At 6-2 and over 200 pounds with an outgoing personality that lights up a room, Gene White isn’t who comes to most people’s mind when they hear the word entomologist (salesman perhaps, but “bug guy”…not so much).
But spend any time with White and you will realize that he is every bit the entomologist. He has a love for insects and a curious mind to learn all he can about these creatures. And like any good entomologist he loves to share his enthusiasm and interest in insects with others.
During a career that spans 38 years, White has used his knowledge and skill set in many capacities, but perhaps his most important contribution has been as a trainer and educator. Whether it’s training service technicians or speaking at industry conferences such as the Purdue Pest Management Conference or Kentucky Short Course, White has been instrumental in the professional development of countless pest management professionals.
In his current role as global director of vector management, Rentokil-Initial, White continues to educate and help others succeed, developing vector training programs, and cultivating relationships with a global group of industry professionals.
An Unlikely Entomologist
White’s journey to the pest control industry began in Ohio. The son of Marjorie “Peggy” and the Reverend Eugene White, Gene grew up in a strict Pentecostal household, just south of Akron, Ohio.
His early interests were art, nature and sports, particularly track and football. White was a standout wide receiver at Green High School (just 5 miles north of the Pro Football Hall of Fame), a powerhouse football program in the 1970s. His team went undefeated in his senior season.
White’s football prowess helped him earn a scholarship to Glenville State College, a small liberal arts college in West Virginia. It was at Glenville State that White met his first mentor: Dr. Robert Deal.
White first met him at a science building and he mistakenly thought Deal was a janitor. “He saw me resting between football practices next to the bird feeders outside the science building and came down several times to eat lunch with me,” White said. “One afternoon I commented on the variety of bird species and, much to his surprise, after quizzing me, he found I knew them all. He said I should be a biology major and needed to talk with the department head. I asked him who that would be, and he replied, ‘You’re looking at him!’ This moment changed my life.”
Deal, now in his 80s, was impressed by how White ingratiated himself with other biology majors. “Football players were not particularly well liked by our science majors as they found them to be, mostly, poor students and clannish with other athletes. Not so for Gene. He quickly fit in and interacted with fellow students and us faculty,” Deal recalled.
White also explored his interest in the theater while at Glenville State and was voted “best actor” by his peers in 1978 and 1979.
Pest Control Path
After graduating from Glenville State with a major in biology and minor in oral communications, White moved back to Akron (1981), and went to work for Orkin for a brief period of time as a service technician.
White also continued to pursue his interest in football, playing for the semi-professional Canton Bulldogs. A teammate of White’s was working for Metro Exterminators, a company that primarily serviced public housing, and he told him about opportunities at the firm. White was hired as technical director, a position he held for two years.
Through his tenure at Metro, White became associated with Bio-Serv, the distribution arm of Rose Pest Solutions (at the time Rose Pest Control). Bill Baker, longtime president of Rose Pest Control, recognized that White would be a good addition to his team, and kept track of White’s career path. White eventually was hired by Baker as a technical sales consultant (1984) with a four-state territory and then “to manage Rose’s Ft. Wayne office (1986).” This offer was contingent upon White going to Detroit to become the “trainer” within one year.
White’s long tenure at Rose Pest Solutions proved to be personally and professionally fulfilling. In 1987, he moved to Detroit and became the company’s trainer under the guidance of the late Walt Stuckman.
When White came on board, one of the challenges Rose (and the pest control industry) was dealing with was high technician turnover, and at the root of this problem was not hiring the right people. White worked with hiring consultant Brad Bartlett to create an employee hiring template for technicians. From there, he developed and fine-tuned training programs based on insect identification, which then led to the choice of products and treatment protocols. The goal was to make service technicians as self-sufficient as possible. “We started building technicians from the ground up, and they started getting better and better and better,” White said.
Among White’s favorite training activities was role-playing, for which he harkened back to his college theater days. White, along with fellow thespian enthusiast Mark “Shep” Sheperdigian, vice president of technical services, Rose Pest Solutions, put on fun and informative training sessions on stage. “We were two entomologists in a very operations-oriented company who relied on each other for support,” Sheperdigian said. “You come into an office with a really strange insect no one’s ever seen before and there is going to be one other person who’s gonna care. It was truly a benefit to have someone who has the same interests as you to help support you, and you feed off that.”
