Serendipity is a word not often associated with business, but don’t tell that to Gary Curl. Curl, a longtime executive with several pesticide manufacturing companies including Pennwalt, Whitmire Research Laboratories and American Cyanamid, grew up on a small 35-acre farm in Delaware where he was introduced to hard work at an early age, but also learned the value of education.
“Neither of my parents had a college education, but there was never a discussion in our household that we weren’t going to college,” said Curl. “Their view was if you have a college degree, it was worth something. It doesn’t matter what it was.”
In 1970, Curl enrolled at the University of Delaware with the goal of becoming a veterinarian, but a shift in plans led him to Dr. Dale Bray’s introduction to entomology course, opening up a whole new world for the ambitious student.
“I thought ecology was the place to be at the time, since the U.S. EPA was just being formed, but after being in Dr. Bray’s class, I realized there were more opportunities in entomology,” recalled Curl.
As a result, he shifted his focus to entomology, earning both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Delaware, and he fell in love with the university system with aspirations of achieving his Ph.D. “I sometimes think folks know exactly what they were going to do for a living,” said Curl. “My life was much more serendipitous.”
Transitioning from Academia to Business
As Curl was finishing up his master’s degree, a call came into the entomology department from a representative at Pennwalt Corp., who was looking to hire a field research manager. The call was transferred to Curl’s desk, and soon after, he was on his way to King of Prussia, Pa., for an interview. Another serendipitous moment.
Curl started with Pennwalt in 1976, managing a field research station in Warminster, Pa., screening insecticides, herbicides and fungicides. His boss gave him some sage advice that Curl took to heart.
He told Curl that without a Ph.D., he would never be the head of a technical department, but with his background he could be the general manager of an entire business. Those words nudged Curl from the technical to the business side.
In 1978, Curl was named manager of petitions and registrations handling for Pennwalt, working with the EPA where he registered KnoxOut 2FM insecticide, one of the only registrations issued that year. But with Pennwalt being primarily an agricultural-driven company, no one at the company knew much about the structural pest control market.
“During the registration process, I had immersed myself in the product and its capabilities and by default became the only in-house pest management expert at Pennwalt,” said Curl.
Curl was named the technical product manager for KnoxOut and by 1980 became the manager of specialty products. He continued to manage the KnoxOut portfolio as well as aquatic herbicides, ultimately being named business manager of specialty products with global responsibilities. In this role, Curl traveled the world extensively.
His travels to Egypt during this period were particularly interesting and done with a healthy amount of trepidation. Curl was in the country two weeks after President Anwar Sadat had been assassinated, and the situation on the ground was fluid.
Curl had plans to travel from Cairo to Alexandria, but Operation Bright Star, joint training exercises by the U.S. and Egyptian military, forced frequent changes to the itinerary.
Pennwalt was introducing KnoxOut to the Egyptian market, and Curl visited with more than a dozen of the country’s leading pest control companies. The idea was to repackage KnoxOut and sell it at gas stations in a manner similar to Shell No Pest Strips. (Note: The government had nationalized several international corporations, including Shell Oil, which manufactured the strips.) “The thought was if you could afford gas, you could afford pest control,” recalled Curl of the plan that never quite got off the ground.
As Curl was preparing to fly back to the U.S., he was told to be on the plane several hours before departure. “I remember sitting there and the pilot came on and apologized that we would not be able to enter Egyptian air space due to military activity,” said Curl. “The plane was surrounded by military jeeps. It was a scary time.”
Eventually, the plane was cleared to depart, and Curl remembered thinking, “I hope everyone got the same memo and verbal instructions not to shoot anything down.”
It was during this stressful time that he realized his girlfriend at the time, Carol, was the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with.
“I had no contact with her for 10 days in Egypt because of what was going on and this made me realize this was definitely the woman I wanted to marry, and we did the following year in 1982,” said Curl.
I first met Gary Curl 35 years ago while I was with Orkin...Like his mentor, Blanton Whitmire, Gary treated both his customers and competitors with respect. He always spoke truth and did what was right, irrespective of the competitive forces at play.”
— DR. MICHAEL POTTER, PROFESSOR EMERITUS, UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY
An Important Mentor
During his tenure at Pennwalt, Curl had the opportunity to meet a man who would eventually become not only a mentor but a close friend.
“We didn’t have a large enough field sales force at the time, and I saw an opportunity to work with Whitmire to expand the sales of KnoxOut,” said Curl. “I spent a lot of time visiting St. Louis and became familiar with Blanton Whitmire, Dan Stout, Dave Naffziger and the folks there.”
In 1986, Pennwalt was the target of a hostile takeover and Curl saw the writing on the wall. He made the move to Whitmire in January 1987 to oversee the company’s sales and marketing efforts.
