Share the love: There is a great team behind every great company, and there are servant leaders leading all great companies. Model and grow servant leadership within your business. Share the vision, set big goals, create space for work-life balance, hold everyone accountable, say thank you and celebrate often.
As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Erin Richardson, the first female president, CEO and owner of a third-generation business — All-American Pest Control. Since buying the business in 2012, Erin has implemented a 4-day work week and a variety of strategic bets that fueled the company’s growth and reputation. A member of Tennessee Pest Control Association and National Pest Management Association, she is active in her industry at state and national levels and has grown her family business to PCT Magazine’s Top 100 List — the top 100 largest pest control companies in the nation — and has appeared on the Inc. 5000 list in 2019 and 2020.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I never thought I would work with my family in the pest control business. From a young age, I considered myself an artist and despised the thought of working a 9–5 job. After graduating from college in 2001, I tried my hand at jobs in various industries, including social work, family counseling, event planning and graphic design. Then, I got the pest control bug and began to see how I can help to continue to improve and grow our family business.
In December 2012, I purchased the business from my father, and I currently serve as president and CEO.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
When I was just starting out, I wanted everything done yesterday. The more I demanded of myself and others, the more stagnant our results. It was a vicious cycle that I knew I needed to escape because giving up was not an option for me.
Thankfully, I began to realize I desired more out of life and work than this. I wanted to create a culture that made a positive impact on our team members and their families. As I began to prioritize team experience, I began to find more meaning and purpose in my leadership role. My change in mindset affected every aspect of our company, and since then growth has become easy and fun.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
When I was just starting out with All-American Pest Control, I helped with sales and customer service. One busy day, I was on the phone handling a customer issue, and a trainee looked at me from across the room and whispered to me that the caller told her he was Al’s — my dad and owner of the company at the time — “lover.”
I put my caller on hold, reassured the new trainee that the caller was likely a jokester friend and told my dad to answer the phone and say he was a ballet instructor — we wanted to have a little fun with the jokester on the line. All would have been funny and forgettable if I hadn’t given my dad the line of the disgruntled customer that I had put on hold. Oops!
Lesson learned: Take each and every call seriously and don’t transfer the wrong calls when planning a joke!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are a people company that happens to control pests. Sure, our team specializes in pest control, but it is caring for our team and the customers that matter most to us.
A few years ago, we implemented our “Make Someone’s Day” movement as an effort to empower my team with the ability and authority to make decisions. It’s since turned into a fun way to build culture, say thank you and spread appreciation and kindness to teammates and customers.
One day I got a call from a customer who had been sick with the flu for longer than a month thanking me that one of the team members had dropped off a get-well card along with a can of soup topped with a bow. As I spoke to the customer, I learned that she was one of the key nurses who cared for my premature son while he was in the NICU for two months.
I carry this memory with me as a reminder to keep our tradition of “Making Someone’s Day” going. Our team has the power to truly make big and small differences in others’ lives.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
- Create a positive work culture: I have found that team experience is the driving factor in creating your business’ best team. I have realized that when I mention “team experience” or “positive culture” that most people think of parties, big incentive plans and happy hours. What I have learned is that the first and most important aspect of team experience is creating an environment where team members can contribute their best ideas, do great and meaningful work and are inspired to develop true teamwork. Events and incentives are fun, but if the foundation of true teamwork and servant leadership doesn’t exist, other culture-building efforts are a waste of time and resources.
- Share plans for a bigger future: When I look back over the last 17 years that I have spent at All-American Pest Control, it is fascinating to see how myself and other team members have grown and changed as leaders. In a small business, everyone pitches in to get the job done. While we prioritize and aim for work-life balance, there are phases of growth that require everyone to be all in, work longer hours and wear too many hats. To manage burn out during these periods of growth, we do our best to acknowledge the effort and loyalty of our team. We listen for when people need a breather. We continue to encourage vacations and time off to recharge. And, finally, we are always communicating a bigger future through a future-focused organization chart illustrating when we will be adding new positions (delegating) and where we will be streamlining and/or eliminating unnecessary work.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My dad, Al Foster Jr. He consistently modeled servant leadership, kindness, selflessness and generosity.
He created a safe place for me to learn, make mistakes and grow. Specifically, my dad was a lifelong learner and had developed small peer group retreats to discuss business and gain insights from others. He invited me to these small group retreats, and these other business owners became mentors to me.
Second, he invested in me. I quickly noticed that I had a lot to learn about pretty much everything. There was not a single time when he said “no” to my request to attend a conference, take a class, join an organization or hire a coach.
Finally, I experienced the most amount of growth when he let go of his leadership role to make room for my leadership. He made the conscious decision to step aside for me years before I actually purchased the business from him. This act of him letting go and trusting me fostered a new level of commitment and responsibility in me.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?
Mindset and focus are the key differentiators between good and great companies.
Good companies are “me-focused” while great companies are team-focused. Good leaders manage, and great leaders provide direction and clarity; inspiration and vision; strength and courage.
Great companies know who they are. They attract great customers and positively impact their community for generations. Great companies believe anything is possible.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Select meaningful values: My family’s beliefs and work ethic inspired my team’s core values, including reliability, remarkable service, teamwork, respect, thoughtful innovation and servant leadership. These values drive our culture. We hire, train, coach and retain team members around these core values.
- Build trust through alignment: For a service-based business, just as important as attracting and retaining the best talent is attracting and retaining the best customers. We make sure to communicate who we are as a company, and that helps to attract the best customers which in turn makes our day-to-day work more meaningful and enjoyable.
