Before Karl J. Kisner graduated from college at The Ohio State University — Buckeye proud, ROTC-trained and equipped with a resume including being a National Guard officer in charge of 45 men and $50 million in equipment — he created a very specific list. It was a personal road map — a list of goals he has continued to check off during his 28 years in the pest control industry.
Kisner made his own business plan to move up the ranks in agribusiness.
“It included salaries and what jobs I wanted by what time period,” relates Kisner, 51, who today serves as Univar’s vice president of marketing. “I’ve always felt if I didn’t have something to shoot for, I wouldn’t get it.”
Kisner was always a man with a plan.
“I think it has to do with my ROTC training — that discipline and rigor of making sure you have things planned out,” he relates. Surrounding himself with industry leaders helped reveal opportunities. “I’ve always been goal- and objective-oriented,” he continues. “And most of my career, I’ve taken gambles and risks to take on new opportunities. I say, ‘Why not?’”
That was Kisner’s approach when he was asked to head up the launch of Termidor in 1999, during a time when the industry’s manufacturing giants were merging and selling properties. The approach was the same when in 2007 he returned to the distribution side of the industry after a successful ride during a merger flurry with AgrEvo, Aventis, Bayer and BASF. “I love the fact that your hat changes every few minutes. I love managing multiple projects at one time — that’s what I feast on,” Kisner says of what’s appealing about distribution.
Kisner, who “has the biggest radio voice I’ve ever heard,” says Mike Hildebrand, president at Univar, “also has a mix of calmness and is very passionate about what he does. That comes across in conversations you have with him — he is just able to get stuff done.”
Trace McEuen, Univar’s vice president, environmental science, Americas, says Kisner builds confidence. And he has “the type of disposition that builds strong friends and bonds in this marketplace. He has a far-reaching global understanding of our business because of his previous opportunities, especially in the supplier community. His ability to launch products like Termidor has given him a unique perspective on market dynamics.”
Kisner, humbly says, “It’s odd talking so much about yourself.” When interviewed about his career, he frequently passes the credit to his industry peers. The PCT Leadership Award, he says, “is the result of being around so many others who have helped me get it.”
But in the eyes of those “so many other people” — from McEuen at Univar to colleagues at the former Aventis and his agency partner on the Termidor launch, Laurie Van Metre — it’s clear Kisner brings something distinctly different to the industry.
He’s decisive. He’s a hands-off boss. He’s detail-oriented. His voice and presence fills a room — but he’s more likely to be the one listening. “He is an amazing problem-solver,” says Van Metre, president at the marketing agency FVM. FVM was the agency partner during the Termidor launch. “He is always focused on new ideas, on trying new things, figuring out how marketing can make better contributions to the business. Working with Karl Kisner, you get to do great things.”
Paying It Forward
Dave Buzzelli remembers a weekend road-trip he took with Kisner when both were working at AgrEvo, which became Aventis when it merged with Rhone-Poulenc in 1998. Buzzelli was the sales manager for pest control products, and Kisner was brought on to be product manager of AgrEvo’s turf division.
“I got to know Karl right away — our offices were down the hall from each other, and we hit it off because we both love football and we both had been in the service,” Buzzelli shares.
When Ohio State’s football team traveled to College Station, Pa., to play Penn State, Kisner suggested the two of them visit the campus and check out the game. Kisner attends virtually every home OSU game, and many away games, usually bringing along his father, Kenneth Kisner. “He’s a pretty rabid fan,” Buzzelli says of his former colleague.
It’s more than fanhood. Kisner’s brand of Buckeye pride transcends football.
When Kisner was named to OSU’s Alumni Association board of directors in 2010, he was personally contacted by two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin about the appointment. “This was my chance to ‘pay back’ Ohio State,” Kisner says.
During his time at Ohio State, Woody Hayes had his office in the building housing the ROTC classrooms, on occasion leading classes attended by Kisner as a young cadet. In fact, the famed football coach taught Kisner’s class the day before he passed away. “We were the very last group he ever talked to,” Kisner says. “His philosophy was always about paying it forward. So, that message has resonated with me since the day I heard it, and it will until I’m no longer on this earth.”
Kisner didn’t actually start his college career at OSU. As a junior in high school, his family moved to the Columbus suburb of Gahanna — a stone’s throw from OSU’s campus. Kisner, originally from Northeast Ohio, had planned on being a Buckeye, but “I decided I wanted to get away from home,” he says of his choice to attend Eastern Michigan University instead.
