What is the recipe for keeping a business moving ahead and growing for 90 years?
Offering quality service at fair pricing, good timing, high levels of customer service and satisfaction, and being in a market where demand is high for your services are all certainly on the ingredient list, but there always is a secret sauce involved.
For Tacoma-based Sprague Pest Solutions, which celebrates 90 years serving the pest management needs of clients in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain regions in 2016, the secret sauce of longevity for this fourth-generation company is simple — its people.
Cultivating an environment where people feel empowered, respected and invested in the process has always been part of the company’s mantra, but Sprague’s growth over the last three decades has led it down the path of investing heavily in organic leadership development.
“Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we needed to grow our internal business talent to match the expansion we were going through,” says Sprague Pest Solutions CEO Alfie Treleven, who, along with brother Larry, vice president of the firm, planted the seeds for the initiative. “We realized we had to change the game plan if we were going to take the company to the next level.”
That game plan originally started with the creation of a management training program to build bench strength in the ranks, but it evolved as the 21st century arrived to focus on developing leaders beyond the executive suite.
The company initially worked with a local business college on content development, but as the program evolved and there was a need for a deeper, wider syllabus, Sprague decided to take it in-house and develop the content.
“We wanted to establish leaders at all levels within the company and have it run through our DNA,” said Alfie Treleven.
A unique aspect of the program is that the leadership principles taught are not meant solely for use during the work day. It is expected employees participating in the program will apply these lessons in the community and in their lives outside of work.
“Highly engaged people at work, in the community and at home simply perform better,” says Treleven. “They are comfortable leading people and bring energy to work that raises the bar for everyone. They are on their game.”
Managing the program’s day-to-day process within the walls of Sprague’s multi-state operations are Jeff Miller and Leila Haas.
Haas, Sprague’s human resources director, says the leadership development program is a natural extension of Sprague’s philosophy of being a continuous learning organization.
“Development is something we make part of everyone’s job description,” says Haas, a former high school educator who holds a master’s degree in industrial and organizational psychology.
Haas says employees are encouraged to apply for acceptance into the year-long program and interest has never been higher. The current class of 12 participants was culled from a group of more than 20 applicants.
“Interest in the program has grown organically through word of mouth,” says Haas. “People are seeing the positive change it has made for others and they want to be part of it.”
The program starts with a review of Sprague Pest Solutions’ core beliefs and values, which sets the tone for the rest of the curriculum that emphasizes real world application of skills — not just theory. It also underscores the importance of working through adversity and turning mistakes into learning opportunities for improvement.
“We care about the whole person and teach to that,” says Haas. “The program exemplifies the Sprague culture of openness, trust and respect — and because of that we can use each other to learn.”
Miller, Sprague’s chief operations officer and lead instructor for the program, says the initiative also was born out of a need to provide employees with career advancement paths and a means for the company to retain talent.
“It is not a luxury or value-add program for the company,” says Miller, who joined the company in 1980. “It is a critical component for Sprague’s continued growth and development.”
Miller says there is a direct correlation between the growth of the company (Sprague ranked #28 on PCT’s 2016 Top 100 list, generating more than $26 million in revenue in 2015) and the leadership program.
“We have doubled in size since 2010 with only one acquisition, so the growth is organic and that speaks to the effectiveness of the program,” says Miller. “One of the unique benefits of the program has been the confidence it builds in people and the spillover effect that has taken place. People can do and achieve more than they think they can.”
The program, which has both self-guided and directed elements, encourages participants to think differently and continually strive for improvement.
“People want to have control over their careers and the program opens doors,” says Miller, who credits the Treleven brothers for investing in the program and having a long-term vision. “It reflects Sprague’s culture that expects individuals to work on bettering themselves and their careers.”
A fellow pest management professional once kiddingly referred to the program as a cult, a statement Miller took as a compliment.
“Our employees want the connection and it makes their jobs more than a paycheck,” says Miller. “The challenge is to continually raise the bar and take it to the next level.”
The author is a frequent PCT contributor and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.