It’s indeed easy to say that Norm Ehmann, vice president emeritus for Van Waters and Rogers (VW&R), is a living pest control industry legend. That’s the easy part. The hard part might be to define Ehmann’s professional career. Two simple words, “professional trainer,” might just help things along.
When the pest control industry first started to evolve into what it has become today, Ehmann hit upon the idea of training those people who were doing pest control work in people’s homes and businesses. As he always has, Ehmann put his money where his mouth is as he set out to do the original training during an era when trainers were few and far between.
“It was okay to go out and squirt some chemical, which was what was being done in those days, but it was another thing to know enough about the pests to squirt in the right direction,” he says.
The first training class that Ehmann held was in 1954, but let’s let him tell the story for a while.
“The first training class we had was one on termites, and we called it a termite ‘seminar,’ ” he says. “Five people came to see what a seminar was and we built from there.
“I found out that people who came to the training seminars were not only service personnel, but also owners/pest control operators (PCOs). They were dry as a blotter for good information about their business.”
However, the idea wasn’t all about philanthropy for Ehmann and the company he was working for at that time, Neil A. Maclean Co. Maclean was eventually purchased by NAMCO, and then that organization became part of today’s VW&R in 1974.
“The idea of having the seminars was to attract pest controllers to our place of business,” Ehmann states. “I figured if they came to our place of business enough times to learn something, they would also come to buy something. It worked.”
The idea worked so well that it became lifetime work for Ehmann. Still, as far as Ehmann knows today, he was probably one of the few people, or he may have been the only one doing early pest control training on the West Coast.
“The only place you could go to learn about pest control was to UCLA and take a course there,” he says. “Those courses weren’t aimed toward service personnel, and they weren’t all that practical.”
There wasn’t any other place to get information.
John Osmun as Mentor
“About that time, I started going to the Purdue conference and I met John Osmun. He was my early mentor and he took me under his wing.
“I came back from those conferences so enthused and so full of information that I wanted to get this good information out to technicians in terms that they could understand.
“This information needed to be in terms of what was going on around the technician. Things that he saw every day in his work. I wanted to interpret those things to him a little better,” Ehmann says.
“So, I started riding with pest control servicemen just to see what they were doing and what problems they were up against. I figured the more I could learn about technicians and what they were doing, the better I could sell pest control products,” he states.
Over time, Ehmann put all of his acquired information together and started the training classes.
The training may have been a little easier when the industry was turning the corner in the 1950s and 1960s, as the compressed air sprayer was the main piece of equipment and chlordane was the most widely used pesticide.
“I remember going out in the field with chlordane and telling PCOs that it didn’t kill plants. They didn’t believe me until they tried it and then the word spread like wildfire. Overnight, chlordane became the product of choice,” Ehmann says.
“It was used for termites as well as for general pests, but one year, cockroaches and fleas weren’t affected by it anymore. That was about the time that the organophosphates started to come along. Diazinon was one of the first ones, and it’s still on the market nearly 50 years later.”
Ehmann’s training programs got a real boost in the early 1960s, when a retired PCO by the name of Stennett Heaton popped in his office one day and started to show Ehmann some of the slides he had taken of various pests. The photos were close-up work of various insects and their body parts.
“They were fantastic,” Ehmann recalls. “I asked him if he would like to work for us and put those photos into slides.”
In that way, Ehmann’s training programs took on new meaning with the use of slides and, of course, the VW&R slide series was born.
“He would come into the office and ask ‘What do you want next?’ ” Ehmann remembers. “It was a miracle that Heaton came along when he did to illustrate the seminars. The seminars became more meaningful from then on.”
Through the years, Heaton felt that he was getting too old to do the slide job any longer, so the work was then turned over to Larry Allen (after some training from Heaton). All of this work has now led to VW&R’s personal computer modules, which contain 8,000 slides on various pests.
When Ehmann first launched his training classes, they were confined to California, and he decided to look East.
“I can remember being a salesman in Southern California when I decided to go to Arizona to see what was over there,” he says.
In Arizona, most of the actual pest control work was being done in Phoenix and Tucson. During one of his trips to Arizona, Ehmann met Dr. Larry Carruth, from the University of Arizona. Ehmann and Carruth put their collective heads together, along with the Arizona association’s president, John Dwyer, and they launched seminars and conferences in the state.
“My boss told me not to go to Arizona because they were all crooks over there,” Ehmann recalls.
It seems that an Arizona PCO had purchased a three-pound container of methyl bromide from Maclean and hadn’t paid for it.
Nolen First Customer
“My first customer in Arizona was Truly Nolen, who just came into Tucson,” Ehmann says. “I phoned Maclean with an order from Nolen, but Maclean said he would not fill the order. Nolen then took the phone and got Maclean to agree to ship the order. Nolen became a good personal friend of mine. I admire him, he is not the run-of-the-mill kind of guy.”
Over time then, the training being done at VW&R became too much for just Ehmann to handle. So, training became a requirement for all VW&R salespeople. Those training classes turned out to be highly successful.
In the 1970s, Ehmann began tracking attendance at his seminars in order to satisfy regulatory requirements. By 1982, Ehmann was told by his secretary that he had trained more than 100,000 pest controllers. Since 1982, he estimates that more than 200,000 additional people have attended the VW&R classes.
If you add another 100,000 to the total before Ehmann and the VW&R folks started tracking seminar attendance, the number of people trained under this program could be in the range of 400,000.
“VW&R has a training seminar somewhere in the United States every day,” Ehmann says.
The Maclean Co. was launched in 1938, and Ehmann started with them in 1950. Ehmann worked for Maclean for nearly 25 years and then for VW&R for 25 years, ending up as vice president of the pest control division.
“When VW&R purchased Maclean/NAMCO, I saw that VW&R had offices all over the country. I thought if we could get pest control into all of those offices, we would really have something. That, of course, is exactly what happened,” states Ehmann.
Ehmann has done training in several foreign countries, as well.
“I gave a three-hour seminar in Mexico one time that turned out to be a six-hour presentation because it had to be interpreted as I went along,” he recalls. “You know, it’s not very easy telling a funny story when it has to be interpreted. Five minutes later, you hear people laughing.”
“The pest control business has been my life’s work,” he says. “My philosophy has always been that the pest control business should be better off because we were there. Part of the good feeling was the education segment. I think that we left the industry better off.
“Of course, one person can’t be responsible for everything that has happened,” he continues. “So, if there was success, it was due to the dedication of the people who worked in the pest control side of the business. In any business, you are only as strong as your weakest person.”
Ehmann didn’t just fall into the pest control business, he was involved in it long before the opportunities at Maclean Co. As a pre-teenager, Ehmann remembers going to the Los Angeles County Museum and helping the curator of entomology.
“I didn’t get paid, but I got to listen to what he said,” Ehmann says. “He taught me a lot of entomology, I did that for four years.”
Ehmann graduated from Occidental College in Eagle Rock, Calif., in 1947 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry then earned a master’s degree in public health from the University of Michigan in 1952.
He, of course, has a string of honors a mile long, but you can tell that teaching those pest control seminars was where he belonged.