A Century of Getting the Bugs Out
American Pest Solutions Has a History of Being Dead Right
Third- and fourth-generation presidents Jim and Robert Russell pose beside ‘The Good Guy,’ the company’s second-generation mascot.
His name was ‘Terry the Terrible Termite.’
That’s the highly alliterative name given to a not-so-anatomically-correct cartoon character that became the star pitchman — or pitch bug as the case may be — for a venture known as the American Exterminating Company.
“We used him in a number of our advertisements and promotions — Terry was on the radio 17 times a day that first year we used him,” said Jim Russell, the third-generation owner of this enterprise, who helped retire Terry several years ago and replace him with a smiling, white-shirted, flashlight-toting character known simply as ‘The Good Guy,’ who now adorns the company’s vans, signs, and advertisements.
This adjustment in ad artwork is just one of many changes that have taken place at this now fourth-generation company over a century of taking care of unwanted guests in area homes and businesses.
Indeed, there was a name change several years ago, with ‘exterminating’ replaced by the more modern — and accurate — ‘pest solutions,’ said current (and fourth-generation) president Robert Russell, noting that the company doesn’t just kill existing pests. Also, there have been several locations for this venture as it continued to grow, and acquisitions of several area competitors.
‘Terry’ the Terrible Termite was eventually retired, but not before becoming a fixture in the region.
Meanwhile, the methods for eradicating unwanted pests have evolved as technology has advanced and become more environmentally friendly, and some of the priorities — or chief public enemies — have varied, ranging from the legendary gypsy moth in the late ’80s to deer and dog ticks today. In fact, one variation of the company’s business cards is called a ‘tick identification card,’ with actual-size images of the insects on the front and a series of ‘tick tips’ on the back.
But in many other respects, little has changed since Abraham Russell, the company’s founder and inventor of the first roach powder, decided to go into business for himself — killing bugs — and set up shop in Holyoke.
“In most respects, we’re still doing business the same way we did 100 years ago,” said Robert Russell. “We’ve always put the focus on taking care of the customer, while also taking care of employees. It’s all about hard work, dedication, and a focus on the big picture. None of that has really changed since the beginning.”
This business philosophy has enabled APS to not only survive for a century, but also withstand the onslaught of a number of regional and national pest-control companies, when many smaller, local operations did not and vanished from the landscape.
“There are a few companies that came into this market, and their goal was to put everyone out of business,” he said, listing Orkin, Terminix, and others. “And some companies did fail, they did fall to the competition. But here we are on our 100th anniversary, bigger and more profitable than ever. That’s something that everyone here is very proud of.”
For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at what Robert Russell calls a “statistical improbability” — a company that makes it past the third generation of one family’s ownership — and how it has succeeded in getting the bugs out (literally and figuratively) since Woodrow Wilson patrolled the White House.
As Jim Russell started telling the story of how his grandfather invented roach powder, mixed it on his kitchen table, and later sold it in one-pound cardboard containers, it became evident that he had relayed this company’s history on countless occasions — and was quite proud to do so.
And it’s an attitude that permeates the company. Indeed, APS puts considerable focus on its intriguing heritage. The walls of the office on William Street in Springfield are adorned with large framed testimonials to the company’s four presidents, and the website includes a detailed time line of the venture’s progression.
The story begins, of course, with Abraham Russell, who moved from Brooklyn to Holyoke and eventually decided to hang out his shingle in the relatively new field of professional exterminating, with his roach powder giving him an in-demand product in a still-growing industrial city.
“He sold it from a horse-drawn wagon on the streets of Holyoke,” said Jim, who frequently dove into a thick folder of press clippings, photographs, newspaper advertisements featuring ‘Terry,’ and a host of other materials to help him relay a century of company history and evolution. He noted that his grandfather eventually moved the operation to Springfield, where it would have a number of homes as it continued to expand through the 1920s.
And as he talked about the transition from one generation to the next, he said it was often circumstance that kept this a Russell family business.
“My father (Matthew) was an electrical contractor — he was a master electrician,” Jim recalled. “But when the stock market crashed in 1929, so did his electrical contracting business, so he joined his father in pest control, and in 1931, Abraham passed away and Matthew ran the business.”
And Jim would work alongside him, virtually growing up in the world of pest control and extermination, learning, as each generation has, from the bottom up. In his case, there were some memorable — and also painful — lessons learned.
“I would go out on calls with my father, especially termite calls,” he noted. “I remember vividly going to a house in Longmeadow with him. He handed me his special pick hammer that he used to tap the beams to see if there was termite damage, gave me his flashlight, and said ‘you look around the basement, and if you find any evidence of termites, I’ll give you a dollar.’
