Rollins’ Jerry Gahlhoff knows something about change. Whether it was as a child following his father, a branch manager for Orkin Pest Control, around the country or as an adult pursuing his own career in pest management, Gahlhoff has packed and unpacked from North Dakota to North Carolina to Texas to Georgia.
In fact, between his personal and professional moves Gahlhoff estimates he has relocated 18 times. Fortunately, the uncertainty and anxiety that typically accompanies packing and unpacking for most of us, doesn’t faze him.
“The longest I was in one place was six years in middle school and high school in Jacksonville, Florida,” recalls Gahlhoff. “My dad said he would let me finish high school in one place but looking back moving so often has made me adaptable and able to go with the flow.”
As one would imagine, making lasting friends when you are registering for a new school every other year isn’t easy. That’s where pest control stepped in, filling a void that eventually, even though Gahlhoff didn’t intend it to, became his career.
“One thing that appealed to me, even when I was young, about the industry was its social nature,” says Gahlhoff. “We never lived close to family so the people at work became our family.”
He recalls watching his dad play on the company softball team and going to the branch on Saturdays to help out whenever he could. “Some longtime Orkin employees tell me they remember talking to me when my dad would have me call in the week’s numbers to Atlanta,” says Gahlhoff. “I’m not sure if that is 100 percent accurate but it is part of the environment I grew up in.”
A Gator Twice Over
After graduating high school Gahlhoff enrolled at the University of Florida to study business, but it was an experience he had working for his father over summer breaks that prompted him to look at the industry differently.
“I had a training experience one summer that wasn’t the best and it made me realize how much better a technician’s job could be and how it could be a competitive advantage if the right training was made available,” says Gahlhoff. “That’s what got me interested in the technical side of the business.”
Gahlhoff switched majors and started taking classes in the school’s globally recognized entomology department where he met one of the country’s most respected voices on pest management, Dr. Phil Koehler.
While still taking a variety of business classes, which was encouraged to give students a perspective on how science impacted the business of pest management, Gahlhoff ’s interest in research evolved with the encouragement of fellow student, Dini Miller, now a well-respected professor of entomology at Virginia Tech University.
“Field research was more appealing to me than the lab,” recalls Gahlhoff. “I enjoyed getting out in the field to see how what we were doing in the lab applied to the real-world pest issues PMPs were facing.”
Koehler says Gahlhoff possessed the ability to take theory and apply it successfully in real-world pest management practices. One of Gahlhoff’s projects focused on termiticide repellency and, according to Koehler, changed the industry’s approach to residual termiticide treatments.
“He reads people very well and has a knack for putting the right people in the right position to succeed,” adds Koehler. “People are comfortable with him and because of his approach they are open with and want to work with him.”
Following completion of his master’s degree, Gahlhoff was weighing his next career move when he was recruited to join Wilson Pest Control in Winston-Salem, North Carolina as the company’s technical director.
His decision to leave the comfortable routine of college life set him on a course that would see additional moves and eventually lead him to work for the world’s largest pest management provider.
Climbing The Ladder
When he arrived in Winston-Salem, Wilson Pest Control was a growing company and with a boost from venture capital, it became a prime target for acquisition. Dallas-based Centex HomeTeam did just that in 2001 and Gahlhoff got his first taste of the M&A side of the pest control industry.
“I was thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?’ recalls Gahlhoff. “I was ready to head back to Florida.”
At the initial transition meeting Gahlhoff was itching for a fight. When the management contracts were presented he told Home- Team’s Bob Wanzer he wouldn’t sign them until certain language was taken out. To his surprise, HomeTeam agreed to the changes and Gahlhoff would start working with Wanzer, who along with then HomeTeam CEO Rob Swartz, would become valuable mentors to him.
HomeTeam’s trajectory took off like a rocket — they went from $40 to $140 million in seven years — and so did Gahlhoff’s career.
“He reads people very well and has a knack for putting the right people in the right position to succeed. People are comfortable with him and because of his approach they are open with and want to work with him.” Dr. Phil Koehler, Endowed Professor of Urban Entomology, University of Florida, Gainesville, Fla.
In 2004, Gahlhoff was promoted to vice president of technical services and moved to company headquarters in Dallas. Over the next five years two more promotions followed as did another move — this time back to Florida — as Gahlhoff wrestled with the breakneck pace of the company’s growth.
“Initially I thought I was supposed to be the brakes and make sure our processes and procedures were followed,” says Gahlhoff. “After 18 months I realized I was the engine governor and had to figure out how best to support our growth but still maintain high service standards. We had to do it fast, but we had to do it right.”
During this period Gahlhoff learned the value of culture in a company’s success.
“We talked constantly about culture, values and what we stood for,” says Gahlhoff. “We wanted to help people get their arms around what we were doing.”
What Gahlhoff didn’t see coming was another acquisition — not by HomeTeam — but by Rollins in early 2008.
“I came to realize that the most important thing was to help others with transition and see it through,” adds Gahlhoff.
In a journal he kept, Gahlhoff expressed his feelings about the situation. He considered leaving and doing something else. He talked with industry colleagues who had been through previous acquisitions. He weighed the pros and cons over and over, and by July of that year he had warmed to the idea and decided to give it a chance.
Applying Lessons Learned
With that goal in mind, Gahlhoff joined Rollins and served as president of Home-Team from 2011 to 2016 before being promoted to president — specialty brands.
In his current role, Gahlhoff is responsible for overseeing the Rollins’ specialty brands portfolio that includes HomeTeam, Western Pest Services, Waltham Services, Northwest Exterminating and OPC Services. He is also responsible for the company’s human resource efforts and is an active voice in Rollins’ acquisitions.
With recruiting being a significant challenge for the entire industry, Gahlhoff hopes to steer Rollins and its brands through the process of embracing millennials into its workforce.
“We are not an assembly line business,” he says. “We are a people business that kills bugs and our foundation must be built on people. Our success or lack of success will depend on it.”
Gahlhoff says the industry must think about the work and the role of the technician differently to attract millennials. “Millennials do the math differently and want different things from the job,” he says. “We need to learn how to manage flexibility better when it comes to work schedules, benefits and career opportunities.”
Gahlhoff ’s ability to connect with people on the front line in the branches to the c-suite is something John Wilson, Rollins’ president and chief operating officer, says makes him highly effective in his role.
“Jerry is not your typical ‘bug guy,’ he is much more than that” says Wilson. “He is outstanding with people, knows the technical side and has a good business mind. He can connect at all levels of the business and that is a rarity.”
Gahlhoff’s personal experience dealing with the roller coaster of emotions during an acquisition helps make the onboarding process easier for companies joining the Rollins family. As does his legendary sense of humor.
“You have to enjoy what you are doing, and Jerry has that part covered,” adds Wilson. “He embraces having fun while getting the job done and that is infectious with other people.”
And while Gahlhoff can dish it out, he also can take a good joke.
Phil Koehler recalls an incident during Gahlhoff’s time in Gainesville where Gahlhoff shrink-wrapped a fellow grad student’s car upon his arrival back from a delayed flight or the time he applied Vaseline to the drawer handles, arms of a chair and telephone in the office of a colleague.
Koehler recalled when payback was delivered and Gahlhoff ’s colleagues at HomeTeam wrapped his car, resurrecting the practical joke from early in his career. Gahlhoff got the joke.
“He has the ability to laugh at himself,” Koehler says, and as a result “people want to be around him.”
Isn’t that what being a leader is all about?