Descended from Thomas Langlois Lefroy, whose killer charm made him the generally accepted model for Jane Austen?s Mr Darcy, the founder of Rentokil was Maxwell Lefroy, 1900s England?s premier entomologist. And so commences a lesson on how to build a global corporation in The Pest Detectives: The Definitive History of Rentokil.
As entertainingly told by journalist Rob Gray, Lefroy made his entomological name in India ? and his career by ridding Westminster Hall of deathwatch beetles with refinements of his patent mixture of tetrachloroethane, cedarwood oil, solvent soap, paraffin wax and trichloroethylene.A knighthood was reputedly proffered and politely refused.
During World War I, Lefroy fought the voracious insects dining on troops? food and on the soldiers themselves ? he got 1,100 desperate letters looking for a louse remedy. Lefroy founded Rentokil ? named from the Greek entomon, meaning ?insect?. But in 1925, he gassed himself while working on a new poison. His friend Francis MacLean Scott told the inquest he had seen Lefroy staggering around complaining of having inhaled the vapour. ?The little beggars have got the best of me,? he remarked. Next day, he was found stretched dead on the floor of his lab.
Bessie Eades, a formidable young Londoner, was in charge of the commercial side of the business. Now she took the reins, buying the rights to the timber fluid from Lefroy?s widow and, with Elsie May Lanstein, formally setting up Rentokil (Sales) Ltd in summer 1928 ? just as women finally got the vote in Britain.
They made big changes, starting to sell directly to the public and using vivid advertising. Their firm scraped through the Depression, was bombed out in the Blitz, but kept growing. The staff even scoured rag-and-bone yards for bottles of all sizes and shapes to send out their Kilit and Mothproofer, as their new entomologist Dr Norman Hickin wrote in his autobiography, My Life With Woodworm.
By the 1950s, their major customers were building contractors specialising in home and church reconstruction: the enemy was woodworm and dry rot, with a sideline in insect infestations. Journalists wrote approvingly about ?the maternal nature?
of Bessie Eades? management style. They took on work in the Colonial Williamsburg village in Virginia, in St Helena, in the Falklands. A Ugandan customer wrote to say that their product?s long-term efficiency couldn?t be attested, because the gate treated had been destroyed by a hippopotamus.
Meanwhile, back in the 1900s, a bubonic plague pandemic was killing thousands: 500 died in Australia alone. Danish pharmacist George Neumann cultivated a broth from a bacterium found in a cystitis patient?s urine and discovered that it caused gastroenteritis in rats. The Ratin company was born. Ratin scoured country after country. In Reykjavik, 84 per cent of a sample 5,000 buildings were found to be rat-infested; the company wiped out the infestation that had overrun Iceland.
In 1957, Ratin bought Rentokil, and Bessie Eades bowed out. The new men went on a buying spree, acquiring Fumigation Services, Insecta Laboratories and Scientex, bringing in food sector fumigation, maritime pest control and bird repellents.
Rentokil went on to publicity coups ? clearing the German town of Hamelin of rats in an achievement not matched since the Pied Piper visited there in 1284 (but without the loss of children), debugging the British Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace. By the time the company floated in 1969, it was trading in 85 countries.
Nowadays, Rentokil is involved in every possible infection-control and infestation scenario. After the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005, its Specialist Hygiene Team dealt with the biohazard aftermath of bombs that left 52 dead and over 700 injured.
A fascinating, racy book, The Pest Detectives is enjoyable study material for every entrepreneur hoping to build a company into a business.