Bring on the bugs

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When Jeff Annis says they have fun at Advanced Services Pest and Termite Control, he means taking a few hours to put props on some cockroaches and have a race. They named the Madagascar hissing roaches after the presidential candidates and video recorded the event to air on cable television.

"The people who work here are nice and we like to have fun," Mr. Annis said. "We'll do a business retreat to the lake for a day or take everybody's family and go to Adventure Crossing for the evening."

Advanced Services is the home of the Bug Babes, Pat VanHooser and Dena Thomas -- Mr. Annis' company lieutenants -- who have no qualms about the politically incorrect moniker.

"If you dig down as to why our people have stayed here so long, they're proud of their work ... they're proud of where they work because they know that we do a lot to make it a fun place, to make it a worthwhile job," Mr. Annis said.

Mr. Annis was born into the pest control business. His mother and father ran Annis Pest Control in Augusta for nearly 30 years before it was sold off. He stuck with the business though it had a new owner and eventually went to work as a technician for a law student's side business, called Advanced Services.

"He named it Advanced Services because it would come early in the phone book yellow pages," Mr. Annis explained.

At the company's Columbia Road office, it isn't all about killing bugs. They strive to keep the critters in the bug zoo alive. The zoo is a collection of spiders, roaches and mantises for the enjoyment of school-age children. The adults squirm when they see the tarantula, Mr. Annis said.

The pest control business is about managing an ecology, Ms. VanHooser said. "We don't want to kill everything that's walking around out there."

Her favorite is the tarantula.

Mr. Annis said he is most fascinated by the termite. Unfortunately, they don't flourish in captivity. It is hard to find a queen; it is even harder to get one to stay alive and reproduce once one is found.

"We're students of entomology, learning about behavior," he said.

Mr. Annis almost got a biology degree before dropping out of college to help his mother run her pest control business. He tried to go back and finish the degree, but it never happened.

Bug babes

"I came into the business working for my mother and I was quite aware that some of the best people in our industry were women," Mr. Annis said.

Ms. VanHooser was the fifth person hired for the fledgling Advanced Services. She started as a technician, climbing through the nooks and crannies of houses for years before advancing to vice president and general manager with 33 years of experience.

She is the original Bug Babe and the source of a successful marketing campaign for Advanced Services.

"Bug Babe is a lucky goof," Mr. Annis said. "It was an accident because it was chosen by the (South Carolina) Department of Transportation."

Ms. VanHooser loves new cars and was looking for a vanity plate for a new Miata. She provided a list of possibilities with "bug" in the name to the department of transportation.

The only thing that wasn't taken was Bugbabe.

"She's a child of the '60s and '70s; the feminist in her a little pulled because Bug Babe is kind of cutesie and Pat is serious about her job and her profession," Mr. Annis said.

Ms. VanHooser admits to not being a politically correct person. She no longer has the car, but the license plate hangs on her office wall.

Ms. Thomas loosely goes by Bug Babe Junior. She was hired into Advanced Services 13 years ago as a clerk who managed the termite paperwork.

In 2001, Ms. Thomas bought an Aiken pest control business and ran it for seven years, still tied to her old boss through a marketing agreement.

She recently merged her company with Mr. Annis' since they were mostly one company anyway -- just with different health insurance plans. "The Home of the Bug Babes" is still a slogan featured on ads throughout the area.

Bug man

Mr. Annis was born in Augusta in 1956, the same year that his father, Larry, started Annis Pest Control.

Larry Annis came out of World War II and got a degree at the University of Georgia in chemistry. He also had a minor in entomology. A friend suggested that he combine the two fields and go into the pest control business.

His mother, Betty Annis, was known as BJ, a nickname that she made up in kindergarten. She involved in the business, and she spent 22 years on the Richmond County Board of Education.

Mr. Annis was 18 years old when he lost his father to a heart attack.

"He had a bad heart, but he didn't know it. He didn't know he had a heart attack three years earlier either," Mr. Annis said.

He died within three hours of signing over control of the pest control business to his ex-wife, Mr. Annis said. His parents had divorced after 38 years of marriage.

Mr. Annis' mother died in 2006. She died of pneumonia but had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for four years, as did two of her siblings.

Both of his parents underwent forensic autopsies after their death. He knows that he does not have his father's disposition to heart problems. As for Alzheimer's disease, the family is involved in a test with the Medical College of Georgia.

"She did it 'cause she wanted us to know what we might have coming," Mr. Annis said of his mother's decision for study after her death.

Mr. Annis joined his parents' company to help his mother. He stopped college halfway through his sophomore year to work in the pest control business full time.

"I went to work for my mother in 1977, part-time because she was having pains with the company. After six months, I decided I needed to help her full time," Mr. Annis said.

He bought a house next to his mother in 1981. By 1983, she had an illness and had no desire to do the "humdrum every day" and sold the business to Mike Tomberlin, who now runs an electric vehicle company on Washington Road.

Mr. Annis worked for Mr. Tomberlin under his ownership, before the business was sold to Waste Management, which had a small pest control subsidiary for 10 years.

Mr. Annis said he learned a lot of business smarts from Mr. Tomberlin.

"Those lessons are the reason this business is successful. Those are management tools in your toolbox, the things you needed to know everyday to know your business was going in the right direction," Mr. Annis said.

One of those concepts sounds elementary: put the round peg in the round hole. "If you've got a guy good in sales, put him in sales and then don't put him in management."

