Pest Management Professional chronicled six women who have made pest management their calling. Each one forged her own path toward success — and learned some lessons along the way.
Industry leaders come in all shapes, sizes — and yes, genders, too. Look no further than the executives of the National Pest Management Association (CEO Dominique Stumpf, CMP, CAE); the United Producers, Formulators and Distributors Association (Executive Director Valera Jessee); and the current Top 3 executives for the Association of Structural Pest Control Regulatory Officials (Liza Fleeson Trossbach, president; Linda Johns, vice president; and Irene King, secretary).
But what about the next generation of leaders? Is the industry doing enough to ensure a diverse mix of backgrounds to reflect the customers it serves? How do we get beyond the stereotype of little boys using bugs to make little girls scream?
There’s a common sentiment in this industry that pest control gets into your blood, and it certainly can be said of Erica Brister. When she was 5 years old, her parents, Sam and Sheryl Peden, started U.S. Pest Protection in Hendersonville, Tenn. By age 8, Brister was learning how to file paperwork at the office.
“We were equally passionate about the business and family,” Brister, now 36, says. “When we were growing the business, there was certainly a lot of talk about pests at the dinner table, but there was also always time for family. It was all enmeshed together.”
While pest management was a way of life for the Pedens, they encouraged Brister to pursue her own dreams. And she did — graduating in 2006 with a business management degree, with a focus on photography and broadcast journalism.
But by 2010, Sam Peden issued Brister an ultimatum: “If you want this business, come get it or I’m going to sell it.”
Brister was startled into action. “I had to seriously ask myself, ‘How am I going to wake up every morning and run this business and be happy?’” she admits. “I came to the conclusion that I had to lead fearlessly.”
Taking ‘flight’ with Eagle Steve
When Brister took over U.S. Pest at the age of 29, she focused on learning the trade. By 2015, however, she knew it was time to make waves.
“Our look and logo were growing stale. To keep moving forward, we had to innovate,” she says. “I reached out to a local firm, Bohan Advertising. Even though I essentially was on a shoestring budget, they really worked their tails off to give me what I needed and wanted for the company.”
When the firm presented Brister with a new logo and look, she found herself drawn to an eagle image associated with the “Whatever it takes” tagline.
“To me, it was displayed so clearly — patriotism and professionalism, yet had an attitude of ‘We don’t take ourselves too seriously,’” she says. “Bohan saw my focus on Eagle Steve and took it to a whole different level.”
The result was a campaign built on Eagle Steve, a superhero animatronic puppet that saves the day for pest management customers, doing “Whatever it takes” to get the job done properly. A catchy jingle and tongue-in-cheek TV campaign followed, which netted Bohan several awards and U.S. Pest the marketing boost it needed.
“The spirit of the campaign, that the company goes above and beyond in serving customers, comes directly from its leaders. And while the tone of the spot is funny, the promise of performance, service and value is very serious,” Bohan copywriter Bridget Deenihan, ACD, told marketing media resource TheDrum.com in an interview earlier this year.
Brister braced for pushback from her employees, and was relieved to encounter very little.
“Some folks are hesitant to change, of course, but once it was out, everyone was on board,” she says. “I was pleasantly surprised to see our personality, our spirit — the vibe when you’re around our team — all reflected in this marketing piece.”
Building on a solid foundationBrister takes each decision she makes into careful consideration. But she also knows when to receive help. These days, Sam Peden, 78, is semi-retired and splits his time between Tennessee and Florida. Yet he’s always available to guide his daughter when needed.
“What I love about Dad is that he’s so passionate. He’s built an amazing customer base and business, and as a result carries a lot of wisdom,” she says. “When you combine his wisdom and my ingenuity, you get a strategy for success. I don’t have that sleeves-rolled-up experience of building a business from scratch that he has. But I do know how to keep innovating, to take our company to the next level. With input from the two of us, the company will continue to grow.”
Customer demands are always changing, and in response companies need to innovate to survive and thrive. U.S. Pest has chosen innovation, Brister says.
“We’re recruiting top talent so we can meet those customer demands,” she says, pointing to industry veteran Ron Schwalb, the company’s technical director, as a recent example. Schwalb can communicate in laymen’s terms the technical expertise that customers want explained to them, and train technicians to do the same.
While she is committed to U.S. Pest, Brister also is committed to her family — her husband, gospel singer and minister J.K. Brister; daughter Lovely, 7; and son Daggert, 3. Brister teases that Lovely is already a de facto U.S. Pest employee: The youngster considers herself to be an expert truck washer when handed a sponge and bucket.
Will Lovely be a third-generation pest management professional? Brister says she’ll support her daughter no matter the career path.
“As for our industry, we need sharp, passionate, intelligent, strong people — men and women alike,” she says. “Bugs don’t care who the president is. They don’t watch the stock market. Pest management can be rewarding work, both from a financial and purposeful perspective. We just need to spread the word to all prospective employees.”
Employer: U.S. Pest Protection, Hendersonville, Tenn.
Years in pest management: 18 officially, 31 unofficially
Advice for women in pest management: “I encourage women to strive not to be the best ‘female employee,’ but simply the best employee. Bring your entire brain to work, and be authentic. I hire the whole person, not just one aspect.”