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April 2010
Understanding The Enemy
By Heather Head

     For most people, the smell of freshly mown grass is a favorite scent of summer. But Marty Ivey would rather be smelling dust, plastic and humidity.

     “I know I’m weird,” he admits, “But I’m very comfortable in a crawl space.” And that’s not even the weirdest thing about Ivey. He also loves bugs, and not just any bugs—he’s passionate about the most hated insect criminals in the history of mankind. Termites, cockroaches, ants, and mosquitoes.

     It would be easy to imagine that he loves them primarily because they keep his company in business. After all, if it weren’t for insect pests, the 56-year-old Ivey Exterminating, Inc. wouldn’t even exist. But spend 10 minutes listening to Ivey talk about a termite, and you’ll understand that his company’s expertise in exterminating is founded in genuine admiration, a deep, keen understanding of the enemy, and a passion for the lessons that enemy (the bug) can teach us about the world we live in.

 

Burrowing into the Past

     William G. Ivey, Marty’s father, was a high flying salesman for Orkin in the 1940s and ’50s. He made better commissions than most Orkin salespeople in a three-state radius. And he loved the company so much, he gave his oldest son (Marty’s brother Richard) the middle name “Pressman” after Jake Pressman, the man who owned the area’s franchises at that time.

     But making a lot of money and loving the company wasn’t enough for Bill Ivey. He was sure he could do better on his own, and it was even worth spending a year selling mosquito bait along the coast (while he waited out his non-compete agreement) just to give it a shot. When he finally opened Ivey Exterminating in 1954, by his side was the bookkeeper he had swept away from Orkin, Mary, the woman he would spend the rest of his life with and who would mother his two sons.

     “They complemented each other very well,” Marty Ivey remembers. “Mom was good with money and with organizing things and getting them done, and Dad was good at selling. They both were adamant that things be done right.”

     Growing up the son of a driven businessman wasn’t always easy. When Ivey Sr. wanted a fence built, it was the Ivey Jr.s who dug the post holes, prepared the boards, and constructed the fence.

     “It was normal for us when we got out of school, or even before, for him to put us to work,” Ivey remembers. By the age of five, he would go out on rounds with the “termite crew” helping with waterproofing and related tasks.

     “I have a picture of myself at seven years old, white-headed, just filthy from head to toe from digging a trench, with the rubber gloves those guys used to wear pulled up to my armpits,” Ivey muses. Another image that sticks in his mind is how he and his brother looked at school on the Monday after constructing the fence.  They had been dipping the boards in a green preservative that stained their skin. “We looked like two little green leprechauns for days.”

     When Ivey took over the family business in 1982, the childhood training didn’t leave him. In fact, he admits, it’s hard for him to take a vacation. And why would he want to, when he loves his work so much?

 

Buzzing with Activity

     Unlike many business owners, Ivey is not content to sit in the office and run the business. He spends most of his day in crawl spaces communing with the enemy. “I’ve got three outstanding ladies here in the office and they excel at what they do. I can manage what I need to manage from the field.”

     The company’s customers appreciate the devotion Ivey puts into his work. They know when he or his staff says something is true, it’s true. The company’s culture is based in hard work and honesty, and it always has been. For instance, while most companies offer “inspections” by salespeople who are motivated by a high commission structure—and sometimes sell things the customer doesn’t need—Ivey has always done it differently.

     “Dad and Mom’s theory was that we’d be better off sending a technician out that was trained to know what he was doing, and whose compensation was not based on commission,” Ivey attests. “We’re well-known in Charlotte, especially in the real estate trade, because they know whatever we say is accurate.”

     The company has grown steadily over the years and now employs 15. The diverse clientele spans everything from commercial space to Section 8 housing to high end homes with wine cellars. In addition to exterminating all the big, bad pests—termites, roaches, fleas, and so on—they also install vapor barriers and moisture control solutions. Ivey explains the connection:

     “Insects, like people, follow predictable patterns and lines of energy. When you have temperature stacking effects like in most homes, those cool temperatures in the crawl space are going to create an energy flow upward into the home. And the insects will follow. Vapor barriers and moisture control solutions can change the energy flow and reduce insect infiltration.”

     It’s this deep and intense understanding of how insects behave that makes Ivy exceptional in the industry. He doesn’t just use some chemical formula to destroy insects. He gets to know them intimately so he can treat them with greatest effectiveness. “We can learn a lot about life through the world of insects, if we just pay attention.”

     He explains, for instance, why termites most often enter and damage a home at its most important structural points. It’s not just Murphy’s Law at work. It’s because termites are lazy.