- Refine strategy: We define an impactful strategy as one that scares our competition, delights our customers and thrills our team. If the strategies or priorities we are considering don’t elicit an emotional reaction, we need to continue to refine and focus our ideas until we land on projects that will make the biggest difference.
- Narrow your focus: We have expanded our service offerings in efforts to grow, but now we are narrowing our service offerings to a small, very focused niche market. While canceling service lines is difficult and scary, each time we stick to what we know and do best, we win.
- Share the love: There is a great team behind every great company, and there are servant leaders leading all great companies. Model and grow servant leadership within your business. Share the vision, set big goals, create space for work-life balance, hold everyone accountable, say thank you and celebrate often.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?
The best team members and leaders desire results and relationships. If they can go anywhere and do anything, why wouldn’t they gravitate toward businesses that are financially successful while making a purpose-driven dent in the universe? It’s a win-win for the company, the team and the local or global community. Great companies get results while creating lasting relationships and positive impact..
What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
When All-American Pest Control started growing fast, it unearthed issues with people, leadership, systems and processes. We weren’t at a total standstill, but growth slowed and issues continued to arise.
At that point, we began to promote leaders and implement strategic planning systems. I decided that I only wanted to grow if we could grow gracefully. Through this evolution, I became most passionate about creating an environment where we can provide meaningful work with time for meaningful relationships. We started treating our team like customers first, then growth became easy and fun.
I would give this same advice to someone needing to boost growth. Treat your people right, and they’ll do the same for you. Growth starts from within.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
The first difficult economy I led our company through was the housing crisis and great recession of 2007. Housing is at the heart of our business model, so this could have been a very difficult time for our business. What I learned during the great recession was three-fold.
First, we continued to build relationships and make strategic sales. While other companies were afraid to ask for new business and forge new business partnerships, we showed up, met new people, developed new referral partners and survived together. Many of those relationships built during that time are still great customers for us today.
Second, we developed a worst-case scenario and trigger points for action. A turning point for my leadership during that recession was when I realized and accepted that even if we lost 50 percent of our revenue, we could still run a healthy, profitable business. We looked back to when we had been half the size and remembered what it was like. We were proud of ourselves then, and we were profitable. While we didn’t want to take any steps back, we accepted that if the economy forced us to backtrack that we would be OK.
Third, we over-communicated and we continued giving raises. The communication backed by raises was enough to give our team confidence that we were in this together. We focused on only the things that mattered and we not only survived the great recession, we thrived. It was the mindset shift and focus we needed to refine our business strategy and become stronger together.
While this pandemic is different from the great recession, we have taken much of our learning from that period and applied it to our current experience. Thankfully, pest control service was deemed essential, so we have continued servicing clients throughout these difficult times. This is how we’ve stayed ahead:
- We developed a worst-case scenario: For us the immediate concern was losing the ability to service customers if a large portion of our team got sick or quarantined. We quickly jumped into hyper-focused, socially distanced cross-training to provide us with back-up team members to cover if needed. We also kept recruiting while others stopped. We have hired some of the best team members over the past year.
- We created a daily scorecard: We shifted our weekly metrics into a daily scorecard. We had our plan for the worst-case scenario and knew the triggers for implementing, but we committed to not worrying until the numbers triggered the back-up plan.
- We continued to tell our story and invest in marketing: We wanted our customers and new customers to know that we are here for them, even in the middle of a global pandemic. This has allowed us to continue to serve the needs of our community and continue to grow and retain customers.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Work-life balance. Many companies get caught up in the day-to-day workload, and when things get busy work-life balance is usually the first thing to go. I wouldn’t underestimate the power of bringing balance to your people. In 2018, I rolled out a four-day workweek for my team. Before that we operated on an 8–5, Monday-Friday basis. After switching to the shortened workweek, I started to see increased productivity within my team and a boost to our bottom-line.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?
We focus on the lifetime value of a lead. We are in the relationship business, meaning we are here for the long-run and we will be here for years to come. After a lead is generated, only a certain percentage will be ready to say yes within the first phase of the sales process, but don’t give up on them. We continue to build relationships with all leads for months and years after first contact through integrated marketing efforts. This is how we maximize the value of all leads we generate and ultimately convert them into great customers.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
I know the best way to continue building trust with customers is to hire and grow great people. We hire great people aligned with our core values, we train them well and we empower them to provide remarkable service.
Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?
- Know your audience and who you’re trying to reach before ever trying to create a great customer experience.
- Provide real value to your customers and make it easy to do business with you. Do what you promise and bill accurately.
- Review customer feedback. When you get poor feedback, learn and grow from the experience. When you get positive feedback, share the review with your team and think of ways to improve even more so that the positive reviews don’t stop there. Never stop growing and improving.
What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.
Social media is another way for customers and the community to communicate with us. We keep a consistent presence on Facebook and Twitter through regular posts, and we’re also available to answer questions and respond to customer reviews. If we receive negative feedback, we thank the person for taking the time to speak up and we work through the issues with them as efficiently as possible.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
I’m not sure about others’ mistakes, but I can advise based on my own mistakes. Over the years, my most significant mistakes have always revolved around people and miscommunication. Memories flood back of painful lessons learned when developing new roles for underperformers rather than realizing they weren’t the right fit for our company and cutting ties. It’s something that affected our morale and momentum.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Our company’s internal motto is “Make Someone’s Day.” The heart of Make Someone’s Day is kindness and a genuine care for one another. The magic comes when someone is empowered with the ability and authority to make a difference. We all have this heart, ability and authority; we just need to be reminded of it sometimes. Go out, be kind and make someone’s day!
How can our readers further follow you online?
For more information on All-American Pest Control, visit www.allamericanpestcontrol.com or follow on Facebook and Twitter by searching for the handle @AllAmericanPest.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!