Pest Management: All Grown Up

Cover Story: Top 100 - Cover Story: Top 100

The industry has changed a lot in the 20 years since our first Top 100 list was published. It’s become better, stronger and more respected, all while staying true to its core values.

Subscribe
May 5, 2021

 

Wow. Time flies.

It seems like yesterday that PCT’s very first Top 100 list hit the street, but it’s been 20 years!

Since then, the list has taken on a life of its own. It has become our most-anticipated issue of the year, with companies eagerly waiting to see if they have joined the ranks of the industry’s largest firms. It’s become a de facto shopping list for outsiders seeking quality acquisitions, and it gave rise to a well-attended executive summit and awards ceremony, which will be held virtually this year due to the pandemic.

Overall, though, the Top 100 list represents two decades of companies collectively adapting to trends and changing market conditions. It shows how the industry has grown up, becoming more sophisticated, stronger and more respected while staying true to its core mission of protecting health and property.

We identified 10 ways pest management has progressed over the past 20 years, plus two ways it (thankfully!) has remained the same.

1. It is More Professional.

“I think the industry has become more respected as a professional, necessary service by the general public,” said Peter Eldridge, president of Apex Pest Control (#69), Rockledge, Fla. Even the smallest operation today understands the importance of presenting a professional image with clean uniforms and service vehicles, he said.

Since 1997, the Professional Pest Management Alliance (PPMA) has promoted the value of professional pest control to consumers, shifting perception from bug killing to protecting quality of life.

This year, 87 percent of homeowners with household income of $60,000+ agreed pest control professionals play an important role in protecting family and public health, according to PPMA research. That’s up from 59 percent of pest control users with household incomes of $50,000+ who felt positive about the industry in 2007.

New generations stepped into leadership roles at family businesses, introducing practices that boosted professionalism. Likewise, new regulations and licensing requirements pushed the industry to expand its knowledge, which manufacturers, universities and industry experts provided.

“Our industry is better trained than it has ever been,” said Chris Christensen, a former University of Kentucky extension entomologist who owns Truly Nolen and Critter Control franchises in the Midwest and Southeast.

Laurel Hansen, a well-known ant expert, agreed. “Twenty years ago, you couldn’t get people to a meeting,” she recalled. Today, not only do attendees of educational sessions have “a willingness to learn,” but they ask good questions and share their knowledge with peers. “To me that’s being professional and not just having a job,” she said.

PMPs also have embraced professional certifications introduced in 2004. Namely, QualityPro from the National Pest Management Association (NPMA) and the Associate Certified Entomologist program from the Entomological Society of America.

 

2. It is More Efficient.

“Business runs at the speed of light now,” said Christensen. Over 20 years, offices moved from re-entering data (often on typewriters) and printing paper service tickets to using cloud-based software apps that manage routes, scheduling, the fleet and customer relationships.

In the field, pagers and handheld devices gave way to internet-connected smartphones (the Apple iPhone was unveiled in 2007) and tablets, which let technicians share invoices, proposals and reports, accept payment and stay connected to the office.

At commercial accounts, electronic documentation replaced paper-filled binders. Now, PMPs remotely track pest management programs, respond quicker to problems, develop better trend reports and more easily facilitate third-party audits, said Pat Hottel, technical director of McCloud Services, a Terminix (#2) company in Elgin, Ill.

Technology improved productivity and saved money. “You couldn’t run a business as profitably as we’re doing it now without it; there’s no way,” said Justin McCauley, CEO, McCauley Services. When the Bryant, Ark.-based company implemented routing software in mid-2000, technician productivity increased 25 percent and monthly fuel costs dropped 20 percent.

Call centers also helped companies standardize and improve operations. Jamie Ogle, president of San Diego-based Lloyd Pest Control (#25) created one the industry’s first in 2000. Located near his office, the center has helped him gauge the “pulse of the business.” Fast forward 20 years and a new software platform let him track call center activity via live dashboard while employees worked remotely during the pandemic.

Traditionally, pest management lagged in technology adoption but “I feel that we’re definitely making inroads,” said Donnie Shelton, a former software engineer who owns Triangle Pest Control, Raleigh, N.C.

