[Cover Story] C’mon, Get Happy!

Learn the seven habits of highly positive leaders who steer profitable, growing pest control companies.

That’s Stuart Aust, president of Bug Doctor in Paramus, N.J. He loves to cold call. (“I wish I could cold call all day long because I know the value of it.”) He’ll stage a feast for his employees. (A recent Friday menu: Brazilian lunch.) His wife tells him, “Stuart, don’t lose that — what you have.” She’s talking about contagious energy — a real zest for business, a true concern for the people who work for him.

“I’m passionate and I’m proud,” Aust says simply.

Bug Doctor has been servicing New York Yankee Stadium for 14 years. Its commercial clients include Madison Square Garden, the United Nations Building in Manhattan and Rockefeller Center. These accounts came from cold calls. “We always look at it as the glass is half full,” Aust says of business. “And I realize that I dictate a lot of the flow of the culture, the way people are going to approach their work day. If I come in with a positive attitude…”

Mindset matters.

Eric Eicher, founder and director of Versacor Managed Pest Solutions in Texas, says a positive attitude rubs off on people. “In our business, there is nothing that we do that is as important as the people,” he says. Meanwhile, his company grew 80 percent in 2013 and he expects at least a 60-percent revenue increase this year.

Positive, productive and profitable — is that a coincidence?

Research shows that an optimistic mindset promotes resiliency, and that’s exactly what an owner needs when enduring the stress of a tough economy and the everyday tribulations of running a service firm.

Glass-Half-Full Thinking

Need a reason to put a skip in your step, to whistle while you work? There’s lots of good going on in the pest management industry, if you ask these good-attitude owners.

  • More market coverage. The latest figures from the Professional Pest Management Alliance say pest control companies have 33 percent market penetration, up from 25 percent a couple of years ago. “That is a ‘wow’ statement — we are moving forward, and the marketplace is looking at us as a more professional, viable means of solving their pest problems,” says Bobby Jenkins, ABC Home & Commercial Services, Austin, Texas.
  • You own the future. “Every day, we have the option to change our futures — people in other countries do not. Here, we can chase after our dreams. Every day, we have another opportunity and in the pest control industry, everybody needs us,” says Mike Masterson, CEO of ISOTech in Covina, Calif.
  • More recurring revenue. “I believe the needle will move to turning bed bug services into recurring revenue that will build the equity of our companies, and there will be more contractual business models to take care of bed bugs,” says Phillip Cooper, CEO, Cooper Pest Solutions and BedBug Central, Lawrenceville, N.J.
  • More positive press. “The industry has done a fantastic job of getting the word out — we’re educating the public about the types of services that can be done and expanding the types of services we perform,” says Stuart Aust, president, Bug Doctor, Paramus, N.J.

Albert Bandura, a founding father of scientific psychology, discovered decades ago that one of the best predictors of an individual’s success is whether or not they believe they will succeed. (Thousands of experiments later, his premise holds strong.) Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism, has spent most of his professional life studying what it means to be happy. In a study conducted with MetLife, Seligman found new salespeople who were optimists (by nature or training), sold 37 percent more insurance in the first two years than pessimists. And dialing back to ancient times, the Greek philosopher Galen said employment is “nature’s physician, essential to human happiness.”

Isn’t it fascinating how two companies in the same region can report completely different market conditions? One says: Business is terrible! We’re slow, and things aren’t looking better for this year. Another claims: Can’t complain, revenues are up again — in fact, we’re doing better than we have in years.

Half are looking at a full glass, and the other half see a cup that needs some filling. That’s what we found of PCT readers, who are split on their take of what 2014 looks like. In PCT’s 2013 State of the Industry research, 34.4 percent said 2014 would be a year of economic prosperity; 26.6 percent said it would be a year of economic difficulty; and 39 percent were not sure. (What would be interesting is if we could track the respondents who said 2014 would surely be successful, and find out if their positive prophecies were actually fulfilled.)

In the meantime, we talked to some of the industry’s optimistic business owners to find out the habits these successful leaders share.

