By Dan Sorenson –
There’s a lot more to Truly Nolen Pest Control than an old Tucson company with yellow VW Beetles painted up as mice and vintage cars parked on street corners.
Topping the list of things most Tucsonans probably don’t know about one of the city’s most familiar companies is that it’s actually a nationwide and international company with operations in more than 50 countries, including France, Argentina, China and the United Arab Emirates, including the Burj Al Arab, the famous 7-star, sail-shaped hotel in Dubai.
The company crossed the $100 million annual revenue mark two years ago – just before celebrating its 75th anniversary last year, said Michelle Nolen Senner, director of marketing and advertising at corporate headquarters in Tucson.
By the way, those old cars parked all over the place with the company’s name on them? Many of them run.
And, there really is a Truly Nolen. In fact, there have been a few of them.
Truly David Nolen, the 86-year-old ranking Truly Nolen, is still active – putting in five-day workweeks, but from Naples, Fla., rather than Tucson, where he moved in 1955 to start the company we know today.
Truly is a family name, he said. He’s the third generation Truly – and not the last. In addition to a son named Truly, there are seven other children with variations on the name – including Sincere Leigh and Really – along with some more conventionally named offspring, several of whom are involved in the company here and elsewhere.
The patriarch is not only still involved in the company, he’s sometimes paying attention to the day-to-day, even minute-to-minute operations. Longtime employees, including family members, say it’s almost like he’s still in the familiar, brightly colored offices at 3636 E. Speedway Blvd.
Calls from Florida are frequent and insightful, they say. Indeed, Senner, his daughter, said that here’s a business with hundreds of employees, offices all over the U.S. and much of the rest of the world and an exec in his mid-80s living 2,000 miles away – yet he still notices that a line employee who made some minor mistake a few years ago hasn’t had a raise recently. So, he calls up the corporate office one morning and out of the blue asks, “Say, we’re not holding a grudge are we?”
He casts a long shadow, though not a threatening one, Senner said. The community involvement is institutionalized in the company – and not just as a matter of good public relations. She said her father is generous by nature, instinctively doing little things, like lending out one of his old cars to an elderly couple celebrating an anniversary so they could be reminded of a first date.
That kind of attention to detail, and concern about employees, is at least partly responsible for the high percentage of employees who have been with the company 20 years – some 40 years – as the business celebrated its 75th anniversary.
It started with grandfather Truly Wheatfield Nolen, who founded a pest control company in Miami during the Great Depression. And it got legs when her father earned an entomology degree from the University of Florida, then struck off on his own after completing his studies to work for a company in Philadelphia. What Senner calls her father’s voracious lifetime love of reading – “he reads a ton” – spurred the jump to Tucson.
While in Philadelphia he saw a story in National Geographic magazine that said termite damage was rampant in Tucson. “And because it was the desert I thought that was contradictory to the normal behavior of termites,” he recalled. “So I moved out and started the business in 1955.”
Another twist of fate came about after he came to Tucson to set up that new company. He just missed the telephone directory advertising deadline. “Most people, when they wanted an exterminator, they looked to the Yellow Pages. Back then they only came out once a year. I had a long wait, so I (painted) a phone number on our only vehicle – and it broke down. I left it at a gas station for repairs. It sat for quite a while because the station didn’t want to repair it, or it wasn’t worth it.
“Meanwhile, I bought a second car and the same thing happened at a different gas station. And the calls picked up. I was going door-to-door, so at first I thought it was people I had left brochures with. But no, it was because of the cars. By the third car I actually went out and bought a real antique rather than just an old car.”
Son Scott Nolen, the company’s CEO and president, said there was, and still is, more going on with the old cars than merely a novel way to advertise. “People make an association – old cars, stability, reputation,” he said.
“I got cars back as far as 1906,” the elder Nolen said, adding proudly that the Smithsonian accepted his 1908 Sears for its collections. “People don’t realize you could buy a car in a catalog.”
The company has about 150 cars now, down from a high of 320. “We have two acres of land there over on Kleindale. We had it filled up.” It was so backlogged because “people wanting to work on these cars are few and far between.”
In addition to staying active in the business well into his 80s, Nolen said, “I fly, I have a sailboat and I scuba dive.” His daily ride is a 1957 Ford Thunderbird convertible. “Bronze color. I’ve never seen one like this before. It’s in good condition.”
He attributes the company’s phenomenal success to well-trained employees – and an oddity of the pest control business. “The people who have bug problems usually don’t put it off,” he said of demand for pest control.
“We’ve actually never had a down year because the economy doesn’t affect us very much. And we have a very good training department, which gives us kind of an edge. A lot of small companies can’t afford a substantial training department. Sending employees for months of training is expensive. It has to be looked at as an investment.”
The company recently purchased a 26,000-square-foot, three-building complex in the Williams Centre, including space for future building, said Greg Weatherly, executive VP of Truly Nolen. The first phase of the development at the Tucson site will be a remodeling job to create a training center for Truly Nolen company-owned and franchise operations in the western U.S.
There’s already an eastern U.S. training center in Orlando, Fla., where employees from Dallas, Houston and points east go for training. Western states employees are currently trained at the company’s 10,000-square-foot facility in Phoenix. By July, Weatherly said, the training segment of that operation will be moved to Williams Centre.
He sees the relocation to Tucson, in close proximity to headquarters, as a way to enhance the company’s connection with its people in the field. When they come in for training, people from the home office will get a chance to meet them in person. To that end, Weatherly said, the first phase of the Williams Centre complex build out will include an outdoor patio and barbecue where Truly Nolen workers here for training can meet and mingle with corporate staff.
New employees, people coming for continuing education and franchise purchasers will receive training in Tucson and be introduced to the Truly Nolen way of doing things.
It’s a lesson learned from the Orlando training center, which is co-located with what Weatherly calls their East Coast “mini corporate” center, housing their international and domestic franchise offices. That corporate staff gets to interact with everyone. “There’s a lot of culture and team environment that goes on there,” Weatherly said.
The Orlando facility also has what’s referred to as a “bug house,” which has Plexiglas walls and features a live bug display with a living termite colony.
There are no plans, for now, to build a separate live bug house in Tucson. Weatherly said the company will duplicate the exhibits for training and educational purposes that demonstrate construction types and how service protocols and equipment are used for various construction types.
Additional phases for the Williams Centre build out, both new construction and conversion of existing buildings after existing tenants move out, will include an expanded training center with a conference center and training areas that include a simulated commercial kitchen and warehouse. There’s also room to accommodate the company’s existing corporate offices and Tucson operations, now outgrowing their three buildings on Speedway, Weatherly said.
“It’s not the chemicals – it’s the knowledge,” Scott Nolen said of this company that also uses non-chemical strategies to control pests.
He said the company’s future lies in its staff of well-trained employees and the new training campus for extended education in pest control – giving the highly visible and internationally successful business an even larger local presence.