How John Myers unified Rentokil North America around a common strategy
John Myers, president and CEO, Rentokil North America
In a way, John Myers is not unlike the guy who paints the foul lines at the local baseball field. He defines boundaries.
The president and CEO of Rentokil North America, the regional wing of Rentokil Initial — a U.K.-based facility management company that provides, among other things, pest control services — has been tasked with integrating a company that has changed dramatically over the past decade. At one point, Rentokil’s North American footprint consisted of about a dozen operations sprinkled throughout Ontario, the Mid-Atlantic States and Florida.
Then, over the span of two years, Rentokil acquired a trio of pest control companies. With the acquisitions of Ehrlich, Presto-X and Watch All between 2006 and 2008, Rentokil’s growth exploded. The company expanded to nearly 80 locations in 35 states.
But with those acquisitions came differing cultures, policies and processes. Myers had to get everyone aimed in the same direction.
“Most people will tell you that acquisition plans and models fail because the integration wasn’t done as defined,” Myers says. “But it can be really hard to do. You have disparate businesses with long histories and a strong belief in their culture, and there is either a reluctance to integrate or companies integrate too quickly and kind of throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Myers had to figure out a way to balance the best practices of the acquired companies with the need to create a uniform set of objectives and values under the Rentokil umbrella.
“When I first started here, I was new to the business and rather agnostic toward each of the brands,” says Myers, who took over the company at the end of 2008. “What I saw was that everyone agreed that we needed to change, but when I started making changes, they all said, ‘No, what we meant was, you need to change those guys over there.’ Everybody wants to change; they just don’t want it in their area, because change is hard.”
Myers solved the challenge by starting at the top, with his own leadership team, and working his way down.
Identify the themes
Myers needed to simplify things. With bits and pieces of varying cultures, processes and objectives fluttering around the company like pieces of confetti, he had to vacuum everything up, sort it out, keep what was relevant and discard the rest.
It’s a process that requires a set of ground rules. And those ground rules are formulated on the management level.
“It’s tricky, because these have been successful businesses in their own right, and they’re used to doing things their own way,” Myers says. “The natural tendency is to say that you’ve been successful using the techniques you already had in place, so why would you want to change?” To combat that type of resistance, Myers gathered his leadership team and tasked them with helping him set the strategic vision for the company — a long-range vision to serve as a set of end goals for every business unit. Any goal or strategy that existed among the acquired companies needed to help Rentokil progress toward its strategic vision. If it didn’t, Myers’ team would discard it.
The strategic vision sessions also helped identify areas of the acquired companies that aligned along common themes, giving Rentokil an area of strength to leverage.
“The good news is, we really looked at our businesses and realized they had some very common elements in their cultures that we could rally behind,” Myers says. “For example, we believe in providing the highest level of customer service in the marketplace, and not everybody believes that should be a part of their strategy.
“As an example, you can compare a small hardware store to Home Depot or Lowe’s. The small hardware store will give you personalized service. Home Depot or Lowe’s — while they’re both very successful companies — might provide a different level of service while trying to compete more on product selection or price. We are more like the smaller hardware store in that we’ve made customer service part of the culture of the business.”
Customer service became one of the five strategic thrusts for Rentokil, as outlined in the plan formed by Myers’ team. Along with customer service, Rentokil also formed objectives around organizational capabilities, operational excellence, operating at the lowest cost possible while still maintaining high service standards and delivering profitable growth.
The development of the five strategic thrusts was critical for Rentokil and any other company trying to define its future strategy and goals. Once the pillars of the strategy are defined, you have to allow the company to be guided by those principles over time.
“The reason these themes are important is, as we work on tactics, if we can’t easily slot something we’re working on under one of these, we shouldn’t be working on it,” Myers says. “That is why it’s important to maintain those thrusts.
“In a change management environment, you can’t change the themes every day. You can’t have a flavor of the month, because people will start to get confused and question whether your strategy and objectives are real. We just finished the third year in which we’ve operated under the same five strategic thrusts.”
