Defining leadership isn’t easy. Textbook definitions may add color to specific traits, but those traits can vary from person to person and by the situation. In the end, it is easier to recognize leadership when you see it, rather than what you’re told it is.
In late August 2005, the Rollins leadership team, like many companies with operations in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region, found themselves dealing with a crisis of epic proportions.
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which had laid waste to human life and property at levels not seen before, left thousands of Orkin customers and employees without access to food, water and shelter. Many were also unable to access their bank accounts to withdraw cash since ATMs had been damaged or looted. It was a problem large in scale but with few easy answers.
At a meeting to discuss the company’s response, Freeman Elliott, then regional manager for commercial services based in Atlanta, offered to drive to the region and provide relief to employees.
“I had worked in the region for a while and knew many of the people personally,” said Elliott. “And I knew how to get in and out of the city which was under martial law at the time.”
The offer to drive into the city was met with quizzical stares until Rollins Chairman and CEO Gary Rollins asked what do you need? Elliott said, “The banks are closed and the post office is closed. I need cash,” to which Rollins replied, “Get the man cash.”
Orkin secured the appropriate Department of Homeland Security and FEMA credentials for Elliott, who set out in an Orkin service vehicle adorned with extra logos so the National Guardsmen taking control of numerous checkpoints throughout the city would know who he represented. And he took a non-descript briefcase full of cash.
Colleagues told him not to be disappointed if he was turned away or was threatened with arrest for trying to access the impact zone even with the proper credentials. This was how dire the situation was, but Elliott was not deterred.He stayed in Mobile, Ala., and drove into New Orleans where he witnessed devastation unlike anything he’d seen.
“There are certain things you can’t unsee and I witnessed plenty of them,” recalled Elliott of his time driving through the city to meet up with Orkin employees.
Even though he was given the third-degree at the checkpoints, the Guardsmen and law enforcement officials recognized the Orkin brand and appreciated the dedication Elliott and the company were making to its employees.
Elliott said he was even getting unsolicited updates along the way from the people taking control of the checkpoints that due to flooding, Canal Street was being overrun with rodents emerging from the swollen sewers.
Elliott made it to one of the branches and had phoned those who he could reach to spread the word to employees he was there and ready to help. Four technicians and one manager showed up in uniforms, in clean vehicles and looking sharp. They all said they were okay, but they knew of a co-worker or elderly customer or neighbor who needed help.
“They put their co-workers,’ customers’ and neighbors’ well-being ahead of theirs,” said Elliott. “That said a lot about them and a lot about our culture.”
On the drive back to Atlanta, Elliott reflected on the experience. How amazing was it that the company trusted him to take a briefcase loaded with cash into a disaster zone. How bizarre was it to have the Orkin brand be recognized so readily by people who had far more important matters to think about.
“It made me proud of the Orkin brand and what it stood for,” said Elliott. “It was an example of leadership in action directly from the top of the company to do the right thing and take care of people. Those were some of the worst and best days of my professional career.”
Freeman very definitely has a ‘lead from the front’ mentality which I believe is essential for leaders in our industry. He impacts people positively in many ways.”
– JOHN WILSON, VICE CHAIRMAN, ROLLINS
A Georgian at Heart
Elliott grew up in Smyrna, Ga., where his dad took a job for Westinghouse and his mom sold Avon products. An outdoors enthusiast, Elliott and his brothers David and Jesse spent a lot of time outside.
Following high school Elliott enrolled at the University of Georgia as an undeclared business major. Looking to find a set of friends who shared his interests in music and family, and hailing from a rural background, Elliott joined Alpha Gamma Rho, the agriculture fraternity.
“My parents were initially opposed to me joining the fraternity, but I sold my mom on the notion this was not your typical ‘Animal House’ frat,” said Elliott. “I told her we ate dinner each night at 6 p.m. and said a blessing before each meal. That sold my mom.”
Elliott joined the house band after the drummer graduated and he and his band mates formed a lifelong bond (see Hitting the Right Notes sidebar, page 41).
His dedication to the university continued well into his professional career as Elliott served on the College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences Dean’s Advisory Council. He also served on the Search Committees for the university.