     A termite spends most of its life building tunnels. The tunnels give the insect access to resources while allowing it to avoid the drying effects of sunlight and keep it hidden from potential predators. When traveling through bare ground, a termite builds a round tunnel, using it’s mandibles to mix soil with saliva and fecal matter to use as cement for the walls. If it can build against a hard line, like a piece of lumber or a concrete driveway, it can reduce the workload by a half, using the hard line as one side of its tunnel.

     Even better, if it can find two boards connected closely together, it reduces the workload by less than half because all it has to do is provide coverage for the gaps between the boards. The important structural points of a building—around windows and in corners—are by necessity built with multiple boards nestled together, providing the termite with the safest, easiest, laziest path to forage. And in return, the termite provides the homeowner with the biggest headache.

     Understanding the essential laziness of the termite and other intimate details of its life gives Ivey an almost clairvoyant knack for finding the elusive creatures so he can eliminate them.

 

Feeling the Bite

     Currently, Ivey’s team is paying a great deal of attention to a denizen of a child’s nighttime rhyme—the bedbug. In an unpleasant example of how human economics can impact the life of a bug, this pest is back thanks to the sagging value of the dollar.   Eliminated from the U.S. in the 1950s with DDT, the bedbug sited its comeback in high-end resort hotels. The reason: Tourists from countries with endemic bedbug populations, taking advantage of the depressed dollar to stretch their vacation budget, bring the pest with them and kindly deposit them in American hotels.

     Of course Ivey is intrigued by the almost-mythical creature: “When this little guy walks, he walks on his toenails; he’s a very methodical little insect who just manages life at a slow rate.” So slow, in fact, that he can live for a year or more without eating, just biding his time until the next meal—mammalian blood like yours—comes along. Ivey was so fascinated by the return of the bedbug, that he brought a pair back to the office in a jar, and kept an eye on them for two weeks, just to see what he and his staff could learn. Mostly they learned that the little buggers like to copulate.

 

Building His Nest

     You might get the impression that a man like Ivey is just a little too cozy with the enemy. And it is true that he loves bugs. But actually, he admits, he loves everything. “The world is truly an amazing place,” he says, “if we take the time to look at it.”

     His love for people comes through as clear as his love for bugs. One example: Despite the fact that he spends very little time there, Ivey has devoted significant energy to designing a comfortable, artistic office space for his employees to enjoy. His passion—and sense of humor—comes through loud and clear.

     Tasteful sepia tones, classy beadboard wainscoting, and framed artistic renderings of traditionally admired insects serve as a tasteful backdrop to whimsy. A rock-and-wire termite graces a countertop. One bathroom mirror appears to have had a bite taken out of its corner by a very large insect. And by the front door—an enormous mousetrap clenches the crushed snout of a giant fake rat.

     Also by the front door is a large curving window that looks in on a comfortable conference room. It looks like the kind of space where you might install a fish tank. Not in this office though. That space is reserved for the giant ant farm Ivey is designing.

     More importantly, the 7,000-square-foot space is in a safe, comfortable location so that his employees can feel good about coming in to work, and so that they can bring their children with them when they need to. They made the move four years ago to get away from a neighborhood where kids had regularly broken windows in employee cars.

     The company works just as hard to offer customers a sense of comfort and safety. “We don’t make it complicated. We show up on time, we tell the truth, and we relate it in simple terms,” Ivey explains. “We create a comfort zone. And, if a customer calls with a problem, I’m wrecked until I can get it straightened out. I lose sleep about it.”

     And as for the economy, the company is working to create a comfort zone around that too. “More than anything,” Ivey says, “the economy has affected peoples’ morale. Everything is bad news because bad news sells.” In response, Ivey offers loyal customer discounts and extra services. “People need a break in hard times. It’s old school stuff my parents taught me.”

 

Crawling into the Future

     Ivey is not overly concerned about the future of the economy. For one thing, his company’s bottom line hasn’t changed much. But he also attributes his nonchalance to lessons he’s learned from the insects: Positive energy attracts negative, and vice versa. In crawl spaces, for instance, warm air is attracted to cool air, which creates an energy path that insects follow. Empty niches (negative energy) attract new species (positive energy) to take advantage of the opportunity. It creates a continuously cycling pattern of change.

     Ivey has watched the Noda area, in his lifetime, transition from vibrant mill town to depressed poverty zone to hip artist village, following the natural flow of energy attraction. Likewise, he says, the current negative economic energy in our country creates opportunity for positive energies to flow in and bring the cycle around again.

     Besides, regardless of which point in the cycle we may travel through, people have always hated termites and roaches and probably always will. Which means there will always be plenty of crawl spaces to occupy Ivey’s summer afternoons.

Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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