© 7nuit | iStock

3. It is Better at Getting Paid.

Instead of mailing paper statements and waiting a month for checks to arrive and deposits to clear, most PMPs now collect payment at the time of service or even before it occurs.

“Money just screams into pest control companies because of the fact that we have streamlined the way of getting money from one place to another,” said Christensen.

Companies email invoices and have payment portals on websites. Technicians use mobile apps like Apple Pay, PayPal or Square to process payments in the field. Nearly half (46 percent) of companies now require customers to leave a credit card on file, according to a PCT online poll conducted in June 2020.

Christensen was one of the first to require credit cards for automatic debit 20 years ago. “It changed our business. We went from having $55,000 to $60,000 a year in account receivables to none,” he recalled.

Automatic monthly billing has helped retain customers. They’re comfortable paying a smaller amount each month and “there’s not a decision to be made” whether to continue service when faced with a large, one-time bill, said Triangle Pest’s Shelton.

Nor is it a hard sell. “At Triangle, a lot of our customers have never used pest control before so they’re going to play by the rules that we set,” said Shelton. Plus, people don’t want paper invoices or to write checks anymore.

While getting paid more rapidly improved, the prices charged for servicing large municipal and multi-unit housing accounts did not.

“The rates of some of these stops are a tenth of what they were years ago and yet costs are probably 20 times higher. It’s frustrating,” said Apex’s Eldridge.

 

4. It is Savvier.

The internet gained traction as a marketplace in the early 2000s and that dramatically changed how the industry sells service and interacts with customers.

Twenty years ago, 50.4 percent of U.S. households had computers with internet access (2001 U.S. Census Bureau data) while only 36 percent of PMPs had websites, 14 percent offered online scheduling, and 4 percent accepted online payments (2002 PCT readership survey).

Advertising in telephone directories, which provided a shotgun approach to reach consumers, was the norm for 78 percent of pest control companies (2005 PCT readership survey).

“We used to spend multiple six figures in the Yellow Pages and now we spend that online,” said Jamie Ogle, Lloyd Pest Control.

Directories were replaced by digital ads, social media, search engine optimization, and mobile-friendly websites and email blasts since 68 percent of households now access the internet on mobile devices (U.S. Census Bureau, 2018). And more companies now text customers, who increasingly prefer this form of communication.

Digital tools let pest management professionals target homeowners for specific services (ant control, termite protection, wildlife removal) and by demographics.

Traditionally, PMPs wooed homeowners with household incomes of $75,000+. But the middle class shrunk; in some markets this income no longer provides for discretionary spending on pest control. As such, more PMPs now target households with income of at least $100,000.

Websites that make it easy to buy service became even more important during the pandemic. According to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by Digital Commerce 360, people spent $861.12 billion online with U.S. merchants in 2020, an increase of 44 percent from the year before.

 

© JonoErasmus | AdobeStock

 

5. It is (Becoming) More Diverse.

Pest management is 78.5 percent white and 76.7 percent male (2018 PCT-NPMA workforce diversity study). It slowly is becoming more inclusive because PMPs recognize diversity spurs innovation and helps companies better understand the needs of customers.

“I believe every industry benefits from a diverse, talented team. Each of our differences bring something different to the team,” said Darlene Williams, regional vice president, Orlando-based Massey Services (#5). Williams said the industry has changed a lot in her 27-year career, including more women joining its ranks.

To attract and retain women, minorities and young people, large pest management companies adopted recruitment and career development programs. More women stepped into leadership positions at family businesses and joined the industry through academic and scientific routes.

The workforce at Gunter Pest Management in Kansas City, Mo., changed by design. “I want it to reflect society, not just be the old white club of doing pest control,” said Jay Besheer, president of the company.

Recently, the organization Black Ownership Matters (BOM) was launched. The group’s goal is to promote Black ownership of pest control companies and to provide Black owners with financial guidance, business resources, employee development, mentorship and community support, explained Jason Payne, president of BOM and San Diego-based Payne Pest Management.

