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Orkin under siege 

A homegrown corporate icon fends off multimillion-dollar lawsuits with a heavy dose of change in its company culture

Meet the Orkin man. No, not the ad agency actor in the hardhat and snappy white uniform shirt with red epaulets, armed with chemicals and a guarantee that he'll rid your home or business of termites and pests. This is the real Mr. Orkin, Glen Rollins, president of the bug control company and heir apparent to one of the South's homegrown corporate aristocracies.

Atlanta-based Rollins Inc. has owned businesses as varied as radio stations and speedboat manufacturers. But since 1964, when it acquired Orkin, the family outfit has been increasingly focused on creepie-crawlies, shedding most of the one-time conglomerate's broadcasting, lawn care, burglar alarm and other operations.

When he was 14, Glen Rollins began at the bottom, literally, scurrying underneath houses looking for termites and other varmints. "I was a grunt," he recalls. "I loved it. Bugs are fascinating, so are rodents. And I liked interacting with customers. We'd get to know them. I knew the kids' names, their cats."

Rollins doesn't affect the panache of a Big Peach tycoon. He skips the power suits and ties. With boyish looks and Southern congeniality, Rollins comes across more like the fellow sitting on the stool next to you at a neighborhood tavern than as a habitue of Atlanta's blue-blooded Piedmont Driving Club, where his socially prominent family is a mainstay.

He still enjoys rolling up his sleeves at field offices and doesn't mind getting sweaty. On a steamy August afternoon, as a photographer prepared to shoot him, the rumpled Rollins grimaced: "Darn, forgot to wear a belt today."

His office, far from being corporate culture grand, features one wall thick with pictures of his wife and three children. Windows look out on a particularly tacky stretch of Piedmont Avenue. "It's getting better," he shrugs. "There are fewer sex shops, anyway."

The trappings of wealth aren't important to Rollins. But the company's wealth is. Rollins Inc. generated $677 million in revenues last year -- $671 million from Orkin. Perhaps more telling, Rollins scored profits of almost $36 million in 2003, up $8 million from 2002 and five times what the company pocketed in 1999, according to the most recent annual report.

Safeguarding that ever-accelerating money machine is Glen Rollins' job, as his father Gary, 60, and uncle R. Randall, 72, gradually turn loose of the 8,000-employee, 400-branch company.

But Glen Rollins faces a daunting job. The record profits don't tell the entire story about the pest control company. Rollins Inc. and Orkin are under siege, and Glen Rollins is the general standing on the ramparts.

The outfit is being nibbled at by lawyers and disgruntled customers who are as ferocious in their attack as termites are when they sniff unprotected wood. Juries and arbitration panels have slapped multimillion-dollar judgments on Orkin. Looming over the horizon are scores of other cases, at least four of which are seeking "class action" status that could pit hundreds of thousands of customers against Orkin -- and could, potentially, write the final chapter for a fabled American business icon.

At the heart of the dispute is the word "integrity." You don't read Orkin literature or talk to company executives without soon encountering the term.

In the company's annual report last year, Gary and R. Randall Rollins told shareholders: "The corporate culture at Rollins Inc. is one that promotes honesty and integrity as an integral part of the way we do business." In an interview, Glen Rollins stresses that "our integrity" is "essential."

Others -- lawyers and their clients -- are disdainful. They claim the company emphasizes sales and revenues, and shortchanges customers on Orkin's promise to protect houses and businesses against termites, and to repair damage caused by the pests.

Since these customers have entrusted what is often their most valued asset, their homes, to Orkin, what's at stake is both emotional and valuable. "I want to see Orkin go down," fumes Collier Black, an angry Florida homeowner who, along with his wife, Peggy, last year won a $750,000 judgment against the company.

Underscoring criticism of the company are mountains of evidence. More than 10,000 pages of court documents and supporting material were reviewed for this article. Among the items uncovered were 10 internal Orkin memos from the mid-1990s detailing "fraud, forgery and theft." "FFT" has become a rallying cry among Orkin critics.

One of the memos, from a South Georgia Orkin manager in 1996, states: "During the past several months there have been instances of fraud, theft and forgery in the company. ... We are also seeing far too many instances ... [of] finding customers being charged for services not rendered."

Orkin and its competitors faced extraordinary challenges in recent decades. A highly effective chemical that killed and repelled termites was banned, and pest control companies were forced to use less-toxic formulas. Nonetheless, Orkin continued to make the same guarantees to customers, and court case after court case argues the newer treatments didn't work.

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