Otto Orkin was introduced to the ways of pest control as a very young child. At the age of five, Orkin immigrated with his parents and five siblings from the Eastern European country of Latvia to Slatington, Pa. Soon he was in charge of keeping rats off the family farm, and by age 12 he was experimenting with arsenic to assist him in the task.
At 14, he borrowed 50 cents from his parents to purchase a bulk amount of powdered arsenic, and was soon selling his rodenticide mixtures door-to-door—and then, to all parts of the country. By 1909, Orkin had saved $25,000 and opened an office in Richmond, Va.
Although he specifically focused on rodents (even billing himself as “Otto Orkin, The Rat Man”—capitalizing on the taunts of the locals), Orkin extended his services in the 1920s to include cockroaches, bedbugs and other pests. By 1929, with new headquarters in Atlanta, Ga., Otto Orkin, The Rat Man Co. was operating 13 offices in eight states—many of which were done through family members involved in the business. In 1937, Orkin Exterminators, Inc., was established.
Although a rather reticent man, Orkin was shrewd when it came to running his business. Bob Russell, now senior vice president, technical services, for Atlanta-based Arrow Exterminators, spent 39 years at Orkin Exterminating and recalls how at one industry convention, his boss had himself paged so they would announce in the hotel lobby, “Call for Otto Orkin.”
The marketing milestones are many for Orkin and his enterprise, including running television ads as early as 1950 and creating the highly recognizable “Orkin Man” (who has morphed, over the years, from an “Otto the Orkin Man” cartoon sprayer character to the robotic, efficient pest controller seen on TV today).
As a teen peddling his arsenic concoctions, Otto Orkin’s first “trademark” was the black satchel he carried on his calls. When he first opened his Richmond office, he often asked customers for letters of recommendation, took pictures of the letters and had them printed on linen-backed letterhead.
This way, he could solicit additional business by handing them out to potential customers. He also took pictures of payments for services rendered, showing that customers did not have to pay if they were not satisfied with the work.
In 1952, Changing Times, The Kiplinger Magazine profiled the 65-year-old Orkin and mentioned how he had recently commemorated the expansion of the Atlanta office by inviting the public to a “Bug Bazaar,” where he gave away “Otto-Matic” pistols and had the mayor snip a ribbon of mousetraps in the doorway.
Despite Otto Orkin’s limited schooling, his business sense was immense. Many in the industry who worked for “Uncle Otto” personally point out that he knew where his limitations lie, and he compensated by surrounding himself with talented people.
Orkin is credited as being one of the first to bring in public health personnel and focus in on sanitation issues in the 1940s and 1950s. Several men who were brought into the organization in the post-World War II era are pillars of the industry themselves today.
Read more about Orkin on the PMP Hall of Fame website.
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