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Pests, Pyrethrum and People

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When young Eris Hess took over the family business supplying pest control chemicals and equipment, without any background in either, his learning curve was steep. Today Agserv is a major supplier to Australia’s pest control operators. Patrick Hess was an executive at chemical giant Ciba-Geigy’s Australian operation, when he acquired their application equipment arm Agserv in 1974. He soon acquired Victorian- based distributor Rudducks and launched Queensland pest control agent supplier QSR, to strengthen the Agserv brand, which is now a major supplier to Australian businesses.

Clients are mainly urban-based, including councils and government health departments, keen to rid themselves of unwelcome populations of termites, cockroaches and myriad other dirty and destructive insects.

When Patrick passed away in 1986, his son Eris was only 14 years old, so Agserv was managed by Ken Davidson in Sydney and brother-in-law Jim Westhead at Rudducks in Melbourne. Both men were to become Eris’s technical mentors during his learning period.

“After university I worked at Rudducks in sales and marketing and then Optus before heading to London for a job in personnel recruitment,” Eris says. In 1997 he returned to Agserv in Sydney “to help out for a few months”, but the Davidson brothers had other plans. The next year he became managing director. “I met my future wife and stayed,” says Eris, who was named after the first Bishop of Melbourne.

The business has evolved from an even mix of chemicals, application services and equipment, to principally supplying Agserv Pty Ltd chemical products to Australia’s 7,000 pest control operators in 1,500 businesses. Agserv offices in the Sydney headquarters, as well as Melbourne, Brisbane and Newcastle are manned by 16 staff, who also provide technical support, training and advice to operators. A small offshoot, Altis, sells termite reticulation systems.

“Our customer service strategy has successfully grown turnover 15 to 20 percent year-on-year since 2005, including the global financical crisis period,” says Eris. His mum Marjorie is pleased, as although never active in the business, she remains the majority shareholder. His sister Margaret sits on the company’s board too.

Pest control industry chemicals and practices are increasingly under pressure from a vigilant regulator, and Eris has served on the board of AEPMA, voice of the Australian professional pest management industry, in an ongoing dialogue with government. The regulator’s vigilance has also paralleled a return to natural chemicals like pyrethrum, which is extracted from chrysanthemums, and traditionally imported from East Africa but now grown successfully in Tasmania. “This takes the industry full circle, 70 years back, as demand has moved away from more toxic synthetic chemicals,” says Eris.

 

Succession planning in the Hess family isn’t an immediate priority, but with 12 grandchildren coming through, the future is looking bright.

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Guest Wednesday, 23 August 2017

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