Local Member Wins National Award | NAWBO

Rebecca Fyffe, founder and CEO of Landmark Pest Management in Chicago, IL

Rebecca is a socially conscious entrepreneur and is the CEO and director of research of Landmark Pest Management, as well as a subject matter expert on policies and programs designed to enable women and minorities to capture a representative share of economic opportunities in corporate and government procurement and contracting. She served as chair of the Chicago Transit Authority’s DBE Advisory Committee, and has testified in numerous disparity studies. Before becoming an entrepreneur, Rebecca served as a staff member on the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women in Illinois. She founded Landmark Pest Management as the only pest control firm in the United States that is founded with a social justice mission and exists at the intersection of public health and social justice.

Tell us about the moment you knew you wanted to launch your own business.

“My interest in public health and social justice began with a family tragedy. My father’s sister became a teen mom at 15, and back in the ‘60s, there was a lot of pressure for teenagers to get married when they conceived a child. The marriage lasted only a few years, and by the time it ended and the father was no longer involved, my aunt was 19 and had just given birth to their third child. As a single teen mom, she lived in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green neighborhood, which was an economically disadvantaged neighborhood lacking safe playgrounds. Seeking a safe place for her kids to play, away from gang activity and violence, she cleaned up the broken glass and bird droppings in an alley between apartment buildings where pigeons were roosting overhead. Both she and the baby contracted encephalitis and meningitis from the droppings. She recovered, but the baby did not.

“It was very formative for me to know that my cousin Ray had been born perfectly healthy and normal, but because he lived in a poor neighborhood without safe playgrounds, he was exposed to an environmental hazard in the form of pigeon droppings, and the high fever and brain damage he endured resulted in severe epilepsy, worsening developmental disabilities caused by his constant seizures, blindness and ultimately his death.

“This led me to pursue two interrelated fields of study, public policy and public health. My university honors research on the topic of wildlife disease epidemiology was supervised by scientists from the Field Museum of Natural History and the Davee Center for Epidemiology and Endocrinology at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Because of my interest in policy development, I was working as a full-time staff member in the Office of the Governor. I was particularly interested in policies and programs affecting women, and I worked for the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women in Illinois.

“One of the commissioners was Hedy Ratner, the founder of the Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC) in Chicago. Hedy opened my eyes to women’s economic development as a social justice issue. I asked Hedy how I could learn more and support the movement, and she invited me to volunteer at the WBDC’s annual conference. The women who I met at that conference and through the WBDC’s other programs changed my life. For the first time, I considered entrepreneurship and decided that perhaps I could have a greater impact on helping people live in greener, safer communities as an entrepreneur.”

What makes your business different from others in your industry?

“My company is a merger of two brands, Landmark Pest Management, which I founded in 2008, and ABC Humane Wildlife Control, the nation’s first commercial nuisance wildlife control company, which was founded in 1976, and which I acquired in 2012.

“One of our biggest differentiators is that we’re a team of scientists. The importance of studying wildlife diseases that have the potential to spill over from their animal host species to humans has never been more of a shared priority of the global scientific community than it is now, because SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, had its origins in bats. Part of my philanthropic work involves contributing to science in the public interest. In fact, Landmark just completed another phase of a study in partnership with the Urban Wildlife Institute at the Lincoln Park Zoo to measure cortisol levels in wildlife hair samples. The specimens are part of a greater zoonotic surveillance program. Zoonotic surveillance programs improve the ability to detect new disease threats and document changes in wildlife host-pathogen systems for which urbanization has significant impacts.

“I became fascinated by the emerging global crisis of pesticide resistance during my research on pesticide susceptibility. Insects show increasing resistance to many categories of pesticides, and pest controllers end up trying to overcome the resistance by applying more and more product. You don’t want your grandparents’ dental care, and you don’t want their pest control either. We’re the only pest control company in our marketplace that performs pesticide susceptibility studies at every site at which insects show resistance. This allows us to deliver better results while using much less pesticide. In one third-party audit of our work that consisted of studying 350 buildings, it was found that we delivered much better pest control than other vendors while using 60 percent less pesticides.

