Innovating in an Established Industry

David Royce received the Entrepreneur of the Year from the Rollins Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology.

After selling his first pest control company, serial entrepreneur David Royce got some news that would have made anyone else rejoice: he could live comfortably without working another day in his life.

But Royce wasn’t ready for an early retirement. “What’s the fun in that? To live is to grow,” he explains. “Life is about building things and going through new experiences.”

Today Royce boasts four successful pest control ventures including Alterra, an award-winning and fast-growing company sold last year to Terminix. His newest venture, Aptive Environmental, is poised to expand on Alterra’s success as it readies to enter 1,500 cities in 2016. Last month he was named Entrepreneur of the Year by the Marriott School’s Rollins Center for Entrepreneurship, capping an honor last year as EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year.

Royce, a Marriott School grad who earned a management degree with an entrepreneurship emphasis in 2004, never meant to take on pest control. It’s an older, more established industry—one he once feared lacked the innovation and excitement of tech startups. But through his career, Royce has worked to take a fresh approach, one rooted in his own experience selling door-to-door as a college student.

“I wasn’t successful at first,” Royce remembers. “I sold zero for five days straight, and our company is the way it is today literally because of that experience.” With no training manuals, Royce bought books on selling and read late every night, finishing the summer as the company’s top rookie. Determined that no one should have to go through what he did, the next summer he developed training role plays and materials for his recruits. The company’s owner took notice—impressed that Royce had taken the initiative to create training videos, he promoted Royce to main recruiter.

After graduation, Royce planned to head to New York to work in investment banking. But his company’s owner told him, “Look, if you’re going to do one-hundred-hour weeks, you should run your own company.” The owner then suggested Royce just buy his company (he was in the process of selling), take the sales team Royce had already recruited and trained, and “go and do your own thing; and if you have questions, call me.”

Since then, Royce has been perfecting and growing his business model. He’s placed an emphasis on sales excellence through training with manuals, videos, role plays, and mentors; Alterra invested more than a million on developing software for training and tracking sales statistics. “Our people know every home they’ve knocked, they know their closing ratios, and they can see how they stack up in the company; we also run sales tournaments through our software,” Royce adds.

Another area Royce found for innovation was in providing environmentally responsible products. “I had heard continually at the doors that there was a fear of chemicals,” he says. “I realized there’s a great angle here: focus on a reduced-impact service.” He determined to never source products that, even if used incorrectly, could harm a pet or child. “We focused on family-friendly products, and we tried to go green in every aspect of our business. It really resonated with the customers.” The emphasis helped distinctly brand Royce’s company; the word alterra means “from the earth.”

“We’ve really tried to take a white-collar approach to pest control,” Royce says. “As I’ve watched companies that have grown fast in Silicon Valley, I’ve stolen a lot of their secret formulas or recipes to success.” Especially, he adds, in regards to company culture—visitors to Alterra’s headquarters might think they’ve accidently stepped into a tech startup, complete with NCAA-sized basketball court and company basketball league, golf simulator, movie room, ping pong, foosball, and food truck “happy hours.” “We’ve really put an emphasis on employee happiness,” Royce says. “That’s very different in the rest of the pest control world.” He has seen the effort pay off in growing sales and increased employee retention.

Royce and his wife, Christina, who practiced law before becoming a stay-at-home mom, have two daughters, ages three and one. Before their children were born, Royce and Christina regularly traveled abroad and sought out new restaurants. But for now, “it’s all about princesses,” he says. “We watch a lot of Frozen.”

Keeping the title of founder and chairman at Aptive Environmental, his newest venture, Royce decided to forgo the CEO spot; he’ll still be deeply involved in shaping and improving his business model while giving himself more flexibility for time with his young family.

“I’ve climbed a great mountain,” he says, referring to his string of successful companies. “I really know the model, and at this point it’s about replicating and improving it. I’ve got such a great team; we are continuing to climb even faster than we have before.”