Last year on June 25, when Ben Walker turned 50 years young, he laced up his running shoes and hit the road to complete a mile for every year of his life. It was 94°F that day in Greenville, S.C. So, Walker started out at 4 a.m. to beat the heat. His wife, Liz, met him several times along the self-made course with fresh shirts and socks, liquids of course. Colleagues from Gregory Pest Solutions also cheered him on, with their banners and fist-raising cheers.
Fifty miles. “I do a lot of running,” Walker says in his typical understated fashion.
Full and half marathons, trail runs and charity sprints. One of his favorites is the annual Make-A-Wish Foundation Trailblaze Challenge, a 28.3-mile hike along the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Gregory Pest Solutions is a longtime supporter of the organization and, over the years, Walker has managed to recruit some of his co-workers to slay the trail, too.
“Running gives you plenty of time to yourself without cell phones and emails and…you know, it just gives you time to get out and think,” Walker says, comparing long runs to a reboot button on a computer.
“It resets everything.”
Mental muscle and physical endurance are how a long-distance runner keeps going, making every kilometer count. It takes patience. And that is exactly the temperament you’ll find when you meet Walker in his office at Gregory Pest Solutions, which he joined in 1997, as a 27-year-old at a then $3-million company with about 40 employees.
Tammy Garrett, who can track Walker down in the office faster than he can run, has been with the business for 42 years. She was the first non-family member the Gregorys hired. Back then, co-founder Sara Gregory’s desk was a piece of plywood set up on cinder blocks. Phil Gregory was in the field with customers, servicing accounts. When Walker was hired, the business desperately needed an in-house accountant — someone to build financial and human resource infrastructure, like starting a 401(k) plan and writing a company handbook; creating and overseeing budgets; and positioning the company for growth. All things an expanding firm needs to do.
“He wanted to help Phil and Sara grow this company, and he just took it by the reins and got involved,” Garrett says, calling Walker “tireless” and yet also quite reserved. “He’s not the kind of guy who shoots from the hip,” she says.
Garrett shares what it’s like to enter Walker’s office — his door is always open, always — and ask a question, any question. “You can talk to him about anything, no matter who you are in the company,” she says. “And, he wants you to make your own decisions, so he gives you an opportunity to figure out things on your own and guides you.
“He asks, ‘What would you do in that situation?’” Garrett continues. “He asks you the questions that make you know you’ve got the right answer. You can do this. And then he’s like, ‘OK, you have the plan, so how are we going to get started?’”
His leadership is thoughtful, deliberate — strong and confident.
Phil Gregory, co-founder of Gregory Pest Solutions, puts it this way: “Ben is the epitome of humble, hungry and smart.”
And that’s exactly how he helped Gregory Pest get to where it is today, with 265 employees and eight operations, covering 12 states, No. 30 on the PCT Top 100 list.
Walker’s pace is competitive. And the tracking of every goal and milestone is thoughtfully considered. Gregory says, “The reason we were able to expand our footprint and develop into a strong regional company is because of Ben Walker.”
Managing the Managers
Walker was taken by surprise on his second day at Gregory in 1997. He walked into a managers meeting — he had experience overseeing teams, at one point in his career supervising about 100 people when he worked for a sporting goods corporation.
He had zero experience with pest control There were a half-dozen Gregory Pest managers at the table, along with Phil and Sara Gregory. “Phil introduced me to the room, and he announced that I was the general manager who will be overseeing the managers,” Walker says. “That was news to me! And, it was certainly news to them.”
Gregory says his goal from the beginning was to get Walker involved in “everything possible within the industry,” because he had a mind to eventually move him into a significant leadership role. “I wanted someone with the education Walker has, who was bright and maybe some day (could) run the business,” he says.
Of course, he didn’t tell Walker about his plan.
And, Walker says he entered the industry like so many do — from the outside — not necessarily realizing the level of opportunity the pest control market can provide. But he knew a lot about Gregory Pest Solutions and its reputation as a quality business because of his father, Emil Walker, head of maintenance at Bob Jones University, who remembers when Gregory first sold the university account. It was in the late 1970s. “Phil Gregory and my dad got to know each other pretty well,” says Walker, who was about eight-years-old at the time.