In addition to training, the support White provided to employees was instrumental in their successes — and to the company’s success, said Rose Pest Solutions President Russ Ives. “Gene would know everyone in the company. He would know who they are and what they did — beyond what they were doing professionally. And that is because he was genuinely interested in them. He helped us strengthen our company’s commitment to lifelong learning and our culture as a learning organization.”
White’s time at Rose Pest Solutions also was important to him personally. In 1985, he married his first wife, Nancy. The couple have three children Kelsey, Kyle and Karey.
While White was enjoying his time at Rose Pest Solutions, in 2013 he was presented with a great personal and professional opportunity. Rentokil North America (now Rentokil Steritech) was on a buying spree, including the 2013 acquisition of Omaha, Neb.-based Presto-X, a $30 million firm with a large service territory in the central U.S. Rentokil was in need of a technical director for the Central Market, which spanned from Mexico to Canada.
“They wanted someone who could oversee direct reports from all of the technical people in the various [Central] regions,” White recalls. “My responsibilities included troubleshooting problems in the field and working with clients to build the proper training protocols.”
This opportunity to travel the country and develop training and technical programs appealed to White, whose daughters were all adults by 2013. But that’s not to say this position did not come without challenges. White said Rentokil was up front with him about land mines that come with leading technical services in a company that was growing rapidly via acquisition. “They said they are filling gaps and holes in their service areas and this is going to come with some heartache because whenever you convert a company over to your style, and your service protocols it can be difficult. However, the one thing that I really liked was that Rentokil doesn’t force their culture onto newly acquired companies, but rather they look at what those newly acquired companies are doing well and incorporate it into what they are doing.”
After two years in this position, in 2015, White was promoted to technical director of Rentokil North America, where he was responsible for leading Rentokil NA’s technical strategies, including supporting the company’s team of approximately 25 entomologists and biologists.
John Myers, president of Rentokil North America, said he believed White had the unique combination of technical and people skills to take on the challenges that came with that position. “When you have a conglomeration of new colleagues and high growth, and a little bit of chaos, you are looking for leaders who inspire, who communicate and who answer questions about why we’re doing something, or how we are doing something; and to do so on a down-to-earth, man-on-the-street level.”
A New Chapter
White’s time at Rentokil took an unexpected turn in 2017. Rentokil had been expanding its global vector management segment, accelerated by the 2017 acquisition of Vector Disease Control International (VDCI), a holding company with the largest mosquito control and lake management service divisions in the U.S.
As part of this growth strategy, Rentokil needed to ramp up its technical services in this sector. White was offered by Rentokil a newly created position, global director of vector management, with responsibilities for creating and improving on the vector management space in the company.
While Myers recognized that vector management was not White’s specialty, he thought his other qualities made him a good fit for the position. Rentokil has vector control businesses in 30 countries. Myers said the Vector Management Center of Excellence brings together leaders of these businesses to share best management practices. The objective is to give them strategies for explaining to local governments and populations the importance of vector control and the value that Rentokil’s vector management program brings.
“Our CEO Andy Ransom’s vision was to sculpt this from a glob of clay. We needed someone who was charismatic, energetic and a creative communicator. We think Gene is ideally suited to make something valuable out of that glob of clay,” Myers said.
White says he serves as a communication conduit. For example, let’s say Rentokil’s business in the United Arab Emirates lands a government contract, White would be called upon to bring together Rentokil, UAE and any third-party stakeholders in the project. “It’s been really interesting,” he said. “I know these people here, and I know these people here, and they need to come together, so I am a bridge for them.”
What White likes about his current position is that no two days are the same. One day he might be attending a USAID meeting and the next day he might be on a plane heading to Brazil. Or he might spend several days evaluating new products and/or novel mosquito management programs.
As White prepares for his 39th year in the pest control industry, he shows no signs of slowing down. He’s enjoying the successes (and occasional missteps) that come as the trailblazer of a newly created position. As he joked, “I’m better than the last guy because there wasn’t one.”
Explore the October 2019 Issue
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