Hear scratching in the attic? Spot a snakeskin in the basement?
For Charlotte residents with a sneaking suspicion they have furry, feathered or scaly visitors in their homes, Allen Eckman is at the ready. His company, A-1 Wildlife Control, works to remove wildlife from homes and businesses and prevent animals from entering again.
California native Eckman, 39, entered the business about 18 years ago, when a national wildlife control franchise opened next to his parents' video store in Charlotte. He began working there and rose to field manager before starting his own company in 1994.
Though A-1's staff has remained small, with four employees, to keep it manageable – “more is not necessarily better,” Eckman says – sales have risen steadily as the company has tackled larger and more complex jobs.
Eckman's work is mostly administrative these days, as years of field work have taken a toll on his back, he said. He also hosts two S.C. television shows related to his passion for motorcycle riding and power sports; one, “Carolina Cruiser,” co-stars his 3-year-old Jack Russell terrier Hayley, a frequent passenger on his Harley who was trained from her early days to do tricks and humanely find animals.
Eckman spoke with the Observer last week at his home outside Rock Hill, where he bases the business. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity:
Q. What was your experience with animals before you entered this line of work?
I was always just an animal lover. I've had dogs all my life, and cats, and I was always good at training animals and understanding (them). Without saying I'm the Dog Whisperer, there's a connection there. We like to rescue people from animals and we like to rescue animals from people.
And when (animals) get inside your home, they don't perceive the home as your home. It's part of the elements to them. So if it's adequate, they'll use it.
Whether it's a house or a nice hole in a tree, the animal doesn't say, “Wow, that's a $750,000 home and that's a log.” There's no rationale with animals – it's all instinct. As long as you can understand that, you never get behind the eight ball.
Q. Did you ever think you would become a businessman on your own?
I was always confident, because I'm a confident person. If I have a passion to do something or my heart is into it, I'm behind it.
When I started getting into this business, I liked it. I'd created a passion for it. Therefore, I became very good at it.
When I became good at it, I let other people see that. And when other people saw that and I was successful, I could come out and (people would) pay me to solve your problem. The best advertising is word of mouth, and my company got out there very quickly.
Q. What seemed to be driving the demand for your business?
In the suburban areas of Charlotte, there's tons of foliage and there's a lot of wildlife. So you're constantly getting human-wildlife conflict. There was more business that could be taken on – I could work 12 days a week, 10 hours a day. And I wore myself out. That's why we hired people that I trained.
Q. You've had very little turnover. What would you attribute that to?
Good management. Fairness. I remembered how I was treated and paid (in my previous job), and I didn't like it. So I wasn't going to do that to my technicians. I took that risk and I looked and searched for the right people and I paid them handsomely.
If you have a job that's worth $20 an hour and I pay you $10 an hour for it, how motivated are you? If you have a $20-an-hour job and I pay you $40 an hour right out of the gate, are you motivated to do well for me? Of course you are.
You think, “Wow.” And that's what I did: I found out what all my competitors were paying on average and I doubled it. And these guys have been with me for years.
Q. What are some of the strangest calls you've received?
I had a 90-year-old couple that was hearing scratching in a wall for several days. They called me. I was able to pinpoint where it was coming from. I removed the animal from the wall and it was a hamster.
And I asked them, “Who owns a hamster?” They looked at each other and were horrified, because they had lived there and they didn't own a hamster.
I've removed barn owls, big ones, from chimneys. Or (they) get loose in the living room. I've removed gigantic snakes, boa constrictors, out of apartment complexes. Just things you're like, “What? How'd that get there?”
Q. What are some challenges you've faced and how have you dealt with them?
Competition. Everybody's doing (this kind of work) now. Most of your pest control companies are trying to do it.
When I started this business, there was one competitor. Now there's 20 in Charlotte. What I do to differentiate myself is, I come up with animal-proofing techniques they haven't heard of or haven't seen or do not use.
Another way is education and experience. I've been here doing this in Charlotte for 18 years. Life's busy, and I know people are busy, and they want to (have me) come in and solve a problem and it lasts.