By the 1980s Emil Walker’s other son, Gus, joined Gregory Pest Solutions and rose to the position of technical director. Meanwhile, Walker attended Bob Jones University and graduated with a finance degree and a double minor in math and psychology. He went on to work for a sporting goods company, traveling and moving his family to different cities across the country as he climbed the ladder. He went from Greenville, S.C., to Denver, Colo., to Plano and Wiley, Texas. His last stop was Colorado Springs, and Walker was ready to settle back to his hometown of Greenville, where he and his wife grew up — where their children could grow some roots, too.
Walker’s brother gave him a tip. Gregory Pest Solutions was hiring an accountant. Walker jumped on it and interviewed with Phil and Sara Gregory at 4 p.m. in March 1997. “By seven that evening, Phil gave me a call,” Walker says. He was hired.
Phil Gregory says, “We usually take a couple of days to think about hiring decisions, but we were so impressed with the interview and Ben as an individual.”
He adds, “There are a lot of good people out there in the industry — but not a lot of good financial people, and our success story as a company is because of Ben’s expertise. Without that financial knowledge, it’s difficult to grow a company.”
Walker recalls the business when he first came on board. “It was almost as if Gregory was outgrowing itself. It had gotten to be about a $3 million business and there were a lot of structural things that needed to be put in place, such as a solid payroll system and putting GAAP-type principles in place. (For those not ingrained in accounting, that’s Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.) We needed to do some work on the benefits side, too, to make sure that we were up to speed with what the competition was doing at the time.”
And, let’s not forget, Walker also needed to learn the industry and how technicians operated in the field. While Walker did have experience managing others (from previous jobs), learning the day-to-day operations of a pest control business — and learning how the Gregorys did things — was an adjustment.
Phil and Sara Gregory have been valuable mentors to Walker, teaching him about the Gregory Pest Solutions brand and turning him on to industry associations, where Walker has taken leadership roles. For example, he eventually became president of the South Carolina Pest Control Association, director for the National Pest Management Association and vice chair for Copesan, among other positions. In May 2019, he was named to the board of directors of the Professional Pest Management Alliance.
Walker says, “I’m all about numbers, and Mr. Gregory was all about the brand — and over the years, that has certainly made an impression on me. Sara’s all about making sure employees are happy, and she does all the little things that are so important to run the back office.”
Ultimately, the biggest adjustment for Walker wasn’t learning the industry. It was navigating a small family business environment after working in corporate America. Thankfully, he did have that minor in psychology. “I tell everyone, I use that more than I do my math or financial degree because to work in a small company, you are close to everyone and working with different personalities and figuring out what makes people tick.”
Calming a Storm
“Ben is a calm, thoughtful presence — and at the same time, a very strong, determined leader,” says Stacy O’Reilly, owner of Twin Cities-based Plunkett’s Pest Control. She served on the Copesan board with Walker for years, and up until 2018 when Copesan sold to ServiceMaster.
“You can lead extremely effectively and still be quiet and thoughtful,” O’Reilly adds, noting that Walker also has a dry sense of humor. “Suddenly, he’ll give you a one-liner that will crack up the whole board room — he has a way of breaking tension with gentle humor.”
There were plenty of tense moments to cut through during a landmark industry deal. Gregory Pest Solutions had been part of the Copesan network since the early 1980s and a shareholder since 1997. Walker got involved in the Copesan Development Committee in 1998, a year after joining Gregory Pest Solutions.
“You talk about a great group of people to help lead and guide you along — these were leaders in similar positions in their companies, so being able to bounce ideas off of them and figure out where they had stumbled and where they had done well helped me greatly,” Walker says.
Walker was chair of Copesan’s Development Committee for two years, and he was named to its Board of Directors in 2008 through 2018. During that time, he served as treasurer and vice chair while O’Reilly was chair.
