Job Spotlight: 'Bug Man' John Allen shares pest control secrets

It might be said that John Allen was born and bred to be a "bug man."

Back in his teens, after arriving home from Kendrick High School, instead of immediately tackling his homework, he would glance over at the TV set where his father, John Sr., had left his own instructions.

"He would have a clipboard on the television set with five customers for me to go to work," said Allen of the Allen Exterminating Co. operated by his dad. "Back then we were known as the Orkin man. I don't care who you were, customers would say, 'The Orkin man's here.'"

The company started by his father in 1966 was bought out by Arrow Exterminators in 1996, after the senior Allen's death. The younger Allen was quickly let go by the company, but with his daughter developing multiple sclerosis, he needed a job fast. And he knew pest control from top to bottom.

"I had been doing this so long that everybody knew my name," he said.

That led to the startup of Pesty John's Pest Control, a name that came from a Georgia Department of Agriculture official who, in an off-the-cuff remark, recommended it to keep names Allen had suggested from conflicting with others similar to it.

Sixteen years later, the company is still waging a battle against bugs, with Allen seeing steady growth in this Deep South market of Columbus and Phenix City. He has 11 technicians, two supervisors and three office staffers.

In a recent interview, he discussed his job as an exterminator and problems that can drive residents simply buggy. It has been edited for length and clarity.

What do you like most about your job?

It's something different. You're meeting someone different every hour, you're going into someone else's house. You're not stuck someplace in a warehouse. You're meeting another customer, and she's got a different granddaughter or grandson you can talk about. They're playing on different ball teams, they have different colleges they like. You're doing your work and it's just all day long you're meeting someone new, and I love people.

What kinds of folks do you run across?

All kinds. You learn to look at the surroundings, and you know what to talk about by looking at someone's house. You may walk in one home and see a Bible on the counter. You may walk in another one and see a Playboy laying there. It's just different people and you know what to talk about and not talk about. You remember that you went to Mrs. Jones' house and her granddaughter fell at the ballfield and broke her arm, and you ask her how she's doing.

Those relationships develop through the monthly visits?

I've got customers who've been around forever and forever. Who else other than a pest control guy comes into your house and goes into your closets and goes into your dresser drawers doing inspections for bugs and treating for bugs. You're like a member of their family.

Is there anything you do not enjoy about it?

Just lately because of the way the economy is. Some people are definitely having problems paying their bills. That's probably the only thing I do hate about it is trying to collect sometimes. I thoroughly understand that everybody is having a hard time.

Has the economic downturn affected you?

The economy hasn't affected my business because I've grown by leaps and bounds since 2007. I'm blessed ... It takes good service. You can't make everybody happy. But I can promise you we'll make 99 percent of them happy.

What's a typical day like for a pest control technician?

These guys leave here every morning with anywhere from 13 to 15 customers to go service. There are set appointments and times, and they have to be there on time.

They're going to run into problems all day long. They're going to find infestations that they didn't know they were going to have to deal with. They're going to find a customer is not at home. He's going to sit there and wait on her or he's going to be late for the next customer.

Are pest control people trained?

We're regulated by the Georgia Department of Agriculture. Years ago you could hire anybody off the street, give them a couple of weeks of training and let them go at it. You can't do that anymore. Everybody has to be registered and licensed by the state of Georgia now.

It's required that they at least get a minimum of 40 hours in the field, and classroom training of about the same. They have to pass a 100-question test, which they take here at Columbus Tech.

They can be fined just like I can be fined. If they go out and apply pesticide in the wrong spot or in the wrong area or at the wrong time, they could lose their registration just like I could lose my license for them doing it.

What's your relationship with bugs? Do you hate them?

That's a hard question to answer. They give me my living, so I must love them. (laughs) I tell you, I hate snakes. But bugs don't bother me. Believe me, I've gone in some houses that you wouldn't want to talk about.

Which bugs are most dangerous to people, mosquitoes?

Mosquitoes, yes, but a big thing we're having right now and that has been going on for about a year heavy is bed bugs. It's terrible. In homes and apartments, student housing and those types of places.

Why is that?

The travel that everyone's doing now. If you think about it, if you put your suitcase in an airplane and it's going in the hull of that airplane and sitting beside somebody else's suitcase, you don't know where they've been. They could jump from their suitcase to your suitcase. Then you take it home and you unload the suitcase on the bed and leave it sitting in the corner for a week and you've got them. You can pick up bed bugs in a movie theater.

How do you treat for bed bugs?

That's a very extensive treatment. Really the only way to get rid of them entirely is to use heat. We have a piece of equipment and it actually puts out 295 degrees of heat. It takes you almost a whole day to treat one room.

You've got to go in every crack and crevice. You have to take things apart. You have to remove mattresses and throw them away. Just because they're called bed bugs doesn't mean they stay on the bed. They get into dressers, telephones, lamps. They get into the light sockets and travel the electrical wires.

We've been in some places here recently and they're just literally crawling on the mattresses and people are sleeping on them. I don't know how they do it.

Which bugs or pests are most dangerous to a person's property or home?

Termites. We've seen some extensive damage. But if you're doing your job and people are watching their property, they're not going to have too much damage.

I had a customer that we'd had on our termite control for six years, I guess, and when it came time to do a retreatment on his home last year, he canceled it. He said, 'I just can't afford it. I'm not going to do it because I haven't had any termite problems.' Well, his sister lives in New Orleans and she had over $12,000 in damage done to her home. He came back this week and called us and said, 'Look, I think I need to do that again.'

It's not just homes, but commercial buildings that need protection?

We do commercial accounts, like offices and those types of things. But we also do restaurants. The agriculture department has pretty much changed the rules. You have to do those now when they're closed and not going to be open. Schools and day cares can't be open for at least three hours.

Does the industry frown upon do-it-yourselfers?

No, that's fine. There's always going to be people doing things themselves. The only thing I would say is that they need to take precautions. Really and truly everything we use nowadays is safe as long as you use it properly.

The chemicals under your kitchen sink are probably more hazardous to your health than the pesticides we use. It's because of the way you use those things under the sink.

But with someone buying their own pesticides and doing there own service, as long as they're taking precautions to protect their health and their children, it's alright. There's always a percentage of the population that does not have pest control.

What's your number one tip for residents keeping pests to a minimum in and around their dwellings?

It depends on the pest. But let's take roaches, for example. It's about being clean and keeping a sanitary house. There's a lot of protein in dog food. When you get to silverfish and earwigs, that's what they thrive on is protein. If you leave it sitting in a bowl, you're going to have those problems.