That lasted a year. Kisner jokes he was “too close to that other place,” referring to OSU’s arch rival, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and its 5-minute drive from Eastern Michigan’s campus. Sophomore year, Kisner went back to Plan A. (Always, there’s a plan.)
From Hayes’ influence and Kisner’s sheer love of OSU, “paying it forward” to OSU is a commitment he takes seriously. In 2000, Kisner’s mother, Sharron, was diagnosed with a rare nerve disorder called chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), which confined her to a wheelchair. His family sought out care at Ohio State. “There is no cure for it, but they helped her accept and understand the disease, and they were at least able to help her,” Kisner says.
Kisner’s support for OSU is due in part to the great support the college gave to his mother and family. “Because there was so little research about the disease, we decided to create an endowment with $25,000, which my family and a few of our customers supported, and now we are just shy of $100,000 dollars that is allowing Ohio State to use in their neurology program,” he says.
Kisner also is involved with a Greyhound research program at OSU. Kisner and his husband, John-Francis Polakovic, have rescued six Greyhounds, and their first unfortunately died of bone cancer. “You don’t realize how many different things Ohio State touches, but we have a great Greyhound program here, and they do research on osteosarcoma because they found that the bone cancer that appears in some Greyhounds is related to the bone cancer young kids can get,” he explains.
So, from training at OSU’s ROTC program to earning a degree in agronomy with a business specialization — to relying on Ohio State for its medical care, and rallying its work with Greyhounds — Kisner is about as “all in” of an alumni as you can get.
Back to the OSU-Penn State game with Buzzelli. In full fan mode, Kisner and Buzzelli arrived on campus early to take part in pre-game festivities. “He took me to some alumni parties and we sat in the Ohio State section,” Buzzelli says.
This was no ordinary going-to-a-game day. It was Kisner, OSU to the bone, traveling with his industry friend, sharing what it means to be a Buckeye. Except, the game didn’t turn out like the Ohio State section of the stadium would have liked.
“Penn State upset OSU, and so we got in the car after the game to drive home. We stopped at a red light — I have on a Penn State hat and he has on an OSU hat,” Buzzelli says. “People are surrounding our car and yelling at him during the light. As soon as it turned green, he hit the gas and we got out of there.”
A few minutes later, the car fell silent, Buzzelli asked Kisner to turn on the radio. “We are not listening to the radio!” Kisner told him. “The whole ride home, the car was quiet,” Buzzelli recalls with a laugh.
A Monumental Launch
When fipronil, brand-name Termidor, hit the market in 2000, Kisner oversaw its launch in the midst of a chain of acquisitions. AgrEvo and Rhone-Poulenc had become Aventis. Rhone-Poulenc brought fipronil to the deal — a product that Aventis happily inherited. The company appointed Kisner to launch the now-Aventis product into the market. Certainly, this was a career opportunity that Kisner found appealing. But it came with some real challenges.
For one, the pest control industry already had a reliable bait and familiar liquid products, so the company had to prove that Termidor offered something different “At the time, liquids were falling out of favor a little bit and baits were gaining momentum and market share, so how do you separate yourself in the market?” Buzzelli relates.
Kisner and his team had a short time to launch the product, during which they conducted extensive research, talking to pest management professionals to gain their perspectives. “Over two months, I spent a lot of time learning about the termite market, pest control and the different products,” says Kisner, who had primarily worked in turf and ornamental up to this point.
Consumer feedback would help Kisner and team build the messaging and go to market with a totally different approach, positioning Termidor as a premium product. “Karl was concerned about helping PMPs be successful with the product,” Van Metre says.
Andrew Assir, who works under Kisner today at Univar, says Kisner is “always telling us to make sure we put on our customer hat. What do customers think? What does the PMP think?”
Kisner was adamant that Termidor not be sold as a product that “stops bugs from eating studs,” Van Metre says. There were no images of PMPs in work shirts scouting properties, and never did a single termite appear in the advertising.
Kisner brought his creativity, decisiveness and direction to the table. And his creativity is what took this campaign out of the box. “With Karl, you can go in places that may never work, if you know what I mean,” Univar’s McEuen says. “You talk about ideas that aren’t the standard — he doesn’t have a mindset that everything has to be A,B,C. It can be D, R, J, anything. You mix it up, and from that you generate some pretty good ideas. He has the creative ability to see things that others do not see.”
