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August 2011
Exterminating the Undesirable
By Heather Head

     After decades of freedom, the United States is once again being subjugated by a tiny, ancient parasite that pierces our skin and feeds on our blood while we sleep. Denizen of bedtime rhymes, the bed bug, is back.

     And it’s no wonder the pest is spreading. Each female is capable of producing 500 offspring in her lifetime, each of which reaches breeding age in just over a month’s time. The tiny, flat, red insects hide out in folds of fabric, furniture joints, and tiny depressions, and they can live as long as seven months without a meal.

     But this time around, the bed bug has Killingsworth Environmental to contend with. Owners Mike and Debbie Rogers have built a brand around providing the most effective and innovative pest control and home care solutions available—solutions that often follow unconventional, but remarkably successful paths. While not so good news for its customers, bed bugs have been a significant boon to Killingsworth Environmental’s business.

 

Bed Bug Solution Begins with Dog

     Mike explains: “If you and I go into a bakery, we smell bread. When the dog goes into the bakery, the dog smells milk, eggs, flour, sugar, yeast, and the perfume that the baker is wearing. You can train the dog to alert on any one of those smells, because he can separate it all out. Likewise, dogs can sniff out explosives, drugs, smoke—and the chemical pheromones insects use to communicate.”

     The Florida Canine Academy rescues dogs from pounds and humane societies, and puts those exquisite sniffers to work alerting for bed bugs. Once fully trained, each detection dog sells for about $10,000 and must be matched with a dedicated, full-time handler who flies to Florida to train with the dog.

     Mike laughs when he talks about making the decision to invest in their first dog, Mr. K: “We were at a convention and I walked up to Debbie and said, ‘I'm fixing to spend $10,000 on a dog.’ She said, ‘You’ve got to be out of your mind.’”

     But Mr. K paid for himself in nine business days. The company now owns four detection dogs, and they stay busy all the time.

     “Ordinarily, finding the bedbugs is the hard part,” explains Debbie. “But with the dogs, you don’t have to go in and destroy somebody’s home to try to find the problem. You take the dog in, and they’re going to sniff it out.”

     The value of this becomes especially apparent when applied in a hotel setting. Debbie mentions a prominent Asheville hotel where the dogs recently found bed bugs in three rooms. Once identified, the hotel can treat only those rooms rather than the entire establishment.

     Treatment, too, has been traditionally difficult. Throughout history, bedding fashions have evolved to stay a step ahead of bed bugs. Homesteaders preferred straw ticks that could be tossed on a fire and burned when the bed bugs became intolerable. Iron bed steads became popular in part because they provide fewer hiding places than wood.

     But because more than a dozen bed bugs can hide in a space as small as the head of a screw, physical methods of removal are partial at best. The advent of modern pesticides helped briefly, leading to the virtual eradication of bed bugs in the U.S. in 1940. But between chemical resistance among insects and the fact that many chemicals used to control them have since been banned in the U.S., bed bugs made their return about three years ago.

     So the Rogers sought out and implemented a treatment regimen that is quick, non-toxic, and avoids the potential for pest resistance: Heat. Bed bugs and eggs die at 115 degrees, so Killingsworth employs a system that heats a room to 130 degrees Fahrenheit and maintains it for several hours. Once the treatment is complete, a dog returns to the room and tests to ensure it’s clear. Once completely cleaned up, the hotel can claim “Mr. K Certified” status.

 

Crawling to Success

     Although Mr. K’s picture is quickly becoming a recognized icon around Charlotte, bed bugs and sniffing dogs are a relatively new offering in the company’s diverse repertoire. From termites and roaches, to mold remediation and lawn care, Killingsworth offers a panoply of homeowner services in convenient packages.

     Unlike many similar local services, the company’s leadership hasn’t always been in pest control. For years, Mike sold yellow pages ads for Bellsouth in Pensacola, Florida, honing his marketing and salesmanship skills, and developing relationships with business owners.

     By 1993, he had developed a close working relationship with his largest advertiser, Killingsworth Pest Control. At the time, he and Debbie both had family in Charlotte and were eager to move here. So they took an idea to Killingsworth’s owner: Why not open a Killingsworth branch in Charlotte and let them run it?

     So they moved north and opened an office out of their laundry room, where a cranky dryer provided heat in the winter. The branch had no customers to begin with, and Mike says that’s where his marketing and advertising background came in. They talked to family, friends, beat on doors, made phone calls, and purchased advertising. Mike approached builders offering to pre-treat their houses and put termite warranties on them.

