It’s not out of the ordinary to encounter a business whose president and vice president happen to be husband and wife.
But often in those cases, the couple starts the business and gives themselves the top spots.
Bo and Dena Thomas are different.
Starting on the bottom rungs of a pest control company, after more than 20 years the Thomases run the place – she as president of Advanced Services, and he as vice president.
Not everyone would relish sharing a workplace with their spouses. But the Thomases not only enjoy it, they also strive to make their workplace more enjoyable for Advanced Services’ employees.
“It’s funny,” Bo Thomas said. “It’s never like, ‘Would you please stop talking about work?’ It’s never like that. We’re very passionate about the company and our teammates and their families.”
Bo, a native of Thomson, comes from a construction background. For two or three years in his late teens, he installed drywall with his brothers . But he desired steadier work.
“Construction work was so up-and-down,” he said. “My father always did it, my brothers always did it. They always got by, but it scared me to death just to have a car payment.”
So when a member of his church asked Bo if he knew anyone between the ages of 19 and 22 who would like a full-time job, Bo recommended himself.
That job was with Advanced Services and just before turning 20 he started his pest control career performing chemical termite treatments.
“It’s a little bit different nowadays because we have baiting systems, but back then we didn’t,” he said. “So it was crawling under houses, trenching, dragging around a 50- or 60-pound hammer drill and drilling into the block, then dragging a hose underneath the house. It was not glamorous work at all and that was all I did.”
Dena grew up in cities across the Pacific Northwest. Her work experience includes three years of commercial fishing with her family off the coast of Alaska.
She enrolled at Andrews University in Michigan but made it through only one quarter before realizing that studying until midnight and having to wake up for a 7 a.m. chemistry class was not how she wanted to start a college career. She also was unsure she really wanted to pursue a major in pre-med.
Dena left school to work for a tax preparation firm, but when tax season ended, she was out of a job.
“So I ended up working mainly with Kelly Services on the temporary side,” she said. “I supported myself for two years on that. They’d move me. I’d spend a week here, a week there.”
Dena got a longer-term job with a Michigan subsidiary of Koch Industries. But after a friend got a job in Augusta, she was invited to come along.
“We had just finished a winter with, six weeks straight, no break in the cloud cover and that heavy lake-effect snow. It was miserable,” she said. “So the idea of moving somewhere warm was extremely appealing.”
She signed with several temp agencies in Augusta, “which I always thought was neat because I got to interview at a bunch of different companies and see what they were like from the inside to see if I liked the industry or didn’t like the industry,” Dena said.
That led her to Castleberry’s Food Co. for about six months. But a hiring freeze and a move to an outside sales job couldn’t provide her all the benefits of a permanent employee there. So she continued with job interviews, including one at Advanced Services in 1995.
And that’s where Dena met Bo.
“I was actually waiting for my interview and Bo just happened to come in that day. I was just sitting there waiting, so he asked me if I needed anything,” Dena said. “I don’t remember that because I think I was nervous about the interview, but he remembered it.”
“I remember what she was wearing,” Bo said.
Dena’s initial job was to answer phones and manage paperwork generated. But not too long after she started, Bo left Advanced Services to work first for a national competitor and later to take over a local route for a company called Pest Patrol for about five years. Bo and Dena still stayed in touch.
During that same time, Dena learned more and more aspects of the pest control business. About a year into the job, Pat VanHooser had started a South Carolina branch of Advanced Services and needed a manager for all the business’ inside operations. Dena took the job.
When VanHooser returned to work in Augusta a year or so later, Dena became the branch manager in Aiken by default. Dena later returned, too, but a personnel reshuffling eliminated her position at Advanced.
She wasn’t gone long. Just three months later, Advanced Services owner Jeff Annis sold Dena the company’s South Carolina operation.
“I took over the operations on Sept. 1, 2001, and 10 days later 9/11 happened,” she said. “I really thought over those next two-and-a-half weeks if it was a smart idea to buy a business after the world had just shut down.”
A few months later, Dena found herself shorthanded and needed a “designated certified operator” for her branch – a state-required position for someone who knows the ins and outs of the pest control business and could perform any needed service or inspection.
That led her to Bo, whose own business had dropped. He contracted with several apartment complexes and when some of those complexes changed ownership, the new owner declined to renew his contract.
Bo and Dena started running the South Carolina branch together in 2002. By the end of the year, they became husband and wife.
“We had a tumultuous first little bit,” Dena said. She got pregnant two months after the wedding, then pregnant again exactly one year after that. Rearing two young children while nurturing a business left the couple “tired and wore out,” she said, by the time 2008 rolled around.
That was the year it was decided for the Augusta and Aiken Advanced Services businesses to remerge into a single business.
In the new combined business, Bo worked in sales and later headed the firm’s home services division. In 2012, Annis placed Bo in charge of all Advanced’s technicians. Dena oversaw all the advertising and marketing efforts, and in 2011 Annis promoted her to chief operating officer.
In June 2016, when Annis retired, Dena became president.
“You can call it ‘president/vice president,’ whatever. We’re equal as far that’s concerned,” Bo said. “We collaborate on everything, whether it’s inside or outside.”
“Once I started working and actually saw how business works, I fell in love with the process of business,” Dena said.
If something ever happened to the business they’re in, she said, “we’d just go start another business. We both love the process of it – the way it works, and making something grow, and helping your people grow. It’s pretty cool.”
Separating personal issues from professional issues is just another part of the business.
“I always feel like we’ve been pretty much the same. Our goals are the same for the company. Our focus is the same,” Dena said. “Sometimes you have a personal little tiff about something, but we really try, when we walk in the doors, to realize that everything personal is at home.”
Bo said he doesn’t understand spouses who say they couldn’t work together.
“I tell everybody that she tells me what to do at the house and she tells me what to do here. It’s no big difference,” he said, smiling. “‘Yes dear’ is the appropriate answer.”
Reach Joe Hotchkiss at (706) 823-3543 or firstname.lastname@example.org.