Getting advanced

The family business was sold off again, but Mr. Annis stayed in the industry. A former employee, Frank Damiano, in 1986 had started a part-time pest control business that kept him occupied over the weekends. Mr. Annis joined Mr. Damiano as his technician during the week.

"For about a year, I did all the work during the day. When he came home at night, he did all the paperwork," Mr. Annis said.

The headquarters for Advanced Services was Mr. Damiano's condo on Monte Sano Avenue. More specifically, it was his kitchen table.

"It was good because he always had a lot of food ... he said it was OK," Mr. Annis said.

Business picked up and the company moved into an office, hired more people and moved to a larger office.

Mr. Damiano left the company in 1998 to take care of his family's affairs.

"I am the entrepreneur; he was the consummate general manager," Mr. Annis said.

Advanced Services now has 40 employees and three locations around the area.

When it comes to killing bugs, it isn't the chemicals that separate the professionals from the shoe-wielding amateurs.

"The main difference is you don't know what we know," Mr. Annis said. The machinery and the training is special, not the chemicals.

Advanced Services is one of the few companies in the country that uses the Sentricon termite colony elimination system. Sentricon licenses only 1,000 of the 20,000 pest control companies in the country to use its bait-based system -- the little green circles that surround the house.

"He is always trying to think ahead at what the next step will be. Very innovative," Ms. VanHooser said. "You'd think that in the pest control business everything would be pretty much the same. The industry has changed a lot since we've been in this."

Advanced Services went with Sentricon in 1999 because it was a more environmentally friendly way of controlling termites. The traditional method up until that point was to put 400 gallons of poison on the foundation of every new house.

"We had meetings and made a list of what people hate about pest control and found ways to address them," Ms. VanHooser said.

One of those measures was to stop spraying the inside of people's houses with chemicals.

"We work really hard to find people that need that customer's love to be happy. If you are someone that can go out and make somebody mad and it not bother you, you don't need to work here," Mr. Annis said.

The skipper

The trophies and pictures that dominate Mr. Annis' office wall give away his favorite past time.

He's been racing sailboats since he was 7 years old.

He competes in about 15 events a year, some in Charleston Harbor, some as far away as Wisconsin and New York.

His favorite boat is the one-person, 16-foot MC Scow. When he wants to race his two-person boat, the other person is his wife, Beth, who is a middle school science teacher.

"Sailing is more a lifestyle than a hobby," said Mr. Annis' son, Justin, who never liked sailing because he was focused on football and baseball.

Now that he is working for his father, the bug has bitten him, too.

"The lake to me felt like it was two hours away. Now, I can't wait. It takes me 10 minutes from my house," Justin Annis said.

He has beaten his father in a race only once, and he has the picture to prove it. He can't gloat too much because his dad had to rescue him from the water when he fell out of a four-person sailboat while in second place. They finished fourth after swinging back around so his father could haul him into the boat.

Mr. Annis also spent some time as a competitive swimmer, first in high school and then off-and-on since.

When watching the summer Olympics, he remembered the pain of training. "There is nothing more painful than a 4,000-yard workout in an hour. Every muscle in your body explodes."

If he had his druthers, he'd be a college basketball coach right now. It was a dream he had earlier in life.

"I've played basketball for all the major religions," Mr. Annis said.

He's had a career in local church-league basketball. He started off on a Jewish teens team.

"My friends were in the synagogue and they needed a tall guy," he said.

Mr. Annis played for -- and attended -- National Hills Baptist Church, then The Hill Baptist, even Mormon basketball in North Augusta.

Mr. Annis was raised Unitarian.

"My mom and dad helped start one (a Unitarian church) in 1960. I remember going over there with them and they were building the building themselves with concrete blocks," he said.

For 20 years, while he was married to his second wife, Lisa, he attended Congregation Church of Israel's temple on Walton Way..

He maintains a friendship with her and his first wife, Laura.

"I think it might be hard to be married to me," Mr. Annis said.

In the mid 1990s, Mr. Annis did a stint on the school board, after his mother, who had been a member for 22 years, decided not to run again.

"I've been following (the school board) because our desks were side by side. I couldn't stand it that she was leaving, so I ran," he explained.

It fits within the philosophy of the business, the desire to have employees involved in the community. It is part of the fun.

"We get dressed up and go to things," Mr. Annis said. "All of our top people go to functions. It gives you a community profile. People think you care because you support a lot of things."

Ms. VanHooser said it also promotes employee loyalty.

She started a reading club for girls called the Smart Girls Club. Mr. Annis wrote the checks to get it going and supported the group for years.

Mr. Annis said the company has put some of its focus recently on helping the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and its Light the Night walk -- $25,000 over the last four years.

"It is buy-in that what you do is more than just a job," Ms. VanHooser said.

Speaking of the job, the winners of Advanced Services' presidential roach race were "McCain" and "Palin."

Reach Tim Rausch at (706) 823-3352 or timothy.rausch@augustachronicle.com.

JEFF ANNIS

BORN: Sept. 22, 1956, in Augusta

TITLE: Owner, Advanced Services Pest and Termite Control

EDUCATION: Pursued a biology degree from Augusta State University

CIVIC: Former president and member of the Augusta Lions Club, past president of the Georgia Pest Control Association

FAMILY: Wife, Beth; children, Justin, Jennifer and Leslie

HOBBIES: Sailboat racing, tennis


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