John L. Cook, founder of Cook’s Pest Control, earned a reputation for offering top-quality workmanship and trustworthy service. Based in Decatur, Ala., Cook was sought out by customers because he took on odd, unusual jobs that others wouldn’t — or couldn’t — handle. For example, Cook provided "tree surgery," did home repair, raised sunken houseboats — he even demolished the county jail. And in the process this hard-working business owner got in on the ground floor of the promising termite and pest control market.
Cook’s business was founded as the North Alabama Termite Company in Decatur, Ala., in 1928. He had learned about termites through his work with trees and in houses, says his son, John R. Cook Sr., now chairman of the board at Cook’s Pest Control. "I guess the two things kind of tied together," he says.
"Back then it was strictly in its infancy," John Sr. said of the industry. "People didn’t even know what termites were. They called them ‘white ants.’" Knowledge about termites and other pests at that time was limited, as were the products to control them.
Even so, the elder Cook knew that in providing this new service, he was onto something big. He was right: Today the company ranks 11th in PCT’s list of the 100 largest pest control firms.
A WISE DECISION. Cook’s son John (Sr.) grew up in the business, but pest control wasn’t his first career choice. He had planned on a vocation in architecture, which he studied at Georgia Tech. All of that changed with his father’s untimely death in 1950, just two weeks before John Sr.’s graduation.
At the time the company had a number of customers on five-year termite guarantees, and Cook had committed to making annual inspections free of charge for five years. Cook’s mother was left with the responsibility for these guarantees, but John Sr. felt compelled to help her and keep his father’s commitments. So he and his wife Eleanor ("Jo") decided to return to Decatur. "I felt the responsibility to help her with that," he says of his decision.
It proved to be a good decision for John Sr., who has since built the small operation into one of the nation’s largest regional companies. Today Cook’s has more than 1,000 employees in 28 locations and serves customers in Alabama, Tennessee, northern Georgia, eastern Arkansas, and north and south Mississippi.
Under John Sr.’s leadership the company began to grow, but at age 25, he also wasn’t ready to give up his dreams of an architecture career just yet. During the early years he also taught a mechanical drafting course five nights a week.
"It took me about five years to realize I wasn’t going to be able to do both," John Sr. says of his two career paths. In his hometown of Decatur, there wasn’t much demand for architectural services. However, pest control was another matter. Furthermore, John Sr. was enjoying running the business, and he realized he could apply many of his skills and interests to it. "I came in one day and told Jo ‘I really like this business," said John Sr. "It’s something different to do every day, and I was out with the public."
When John Sr. took over the business there was just one truck and just a couple of employees. But his commitment to the business began to take hold, and before long John Sr. was adding district offices and taking various leadership positions within the industry. In 1957 he was elected president of the Alabama Pest Control Association. And in 1973 he was elected president of the National Pest Control Association.
John Sr. says his architecture degree has helped him in many ways throughout his career with Cook’s. For one he says, the creativity required in architecture has helped him to look ahead and plan for the future at the company. It also helped him visualize pests within structures. "It gave me confidence in understanding the structure of a building and in understanding how termites would get into the building," John Sr. said.
EDUCATIONAL ENDEAVORS. As he grew the company, John Sr. took great care in training his employees to retain the Cook’s philosophy of service. He didn’t have an entomology degree, but he knew that consistency of service was important. So he used tape recorders to document such things as treatment procedures, sales techniques and even the Purdue Correspondence Course. The company’s commitment to training continues today with a full-time training instructor, a four-week training program, and an in-house studio that produces training tapes and company updates.
One off-shoot of the company’s training program that has taken on a life of its own is Cook’s Natural Science Museum, created in 1968. The museum was formed from a collection of insect specimens originally used for training purposes. Soon local entomologists and others heard about the collection, and they began donating insects to the company. Then Cook’s began collecting mounted birds and animals. It wasn’t long before the company had literally hundreds of exhibits including such things as exotic insects, protected and endangered species, and rocks and minerals.
A 5,000-square-foot museum building was constructed in 1980, and since then the facility has become one of the area’s top attractions, drawing tens of thousands of visitors each year. Admission is free, and the museum is open seven days a week. The vast collection now includes live displays, talking and interactive exhibits, and a gift counter. Sponsoring the museum has become a form of community outreach for Cook’s.
A CONTINUING PHILOSOPHY. John Sr.’s wife Jo has been instrumental in the company’s growth over the years. When he took over the business, Jo was also involved, keeping the books. For years she wrote the company newsletter, and also served as curator of the museum. Furthermore, Jo continues to hold a license in pest control.
In 1995, John Cook Sr. became Cook’s chairman of the board and he named long-time employee Jim Aycock president.
Aycock, a 30-year veteran of the company, was formerly executive vice president and chief financial officer of Cook’s. He says the company plans to continue its growth under the same principles it has always stood by: that quality service to customers leads to business growth. "We plan to continue that philosophy," says Aycock. "It has worked for us for all these years."
Aycock also credits the Cook family and Cook’s employees with the company’s long-term success. "The Cook family has provided the leadership, and the employees have had the confidence and respect for that leadership, and have done what they were asked to do," he said.
John Lewis Cook starts North Alabama Termite company.
Fred and Gracie Allen star in the movie "Love In Bloom." Cook’s jingle, "Lookie-Lookie-Lookie, Here Comes Cookie," is adopted from the title song.
John R. Cook Sr. and Eleanor Mitchum are married.
Founder John L. Cook dies. Founder’s son John Robert Cook Sr. returns to Decatur, Ala., to continue the business.
The company added pest control services and the name changed to Cook’s Pest Control.
John R. Cook Sr. is elected president of the Alabama Pest Control Association.
The company opens its first district outside Alabama with an office in Tullahoma, Tenn.
Corporate offices moved to Decatur, Ala.
Cook’s Natural Science Museum is opened in Decatur, Ala.
Cook’s starts a profit-sharing plan; the "Keystone Cop Puppets" are introduced; the company in-house publication "What’s Cookin’" is begun.
Cook’s graduates 47 students from the first Purdue course; John R. Cook Sr. is elected president of the National Pest Control Association.
The company observes its 50th year of operation.
Company breaks ground on its new corporate office.
John Cook Sr. and Jo Cook are honored with lifetime membership in the Alabama Pest Control Association.
Jim Aycock named president of the company; John Cook Sr. becomes chairman of the board; John Cook Jr. becomes vice chairman of the board.
Cook’s Honored With National Ethics Award
One of Cook’s proudest achievements is something few other companies can claim: in 2001 the company was named a winner of the 2001 Better Business Bureaus’ National Torch Award for Marketplace Ethics, after having won the award at the local level.
John Sr. remembers winning the local award. "We were competing with a bank and other blue chips," he said. "They chose a pest control company, and that was really something."
Having won at the local level, Cook’s was automatically nominated for the national award, however John Sr. wasn’t expecting to receive that title. "Would you believe, we got that," he says today, still sounding a bit surprised. "Of all the other awards we’ve ever received, I value that the most because that really means our employees and our company have created that good image," says John Sr. "Not only did it bring recognition to Cook’s Pest Control but it also brought recognition to the entire industry."