Websites like PestControlJobs.com and PestVets.com are helping attract diverse employees. “We’re seeing some movement there. We’re continuing to educate the consumer on why this is a great place for a career,” said Cindy Mannes, who leads the NPMA Workforce Development Initiative. She also is executive director of PPMA, which is connecting with young people via TikTok.

More companies also provide internships, which allow college students to gain industry work experience while pursuing degrees.

 

6. It is More Attractive to Outsiders.

Despite years of hearing that merger and acquisition (M&A) activity in pest management would slow down, it stayed strong. “It just keeps going,” said Apex Pest Control’s Eldridge.

Charles Dixon, owner of Dixon Pest Services, Thomasville, Ga., gets at least one call a week from interested buyers. “The top four or five, eight, ten slots are scarfing up all the smaller companies. They keep on buying, I’ll be on the Top 100 sooner or later,” he said, laughing.

Rollins (#1), Terminix (#2), Massey Services (#5), Arrow Exterminators (#6) and Truly Nolen (#11) acquired companies at a fast pace. International player Rentokil (#3) began aggressively buying North American companies 15 years ago; Sweden-based Anticimex (#8) entered the fray in 2016. Private equity group Certus (#23) is a more recent entrant.

Other outsiders include sales and marketing experts who run companies like Aptive (#7), and individuals from other industries who want to operate their own businesses. They’re all drawn to pest management’s recurring revenue, strong profit potential and ability to weather economic storms, the most recent being the pandemic.

Over the past three years, at least 26 companies dropped off the Top 100 because they were acquired. Top 100 companies also acquired small companies not on the list at a rapid pace.

“The value of top 100 companies has increased significantly from back in the day,” pointed out Eldridge. In 2001, Top 100 companies accounted for 55 percent of overall industry revenue. Today, they make up 92 percent.

Consolidation and attrition caused the number of pest management companies to decline in the past five years, reported Gary Curl, founder of Specialty Consultants, which annually surveys the industry. In 2020, there were 18,838 pest control companies in the United States, compared to 20,518 in 2015.

 

7. It Offers More Services.

Companies once provided general pest and termite control. Today, services range from wildlife control and lawn care to crawlspace encapsulation.

COVID-19 cleaning/disinfection was added as companies pivoted during the pandemic. An online PCT poll conducted in April 2020 found 56 percent of companies offered this service.

Exterior perimeter services have drastically changed how the industry provides pest control. Back in 2001, only 5 percent of PMPs considered perimeter control their largest growth opportunity (2002 PCT survey). Today, most have built business models on the service, which proved invaluable during the pandemic when customers didn’t want technicians inside their homes.

Last year, the percentage of service revenue generated from exterior perimeter treatments increased by double digits, said Specialty Consultants’ Curl.

The arrival of “new” pests spurred novel services. Bed bugs were so off the radar 20 years ago that PCT didn’t even ask about them in its 2002 readership survey. But last year, bed bug control services (heat, conventional, canine, prevention) generated 12.9 percent of total company revenue on average (PCT 2020 State of the Bed Bug Control Market survey).

Mosquito control also became a popular offering. “That’s probably the fastest- growing part of our business,” said Besheer.

 

In 2001, 19 percent of companies offered this service (2002 PCT survey). In 2020, 73 percent did, and it accounted for 18.3 percent of total company revenue on average (PCT 2021 State of the Mosquito Control Market survey).

Increased competition spurred Gunter Pest Management to add services. “Twenty years ago, we had 50 competitors; now we have 250 in the Kansas City market. It’s way over saturated now and in order to battle that we’ve added” service lines, said Besheer.

 

8. It is More Effective.

In the early 2000s, the industry lost the use of organophosphates and carbamates when the U.S. EPA and manufacturers voluntarily removed them from the market. But it also gained new chemistries and formulations that proved highly effective.

“Our products are far superior today than they used to be. The science is amazing,” said Eldridge.

“We have better insecticides in some ways than we ever had, and we use less and they’re still effective and we use a lower concentration and they’re still effective,” added Chris Christensen, the Truly Nolen and Critter Control franchisee.