“Off I went, and I discovered a two-by-four partition embedded in the basement floor,” he continued. “I picked at it and as I did so it fell apart and I realized there was termite damage. Needless to say, at that young age, a dollar was a lot of money; I looked over to my father, who was talking to the homeowner and yelled ‘dad, come quick, termites, termites.’
“Back in those days, termites were considered like cancer was,” he went on. “You didn’t talk loudly about it. The homeowner was very upset, and he came over and gave me a boot in the fanny; I learned my very first business lesson at a very young age. The next time I saw termites, I quietly said ‘dad, can you come over her for a minute, please.’”
Jim Russell would eventually attend Bryant College and study business, but after his first six months there, his father needed major surgery and Jim returned home to help run the business. He would return to Bryant, but just a few months after resuming his studies he determined his heart wasn’t in it.
“My parents were wasting their money, and I knew it,” he said, adding that he joined the family business in 1956, at age 19, and worked full time for the next 55 years, before eventually reaching what could be considered almost full retirement.
Matthew Russell died in 1977, and Jim worked with and for his mother until she passed away after suffering a stroke nine years later. Soon thereafter, Jim decided to make some major investments in new technology — including the company’s first computer system and a two-way radio system — and also acquire a competitor, and went six figures into debt to finance it all.
He remembers a number of sleepless nights, but more than that, he recalls feeling that those lessons he learned through the decades would help the company survive that challenging time.
“I had the utmost confidence that we could dig ourselves out, and we did,” he said, adding that it was about this time that he called his son Robert, then working for a pest-control company in Florida, and asked him to join the family business.
“The rest, as they say, is history,” he said with a laugh, noting that he turned the reins of the company over to the fourth generation in 2007.
Squashing the Competition
Before talking about his time at the helm, Robert first praised his father, noting that most family businesses don’t survive the third generation.
“In the history of family businesses, most commonly it’s the third generation that either builds it up and sells it,” he noted, “or grows up with the silver spoon and squanders it and loses it all. That didn’t happen here.”
And because it didn’t, the fourth generation is able to continue building on everything that came before, said Robert, noting the company has survived for a century by taking calculated risks, staying on the cutting edge of new technology and processes, and remaining customer- and employee-focused, while taking on new business challenges as well as new four, six, and eight-legged public enemies. The business plan moving forward is to simply continue doing all that.
And the younger Russell brings an intriguing mix of talents to that assignment.
He is a board-certified entomologist, one who is frequently called upon by the media to talk about pests and methods for controlling them, with the subject matter varying with the seasons and the pest in the news. But he’s also an entrepreneur and inventor of sorts. He started a company called EVIL Sports, with that acronym standing for Extreme Vision In Life, best known for its softballs, such as the EVIL 44 HOT Max, which the company says has the ‘hottest core in the country.”
“I’m a marketing guy, I think that’s what I was born to do,” said Russell with a laugh. “I always dreamed of having my own brand, and that’s why I started EVIL, and now, we’re one of the top-selling softballs in the country.’
Russell put his marketing and branding skills to work transitioning from ‘Terry the Terrible Termite’ to the ‘The Good Guy,’ which is both an image and an attitude.
“We are the good guys,” he noted. “We do good things for people every day; we protect their homes, we protect their families and pets, we protect them from contamination from rodents, damage from insects, and structural damage from disease and germs being spread by these things.
“We’re not the skull-and-crossbones contaminating company,” he said, taking the ‘good guy’ argument one step further. “We’re a very prudent user of insecticides, and we use a lot less product today than in the early times; what we do today is very environmentally responsible — we don’t take a unilateral ‘spray everything with pesticides’ approach, but more of an environmentally responsible approach.”
Moving forward, Russell said the company, which has marked its centennial in a number of ways, but especially with a party for employees at the Delaney House, is focused on continuing and expanding its brand-building efforts, and in the many ways that task can be carried out.
These include more and different uses of ‘The Good Guy’ imagery, educational initiatives, such as those ‘tick identification cards,’ segments on the local news, and direct communication with those seeking assistance — through the telephone, e-mail, live chats, texting, and more.
“There is a lot more to this than simply applying pesticides,” he explained, adding that the ability to effectively convey this is one of the reasons why the company is now in its second century of business. “Pests are problems, and we’re essentially problem solvers, and there’s a lot that goes into that.”
A Bite Future
Robert Russell told BusinessWest that his son, Jonathon, now 14, has officially ushered in the fifth generation of service to the company, with work in the broad realm of social media.
He said it’s far too early to say if Jonathon will make this his career and perhaps have his own testimonial on the wall at the company’s headquarters — just as it was unclear if the second, third, and fourth- generation presidents would eventually follow in the footsteps of Abraham Russell.
What is known is that the company will continue to operate in the manner that has enabled it to thrive for a century — an entrepreneurial, problem-solving approach that gave birth to Terry the Terrible Termite, but also led to the demise of so many of his real-life relatives.
George O’Brien can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org