When It Rains Roaches - New York Times - Steritech Group

When it Rains Roaches

Chief executive, The Steritech Group, Charlotte, N.C.
AGE 45
RECENTLY READ “The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive”
WORDS HE LIVES BY Believe in yourself.
TRAVEL TIP Hydrate like crazy.

I HAVE fond memories of growing up in Johannesburg. It was a simple life. We had no TV until I was about 13. Many kids had a bike, a soccer ball and a dog, and that was it. It was highly unusual to be inside during the day.

After high school, I served in the military for two years and trained troops for battle. In the early 1980s, South Africa was engaged in a war with Angola, and there was a mandatory military conscription. After being discharged, I got a B.A. in economics and a postgraduate diploma in human resource management at the University of Cape Town.
It was the height of apartheid, and there were international sanctions against South Africa. I decided to travel the world and see why people held the views they did. I made enough money working in nightclubs and diving for abalone and crayfish around Cape Town.

I was hired to be a member of a crew on a yacht sailing from South Africa to Europe. We traveled by way of the Azores to avoid pirates off the north coast of Africa. Later, I worked at a surfboard factory in Portugal and as a bicycle courier, accounting assistant and bookkeeper in London. For four years, I’d work for a while and then take off for different parts of Europe.

In 1992, I traveled to the United States, and after a year of snowboarding got a job at Steritech. My wife, Bronwyn, who was then my girlfriend, introduced me to her father, John Whitley, who founded the company. We provide food safety and sanitation inspection services to large supermarkets, restaurants, hotels and food processing facilities. We conduct 100,000 inspections a year in 30 countries. We also provide commercial pest control and quality assurance services.

I started as an account executive in the pest control division. The first account I sold was a chicken processing plant in the South. It was so infested with German cockroaches that when we began eliminating them, they started to rain down on us from the ceiling. We literally had to tuck our trousers into our socks so they couldn’t crawl up our legs.

I’ve seen a grain silo just as infested with rats. You have to be quite aggressive to eliminate the problems. Many of these pests are nocturnal, so managers don’t usually see the evidence. But the visual impact of a pile of dead cockroaches can be quite dramatic.

In 2001, I became president and chief operating officer of our food safety division. This group works to ensure the quality and safety of food throughout the food chain, from farm to table. I was promoted to my current position in 2005.

We’ve worked with hotels that have bedbugs. Hotels can wash the sheets all they like, but often the rooms have to be quarantined for deep cleaning. The bugs can infest other soft goods in hotel rooms as well, from padded headboards to couches to puffed chairs. They’re even in box springs. We use heat treatments, steam and, when necessary, approved pesticides. We even use scent-detection dogs in some cases.

I’d advise someone starting out in a company or trying to move through the ranks to focus on something they can be passionate and obsessive about. The chances of success are much greater, and the job is more fun.

Sports are my sanity. I started snowboarding while vacationing in France more than 20 years ago, when it was a rebel sport. In 2000, I won a gold medal in the giant slalom event in the national championships of the United States Amateur Snowboard Association.

I know only one pace at work: hard-charging. Jumping on a mountain bike, a surfboard or a snowboard is like a tonic.

As told to Patricia R. Olsen