“It’s been very fulfilling to stay engaged with the university that gave me so much as a student,” said Elliott. “It’s where I made connections that led to me joining Orkin, and staying involved with students and faculty provides valuable perspective on what the next generation is thinking.”
Upon graduation Elliott joined Orkin as a lawn care technician after a recommendation from a fraternity brother’s father who was an Orkin executive. From there he started a climb up the corporate ladder that has seen him serve as a service manager and branch manager.
In 1999, Elliott moved to Orkin’s commercial division where he served as a regional sales manager, assistant regional manager and a regional manager from 2001-05, when he was promoted to assistant division vice president of Orkin’s Atlantic Division. He was promoted again to vice president of the Atlantic Division in 2010 and then president of the division in 2011. In 2014, the company was realigned, and Elliott was named division president of the new Southeast Division.
In 2016, Elliott was promoted to president of Orkin U.S. He has five Orkin U.S. Divisions, National Sales and Client Service teams, as well as the Orkin Customer Contact Center and Orkin Domestic Franchising reporting to him.
Leading From the Front
Even though he has risen to the corner office Elliott has never forgotten where he started, and he is always putting his people first.
Rollins Vice Chairman John Wilson has known Elliott for 25 years and said the thing that separates him from others as a leader is his dedication to his team.
“Freeman very definitely has a ‘lead from the front’ mentality which I believe is essential for leaders in our industry. They know that he would do anything for them, and as a result, there is not a mountain they will not climb in return,” said Wilson. “He impacts people positively in many ways.”
Wilson said Elliott’s strongest attribute is a real determination to succeed at whatever the mission that is assigned. “He just has a will about him where failure is not an option. He also inspires that same determination with his team,” he added.
When asked to share a story on how Elliott used his leadership skills to make a difference for a client, Wilson recalled a time when Elliott received a call for help from a customer late on a Friday holiday weekend. Given the after-hours nature of the call no one had responded, and it quickly escalated up the chain of command, finally reaching Elliott. He had already loaded his truck for a weekend trip with friends but after receiving the call, he cancelled his weekend plans and proceeded directly to the customer location, where he spent the entire weekend helping the customer through the issue.
“This is the kind of leader that Freeman Elliott always has been,” said Wilson. “No matter what he had planned, that customer needed help and that was going to come first.”
When asked to describe Elliott’s leadership style, Chris Gorecki, vice president of operational support for Rollins, said it starts and ends with his unwavering support and dedication to the front-line employees.
“He is a servant leader to his people and is always asking how a decision will impact the technicians and sales reps,” said Gorecki. “He understands the challenges of the day-to-day job in the field because he’s been there and done it.”
But he hasn’t done it alone. Throughout his career, Elliott has had the support of his family. “I have been very fortunate to lead this iconic brand,” he says. “My wife, Laura, and my children support me and keep me grounded. They are awesome, and I am extremely lucky and thankful to call them my own. They are the best.”
When asked his own definition of leadership, Elliott said a good leader must have three things — integrity, creativity and intellect.
“You can’t build an organization without them,” he added.
In his role Elliott said he hopes to be a servant leader to both the customer and his fellow team members. Having a sense of humor and perspective is also important.
“You have to be able to talk to people about things other than work,” said Elliott. “Find out about their family and their interests. It’s important in building bonds.”
He believes people watch leaders when things are challenging and look at how they react to tough times. Do they sink to a dark place and blame others, or do they accept responsibility and lead?
“We’ve all struck out on ideas we thought were home runs and I’ve learned to never fall in love with your own idea,” said Elliott. “It’s better to fail early than late and learn and move on. Don’t stay in the same spot. Remember, a setback is a set up to a comeback.”
Elliott said he learned from Rollins that being introspective on evaluating an issue is good practice, but that looking forward is paramount to successful leadership.
“If the ideas don’t reach the front door of a residential customer or the owner’s desk of a commercial client, then we haven’t done our job as leaders,” said Elliott. “Ideas must make it from the drawing room to the technicians and sales team in the field. They’ll keep us moving forward.”