Advancements in termite control revolutionized how PMPs sold, performed and warrantied this service. The industry’s first non-repellent liquid termiticide was launched in 1996; the Sentricon termite bait system was introduced in 1995, gaining widespread use in the early 2000s.

Internet-connected monitors, cameras (remote, infrared and fiber-optic) and drones provided new ways to track, prevent and more precisely target infestations. They also improved data collection, which helped PMPs better understand pest behavior and find more effective means of control.

This included less intrusive insecticide applications, which benefited customers and employees, alike. “We’re more surgical in the types of applications overall than we have been in the past,” said Randy Allen, director of sales and strategic accounts at Wil-Kil Pest Control, a Terminix company in the Milwaukee area.

Training is more effective, too. McCloud Services switched to a flexible micro-learning platform for its in-class training sessions. Instead of hour-long lectures, topics are five-minute video segments or readings followed by measured activities that boost engagement. This appeals to young employees and made remote training possible during the pandemic. “It’s been quite successful for us in terms of knowledge retention and results,” said McCloud’s Hottel, who developed the platform.

 

© Beboy | AdobeStock

 

9. It is More Green.

Integrated pest management (IPM) was a nascent concept two decades ago. “Now, pretty much every company follows IPM practices,” said Justin McCauley, McCauley Services.

PMPs prioritized monitoring and pest-proofing activities. “Now we’re making recommendations or doing the work ourselves in excluding pests from a structure,” said Wil-Kil’s Allen.

Companies learned it’s greener and more effective to address the root cause of pest problems; the food, water or shelter they need to survive. “If we eliminate one of those, we don’t really have to reach for something that ends with ‘cide,’” Allen explained.

Eldridge agreed. “The industry’s done a really good job of placing baits and gels and not just nuking the house. I think the public appreciates that as well,” he said. NPMA introduced GreenPro certification in 2008 in response to consumer demand for green services.

Manufacturers also introduced greener products. “We don’t get a huge number of products being introduced but the ones that are being introduced seem to be greener, less-toxic alternatives that work in a lot of cases,” said Charles Dixon, Dixon Pest Services.

More that half (54 percent) of PMfPs said the introduction of natural, botanical, organic and eco-friendly products was a positive development for the industry; 33 percent said they purchased more green products in the past year (PCT 2021 State of the Naturals Market survey).

Operations are greener now, as well. Gunter Pest Management, for example, installed solar panels on office roofs, which generate electricity to charge its fleet of Tesla service vehicles. The company performs perimeter treatments to reduce indoor pesticide use; it’s gone paperless and is phasing in the use of botanical products for mosquito control, said Besheer.

 

10. It is More in Demand.

Over the past 20 years, the market for professional pest management has grown. “Our business has grown because our market share has been able to grow,” explained McCauley.

PPMA efforts opened eyes and wallets to the industry. A 2020 Harris Poll survey conducted for PPMA found 48 percent of U.S. homeowners with annual household income of $75,000+ used licensed professional pest control services in the past year. And 9 million individual users visited PestWorld.org, the consumer website that promotes professional pest control.

By comparison, 18 percent of homeowners used professional pest control in 2001 and 3 million consumers visited PestWorld.org in 2015, according to PPMA.

More homeowners today prefer to seek out professional help instead of doing it themselves. “We still have the do-it-yourselfers, but we have a lot of people who want to call in an expert. The homeowners are willing to spend the money and to get professional advice when they need it,” said Laurel Hansen.

Eldridge agreed. “I really think people have warmed up a lot to having a professional do it. It’s safer, more professional, less hassle. I think the industry has done a really good job of that,” he said.

States with high pest pressure like Florida, Texas, Arizona and the Carolinas saw more people move in, which also increased demand for service in those markets.

As a result, total U.S. industry revenue grew from $5.65 billion in 2002 to $9.63 billion in 2020, according to Specialty Consultants.

Even revenue for the Top 100’s newest entrants jumped. On the 2002 list, Bill Clark Pest Control and Bizzy Bees Pest Control tied for the #100 spot with $2.6 million in revenue. Twenty years later Capitol Pest joined the Top 100 at $5.8 million.

The author is a frequent contributor to PCT.