bell did exceptional association work while president of GPCA. "It was a difficult time, with a number of competing associations and restrictive legislation to contend with. He was the right man at the right time and was very effective and diplomatic."

Reflecting on that experience, Bell modestly says that he can’t claim all the credit for the association’s successes when he was president. "One of the joys of the Georgia Pest Control Association is there are so many good people involved and effective at all levels. They work hard to achieve our objectives."

Thomas isn’t surprised by Bell’s success, a man he’s known for more than 20 years. "I first met him when he was an account representative for Stephenson Chemical and I was greatly impressed with him. When he went into his own pest control business we tried to purchase the company. And when he decided to leave that company we hired him as quickly as we could," he says.

"He was a great find because he brings so much to Arrow’s table. He’s got a great grasp of the technical side of the business, but he’s also got great people skills. And he works so well with our regulators. He’s got such high integrity that he’s a wonderful asset for our company. Whenever we have to send him out to an environmentally sensitive account, or to a touchy claim, he represents us well."

When Bell came on board, Arrow was beginning its rapid growth phase and Thomas needed a team to audit the performance of its branches. According to Thomas, he needed to be sure that Arrow Exterminators was providing quality service to its customers and were in compliance with all federal and state regulations. "We also had to makes sure that our image was as it should be. Rick really designed that whole program," Thomas adds.

"And he’s recently designed our Master Technician Program, an excellent way to help people move up in our organization. Our employees love Rick’s training and development endeavors."

Thomas thinks that’s the most critical problem facing Arrow right now.

"We’ve got a goal to earn more than $100 million in the next six years with up to 70 offices. I think we can do that but we must develop new, top-flight managers like Rick. He’s very dedicated, honest and sincere. I wish we had an army of people like him."

Child Of The South

Rick Bell grew up in the city of Macon and is a fifth-generation Georgian. “Like most kids in the south, my brothers and I loved to hunt and fish and played all sports,” he says.

How did he get interested in insects?  “Like most families in the area, our home was serviced by a pest control company. As kids we used to love to follow the Orkin man around the house. There was no shortage of cockroaches in Macon. Seemed like we always battled American roaches there. You expected to see them and you did. We didn’t have air conditioning back then, so windows and doors were left open. You could be watching TV and see a cockroach fly in from the outside and land on the TV. That was very common. Everybody had screens on their windows, but somehow they’d always manage to get in.”