People told Harold (Hal) S. Stein Jr. — in no uncertain terms — that he would destroy the pest control industry.
That was back in the early 1970s just after taking over San Francisco-based Crane Pest Control from his father-in-law Eric Livingston. Stein decided to charge his customers by the hour instead off the typical per-job price list.
“The idea was so revolutionary that three guys came to see my father-in-law, saying ‘This young guy is going to destroy the industry because he tore up his price lists and was giving away free flea jobs,’” Stein says. “That wasn’t true. When we did rodent control, I said we’d also check for fleas. The reason you don’t want the rodents is because of the fleas they carry. What’s the point of killing the rodent if you leave the fleas behind? Since we charged by the hour, we could do both.”
More than 30 years later, Stein has yet to destroy the pest control industry. What he has done is grow Crane Pest Control into a successful 80-employee, $9 million-per-year business. Stein himself is an industry icon, serving as president of the National Pest Control Association (now National Pest Management Association) during a critical period in the 1970s and championing the cause of science over emotion, rational thinking over fear-mongering.
“Science represents our attempt to discover, understand and therefore live with the facts,” Stein says. “Anything else is doomed to failure. You can talk your way, hope your way, wish your way all you want to, but the scientific facts aren’t going to change. You can’t fool Mother Nature.”
Stein wasn’t sure that he wanted to get into the pest control business. From an early age, he always thought he would follow in his father’s footsteps as a pharmacist.
“I always loved the concept of alchemy, mixing things together and seeing what happened,” Stein says.
He worked in his father’s drug store by the time he was 12 years old, delivering prescriptions around San Francisco. In college, he studied pharmacy at the University of California at Berkley.
“The dean called me into his office, told me that my undergraduate grades were lousy and asked what made me think that I would succeed in the pharmacy college,” Stein says. “I couldn’t think of anything to say but the truth. I said, ‘Well, I was selling your prescriptions in our store at the age of 12.’ I got in.”
After graduation, he joined the Army Reserves as a pharmacist. His high school sweetheart and wife, Vera, joined him a year later as a civilian pharmacist. They worked in that profession until 1960. “I had grown tired of it. There was nothing creative in it. I was looking for a new adventure,” Stein says.
While considering several job opportunities, his father-in-law offered him a job at his pest control company business on a six-month-trial basis. If he didn’t like it, he could walk away — no questions asked.
“He told me, ‘It drives me nuts that no one is scientific around here. Whenever something new comes up, I have to go to a university or a professor to explain it,’” Stein says. “He thought I could bring that scientific aspect to the company. The rest is history.”
Forty-four years later, at 73 years old, Stein has yet to walk away. He is still the president and CEO of Crane Pest Control and has no plans of slowing down.
Stein immersed himself in the family business, taking positions as a salesman, technical director and service director, so he would understand all aspects of the company. When Stein was named president in 1969, the one-man company Livingston bought back in the 1940s was blossoming into the San Francisco giant it is today.
With the company on the rise, Stein took a leading role for the industry. Stein often discusses controversial issues from the perspective of a man of science. A frequent topic has been the U.S. government’s ban of DDT in 1972. Stein himself testified against the ban during the hearings with the Environmental Protection Agency.
“After the ban, we were able to find alternatives in America, but in poorer countries around the world, they couldn’t. As a result, malaria flourished again,” Stein says. “That’s why I preach about science. We took what was an understandable, emotional desire that we were going too far chemically, ignored the facts and consigned millions to death.”
In January 1973, Stein was published for the first time in Pest Control. Stein wrote then that pest control technicians could act in accordance with the environment, to protect it rather than destroy it.
“Our understanding of life and man’s place in it must grow,” Stein wrote. “We must recognize that carelessly we may endanger the quality of life, while with forethought we will enhance it. By our deeds, we must make the public aware that we are a positive element in this complicated modern society. In this way, they will consider us members of a team designed to advance the causes of man and not oppose them.”
For his dedication to science and the industry, Stein was elected as president of the NPMA for 1975–76.
For all of his achievements within the industry, Stein has been just as dedicated, just as successful, in his pursuits elsewhere.
“I always believed in dividing life into three parts: earning a living, family and serving your community, country and fellow man,” Stein says. “Otherwise, what’s the sense in being here?”
Stein donates time, energy and money to fight against disease and poverty. He ardently supports San Francisco public schools. He has taught religion, served on the board of directors at his synagogue and the San Francisco American-Jewish Committee and is an active member of the Masonic Fraternity.
“I set a rule for myself: I cannot belong to more than seven organizations at any one time,” Stein says. “Any more than that and it gets to be too much.”
Stein says he has seen and fought bigotry in his life. In 1939, his wife Vera was five years old when Nazis invaded her home in Dachau, Germany, and sent the entire family into concentration camps. For a short period of time, Hitler allowed the family to leave the country — leaving behind everything they owned.
Though the Livingston family fled to America penniless, that terrible tragedy led Livingston to the widow of Sidney Crane of Crane’s Pest Control. He offered to take on the one-man business, and she accepted. When she died in 1948, Livingston became sole owner. So it was through tragedy that the Crane Pest Control company business continued, and through tragedy that gave Stein the success and ability to give back now.
That’s a lesson Stein carries today and why he fights so hard for the things he believes in.
“You can’t forget those things that have happened, you cannot ignore injustice,” Stein says. “Otherwise, we’re all lost.”
Family and Fun
“It’s a cliché, but the greatest accomplishment of my life is my family, my children,” Stein says.
His son, Peter, is a television executive, and his daughter, Deborah Hoffman, is senior vice president of Crane Pest Control. She and her husband, Craig, have two children, Deborah and Gabriel.
On Stein’s desk right now is a photograph his mother gave to him many years ago. It shows a flock of about 50 sheep, all piled on top of each other.
“There’s one sheep that’s looking out in a different direction. He wants to get out of the flock,” Stein says. “Her note to me said, ‘Just keep it up. Don’t be a sheep.’”
After all these years, no one would ever accuse Stein of doing anything but leading his company, his family, his community and his industry instead of just being part of the flock.