Otto Orkin was introduced to the ways of pest control as a very young child. At the age of five, Orkin immigrated with his parents and five siblings from the Eastern European country of Latvia to Slatington, Pa. Soon he was in charge of keeping rats off the family farm, and by age 12 he was experimenting with arsenic to assist him in the task.
At 14, he borrowed 50 cents from his parents to purchase a bulk amount of powdered arsenic, and was soon selling his rodenticide mixtures door-to-door—and then, to all parts of the country. By 1909, Orkin had saved $25,000 and opened an office in Richmond, Va.
Although he specifically focused on rodents (even billing himself as “Otto Orkin, The Rat Man”—capitalizing on the taunts of the locals), Orkin extended his services in the 1920s to include cockroaches, bedbugs and other pests. By 1929, with new headquarters in Atlanta, Ga., Otto Orkin, The Rat Man Co. was operating 13 offices in eight states—many of which were done through family members involved in the business. In 1937, Orkin Exterminators, Inc., was established.
Although a rather reticent man, Orkin was shrewd when it came to running his business. Bob Russell, now senior vice president, technical services, for Atlanta-based Arrow Exterminators, spent 39 years at Orkin Exterminating and recalls how at one industry convention, his boss had himself paged so they would announce in the hotel lobby, “Call for Otto Orkin.”
“It was just to keep his name up,” Russell laughs. “However, he was shy in many ways. If he was supposed to make a speech or something, he would stand up, nod his head, say ‘Thank you’ and that would be the end of it.”
The marketing milestones are many for Orkin and his enterprise, including running television ads as early as 1950 and creating the highly recognizable “Orkin Man” (who has morphed, over the years, from an “Otto the Orkin Man” cartoon sprayer character to the robotic, efficient pest controller seen on TV today).
As a teen peddling his arsenic concoctions, Otto Orkin’s first “trademark” was the black satchel he carried on his calls. When he first opened his Richmond office, he often asked customers for letters of recommendation, took pictures of the letters and had them printed on linen-backed letterhead.
This way, he could solicit additional business by handing them out to potential customers. He also took pictures of payments for services rendered, showing that customers did not have to pay if they were not satisfied with the work.
In 1952, Changing Times, The Kiplinger Magazine profiled the 65-year-old Orkin and mentioned how he had recently commemorated the expansion of the Atlanta office by inviting the public to a “Bug Bazaar,” where he gave away “Otto-Matic” pistols and had the mayor snip a ribbon of mousetraps in the doorway.
A Knack for What Works
Despite Otto Orkin’s limited schooling, his business sense was immense. Many in the industry who worked for “Uncle Otto” personally point out that he knew where his limitations lie, and he compensated by surrounding himself with talented people.
Orkin is credited as being one of the first to bring in public health personnel and focus in on sanitation issues in the 1940s and 1950s. Several men who were brought into the organization in the post-World War II era are pillars of the industry themselves today.
Les Meis, for example, president of National Bugmobiles, Inc., Victoria, Texas, got his start in the industry at Orkin in 1952, and credits the company for its training program.
“Otto brought in top-notch, highly qualified people, who, if you didn’t know something, didn’t mind sitting down with you and going over it,” he emphasizes. “The espirit de corps were tremendous because we were paid well, and we were treated well.”
“His determination was just unbelievable,” recalls son Sanford Orkin, a former company president who today is an Atlanta-based private investor. “He was always thinking of the business, always working at it, wondering what he could do to make it bigger and better.”
Rollins, Inc. Chairman Gary Rollins, whose late father, O. Wayne Rollins, purchased Orkin Exterminating from the Orkin family in 1964, notes that customer service was a particular issue for Otto Orkin.
“There are stories of how he would call branch managers in the middle of the night and ask them about cancellations,” Rollins reports. “He would go through the books and see old customers that he was familiar with, and become so agitated that he’d call the guy at midnight and ask about the complaint. It wasn’t the money, but the integrity of ‘How did we let a customer go like that?’ “
Orkin is described as a hands-on boss who could be tough, but fair. He was the best man at Meis’ wedding, and one of Russell’s fondest memories of his boss was whenever Orkin saw Russell’s three boys waiting with their mother in the car at the end of the workday, he would make sure to give them a quarter or 50-cent piece.
“To them, it was all the money in the world!” Russell says. “I always thought that was very kind of him.”
Orkin was a definite health enthusiast who was known to walk to work even in his 60s. Likewise, he stayed quite active in the business until about 1960, and passed away in 1968 at the age of 82.
With so many facets to his life, Rollins notes that Otto Orkin could be singled out as a pioneer in the industry for being the consummate marketer, the progressive businessman or the technical innovator (for example, Orkin was one of the first pest controllers to use DDT effectively in the private sector, after the military had enjoyed success with the pesticide during World War II).
“It’s much broader than somebody being at the right place at the right time who had a lot of luck,” Rollins states. “I think Mr. Orkin made his own luck. He strikes me as the kind of person who, if it hadn’t been pest control, would have likely been extremely successful in anything he chose. I don’t believe you can have that many skills and energy and not be successful.”