     Before long, the branch moved into a real office (with heat) and began hiring employees. Fourteen years later, Killingsworth was a well-known brand in Charlotte and the Rogers wanted to call it their own. So in 1993, they purchased the North and South Carolina offices. Now their company boasts 10 branch offices, 100 employees, 80 vehicles, and a listing among Pest Control Technology magazine’s Top 100 companies based on gross revenue.

 

Bug-Busting Outside the Box

     Debbie credits Mike with a strong propensity for thinking outside the box. “A lot of times he’ll come up with things and we’ll just look at him and say, ‘What in the world made you think of that?” she laughs. “But he’ll do his research, and we’ll sit down with a plan, and it always works.”

     That skill comes in handy in pest control, where the challenges are constantly changing as pests and home technologies evolve. For instance, a few years ago Mike uncovered a unique method for treating mold in crawl spaces. He had found out that when you blow frozen CO2 pellets into wood, it knocks the mold out while simultaneously killing it. Nobody in Charlotte was offering the service, so Killingsworth purchased a CO2 blaster, and keeps it cleaning out crawl spaces.

     Thinking outside the box also comes in handy in a recession. When the home building industry fell through the floor, Killingsworth suffered a blow from the loss of that market. But where many companies responded to the recession by cutting sales staff and simply tightening their belts, Killingsworth also took a variety of unconventional measures.

     Mike says they looked at the business and saw that there were some staffing changes that could be made, letting go of bottom performers and duplicate job descriptions. But he also saw that the best way to survive and thrive in the new economy was by thinking outside the box.

     So they increased marketing and sales expenditures, and built up their sales staff. They added new lines of service, such as lawn care and mold remediation, and trained the staff to cross-sell. Then they instituted a key change that cascaded into a laundry list of benefits: They assigned technicians and sales people to branch offices and required them to work leads and jobs only inside their own area.

     The change led to significant savings in fuel, time, and fleet maintenance. But it also increased sales. Sales people began to get to know their area, becoming friends with customers and leads. They also got to know their own technicians well and began working off of leads generated by the technicians.

      As a result, Killingsworth has, as Debbie puts it, “simply not participated in the recession.” The company has posted growth every year of the recession, including a 19 percent gain last year.

 

Infested with Customer Service

     Another way that Killingsworth sets itself apart is in how they handle maintenance service visits. Mike says that most companies do quarterly check-ups where the technician comes to the site, does his work, and leaves a note on the customer’s door.

     At Killingsworth, scheduled check-ups occur only once a year. But at each check-up, the technician meets with the customer and spends a full hour and a half at the site, answering questions, performing inspections, caulking gaps where insects might enter, performing maintenance treatments, and assuring the customer that they can call Killingsworth any time for follow-up or to address specific concerns.

     The approach is part of Killingsworth’s customer service ethic: “We have a culture in our company of world class customer service,” says Mike. “And we don’t accept anything less. If you can’t buy into that, you have no chance of surviving here.”

     The service begins with the receptionist who is helpful and friendly, and extends to the knowledge training that every employee participates in at every level.

     “We have a certified entomologist on staff,” Mike explains. “She continually trains our technicians, inside customer service reps, everybody in the company. Everyone is trained so that whoever you talk to in the company, you can always get answers to your questions.”

     Furthermore, every vehicle is expected to always be immaculately clean, and technicians to arrive on time without exception. Mike says the recession has made this aspect of the job easier, because they are able to hire people who buy into that ethic and stick with it.

      This customer service approach has made it easier for Killingsworth to retain customers in a down economy. Debbie explains that when people are looking for ways to trim their budgets, it’s easy to fire a company that leaves a note on your door once a quarter. It’s a lot harder to let go of a relationship with a technician who knows your kids and dogs, who spends time with you, and who has been taking care of your home for several years.

     Furthermore, that personal touch is perhaps the company’s greatest sales tool. In page after page of customer testimonials, customers mention their technicians by name, and thank the company for their help. For example: “I just want to commend Fred and his partner for an excellent job. They were friendly and informative… and left the crawlspace cleaner than some of the homes I’ve been in! I will be your number one PR guy in this neighborhood.”

     Mike and Debbie expect their company to continue growing steadily and sustainably. In the next five years, they hope to open two new branches and add more detection dogs to the staff. They also want to expand their already diverse portfolio of services to include water damage restoration, carpet cleaning, and possibly other services as they identify needs.

     With a diverse customer base including companies like Dale Earnhardt Inc., numerous hotels, and individual households throughout the Carolinas, the company is poised to come out of the recession stronger than ever.

     Good news, Charlotte. Bad news, bed bugs!

Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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