Roll it out
With the playing field outlined by the strategic pillars you have constructed, your next step is to tell the entire organization how it will accomplish the goals related to those pillars. Myers began by rolling the plan out to everyone on the management level of the organization, followed by a rollout to the organization at large.
“First of all, we have an annual management meeting where we present our key tactics under each of the strategic thrusts,” Myers says. “I present the thrusts, then I present the initiatives that we are going to implement in the coming year to support the strategic thrusts. We stand in front of our entire management team and tell them what we are going to do.
“The second thing we do is we then have regional meetings in which every colleague in the company attends, and we make the same presentation. Every technician, every sales representative, every office manager, from front-line colleagues all the way to the top, are all hearing the same message, and they’re hearing it from the executive leadership team.
“Usually, I have a vice president on my team go out and present this material to every colleague, face-to-face.”
After the initial rollout, you have to perform frequent maintenance in the form of direct communication from the top. Myers reinforces the strategic thrusts and tactical initiatives through monthly CEO messages, delivered to the entire Rentokil organization throughout North America.
“I’d say nine of the 12 messages I have each year relate to a strategic thrust and one or more of the initiatives associated with it,” he says. “So I will say simple things like, ‘As you know, we believe in delivering outstanding customer service. So today I’d like to talk to you about a new initiative that was launched just last week. We talked about it at our recent company meeting, but I want to give you an update.’
“It’s the old idea that you have to tell them and tell them again, because people are busy in the day-to-day world. You need to reinforce the idea that there really is a plan and you are following it.”
The message needs to come directly from you as the head of the organization. The further down the ladder you delegate your reinforcement communication, the less impact it will have. That’s not to say communication involving a department head or direct supervisor is irrelevant, but on matters that involve the direction of the whole company, your words carry the most weight. “There are two main reasons why this kind of communication has to come from the top,” Myers says. “First off, I go back to the fact that everyone is busy and working hard, so getting a reminder of what the top boss thinks is important helps to refocus what you work on. It’s like you always hear about finding out what’s important to your boss and working on that.
“The second thing is, it’s reassuring to the organization to be reminded that there is a plan, and we’re sticking with it. You’re not trying to figure out what you’ll do each month.” Myers’ unification plan has taken root and helped propel Rentokil’s growth. The company generated $350 million in North American revenue during 2011 and continues to maintain a strong market share in its space.
“Ultimately, people are motivated to buy in to a plan when they know three things: What are the expectations, how are we doing against those expectations and what are we going to do to get better in the areas where we’re not delivering at the level we want?” he says. “When there is clarity around the plan, there is greater opportunity to implement the plan in a timely and effective manner. By reinforcing the message from the top level, it does those things better than just hoping it happens.”
The Myers file
Education: B.S. in marketing, University of Vermont; MBA, Mercer University, Atlanta campus.
What is the best business lesson you’ve learned?
I’ll give you two. The first one is to share the risk as well as the reward. I’ll never forget a job I once took in sales management. I was new to the company where I was working, and I decided I would negotiate a deal with a customer myself. It didn’t go well. My dad told me that I wanted to show everybody that I could do it myself, but it’s not about that. It’s about the team delivering the desired result. That should have been the goal, not me trying to ensure that I’d deliver the result myself. I should have brought other people onto the project.
The second thing is knowing that everyone wants to do a good job. Your role is to ensure that everyone knows the expectations, knows how they are performing against those expectations and knows how you’ll work together to improve the things that aren’t working out. What traits or skills are essential for a business leader?
I get asked that all the time by college graduates. The first thing I always tell them is to lead with humility. My view is that our frontline colleagues and customers know what is needed in the marketplace, and it takes humility from the leadership team to remind yourself of that fact. You have to have the humility to ask for insight and advice from the people closest to the customers.
What is your definition of success?
Success is utilizing really strong methods to deliver strong results. We use a phrase here that I like in our leadership training: Success versus excellence. If the concept of your methods is robust, the predictability of your success is better.
It’s like in golf. You can hit a good shot once in a while, but you can’t repeat it if your swing isn’t good. You can sometimes find success with bad methods, or you can consistently find success with good methods.
This article appeared in Smart Business Network magazine.