ROTTERDAM — People aren’t the only ones who spent time at home during the pandemic.
Rodents and insects also made themselves at home in people’s houses. And because those human hosts were spending more time at home, they were more likely to notice their uninvited four-, six- and eight-legged guests.
Thomas Pest Services of Rotterdam was able to significantly grow its staff and revenue, and open a second office in Hudson, with the increased service volume it saw in 2020 and 2021.
“I think pest control has been one of those industries like plumbing that the pandemic highlighted as essential,” co-owner Sarah Thomas-Clark said. “We protect not only property but health.”
There is no off-season for Thomas, but December through February represents a slow time. By mid-winter, Thomas was ramping up hiring toward a goal of 54 employees for the peak season.
It’s not just meaningful work, it can be interesting, said Thomas-Clark, whose father and grandfather operated pest-control companies in the Hudson Valley but who set out in life herself to be a teacher, not run a pest-control firm.
“The pest-control industry can be very interesting,” she said. “It drew me in and I’ve never left.”
Thomas-Clark is vice president/chief financial officer and husband Bill Clark is president of the company, which they started 11 years ago as a three-person operation (themselves and one part-timer) and is now based on Hamburg Street in Rotterdam.
She oversees sales and marketing; he leads team-building, which is important to the culture of Thomas Pest Services.
Both have more than a decade in the industry, she in management, he out on the road, trapping squirrels and killing carpenter ants.
Clark said he’s wrapping up that aspect of his career to focus more on growing and leading the company.
“Which is a little bit of a shame, because I like being out in the field, talking to people,” he said. Some people have a genuine fear of the pests that invade their homes and it’s satisfying to set their minds at ease, he added.
MOUSE IN THE HOUSE
Mice, squirrels, flying squirrels and carpenter ants account for many calls, the couple said. Less often, a skunk will take up residence under a deck, and rarely, a raccoon will make a nest in a house, possibly to protect her cubs from the elements and from the many predators that would eat them.
The strangest call ever was a pet ferret that got into the walls of an interconnected townhouse complex.
“It threw us for a loop because we couldn’t figure out what it was,” Clark said. The technicians look at a critter’s droppings and look at what times of day it’s active to guess its identity and set a more attractive trap for it. But there was no page in the playbook for ferrets.
Eventually they caught it in a box trap, quite a distance from its owner’s townhouse unit.
The most disgusting call?
An apartment in Albany where the resident had smashed many, many bedbugs as they crawled up the bedroom wall. It looked like someone had spattered red paint all over.
“There’s been a few times when I’m like, ‘You can take your clothes off in the garage,’ ” Thomas-Clark said.
“Bedbugs would probably be the only thing you’d bring home, with the exception of a flea,” said her husband, who takes these things in stride.
A squirrel bit his hand once and he spotted a bedbug on his pants once, but the pests don’t faze him.
The homeowners who hire Thomas vary between loathing and compassion for the critters that have invaded their home.
“Some say, ‘Kill it and all its cousins,’ ” Clark said. But others want it relocated, unharmed, far enough away that it won’t come back.
Yellow jackets and carpenter ants don’t get a second chance, but anything larger than a mouse is trapped alive and released elsewhere.
“We’re not mean to everything!” Thomas-Clark said.
But she does have to explain to customers that relocation sometimes is only a temporary reprieve: A species that is territorial or lives in colonies may attack an outsider that is dropped off too close.
“The likelihood of that animal surviving is not always great, but we do our part,” Thomas-Clark said.
Even the mice are spared, if they live outside, although that’s a pragmatic decision: To fight a tick infestation in a yard, the mice need to be kept alive so they can bring the ticks to the poison.
Thomas puts out boxes that brush the mice with fipronil when they go after the bait inside. The mice move on with their lives, the ticks clinging to them die, and the local tick population slowly subsides.
Many businesses that saw revenue increase during the pandemic also saw a big increase in one or more stress factors, but it wasn’t bad for Thomas: It was an essential business and its employees were already remote and distanced, working solo in the field.
Recruiting in a tight labor market was more difficult but not impossible.
“I think we’re doing very well, but we’re doing well because we really had to shift our focus,” Thomas-Clark said. “We’re almost treating hiring like our marketing for customers. Without people we don’t have a business and we can’t do what we do.”
The company recently began offering the option of a four-day workweek as an incentive, and in late 2021 the company garnered a place on the Albany Business Review’s annual Best Places to Work list, which is based on employee surveys.
New hires don’t need pest-control experience, Thomas-Clark said.
“We are very lucky to have someone dedicated to training in-house,” she said.
They do need to have a clean driving record and need to embody the core values Thomas codified for itself during the pandemic, which include positive attitude, determination, self-awareness, personal growth and problem-solving.
Thomas has an internal pathway-to-growth program that walks junior employees through the process of basic state certification and then certification in subspecialties such as termites, mosquitoes and food-service settings.
Some jobs entail potentially hazardous chemicals, and the direction is simple, Thomas-Clark said: “The label is the law.
If the label specifies a ratio of chemical used to treat an area, that’s how much you use. Trainees are disabused of any misconception that if 50 milliliters is good, 100 must be better and 200 is better still.
“That’s probably one of the biggest DIY mistakes people make,” Thomas-Clark said.
This year looks bright, she said. Thomas has boosted its revenue by more than $1 million a year for the past few years by putting many trucks on the road and by using a business model based on scheduled service carried out by people trained to think in a forward-looking way about what they are seeing.
The company’s customer base is 85% residential and only 15% commercial. It markets regular visits to a demographic that is willing to pay to prevent or reduce problems rather than respond to problems once they arise.
“They want to be able to control pests and just forget about it,” Thomas-Clark said.
Thomas Pest Services
ADDRESS: 2015 Hamburg St., Rotterdam
EMPLOYEES: 2022 peak-season target is 54
BUSINESS: Keeping rodents and insects out of buildings, removing or killing those that do take up residence inside