“The way that we apply products is also very innovative. Our clients live and work in greener, safer buildings than do people who still buy the old-fashioned pest control that is still performed every day by the country’s biggest pest control companies. When someone shows up with a sprayer tank and sprays your baseboards again and again, that pesticide residue flakes off and becomes a pesticidal dust in your home or workplace. It concentrates in the ventilation system and redeposits on your clothing, furniture and countertops. Our method is very different. Rather than trying to make every surface where an insect might walk toxic, we use bait formulations that contain active ingredients like boric acid, which is very effective against insects, but nontoxic to humans and pets, and we deliver it in a sweet formula that the insects take back to their queens to kill their own colonies. This allows us to deliver excellent results without using carcinogens, or products that off gas, or contain VOCs.

“Lenders told me initially that no one would pay more for green pest control, and they were afraid to lend us growth capital because we wouldn’t compete on price. They were wrong, and one of the ways we have built our brand is through our alignment with Chicago’s restaurant community. Chicago is an amazing restaurant city. We went to all the Michelin-starred restaurants and James Beard Award-winning chefs and explained our commitment to quality and innovation. I said, ‘You select the best ingredients, and we do, too.' One after another, they signed up. We service most of the top restaurants in our region and serve 10,000 residential clients a year as well. Because of our innovations, Landmark has grown so much. We won the SBA Small Business Person of the Year award for innovation. It’s the highest award the United States government gives to a business, and we are the only pest control firm to ever receive this award. It’s really helped to take our business to the next level—we now service every airport, public transportation railcar, police station, fire station and public library in Chicago, as well as many food manufacturing facilities, organic farms, grocery stores, office buildings, hundreds of schools and more municipal square footage than any other firm in our marketplace.”

What unique challenges have you faced over the past 6 months?

“COVID has made running our business even more expensive. I just wrote a check for $16,000 for respirators that would have cost $2,500 before COVID. Even the price of gloves increased by 300 percent. Everything has become so much more expensive, but because of our commitment to the communities we serve, and our employees, we have spent the extra money and have not taken any shortcuts when it comes to safety. We were very lucky to be deemed an essential service and operate without interruption. We’re also lucky that our team members are science minded and have embraced public health guidance in their own lives, so they don’t contract COVID. Their health is priceless, so we’re going to operate less profitably until the supply chain issues around PPE are resolved.

“A lot of our clients asked if they could put our service on hold, and we couldn’t do that, but for many of them, we allowed payment plans or spaced out service to make it more affordable. We are also working pro bono for some of our clients that are doing good work in the community during this time, like the Montessori School of Englewood in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood.”

Where do you draw the most inspiration from in leading and growing your organization?

“It’s seeing our impact that keeps me excited to grow and contribute more. Our innovations extend far beyond pest control. Hedy Ratner’s formative influence on me can be seen in so many parts of my company’s culture and programs. One program that I created called Ignite, named after the idea that one candle can light many candles, started as part of our internal supplier diversity program, and it has grown so successful that it is on the verge of outgrowing me and taking on a life of its own. We give preference to woman and minority vendors. The program started off as a big ask that we put on these vendors, requiring them to have supplier diversity programs of their own in order to work with us. I created templates of diversity supply plans and programs to recruit diverse suppliers, and I invited our suppliers in for workshops, had them adopt these plans and then went a step further and asked them to teach these workshops, with my help, for all of their own suppliers. We asked them to require that their suppliers also adopt and publish diversity supply plans. As a result of this program, over 1,000 businesses have adopted diversity supply plans, but there are so many requests for these workshops now that I can’t keep up with them, and it’s time for the program to have a life of its own. I’ve spoken with a number of nonprofits and business schools that have economic justice missions, and they are all interested in hosting and developing the Ignite program. I even had a meeting with an NAACP chapter president who is interested in exploring whether Ignite might fit with the work they’re doing to support entrepreneurs, which is incredibly exciting to me. I hope every WBO considers emulating the Ignite program in their own organizations and buying plans. I’m happy for anyone to reach out to me for support in getting started. I grew Ignite to 1,000 businesses. It’s only with your partnership that we can grow it to 1 million and beyond. Imagine the impact we can have.”

