Ted Burgess Jr. always has been a runner. He started college on a full athletic scholarship and was training to participate in the 1972 Olympic trials when he sustained an injury that required surgery and physical therapy. His scholarship was revoked, and the young man, raised in the projects on the East Side of Brockton, Mass., had no resources to continue his education. The odds of his achieving his career goal of becoming a physical education teacher looked slim.
Burgess was drafted into the Army and deployed to Germany and then Vietnam. Once he had served his 12-month tour of duty, he went back to college, this time on the GI Bill. When he had one semester of student teaching left to complete his degree, he applied for a teaching position in a parochial school.
“I told my wife, Gayle, ‘I’m not coming back without this job,’” recounts Burgess. He kept his promise. When the interviewer, a nun, balked at hiring a teacher who was not yet certified, Burgess offered to work for free until he had completed his degree. “I said, ‘Sister, you need a teacher, and I need a job.’”
That brand of persistence earned Burgess not only the teaching job but also, years later, posts on city council (including councilor-at-large and president) and the Massachusetts House of Representatives. It would land him one more important opportunity as well: the opportunity to build his own pest management company.A MORE PROFITABLE PATH.
Burgess loved teaching phys ed and biology, but found that he also needed to coach cross country, mow the school’s athletic fields and work at a package store to make ends meet for his family of five. He and Gayle reflected on an opportunity he had declined before becoming a teacher. When Gayle’s grandfather, Lester Walsh, passed away, leaving the pest management business he had established in 1929, Burgess was offered the opportunity to manage it.
“I turned it down because I wanted to pursue my life’s ambition of becoming a teacher,” he shares. “But, after several years of teaching, I recognized that I needed a career with better pay. Since Gayle had grown up in the pest management business, she knew its great potential. At one point, she read an article in The Boston Globe saying that service industries would be the successful businesses of the future. We decided that if the opportunity to become involved in her grandfather’s business ever surfaced again, we would take advantage of it.”
That opportunity came in 1983, when Gayle’s father left the business. Burgess decided to run the small company nights and weekends to supplement his income.
Once he completed his first termite job, he changed his plan. “I worked all day at a house treating for termites the old-fashioned way — digging the trench, rodding the soil every foot, and drilling the concrete steps and the perimeter of the basement floor every 12 inches. By the end of a 12-hour Saturday, I was completely wasted, covered in dirt and convinced I couldn’t keep this up. Then I got paid. In my hands was the equivalent of one week’s paycheck as a teacher. I went home and told Gayle to order Chinese food to celebrate. That termite service marked the end of my teaching career.”
Soon Burgess’ one-man operation took on growth potential. “For a while, it was just Gayle and I. She was fantastic. She set up the office and programs, and shared everything she knew about the business. Personally, I didn’t know a cockroach from a firefly back then. I did a lot of reading, research, on-the-job training and trial-and-error.”
Today, Burgess Companies includes three pest management companies and a lawn care and fertilization company, Burgess Turf Management. The companies employ 40 people and continue to grow.
“We believe in growing because of our employees, not in spite of them,” says Burgess. He invests in educational opportunities, provides compensation exceeding the industry standard, and for many years, carried employees during slow winters when there wasn’t enough work for everyone, even if it meant losing profit. Burgess views employees as an extension of his own family, earning loyalty that, for many employees, has spanned decades. “You have to first believe in your people to have them believe in you,” he says.
Ted and Gayle Burgess are transitioning control of the business to their sons, Ted III and Ryan (daughter Kellie is a teacher), as well as David Flynn, the company’s operations manager, whose grandfather worked at the company for decades. Ted III shares, “I have had the unique experience of watching my father, my idol, work hard and achieve the success he deserves. He was a pioneer of IPM long before the industry gave it a name, and he has made a conscious effort to impart a family-first, values-based approach to our company. We are very excited to carry on the business following his lead.”
Burgess’ dedication to running hasn’t waned a bit. At 65, he continues to run competitively, in marathons, half-marathons, 10ks and more. In 1990, to celebrate his 40th birthday, he ran 40 miles in one day…and then went to work!
The author is a frequent contributor to PCT magazine. Email her at email@example.com.