The campaign, and product, was a significant chapter in the pest control industry’s long and storied history. “It was a once-in-a-career experience,” Van Metre says of the launch.
There were other challenges aside from selling this brand and vision to the market. Those had to deal with ownership of the product during an M&A dance taking place among manufacturers in the early 2000s.
“All of a sudden, Aventis decided they didn’t want to continue in the pest control industry, so they decided to spin off that division — and they were ‘spinning off’ and being sold to Bayer,” Kisner says.
“But, Bayer was not able to keep fipronil due to FTC and European regulations. So, that’s when (former Aventis executive) Mike McDermott and some others came to me and said, ‘How would you like to lead this hold separate group?’ The goal was to protect the assets of [fipronil] for whoever was going to acquire it, because at the time, we had no idea who that was going to be.
“So, it was: 1) great to launch the product and start right at the ground level, and to work with some great people to launch it; and 2), now you’re in this hold separate position where I’m still working with the folks at Bayer, yet we are also somewhat competitors, and I have to protect the product for the acquirer.”
Once Kisner and team found out BASF would acquire fipronil, “I had to, again, make sure the product was taken care of not to benefit BASF and not to benefit Bayer.”
This role presented a complicated conundrum from a communications standpoint. “It was a situation where I wasn’t making anybody happy. And there were some frustrating days,” Kisner says.
But, again, there was opportunity.
BASF brought on Kisner as senior marketing manager in March 2003 and he continued overseeing Termidor. He says the Termidor ride and its initial launch and success are a major point of pride for him. “But every job I have taken has come with a significant challenge — and that is what I have always felt the proudest about,” he says. “Without any doubt, when I started most jobs, the first few months, I was always like, “Oh, boy, I am in way over my head. Can I even do this job?’ Every job I’ve had has come with a challenge: develop a new market or territory, launch a new product, protect the assets, build out a coordinated marketing plan, etc.”
In 2007, when opportunity knocked again, Kisner had a chance to move back to the turf side of BASF after nearly a decade run with Termidor. So, again he said, “Why not?” “You need fresh blood, fresh ideas — and I needed to do something fresh, and I wanted to get back into turf,” Kisner relates.
Then, more networking, talking and another opportunity arose months later on the distribution side at Univar. Kisner was lured by the chance to, once again, wear a different hat every minute in this fast-changing segment. And, he was drawn by the culture — the tight-knit group at Univar’s environmental science group, many with 30-plus years of tenure. “Univar has people who really care about the industry we are in, their co-workers and customers,” he says.
Always Evolving — And Settling In
Kisner says most people outside of the industry, when they learn he is in the pest control business, are pretty surprised. “They kind of give me this look, like, ‘Really?’ But it has given me one hell of a career. So, we need to go out there and tell people how great of a career opportunity this is.”
Kisner is constantly sharpening the saw, including attending five marketing-focused Executive Education classes at Northwestern University. The four- to five-day sessions teach how to build marketing strategies, brands and “customer communications in a nanosecond culture,” he says. “The reality is, how we interact and how we communicate with customers is changing at such a fast pace, so making sure I continue to stay on top of what is going on by attending these classes is invaluable to me,” he says.
Also, Kisner continues to take on new challenges, now with his role as marketing manager for Univar in Canada. He’s not just charged with environmental science — but markets ranging from personal care to oil and gas, pharma and everything Univar touches. “I can apply my agriculture and environmental science background to [these markets], and what I learn from them, I can b
ring back to AG and ES,” he says. “I love the diversity of what and who I get to work with on a daily basis,” adds Kisner, the man behind PestWeb, the industry’s leading website. Under Kisner, PestWeb has evolved to provide customer interaction tools to meet the pest management professional’s ever-changing needs.
Kisner has lived a full career for nearly 30 years, and now he’s content in Austin with his partner John, their two Greyhounds and two cats — appropriately named Scarlet and Grey. He says he is happily settled at Univar.
Going back to that old, college plan, he adds, “My goal, and my hope, was to always be with one company for as long as I could — one that I value and believe in. For a while I rode the acquisition roller-coaster, but once it settled down, it has allowed me to settle down and in.”