How has NAWBO supported you in your entrepreneurial journey?

“I don’t think that I could have achieved any of the success I have if it weren’t for NAWBO. In the past 45 years, they have done so much to pave the way for my success. First, NAWBO was instrumental in the passage of HR 5050, the Women's Business Ownership Act of 1988, which, among other things, led to the establishment of the small business development centers across the country geared toward equipping woman entrepreneurs with access to capital and other key capacity-building programs. I wouldn’t have even started a business without the training and information that I received from the WBDC in Chicago.”

What’s next for you and your business?

“We’re going national. We have had the pleasure of helping people in Illinois live healthier, greener lives in their homes, the restaurants they dine in and the food production facilities for some of the nation’s largest brands. We want to take that same commitment to public health and open in some additional cities. We’re opening a west coast office in the spring of 2021. We will also have a presence in a few other states shortly. I’m so excited to bring our unique take on philanthropy in the form of science in public interest to more people.”

The theme of September’s conference is “Brave Is…”. Can you share what brave has meant for you as a WBO?

“For me, brave is a refusal to ever be comfortable and forget where I came from. While we serve the Michelin-starred restaurants and the highest economic echelon of clientele, my real passion lives in the neighborhoods that need our help the most. I’m reaching out to organizations like the Chicago Housing Authority about the way their pest control is done to say that there is a better way. I care about kids who grow up with their asthma triggered by exposure to the proteins in cockroaches and bed bugs. It doesn’t have to be that way. We can make it so they can grow up in pest-free homes. Good health should be a birthright, and it’s not going to cost a ton more. It will cost slightly more in the short term, but in the long run, it will cost exponentially less. I’m the person writing the plans and procedures to make this vision a reality in Chicago. Every child deserves the chance for a healthy, good life. It was what my cousin Ray deserved, but didn’t get, and the most meaningful part of my work is the government consulting that I do pertaining to pigeons, rats, mice, cockroaches and bed bugs in the urban environment.

“Schools, in particular, choose to work with Landmark because of our social justice mission. While other pest control companies will treat a classroom when a child brings bed bugs to school, we go a step further. Many children in our cities are economically disadvantaged and there are obstacles to their education, but disparate access to pest control doesn’t have to be one of them. When a child brings bed bugs to school, we work through the administration to help the student’s family invoke their rights under the Chicago Bed Bug Ordinance. While writing and mailing a letter seems easy to some people, it’s a prohibitive barrier to others, so we write the landlord notification letter for them and deliver it by certified mail at our own expense. You can imagine that children who bring bed bugs to school get bullied and made fun of, so for us, it’s not enough to treat the classroom, we want to help level the playing field for that child so they can focus on their studies and not feel embarrassed.

“My measure of success isn’t just based on revenue. I’m never going to stop confronting hard problems. I’m always going to work within economically disadvantaged communities. I want to be a change agent, and to help people live greener, healthier lives.”

What does an honor like WBO of the Year finalist mean to you?

“This honor reminds me of one of my favorite quotes. It’s something Michelle Obama said. She said, when you make it through the door, it’s not enough to just leave the door open. Reach back and pull others through. In everything I do, I make sure to do that. I’m in this privileged position where I’m able to help others because of the women who did this for me. I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, and this award is another example of how NAWBO lifts up WBOs and pulls us through that door. I feel like NAWBO is pulling me through another door, to another level as a finalist.

“It’s also an honor to be nominated because Bank of America sponsors the award. Many people know that Bank of America helps women business owners gain access to capital, but they actually do so much more. Their focus on women business owners also includes offering educational resources designed to help women build, manage and scale successful businesses. They even created the Institute for Women's Entrepreneurship that offers the opportunity for women to earn a certificate in business from an Ivy League university. Bank of America sets an example of good corporate citizenship that I hope to emulate in my firm as we scale nationally and develop the resources to increase our reach and impact.”

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