Coffee with a CEO: Business Journal talks to new owner of Bill Clark Pest Control Josh Smith

Taking the helm of a business with a 60-plus year history — one of the largest independent pest control companies in the state of Texas — at the young age of 35 might seem a little intimidating to most, but not to Josh Smith, the new owner/GM of Bill Clark Pest Control. Smith has worked his way up from the bottom — from sweeping floors to sales and pest control. He’s learned the ropes and earned his due, gaining the respect of company founder 85-year-old Bill Clark, who started the business as a one-man show in 1957, wearing the hat of salesman in the morning and exterminator in the afternoon.
Smith purchased the business in January and the Greater Beaumont Chamber of Commerce held a ribbon cutting to celebrate the change in ownership on Thursday, Aug. 9.
Clark said he would miss the day-to-day operation of the business, but believes he made the right decision to sell the business to Smith.
“I could have gotten more money if I would have put it out there to bid, but I like this concept,” Clark said. “Josh has been in the saddle and has proved himself. I never had any qualms about whether or not he could cut the mustard, so it’s a comfort zone for me to do this. I feel a lot better about it than if some big corporation would have come in and taken it over.
“I’d much rather Josh own it and my people be happy with what it is. Nothing has changed. When I go up there today it’s the same as it was a year ago. … I think it was a good decision and a timely decision.”
Clark said Josh and his father Ronnie Smith, who been a service manager for the company for more than 30 years are, like family to him. He has attended Smith family funerals and weddings alike and said he has great confidence in Josh’s ability moving forward.
The Business Journal had an opportunity to have coffee and a conversation with Smith to talk about the shoes that he must now fill.

Q. How did you get started with the company?

A. Right out of high school, I was looking for a summer job. I was about to start classes at Lamar (University) and my dad … was kind of my connection to get in. I just started out as part-time sweeping floors and running errands.

Q. Talk about your progression and climbing the ladder. What was your end goal and what drove you to continue to want to move up in the company?

A. I’ve always been very competitive. That’s part of it I guess. Starting out, it was just a job to help me get through college and earn my business degree. Once I … started actually getting to go out to people’s homes and businesses, I really liked the interaction. It’s a great environment to work in. There’s a really great culture in our company. … From sweeping floors to sales to becoming a technician, as I continued to work my way up, I was just hoping I could get into management someday. I remember my junior year of college (2005) talking to Mr. Clark and General Manager Buzz Kiker and asking if there was a possibility that I could stay on after I graduated and have an opportunity, and Mr. Clark, who always believes you work for what you get, said “There’s nothing right now, but at some point, I’m sure they’ll be something you’ll have an opportunity at.” It started at that, and when I graduated, I decided I wanted to stay and see how it worked. I was the assistant manager for five years working really closely with Mr. Clark day in and day out and learning from all his experience he’s had over the years. Our personalities clicked. We had a really good working relationship, and I think he saw my end goals were the same as his … After (Buzz) retired ... the new GM didn’t work out and … in 2014, I became the general manager. Since then, I’ve pretty much handled all the day-to-day operations. He came in and we’d bounce ideas off each other, but he basically let me run things the way I thought they should be run.

Q. How did the topic come up about you possibly buying the business?

A. It’s kind of a funny story. (Clark) wanted me to get involved with the (Beaumont) Chamber, when Jim Rich was at the Chamber. Jim also had the Economic Development Foundation and so I became an advisory director on the Southeast Texas Economic Development Foundation. The first meeting I went to, they were giving a presentation on an employee buying out the owner of the business. … Mr. Clark and I were going to a conference together and I asked him on the way what his future plans were and I told him what I’d heard at the Economic Development Foundation and asked if it was OK if I did a little research to see if it was feasible if maybe I could purchase the business one day and he was really open to it and he said, “I don’t have any intention of selling right now, but why don’t you check it out and just see if it’s even possible.” So, we looked at the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), where several employees could buy it out, but a lot of his close, personal advisors had not had a lot of success with those and they really thought it needed to be a one-person deal. … It started as kind of an emergency plan if something were to happen to Mr. and Mrs. Clark. It has kind of been in the works for the last few years. When we would be interviewing someone, the question would come up, “What would happen if something were to happen to Mr. Clark,” so I actually got up the nerve at some point to ask him what his future plans were. I’d been here for 17 years and part of management.  I had the opportunity to talk to him about it and he was open to the idea (of letting me purchase the company). After we held our 60th Anniversary Celebration last year, Bill decided that it was time to go ahead and move forward with the plan.

Q. Were you hesitant at first to ask him if you could purchase the business? It seems like it’d be a little scary as an employee asking your boss that question.

A. I was very hesitant at first, but the more I worked with him and got comfortable, I felt like the worst thing I could hear was no.

Q. This business has been around 61 years. What is your vision for this business moving forward?

A. For years, Mr. Clark would tell me our clients are our No. 1 asset, but at some point his philosophy changed to our employees are our No. 1 asset and then our clients because if you take care of your employees, they take care of your clients. That’s a key that we’re still striving for. As far as staying up to date, that’s one thing I think I’ve brought, is from the technology standpoint. Since I’ve been involved the last few years, we’ve went paperless, the technicians have handhelds — they’re getting the information they need on the account out in the field right at their fingertips whenever they need it. That has helped streamline us.