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Columbia Business Monthly

Nothing Bugs This CEO

Aug 01, 2017 09:57AM ● By Emily Stevenson
By John Jeter

Precious little bugs Lex Knox. Which is a good thing, considering that he runs a sprawling pest-control franchise headquartered in Columbia. And not just any franchise—Knox’s grandfather bought an existing Terminix operation in 1947, the same year Knox was born. Today, both celebrate their 70th year, along with another milestone: the family-owned business is recognized as the nation’s eighth-largest pest control company.

“My father, Marion Knox, and my uncle, Thomas P. Knox Jr., worked together for many years,” says Marion “Lex” Knox Jr. “They had a remarkable relationship, riding in the same car to work every day for close to 50 years until they could no longer get in the car.”

Family values still imbue Terminix Service Inc. Today, the chairman and CEO says the company has always been as much about pests that people hate as it is about delivering service that customers love. 

“We’re a service. It’s not rocket science, it’s not prestige,” he says. “It’s providing a valuable service to protect peoples’ most valuable asset: their homes.”

That explains why Terminix Service generates more than $120 million in annual revenues, with 1,100 employees in branches in South Carolina, western North Carolina, and five counties in Georgia.  In June, Pest Control Technology listed Terminix Service the eighth largest among nearly 20,000 pest-control companies in the country. The Ohio-based national publication based its 16th annual list on reported revenues.

Knox attributes much of the company’s success to a corporate structure described as an inverted pyramid, with customers at the top, employees below them, then management. 

“The company was never ego-driven,” Knox says. “It’s not like there was one owner, but my father and uncle working together. They each had different personalities, strengths, and weaknesses, and that created interdependency. ‘Teamwork’ sounds so corny because it’s overused, but no one person drove the enterprise to make it successful.”

That’s trademark humility from the soft-spoken Knox, whose Terminix Service is one of the corporate network’s few franchises with original ownership. Terminix itself was established in Memphis, Tenn., in 1927, when one E.L. Bruce needed to protect the hardwood floors he manufactured from termites. Terminix Service remains independently owned and operated.

“All the franchises we offered were sold during the 1930s and ‘40s, so 70 years of ownership isn’t that unusual,” says Laird Hamberlin, vice president of sales, commercial, international, and franchise operations at Terminix’s Memphis headquarters. “However, Lex Knox is one of just a handful of descendants of original investors who is still operating his family’s franchise today.”

Knox’s grandfather, Thomas P. Knox, bought the franchise shortly after World War II. Today, officers include fourth-generation family members, including Knox’s son, Trevor, 33, who’s vice president of sales and marketing, his nephew, Rion Cobb, 39, VP of human services, and his cousin, Scott Fortson, 50, president and COO. Scott’s dad, Tom, is board vice chairman.

Knox didn’t know what he would do after graduating from The Citadel in 1969 and serving in Vietnam. Later, he approached his father, who shipped him off to a Terminix franchise in Norfolk, Va., to learn the business.

“Not many people grow up wanting to go into the pest-control business,” he concedes. “We do things people don’t want to do. It’s labor-intensive, winter and summer.” 

The company always promotes internally.

“All of our 53 branch managers have been route technicians,” he says. “That’s been a hallmark of our success, to provide that opportunity for employees to grow with our business.”

Says Hamberlin: “Lex runs a top-notch operation with a keen focus on customer satisfaction and treats his people like family.” 

Terminix Service may be old-fashioned, but its operations aren’t. 

“My father and uncle in the 1970s got a computer, of all things, to try to help manage multiple transactions, because we’re in a low-dollar-transaction business,” he says.

The company spends “not an insignificant amount of money in computer operations and technology,” he says, to keep up with customers and to handle the franchise’s complexity.

Knox himself sounds old school. He serves on the board of trustees at Columbia College, the all-women’s school his grandmother attended, and he and his wife of 43 years, Cathy, attend a Methodist church.

“I didn’t have any great aspirations to pull me into any other direction, like a writer or a painter,” he says. “My parents never said, ‘You need to do this,’ that wasn’t the case. I think it was just the course of events in life, and I followed that route, and things worked out very fortunate for me.”