Editor’s Note: The PMP staff is saddened to report that Jim passed away March 10, 2008. He was 80. Learn more here.
You could say Jim Steckel was born to be a leader in the pest management industry — though you’d never get Steckel, a quiet, unassuming man, to say it about himself. He deflects praise about his leadership at Copesan, the National Pest Management Association (NPMA) and Tornado Manufacturing Co., with a faint smile and gentle wave of his hand, as if to say, “Ah, shucks — t’weren’t nothin’.”
But that’s not what his industry friends say about him.
“I don’t know anyone who has more friends in this industry than Jim Steckel,” says Tom McCloud, founder of McCloud Services. “He’s not only a leader, but he also has the uncanny ability to develop leaders.”
The family’s industry legacy doesn’t start with Jim, however — Steckel hails from a family that manufactured and sold insecticides and rodenticides in Columbus, Ohio, to companies to use on their own. Jim’s father Henry (“Doc” to his friends), a veterinarian by training, realized he could earn a living applying the products when those larger companies started asking him to train their technicians.
“Back in the 1930s and 1940s, companies would purchase our products and have their internal people apply them,” Steckel says. “Then those companies asked my father to come train their applicators. We became pest management professionals (PMPs) at that point.”
Jim Steckel’s defining moment — the one where he realized he’d be a PMP for life — occurred in the early 1940s, when his father took him to New York to help other PMPs fumigate the Queen Mary.
“I went along to help with the fumigation of that ship, which the government used to transport troops to the European theater during World War II,” Steckel says. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance. It made me realize that we were part of a larger industry.”
It’s a lesson that carried over from home. Steckel’s father helped found the National Pest Control Association (NPCA) and served as its president 1937-38. Watching his father gather with other PMPs from across the country made quite an impression on the young man.
“Our mentors were part of the industry that started the national organizations,” says McCloud, who grew up in the industry alongside Steckel and counts him as a longtime friend. “Jim never forgot that. He went out of his way to look out for the people who helped make this industry more professional.
“Jim stayed in touch with many members of the original leadership long after others had forgotten them,” McCloud continues. “I don’t mean the occasional phone call — I mean he would go and visit them. He didn’t want them to think their contributions were forgotten.”
Shortly after Steckel took over his father’s business in 1961, he felt compelled to join the leadership track for the NPMA. He says Ralph Heal, then the NPCA’s executive director, urged him to get involved.
“He told me it was time for me to step up and become a vice president,” Steckel says. “Heal was one of the most honest, hardworking members of our industry I’ve ever met. You couldn’t turn him down if he asked you to do something.”
Steckel served as president of the national association from 1970 to 1971, implementing a program of reaching out to companies that weren’t already involved in the association and make them feel at home.
“We wanted everyone across the country represented,” Steckel says. “It was important for me, as president, to give more people a stake in the success of our industry. I had a goal of raising the NPCA membership to 265 companies, and I set out to do it.”
Through traveling the country and visiting with companies, Steckel blew past his goal and reached 400-member mark. Tom Evans, president of Southern Mill Creek Products of Ohio in Cleveland, says Steckel believed in adding the personal touch to his recruitment efforts.
“Jim believed strongly in organization, and he actively recruited people to join the organization,” says Evans, who called on Steckel as his first client when he was a sales representative in 1961, and has known him ever since. “He provided strong support to the state organizations because he saw those as potential long-term partners with the national association.
“Jim saw opportunities down the road and made sure the national association was prepared to take advantage of them,” Evans adds.
Steckel always eschewed praise himself, Evans says. “He was never a cheerleader — he worked behind the scenes and brought others along for the ride.”
Steckel also played a vital role in fending off government regulation in the wake of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. Evans says the bombshell book, published in 1962 and which many credit with building the foundation for the environmental movement, caused great consternation among government officials.
“Few people in government understood what pest management was about, and they were alarmed by Carson’s book,” Evans says. “Jim Steckel was instrumental in traveling to Washington to educate regulators at the federal and state levels. He mounted a large campaign that involved people from across the country to mitigate the damage it did. We were lucky to have him.”
Though Steckel is retired, don’t think for a moment he’s stopped being active in the industry. Steckel is still a fixture at national and regional pest management events, bringing people together as they swarm to wish him well and seek his advice.
“It’s been a pleasure and privilege to serve alongside some of the real innovators in the industry,” Steckel humbly says. “I plan on staying active in the industry as long as I can. It’s been great to me, and I hope to continue to serve.”