1. Rethink your mistakes.

“You never make mistakes. You just learn what not to do the next time,” says Mike Masterson, CEO of ISOTech in Covina, Calif. Attitude is everything, he says. “That’s where you gain your energy — and you have to feed off of that energy.” He says finding the positive in life is definitely a gift. But it’s also a choice. How you look at mistakes is also a choice.

“I’m a firm believer that no one has ever made a mistake,” he says. “We can look at the positive and take away what we learned, then share it with every employee so they can learn and do not have to go through the same hard lesson.”

2. Hunt in the winter.

When Masterson began assembling a sales crew about 10 years ago, his crew was set to start the week before Thanksgiving. He could have taken a wait-and-see approach with the team. “Everyone is taking off work, I might as well shut the doors and let everyone come back the first the year,” he relates of what he did not do.

Instead, Masterson reminded the crew of the best time to hunt. “When there is no one out there in the forest,” he says, speaking of the slower winter sales time. “I said, ‘Guys, get out there and start pounding the pavement harder than you ever did before.’ They sold more in two months than they did in the middle of the summer.”

Sure, the guys were skeptical. They didn’t jump for joy. “It’s hard to get up on those cold days and have the first 10 prospects say no…then the 11th says yes, and that one leads to 12, 13, 14…” Masterson says. “It’s taking people and showing them the vision, walking them through until they see success. When they get that first sale in the winter, they realize, ‘I can accomplish this,’ so they set realistic goals and attain those.”

3. Celebrate wins.

Even the small ones count big. When leaders notice employees’ accomplishments, the attention is motivating. Don’t we all, by nature, want to do more of the things that earn us rewards and compliments? Of course, recognizing everyday wins is easier said than done when operating a busy company. Even optimists can overlook the good things that are going on right in their own back yards.

“I had a service specialist come up to me and say, ‘I finally did it,’” Eicher says. “I asked, ‘What?’ He said, ‘I went an entire month without having one customer call. Not one single request.’”

Eicher couldn’t believe it — and he couldn’t believe he didn’t notice the outstanding record until the technician pointed it out. “This means he did his work so perfectly that no one had to call back, and I said to myself, ‘Why did I not recognize that?’ We should be looking at the things our employees do and trying to find the things they do really well so we can compliment them on those and recognize them.”

Steering Through Storms

Positive attitude is a mindset. It’s an innate trait for some, and learned for others. It’s a choice in business. Dr. Stacy Feiner, a director at SS&G Parkland in Cleveland, offers this advice for leading through tough times.

Don’t get bogged down in the details. “In the hard times, it’s the bigger mission that carries everyone through,” Feiner says. “Business owners have to resurrect those long-term visions and form the united front.”

Set the tone. The owner of a business is ultimately responsible for infusing an organization with a positive attitude. “Business owners have to say, ‘We believe in hard times, we can really come together and beat the odds,’” Feiner says.

Be decisive. You’ll make some tough decisions in business. Communicate that good or bad news clearly and stand by your choices. Sympathize with the impact decisions might have on employees. “Be confident about your decisions — lead with conviction,” Feiner says.

Open your mind. “The day a leader is no longer open to feedback is the day they don’t lead anymore,” Feiner says. Be receptive to employees’ feedback. Seek out their insight. “A positive attitude will keep you open to others’ ideas, and when your own ideas can meld with others, you’re exponentially better.” — Kristen Hampshire

Phillip Cooper, CEO of Cooper Pest Solutions and BedBug Central in Lawrenceville, N.J., reminds his people of how their individual efforts contribute to the company’s revenue wins by charting progress. A board records key metrics, including the company’s growth. At an annual meeting, the company’s goals are reviewed. (They are always written down the previous year — getting it on paper is important, Cooper says.)

“We look at what we do every year and take an hour at our annual meeting to look at the written goals and metrics of the previous year, and if we changed course we talk about that,” Cooper says. “We don’t forget what we are working toward. It’s important to look at your wins and step back from a 10,000-foot view.”

