To say the pest management industry has many pioneers is an understatement. But no discussion of the industry’s history is complete without acknowledging Julius C. Ehrlich — a man who brought respect and professionalism to a business that had suffered the effects of a bad reputation.
The most important thing to know about Ehrlich — who immigrated from Belligheim-Baden, Germany, in 1888 at age 17 —is that his last name means “honesty” in his native language. Serendipitous as that might be, there’s no denying the word and man will be bound together in the minds of pest management professionals (PMPs) forever. The ripple effect of his influence continues to be felt throughout an industry that has him to thank for much of what makes it a robust and respected profession.
During Ehrlich’s early years, respect for the industry was hard to come by, but he was still a long way from finding his professional home. Beginning his American experience in a clothing store in Atlantic City, N.J., it took him almost no time to decide that wasn’t the business for him. So he moved on … all the way to the Pacific Northwest, which was a considerable traveling feat at the time.
Moving and momentum
The decision to cross the country to find his fortune paid off. Ehrlich spent time as a copper prospector and bought and operated several businesses including, a sawmill in Washington state, a dairy farm in Montana, and a brewery in Idaho. His growing family quickly became accustomed to his enterprising outlook on life, wondering what part of the U.S. they would conquer next.
Then Ehrlich’s sister persuaded him to move to Reading, Pa., where he found successful, stable work in a highly respected business that helped people and improved the quality of their lives — optometry. Although he was able to provide a nice life for his family as an optician at his brother-in-law’s practice, it didn’t satisfy his adventurous, entrepreneurial spirit. Neither did his next job as a door-to-door salesman of sprayers and insecticides; however, this position opened an important door for Ehrlich.
The call to service
During the 1920s, Ehrlich worked for no salary, making money solely on commission. He not only sold insecticides but trained his customers how to use them effectively. His hope was to procure renewal orders in a world with few pest control companies and a city (Reading) with none.
When one of his customers, a large department store, did not use the insecticide it had purchased from Ehrlich, he offered to apply the product for the business. The intent was simply to get a reorder but it occurred to Ehrlich that he could start satisfy his customers better by providing the service. So, in 1928, at age 56, he opened the J.C. Ehrlich Exterminating Co. in Reading. Eighty-three years later, that department store — now part of a chain — is still a customer.
From the beginning, Ehrlich put what would become a three pronged business philosophy into place to assure his business’ success. Initiative, creativity and exceeding expectations became the company dogma. Initiative was a quality that evolved from Ehrlich’s determination to overcome any obstacle. During the early ’30s, he was faced with selling a service people didn’t necessarily know they needed and a product they thought they could apply effectively themselves. His creativity was bound to his innovative concept of using existing insecticides to close a sale and start a new business that, at the time, didn’t exist in a prominent way.
Ehrlich’s dedication to exceeding his customers’ expectations helped his company grow into one of the largest privately owned pest control businesses in North America. At the time, pest-plagued customers expected to be sold an insecticide. They didn’t expect the application to be completed professionally for them.
“There was a time when our industry’s reputation was questionable,” says Victor Hammel, Ehrlich’s great grandson, who would become CEO of the family owned business. “But my great-grandfather assured that his pest control business maintained the highest standards in his market. Others in the industry also saw the need to do that in their markets and pest management is now a respected service.”
Slim times, familial ties
During the Great Depression, Ehrlich managed to keep his business afloat with the help of two technicians. That changed when he helped three nephews escape Nazi Germany by providing guaranteed work — their only viable ticket out of Germany. The three nephews — Arthur Hammel, Simon Hammel (father of Bobby and Victor Hammel) and Alex Ehrlich — couldn’t speak English but knew their work ethic was the key to their freedom.
It wasn’t the easiest of beginnings, but Ehrlich’s business survived The Great Depression. J.C. Ehrlich didn’t just survive; it thrived — to eventually become an industry standard bearer.
“Julius C. Ehrlich was critically important to teaching many the right way of running a successful business,” Victor Hammel says. “He perfected the strategy of using referrals and recommendations.”
Ehrlich’s crews covered Reading’s outlying towns during the week (sometimes staying at local YMCAs), alternating technicians night and day to provide round-the-clock service before returning to Reading at week’s end.
Alex Ehrlich moved to Lancaster to reduce travel time, and Simon Hammel moved to Pottsville in the early 1940s —moves that established the company’s branch offices. The three nephews eventually became company partners, and by the mid-1940s additional branch offices were established in eastern Pennsylvania.
End of an era, new beginnings
Ehrlich, who moved to Trenton, N.J., in 1952 to retire, died at age 81 in 1958.
After his death, the company entered into agricultural chemical sales, garden center pesticides, packaged pesticide supplies and janitorial supplies. This meant more branch offices and the development of an industrial weedcontrol division. The new chemical supply opportunities continued to grow and change, leading to the establishment of the J.C. Ehrlich Chemical Co. — a separate entity that would still be owned by the family — in 1960.
During the ’60s and ’70s, the company expanded — via internal growth and the acquisition of other companies — despite the absence of its founder. Throughout the years, nonfamily management played key roles in the company’s growth and development, but the business continued to maintain its strong familial roots.
By 1978, Arthur Hammel had been president for 27 years as the company celebrated its 50th anniversary, opening 22 offices with 325 employees.
In 2006, the company merged with Rentokil, a coupling that created the largest North American pest management company.The Ehrlich/Hammel tradition continues with Jed Hammel, who is Division Manager of Bioremediation Services of Rentokil. Jed is the great-great Grandson of Julius Ehrlich, grandson of Simon Hammel and son of Victor Hammel.
Despite changes, readjustments, managerial shuffles and evolving technology, the company still clings tight to its earliest roots and the pioneer who made it all possible. Ehrlich’s classic American dream-come-true story serves as inspiration for would-be entrepreneurs. Equally important, the Ehrlich name remains synonymous with integrity, ingenuity, business savvy — and, last but not least, honesty.