The Mike Masterson Chronicles: Rise of the Verminator
Tuesday’s problem was fruit bats. A colony of 200 or so hadshacked up beneath an overhang on a run-down condominium building in Davie, Fla., near Fort Lauderdale. A girl walking her dog saw the bats fluttering out to feed at dusk. She sent an e-mail to the producers of a Discovery Channel show she’d seen about a pest-control company, the nasty critters they controlled, and the occasionally nasty measures they took to control them. So, in early February, video crew in tow, here came Mike Masterson and his Verminators.
They set up a system of nets, a kind of Bat Motel in reverse: Bats could fly out at twilight through funnels in the netting to feed but couldn’t get back in at daybreak. The Verminators couldn’t kill them; the bats are a protected species. That probably meant the bats would simply find another building to roost in. But the crew did what it could. Then they broke out shovels, scrapers, and plastic bags for the guano.
“Oh, yeah, tons of it. All over the place,” Masterson says after taping had wrapped for the night. “And that stuff smells so bad.”
Supervising the collection and disposal of mass quantities of bat poop is not the future Masterson, 48, imagined when he graduated from UNLV in 1984 with a degree in hotel management. (He thought he might have to hire the people who cleaned up the poop, should there be poop, which he didn’t plan on, either.) He did security work during and immediately after college, escorting boxers into the ring area at Caesars Palace and, he says, working as a bodyguard for the likes of Joan Rivers and Olivia Newton-John. He thought about becoming a police officer. But nothing jelled, and for all his proximity to celebrity, he wasn’t making much money.
A roommate worked in pest control, and Masterson tried it. For the first few weeks, he couldn’t shake the feeling that the work was beneath him. But he got over it. He worked for Orkin for 18 years, branching out in 2004 to co-found his own pest control firm, Isotech Pest Management of Covina, Calif.
Isotech quickly amassed an impressive portfolio of corporate clients, including high-end hotels and restaurants. Then Verminators, jump-started by a 2007 front-page Los Angeles Timesstory featuring Isotech, began airing last spring, following Masterson and Isotech workers from infestation to infestation. Soon, Masterson found himself with more work than he could imagine, not to mention a hectic travel schedule and his own sudden, unexpected celebrity.Rise
“Everybody said that was gonna happen. I said, ‘Nah, you’re crazy.’ But I have to tell you, it’s insane,” Masterson says. “I get stopped everywhere I go. I carry copies of the promo shot of me and the technicians to give away. It’s really amazing, the amount of attention.”
He sees the show and the attention it brings as a way to advance Isotech’s business opportunities, not as a time-and-energy- sapping hindrance. And should Masterson’s head ever begin to swell too much, his wife of 21 years, Roberta, would set him straight: “‘Hey, you think you’re hot stuff?’” he says, adopting Roberta’s voice. ‘Go clean the toilet.’”
Masterson’s voice still carries the nasal inflection of his native Chicago, where his father, John, served for more than a decade as arts and sciences dean at DePaul University.
During high school, Masterson worked at hotels, starting out as a waiter and moving up to a night auditor position by the time he began attending DePaul. He eventually earned an associate’s degree in architectural design from a local junior college but decided he couldn’t spend day after day sitting behind a desk. He wanted to work in hotels. In 1982, Masterson transferred to UNLV, home to one of the nation’s top hotel management programs. “Broke my mother’s heart,” he says.
But then he drifted into the security gigs and eventually into pest control. Once he shed his sense of slumming, he says, he gained an appreciation for how important the work really was.
“Without pest management, people would still be dying of viruses and plagues that are still rampant in third-world countries,” he says. “When you start learning about something you don’t know … I couldn’t read enough books, I couldn’t attend enough seminars, I just wanted to know more and more and more.”
The enthusiasm carries over into the show, which is beginning its second season. In one of the first episodes, Masterson accompanies a technician to Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, a small school near downtown Los Angeles.
Camino Nuevo has a termite problem. “We’re gonna find these guys, no matter how long it takes us,” Masterson says. He climbs a ladder, removes some ceiling tiles above where he’s found a few termites and discovers a large pile of you-know-what. “We’ve got a bunch of fecal matter,” he calls down. “Oh, my gosh. This is bad.” The technician gets to work.
That was in fall 2007. More than a year later, the termites haven’t returned, says Jose Peralta, the school’s facilities manager. An added benefit: The Verminators production company paid for the termite treatment. Camino Nuevo still uses Isotech to inspect the school every month.
“We felt like we were being informed and knew what they were going to do,” Peralta says. “Some companies, they tell you what they’re going to do, and you have no idea what they’re talking about … If I ever have a problem, I know I can call Mike, and he’ll always call me back.”
Masterson encounters similar, or worse, infestations during taping. The Verminators website has a mash reel of some of the more disgusting discoveries, set to the panicky strains of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” Many feature shocked homeowners. But Isotech visits houses or apartments only for the show. Otherwise, it concentrates on business clients.
“I started using Mike when he was with Orkin in the early ’90s. When he went off on his own, it was a no-brainer to stay with him, because he’s really great on service and follow-up,” says Blair Salisbury, president of the California Restaurant Association’s Los Angeles chapter. Salisbury’s family owns the popular El Cholo chain of Mexican restaurants; he owns the El Cholo in Pasadena.
“A lot of companies, the people they send out don’t really seem on top of their games, like they don’t really want to be there,” Salisbury says. “(Isotech’s) technicians seem to take a lot of pride in their work, which is a reflection on Mike’s pride in his work.”
When Masterson and his friend Kevin Alden founded Isotech in June 2004, the company employed three people. It now has 50, serving 6,600 clients, most in California. The firm is expanding, even in the face of a snake’s-belly economy. “Our business is recession- proof,” Masterson notes.
The market for reality shows on pest control appears to be expanding, too. In February, A&E debuted its own answer to Verminators, titled — what else? — The Exterminators, a “docusoap” that chronicles the shenanigans of a heavy metal-haired Louisiana pest fighter and his wacky family.
“There are 28,000 pest control companies out there. I’ve never worried about competition,” says Masterson, who knows the Louisiana heavy metal pest dude, Billy Bretherton. “I actually think his show will complement our show. Ours is more Jacques Cousteau meets Fear Factor … his is more reality TV meets mad scientist. Ours is more educational, his is more entertainment.”
Show or no show, Masterson worries about a coming explosion of bedbug infestations, created by a combination of complacency, increased international travel, and an industry wide switch from chemical sprays to baits, which don’t kill as many insects.
In Isotech’s first full year, 2005, the company tackled about 120 bedbug-infested hotel rooms. Last year, it handled about 18,000. “I will guarantee you,” Masterson says, “in the next five years, it’ll be the biggest plague in America.”
Isotech has assembled a team of bed bug sniffing beagles certified by the National Entomology Scent Detection Canine Association. The company developed a system for heattreating blocks of hotel rooms — sustained high heat being one of the few things that kills bedbugs en masse — to save hoteliers time and lost business from having to clear the rooms out for several days of fumigation.
The growing bedbug problem is not limited to flea-bag motels — luxury hotels have them too. That’s something else Masterson learned on the job, the one he once thought he was above. The day after the bat condo, the Isotech team was headed to the hip, upscale Miami neighborhood of Coconut Grove to combat an infestation of peacocks.
“Hey, everything is neat when there’s a balance. But when you have 60 peacocks on the roof of your house, and they’re defecating on there, and their claws are scratching the finish of your Porsche, you’re not going to want those guys around,” Masterson says. “That’s one thing about pest control: They’re everywhere. It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor. Pests don’t discriminate.”
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