4. Feed your culture.

Aust takes this literally — but to be sure, the mealtime gatherings he hosts for employees are much more than a free lunch. Weekly, he orders in a catered meal like sandwiches, pizza or Mexican food. Periodic “feast” potlucks are a favorite. Aust supplies a turkey or ham. Everyone brings in side dishes to share. “We are really concentrating on the environment here,” he says.

In 2013, Aust began taking turns treating departments to dinner. One month it was the management team. Another month it was the administrative team. “Whatever they want to eat — order what you want,” he tells them. The caveat: “I said to everyone ahead of time, we are not talking about business. We are going out to have a fun night.”

The staff’s attitude is flourishing because of these efforts, Aust says. They feel appreciated. The company is a family. “If people are happy here, they will treat our customers right,” he says.

A happy culture attracts other positive individuals, who then do good work for the company. “It’s all about taking care of the customer here — first our internal customers, being our staff; and then our external customers,” Aust says. “We try to make this environment a special place.”

5. Hire selectively.

“I don’t want to let a fox into the henhouse,” Aust says of selective recruiting to protect a positive team. “We have a good thing going here.”

That’s why he hires for attitude. He doesn’t care if an interviewee has a prestigious resume. “If they have no experience at all, we are always willing to train the right person — but we really want to make sure that person is a fit,” he says.

Aust wants to talk to the candidate’s former manager before making any decision. And during the interview process, Aust gets into the specifics with prospects. He might ask the reference to talk about a time when his/her former employee gave great customer service. “Or, conversely, we might say: Tell us about a time when a customer was upset and what was done to handle that.”

Aust says management positions require about 15 to 20 hours of interviews before a hire is made. Bug Doctor fielded 187 applications for a single office manager position.

But let’s face it: We’ve all had employees that drag down the culture. “Sometimes, a ‘cancer’ comes in and every CEO that I have ever talked to says what they regret is not getting rid of that person sooner,” Masterson says.

It’s the old hire slow, fire fast axiom.

Masterson says the bad seeds generally don’t stick around his positive work environment for long. “They weed themselves out,” he says, noting how managers and team members will pull him aside, one by one, and point out the problem. “It’s like the mother hen watching over the chicks. If something comes in to attack, they sense danger and they like the way their home is…they don’t want anything to change.” Meanwhile, turnover at ISOTech is just 4 percent.

6. Create a path.

During a down economy, nine employees at ISOTech realized a lifelong dream: buying a home. They achieved this goal because of support from their employer. They’re on a path to success because Masterson and managers make a concerted effort to draw them into the vision and show them how they can grow as individuals at the company.

“We tell our people, ‘This is not your job, this is your career now,’” Masterson says. ISOTech has a mentorship program. “We form a brotherhood and sisterhood to help encourage our people all the way through, even in tough times.”

7. Stay focused.

Who cares what the business next door is doing? “I’ve heard a lot of different statements about the economy — up, down, flat, great, going nowhere. I never look at what everyone else is doing because we are in control of our own destiny,” Masterson says.

Masterson takes a fire and movement approach. “Every day, you look at what trail has to be blazed and you run over all the negative part of it,” he says.

Cooper says his company’s success has nothing to do with any economic uptick. In fact, he calls 2014 a “transition year.” “What’s helping us grow this year is that we’re doing a better job of riling up the team,” he says. “It’s making sure we have a clear vision and focus, making sure that we hold each other accountable and are moving in one direction.”

There’s no silver bullet for success. A positive attitude is balanced by practical actions. “If the chips are down, I’m going to call it like I see it,” Cooper says.

But resiliency drives success, even in hard times. “It’s consistency and commitment,” Cooper says. “It’s treating people like individuals, and still knowing that we all have a job to get done and never letting your guard down.”


The author, a freelance writer based in Cleveland, Ohio, is a frequent editorial contributor to the magazine. She can be reached at khampshire@giemedia.com.

June 2014
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