As one of the pest management industry’s most active and effective advocates on regulatory/legislative issues, Neighborly Pest Management President Jim Steed has a very simple explanation why he sacrifices considerable time away from his company for a pursuit filled with as many losses as wins.
“Everything I ever hoped to find I found in this industry, and it’s really what drives my passion for advocating for it,” Steed said. “This industry has given me so much that there really is no way I could even it up, but I try to do what I can by advocating in the regulatory and legislative areas.”
What the pest control industry has given Steed is an opportunity to work his way through the ranks from technician to president of a fast-growing pest control firm that has developed a reputation as an outstanding service provider and top-notch employer in the greater Sacramento area.
What is Steed’s secret to success? Whether its appearing before the state senate and assembly, or leading the Neighborly team, Steed understands how to connect with people, everyone from state legislators to his company’s CSRs and service technicians.
As Jim Fredericks, vice president, technical and regulatory affairs, National Pest Management Association, commented, “Some people just have a knack for communicating complex issues in ways that make sense. Jim is one of those people.”
Seeing An Opportunity
In the early 1990s, Steed, like many other young adults, was finding his way in the world, working in landscape construction and contemplating his future. On one of Steed’s off days his mom — who was volunteering at an employment place — phoned her son and asked him to drop off her lunch, which she had left at home. While there, Steed saw a description for an opening at Neighborly Pest Management.
“I thought to myself, spraying sounds a lot easier than moving sod and moss and rocks, so I applied for the job and got hired on February 1, 1993, as an assistant spray technician in the turf and ornamental department,” Steed recalls.
In those early years, Steed worked during the day, and at night he attended classes at a local community college, studying English and philosophy. “But once I got involved in the industry, I learned that I could make more money the harder I worked because it was commission-based. I quickly learned that coming in early, staying late, and working hard paid really well, especially compared to what I was making before.”
Steed’s performance in the field caught the attention of owners Rod Gollmyer and Elliott Roberts, and they began giving him additional responsibilities and titles. Pretty soon, Steed was running the daily operations of the business, allowing Gollmyer and Roberts to start winding down their daily involvement.
In 1999, Gollmyer and Roberts sat down with Steed to map out their exit plan and Steed’s future with the firm. “So, I worked for seven more years as an employee, and in 2006 I was able to join them and have a piece of ownership. Then progressively over the years, I got more ownership, and then when they were almost ready to retire (in 2013) I took over full ownership of the company.”
An Evolving Business
In the seven years since becoming owner, Steed has carried on the Neighborly culture established by mentors Gollmyer and Roberts, while also leading with a style and purpose all his own.
“Well, the first thing I did was change our logo to something that I thought was a little more 2013 than 1978,” Steed recalls with a chuckle. He also helped bring Neighborly more into the digital age, particularly in terms of using the Internet for sales and marketing purposes.
Other changes were less obvious, but perhaps of greater importance. “We began to modernize the way we communicated with our technicians and our customers,” he said. For example, Neighborly has improved and streamlined the way the company communicates to real estate agents, important relationships for the company.
When it comes to communicating and dealing with others, the company takes its lead from Steed, says Carlos Chitiva, a service technician at Neighborly the last 19 years. “If you do something well, Jim will compliment and reward you, and if you do something wrong he will let you know that too, but he will do it in a constructive way.”
Service professionals like Chitiva, who have cultivated long-term relationships with their customers, are key to Neighborly’s success, said Steed. Understanding that a company is only as good as its men and women in the field, Steed has implemented a rigorous hiring process to ensure that the Neighborly attracts, hires and retains the best possible people.
“We just hired two new employees and it took me six weeks to find them. And that’s really, really tough. We’ve had probably a dozen candidates, many of whom were licensed and wanted to come work for Neighborly because we have a pretty good reputation. But we held out to look for folks that seem to have the same set of shared values,” said Steed.
The result is Neighborly has many service professionals, such as Chitiva, with 8-10 (or more) years with the company. These practices, as well as other initiatives, are paying off for Neighborly, which has grown to service greater Sacramento and now employs 28 (up from 14 when Steed joined the firm in 1993).
Even before Steed officially took the reins at Neighborly, he began getting more and more involved in PCOC. The pest control industry in California is under constant pressure from activists. That more anti-pesticide restrictions have not been put in place is a credit to PCOC and some of the leaders who have served on its board such as Tom Meany and Darrell Ennes. These and other members inspired to Steed to get involved.
Steed has proven to be a natural at dissecting sometimes complex regulatory issues and deftly explaining the pest control industry’s position.
“Jim is excellent at telling the story and describing our point of view,” said Darren Van Steenwyk, technical director, Clark Pest Control, and fellow PCOC member. “There are many assumptions that our legislators make about us and our opinions; Jim takes the time to educate them and to correct any of those assumptions.”
Adds PCOC Executive Director Chris Reardon. “Jim is effective because he is authentic, experienced and always comes prepared.”
It’s also been incredibly helpful for PCOC to call on Steed because of his proximity to the state capitol building, said NPMA’s Fredericks. “Being in Sacramento makes it easier for Jim to be available to testify before lawmakers, visit offices or meet with regulatory officials. But it’s more than just proximity that makes Jim so valuable. The generosity he has with his time and his earnest advocacy for the industry are what makes him so effective as a leader.”
In recent years Steed has been on the frontlines for PCOC in the association’s ongoing fight against California legislation threatening to take away rodenticide options in California.
As Van Steenwyk noted, “Jim has made multiple visits to the Capitol building over years, telling our story and the impact that this would have on our industry. He worked to find common ground when the proponents of the bills did not want to. He testified on the behalf of our industry describing to the committees some of the realities of the situation, not playing on sensationalism.”
Another strategic growth decision that has been paying off for Steed was bringing on junior partner Sean Bradley (age 43) in 2013. A former claims adjustor who was “not enjoying the cubicle life,” as he put it, Bradley joined Neighborly in 2006 on the advice of his father-law-law (original partner Rod Gollmyer). He too has risen through the ranks at Neighborly from technician to manager to head of operations. In many respects, the apprenticeship Bradley is gaining at Neighborly is very similar to the one Steed received from Gollmyer and Roberts.
Bradley said he has enjoyed learning from Steed; the two will discuss everything from personality traits of potential new technicians and sales representatives to routing to big-picture growth initiatives.
“A lot of it is just about how he treats employees. No matter how busy Jim is he takes the time to find out how [employees] are doing at work and in their personal lives,” said Bradley, who added that it’s not uncommon for Steed to help employees with outside-of-the-workplace issues like securing home and auto loans. “One of the things Jim says is ‘If you take care of your employees, they will take care of your business.’”
With Bradley taking some of the day-to-day responsibilities off his plate, Steed has been able to spend more time traveling and being with his family, not to mention continue his active PCOC involvement. The partnership also has given Steed more time to plot strategic growth plans. By combination of organic growth and acquisitions, Steed thinks Neighborly has a chance to double both in annual revenues and service area in the next five years.
While Neighborly’s recent growth is a point of pride for Steed, what really “gets him up in the morning” is knowing the impact he can have on others, particularly his employees. “I have six employees that have bought their first home since they’ve come to Neighborly. It’s not been overnight, but what I do is I connect them with a plan and resources, and once they work on it usually within a couple of years, they’re able to buy a home. And those that have been able to do that are now coaching and shepherding others as well.
So, it has been really gratifying to me to know that I have folks who have full benefits, who make a great living wage and who are able to become homeowners.”