“I’m proud of how we were able to handle the acquisition between Copesan and Terminix,” Walker says.
O’Reilly adds, “Ben was so calm, and even though situations got tense and emotional, nothing ever got away from him. He never lost focus — never. He just doesn’t overreact, and there were plenty of times when one could have been extremely excited about things.”
Gregory says Walker’s financial acumen and people skills were a tremendous asset during the deal-making phase. “It’s not easy to represent a board of many, and he did a tremendous job of helping to bring that deal from stage one to the day it closed,” he said.
Meanwhile, back at Gregory Pest Solutions, Walker still managed major responsibilities. “It says a lot about his character that he never took his eye off the ball at Gregory in those times, and he was always able to balance and take care of everything,” Gregory says.
Garrett adds, “I’m like, ‘Where do you find the time?’ He gets involved and he is tireless.”
And yet, in spite of a very rigorous schedule and plate of commitments, his door is still open. Always open. Though, Garrett laughs, it’s best to wait until after 10 a.m. if you have “something big you want to talk to him about.”
“He’s here early, but that is when he is focused,” Garrett says of working alongside a leader that she and her colleagues admire. He makes the rounds every day, greeting everyone in the office. “Every single morning he does that,” she says. “He makes sure people know they are supported in every way.”
Walker is an advocate for his people. This dedication shows in the way team members are assuming leadership roles and taking on positions where they can make a difference in the industry.
“He reads every leadership book and attends every conference he can get his hands on,” Gregory says. “He transfers that information back to his team, and it filters throughout our company and makes a positive impact on our culture.”
Building with a Balance
“I’ve always been a numbers guy,” Walker says. “This business has always been about growth — we always want to grow; we never want to be comfortable with where we are at.”
Growth provides opportunities.
“When we continue to grow, we can move our people into positions where they can develop their careers,” Walker says.
The company is aiming to hit the $50 million mark in eight years, without growing its footprint. “We want to be $50 million within the states that we operate in right now,” Walker says. As of June 2019, the company was $23 million away from this goal.
But Walker owns this vision. So do Gregory team members.
And, Gregory is proud to have fulfilled his mission of making Walker an owner of the company — something he had in mind for years and executed in 2012. Gregory reflects back on how that happened: “After about 15 years on board with the company, Ben approached Sara and I, and said, ‘I would like to be a shareholder in the company,’” he says. “He told us he planned to be here the rest of his life, and he’d like to have a piece of the action. And it caught us by surprise at first.”
Not because Gregory didn’t have ownership in mind — but he hadn’t considered exactly how the succession would continue. Walker remembers that the conversation shut down pretty quickly when it came up in 2006. So he let it rest, and by 2011 when he brought up ownership again, it was time.
“Becoming president and an owner was a big milestone for me, and a succession plan was formalized,” Walker says, relating that not a lot has changed since 2012 with the ownership structure and their roles in the business. The company is continuing its assertive growth trajectory.
Meanwhile, Walker is seeing some “growth” in his own family — after welcoming a second granddaughter in July. His three daughters are Lauren Simms, 28; Caitlin Walker, 23; and Jillian Walker, 13. Their oldest daughter lives close to home, the middle one attends law school at University of North Carolina, and their teenager keeps their house and hearts full.
“No, she was not an accident — we planned it,” Walker quips. “Our two oldest were getting ready to move out, and we have always had great relationships with our kids, and we did not want that [empty house] to happen. The way to fight that was to have another.”
Walker is the token male at home — all daughters and granddaughters. Except, there’s Caymus the English Labrador. “He is all boy,” Walker quips.
The Walkers enjoy traveling out West, spending time outdoors. Walker adds, “I’m a jack of all (trades) and a master of none when it comes to sports. Golf, basketball, frisbee — it doesn’t matter. If its outside, I love playing.”
And, of course, Walker takes solace in his time pounding pavement, running. Will he continue adding a mile for every year on his birthday? “I’m thinking about running 55 miles every five years or so and seeing how long I can do that,” Walker says. “But, no promises.”