50 years of service

50 years of service

Norm Goldenberg reflects on a half-century spent in the pest control and lawn care industries, and his goals as the new president-elect of PLANET.

June 20, 2011

Norman Goldenberg has spent 50 years growing green businesses.

A board-certified entomologist with a degree from the University of Florida, he joined Orkin in the 1960s, moving up in the ranks to cover seven states for that company. Later, he purchased his own pest control firm, eventually selling to Waste Management and managing hundreds of millions of dollars of more acquisitions.

He eventually wound up at Memphis-based ServiceMaster, putting his decades of experience as a salesman, entrepreneur and negotiator to use working for both TruGreen and Terminix.

A fixture at association meetings and on Capitol Hill, Goldenberg was recently named president-elect of PLANET. He’s also served on boards or leadership positions for groups like the National Pest Management Association (NPMA) and Project EverGreen.

“I have always been an association person,” Goldenberg says. “I’ve always believed that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”

Goldenberg, now a senior vice president for ServiceMaster, spends his days tracking regulatory issues facing both the lawn care and pest control industries, as well as assisting in acquisitions and franchise development.

“I still have an office in Memphis, but I’m not there a lot,” he says.

Lawn & Landscape caught up with Goldenberg during one of his many trips, this one at PLANET’s Leadership meeting, where he was voted in as president-elect.

He discusses threats to the industry, the future of associations and what it’s like to work for the industry’s largest company.

When you think about the industry over the next 50 years, what do you see?

I think people will always want a nice green lawn. For some it’s a status symbol in their neighborhood, for others it’s all about something for their kids and pets to play on and still others want to use it as an extending living area.

Overall, I think we’ll continue to see growth in the industry, because of the need folks have to enjoy their outdoor space. Some of that growth will come from the introduction of new products and services such as organic and tree and shrub care. There are people who have the extra disposable income and are willing to pay a little more for organic programs.

How big are those organic options as a percentage of the services you offer?

Probably under 5 percent. We live in a society of instant gratification. The majority of people want results and they want those results now, not later. They don’t want to wait to see a difference in their lawns. They want to begin to see results right away.

Do you see Canadian regulations coming down across the border?

There are attempts every year. This year it’s greater than ever. Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut banned use in school yards this year. There’s a bill that was just introduced in Maine to not allow anything for aesthetic purposes for lawns, including golf courses – to leave weeds and natural growth on golf courses, returning to mechanical means to clear right of ways along highways.

But there are preemptions in most of the states in the United States which Canada did not have. So the preemption would have to be overturned in most of these states in order to do what Canada has done.

And there is legislation that’s been introduced to allow municipalities to regulate lawn care applications – lawn care businesses. Whether they go anywhere remains to be seen.

Groups like NPMA and Professional Pest Management Alliance have done a good job at communicating their industry’s importance – thanks in part to very tangible pest pressures. Can you can get to that point where consumers will feel the same way about lawn care?

We’ve got some good messaging. And I agree with you, by the way, about what you said about PPMA. You’ve got public health pests. You’ve got bugs. You’ve got rodent disease, and you’ve got mosquitoes and Lyme disease from ticks.

I was sitting in a focus group a while back and we were talking about lawns. The facilitator said to one of the participants, ‘Well, you say that if everybody in your block had a brown lawn that would be OK.

But if everybody has a green lawn, you want a green lawn. What would you say if you had a cockroach in your kitchen?’ The response was, ‘Napalm wouldn’t be strong enough.’

I think that’s a pretty good example that came from a consumer: That a pest in your house is different than a lawn, for many people. I think consumers inherently understand that grass is good for the environment and for individual health.

What’s been the biggest change you’ve seen in the industry itself?

If we sprayed the wrong lawn, we would tell the customer – or we would tell the person who owned the property on which we sprayed the lawn – that we’re sorry, we’ll only charge you half. And most of the time they would pay it.

And then it evolved to we’d come to someone furious and we’d offer it to them free of charge. And then it evolved that we would clean it up or pay them, or both. And then it evolved into lawsuits.

Then you’re paying them.

That’s where we are today. I think the biggest change, at least from where I sit, has been the involvement of environmental and activist groups who are pushing their own agenda on different states.

They are trying to regulate how individuals should treat and deal with their own personal lawn spaces. The environmentalists do this with no regard to science, or they use their own junk science.

It’s been proven time and time again, and even the EPA says that when applied in accordance with the label direction, there is, and I quote, “no reasonable certainty of harm.”

A lot of small business owners like to beat up TruGreen, for a host of reasons. How do you respond to things like that?

As the market leaders, we are the target. We’re the focal point. Obviously, we have a scale of business that allows us to do things that a smaller business couldn’t do, that I couldn’t do when I competed against Terminix and Orkin when I had my own business.

This can be especially upsetting when we follow or even set rules and best practices and someone else who has just one or two trucks goes out and does something that embarrasses the industry and then the activists come after us because it’s easier to go after the market leader than the small business owner.

So we end up being the piñata for the industry for many outside groups. But that’s something you have to deal with when you’re the biggest player.

What do you want to see PLANET accomplish?

I want to see us try to amalgamate with other state associations. NPMA has been somewhat successful with this. I want to see us try to accomplish the same thing. We’re embarking on a path here that could triple our membership, easy. We’re starting off from talking to a couple of associations, and it’s a great opportunity for members who never thought they could afford to join both their state and national trade associations.

So what other associations or groups will you become president of?

I think this may be it. I think I’ll just be a member, and after this is up, then we’ll see where it takes me.

I’ll tell you, with every association that I’ve been involved with, they’re rewarding – and maybe I’m a glutton for this, but the reason is the people. And it’s the reason I stay involved in the industry, why I’m still working. I love the people internally with our company. And I love the people externally in the industry that I deal with.

Any final thoughts?

Two words – involvement and participation. My whole life has been dedicated to participation. I’m talking from the time I was in high school and was in clubs and college in a fraternity, and doing things and not sitting back but becoming a chairperson, becoming an officer, and I feel very strongly about that. I was very active in the trade associations when I started off in this business.

I was a constant attendee of regional pest control meetings. You know, the one thing I can say about my career in this business – I can go to most cities in the United States and have a colleague, a friend that I could call and have breakfast, lunch, dinner. I think that’s saying something. And it’s a great honor.

The author is editor and associate publisher at Lawn & Landscape. He can be reached at cbowen@gie.net.