RESPONSIBLE CHOICES: A CONVERSATION WITH SUSAN FRIES, THE TERMITE LADY®
Article by Linda Descano
Some 30 years ago, Susan Fries President-CEO of ECOLA Termite Services married into the glamorous business of pest management. And after 20 years in the business, she made a decision to change the direction of pest management to offer more environmentally responsible methods of extermination, which ultimately led to her company, ECOLA Termite Service, earning the “Best Green Exterminator” Award from 2007 — 2010. Her pioneering work in alternative pest management has earned her the affectionate nickname of The Termite Lady. As someone who is most definitely anti-pests but pro-environment, I was intrigued by her story and asked her banker at Citibank to set up an interview. Below are the highlights from our fascinating and far-reaching conversation.
On why she pursued the entrepreneurial path…When she was first married, Susan was working as a sales rep for a cosmetics company, but she and her husband frequently talked about going into business together, but hadn’t found the right opportunity. Susan continues, “Then, one day, my father-in-law told us that his partner wanted out of the business and asked if we wanted to buy his share. We did our homework and took the leap. That was 30 years ago. Quite honestly, we thought that we’d work hard for a few years and then kick-back and just manage. Well, 30 years later, I’m still working 12-16 hour days, but I love what I do.”
But, entrepreneurship really wasn’t new to Susan, who set up her first business at the ripe-old-age of 8. As she tells it, “I grew up in the Orange County area of Southern California. On Saturdays, I would take my wagon to the beach, fill it up with sand and water, catch crabs and then sell the crabs to my neighbors.” By age 12, Susan set her sights on land creatures, specifically poodles, which were abundant in her neighborhood. Susan adds, “I opened a poodle grooming shop in my parent’s garage. I went to the library and read about how to groom a poodle. My parent’s bought me a shaver and I learned every technique. Before I knew it, I was grooming all the poodles in the area — and there were a lot of them.”
Susan credits her mom for her money-making mentality (like the alliteration?). “My mom was always making money. She owned a liquor store. At one point, she made lamps in our garage. At another, my parents would flip homes, which I also helped out with.”
On why she is passionate about her company’s approach…”Having a child who suffers from chronic allergies to dust mites as well as attention deficit disorder, I’ve always been particularly conscious of not only the global environment, but my family’s immediate surroundings,” said Susan. Her family’s health combined with her love for animals were the real driving forces behind her decision to operate an eco-sensitive pest management company. And with growing sensitivity to factors such as global warming, pollution and a generally increasing “green” movement, Susan knew that the best thing to do would be to buy her own alternative termite treatment company. She added, “”There is a great sense of accomplishment that accompanies making environmentally responsible choices. When I started out, I used to say that I’m in the termite business, but, today, when people ask me what I do, I tell them that I help protect their property and health. That feels really good.”
On the best professional advice she ever received…Susan boils it down to two sayings. First, strive for excellence in all you do. And, secondly, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” she adds. I’ve never heard that thought captured in such a compelling way — I have to say; it really struck home.
On what she would tell an aspiring entrepreneur…First and foremost, Susan says that you can’t sweat the small stuff. “Admittedly, it’s difficult at first to know what the ‘small stuff’ really is,” she says, adding, “The key here is that once you go through something a few times, you gain perspective. You know you will survive. You’ve just got to manage through it.”
She continues, “I’d also say never to give up and always ask the question why. Constantly re-assess how to make things better. Look at problems as opportunities. You have to be an optimist. Your attitude & those you surround yourself will determine your altitude!”
Susan also believes it is critical to pay attention to people. “Surround yourself with really good people. Choose people carefully both in your personal and your professional lives. Don’t let people choose you.”
For her last piece of advice, Susan draws on a verse from Philippians 4:6, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Regardless of how you define God, there is a powerful message here.
On her financial role model…”My mom was my financial role model,” says Susan. “She was a prudent shopper. Growing up we shopped at Zody’s and Pic-n-Sav, not department stores. I still do that today. One of my pleasures is going ‘treasure hunting,’ as we call it in my family, by which I mean shopping at consignment and second-hand stores. When my kids were young, I took them with me and we would compare prices by the ounce. It was a great way for me to teach them basic math and instill the value of a dollar. I’m proud to say that today they continue to focus on value when they spend and live within their means.” She notes that during her days as a child entrepreneur, her earnings went straight into her piggy bank. Susan was on her own at age 17 and accomplished putting herself through school, worked, and saved money.
On what inspires her…From the joy in Susan’s voice when she talks about them, son, Tyson, and daughter, Tiana, are a huge part of her life and a major source of inspiration. Susan also receives great inspiration from her faith.
On her passions and dreams…Susan’s passions include professional dancing (she competes at an advanced level) and her radio show and blog. A passionate goal setter, one of her dreams is to have a horse ranch that would provide a place to live for women and children in need. While there, they would learn how to care for the horses as well as learn to ride as a means of therapy. She believes a greater power is propelling her in this direction and, after speaking with her, I have every confidence in her commitment and ability to make this dream a reality.