Curl recalled an experience soon after he started with Whitmire that reinforced his decision to move his family from the East Coast to St. Louis.
“I had just started and was in Blanton’s office late in the day and he asked me to run a package out to Charlie on the loading dock to have it sent out,” recalled Curl. “I go out to the dock and tell Charlie, ‘Blanton wants this package shipped out today.’ Charlie said, ‘Not going to happen.’”
Curl was taken aback that a request from the company president wasn’t being followed, but Charlie was adamant — the package was not going out until the next morning.
“I walked away shaking my head wondering how this guy on the loading dock could get away with not doing what the president of the company wanted him to do,” said Curl. “I went back to Blanton and told him Charlie ‘acts like he owns the place’ and his reply was, “I wish everyone thought that way.”
On the drive home Curl realized a lesson learned. If management empowers staff to make decisions, only intervening as the situation warrants, the culture will thrive, and that’s exactly what happened. It wasn’t essential the package arrive overnight, so Blanton’s message was clear: the loading dock staff had the autonomy to make their own decisions.
During his tenure at Whitmire, Curl was deeply involved working with other manufacturers to secure various active ingredients. “I spent half of my time selling and marketing and the other half trying to bring in new chemistry,” said Curl. “It was an exciting time and very rewarding professionally.”
Following Whitmire’s sale to S.C. Johnson, Curl left to become business director at American Cyanamid. He stayed in that role until 2000, when BASF purchased the company. Ready for his next career challenge, Curl took a leap of faith and became his own boss.
Taking the Leap
Entrepreneurs are characterized as unbridled spirits who, in pursuit of success, often lead through the power of their personality. The reserved Curl does not fit that description, but has proven to be an effective leader nonetheless.
“I didn’t have a plan to start my own business, but I remembered what Blanton told me, ‘If you do the right thing, the money will take care of itself,’ and that was my business philosophy from the start,” said Curl.
When Curl founded Specialty Consultants in August 2000, there was a void of reliable market data for the non-crop specialty chemical business. Manufacturers and distributors on the crop side relied upon mountains of data from government agencies like the Department of Agriculture, but for those in the structural pest control and turf and ornamental space there was little if anything to go on.
“I wrote myself a business plan of all the things I would want to know as a business manager, and this helped form the basis for developing a questionnaire,” said Curl. “I wanted to know which suppliers the industry valued and who they would buy from.”
Curl said there was apprehension in the beginning since he was the new kid on the block and industry colleagues knew him, but not as a market researcher. It took several years before he began to feel secure that the report was hitting the mark and would stick around for the long haul.
His original business plan was to alternate reports between the pest control and turf and ornamental markets. After the release of the initial pest control market report, suppliers told him they couldn’t work with two-year-old data, and the reports, which basic manufacturers, distributors and leading pest management professionals rely on heavily to make key strategic business decisions, became an annual product.
“The biggest thing is the trust people have put in me with the reports,” said Curl. “I can’t tell you how great that makes me feel. For me the business has always been about trust.”
Norman Goldenberg, a former executive with Terminix who has worked with Curl for decades as a customer and industry colleague, said Curl’s sincerity and down-to-earth style impressed him. “Gary is what I would describe as a ‘type O’ donor who has always been willing to share everything he knows about running a successful pest management business with his customers,” said Goldenberg. “He is a very positive person and great family man who always delivers on his promises.”
Of the annual market research report, of which Goldenberg and Terminix were one of the first customers, Goldenberg said it has served as a valuable road map for industry professionals to chart past and future trends, a sentiment echoed by Dr. Michael Potter, professor emeritus, University of Kentucky.
I first met Gary 35 years ago while I was with Orkin and he was vice president of marketing for Whitmire Research Labs,” he recalled. “Like his mentor, Blanton Whitmire, Gary treated both his customers and competitors with respect. He always spoke truth and did what was right, irrespective of the competitive forces at play."
For years, I used Specialty Consultants’ findings to help chart the direction of my own program, as have industry leaders, practitioners and academicians to this day.” In summation, he said, “Gary is one of the smartest, honorable, considerable colleagues I’ve been blessed to have known.”
Rich Kalik, Curl’s partner in Specialty Consultants, said Curl’s vision for the report has empowered industry marketers and executives to make sound business decisions based on current market realities. “Gary’s research has helped shape the pest management industry for an entire generation,” said Kalik. “He developed data gathering and analysis techniques that continue to deliver value.”
Kalik said integrity is part and parcel of every aspect of Curl’s personal and professional life. “Gary could easily analyze and apply the data in the report to a client’s business when the research was positive, but he also had the unique ability to communicate research results that were not so positive,” said Kalik. “Clients came to know and expect honest market analysis and recommendations from him.”