- Associated Press - Saturday, October 11, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - In the simplest terms, Dave Mueller is a bug guy.

He studied entomology and environmental science at Purdue, then moved to central Indiana to launch two companies: commercial pest-control provider Fumigation Service & Supply and the firm he hopes will put it out of business someday, pheromone maker Insects Limited Inc.

Rather than using pesticides to treat infestations, Insects Limited does battle in its Westfield laboratory, developing synthetic versions of the chemicals bugs emit to attract one another.

Its pheromone lures and traps target the creepy crawlers that can threaten stored food, tobacco, timber and fiber worldwide - everything from food-processing plants to pharmaceutical warehouses to museums’ artifact collections.

More than three decades after its founding, the 10-person company has a global reach. Half of Insects Limited’s 50 largest customers are outside the United States, Mueller told the Indianapolis Business Journal (https://bit.ly/1savSkV ).

Fumigation Service, meanwhile, has six locations and a full-time staff of about 40 that delivers more traditional treatment to commercial clients throughout the Midwest. It occupies a separate Westfield facility where wood products from the region are fumigated before they can be shipped overseas; an on-site U.S. Department of Agriculture office provides required inspections.

Small and midsize firms dominate the nearly $12 billion U.S. pest-control industry, accounting for more than 70 percent of revenue, according to a June report from research firm IBISWorld Inc. Sales have increased about 2.5 percent in the past five years, the report said, and the trend is expected to continue.

Mueller declined to share his family-owned firms’ financial results, but he said the businesses are debt-free and have increased revenue every year since 1981.

He credits a business strategy divined from an unlikely source: his daily adversary.

“There’s a lot we can learn from the insect world,” said Mueller, 61.

Observing bugs has taught him the value of persistence and focus, for example, and that bigger isn’t always better - unless you’re talking about profits.

Take Insects Limited, one of just a handful of companies worldwide that produce pheromones specifically to target the stored-product pests that can threaten commerce.

Left undetected, such intruders can be “especially destructive” in food-processing and food-storage facilities, said entomologist Bennett Jordan, staff scientist at the National Pest Management Association in Alexandria, Virginia.

Insects are very focused on survival - what can they do, where can they go, to survive?” Mueller said. “We tried to create that for ourselves here. Some businesses try to be everything to everyone, and they lose their way. We found a niche, and we found ways to survive.”

The son of a flour mill owner in Evansville, Mueller learned at an early age how to protect grain by spraying for bugs. He became a believer in more environmentally friendly options while at Purdue in the 1970s, when the “green” movement was starting.

Launching a business in the early 1980s, when interest rates were high, forced Mueller to move - and grow - slowly. But by making it a policy to avoid debt and build reserves, the company has been able to take advantage of opportunities along the way.

“I was taught discipline from the very beginning,” he said.

In 1998, Insects Limited moved from leased space near Home Place to a facility it built in a Westfield industrial park. The 4,300-square-foot steel warehouse/production facility blends in with its neighbors, but the office space up front looks more like a hunting lodge than a corporate headquarters - 3,100 square feet of wood siding and stone fireplaces and more stuffed prey than some taxidermy shops.

Product development begins in the on-site laboratory, where scientists grow colonies of warehouse beetles, clothes moths and the like, then extract and analyze their hormones.

Specimens are shipped off to a mass spectrometer at Purdue University, which determines the molecular makeup of the desired pheromones, and then the staff chemist works to re-create them. That process can take months.

So-called test arenas in the lab provide instant feedback on the effectiveness of their products and others.

“We ask the insects” what works, said Vice President Pat Kelley, a 28-year employee.

Because the answer differs depending on the species - and more than 1 million have been identified, Kelley said - Insects Limited also offers clients specialized training, teaching them to recognize pests common to their particular environment.

Others take advantage of a “free ID” program, sending bugs to the company for classification. Telephone-based technical support also is available, Mueller said, and those callers often place an order before hanging up.

Since the mid-1980s, Insects Limited and its sister company have hosted the biannual “Fumigants and Pheromones” industry confab, drawing hundreds of attendees from across the world. The first conference was at IUPUI; the 11th iteration was this summer in Krakow, Poland.

Mueller said he was inspired to establish the firms as industry experts after hearing a 1974 speech from popcorn pioneer Orville Redenbacher at Purdue. The gist of his message: “People who don’t know will buy from people who know.”

“So we go out and research and find new ideas,” Mueller said.

He’s particularly proud of the work Insects Limited has done with museums, which need to protect the thousands of artifacts in their care - including many that are historically significant.

An initial job at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis early on led the company to a long-term business line managed by Kelley, the longtime employee who tackled that first project because of a personal interest in museums.

Kelley now spends about 40 percent of his time on museum work, and Mueller said he has become one of the nation’s leading authorities on the subject.

“Lots of materials in museums could be food sources” for pests, said Amy McKune, director of museum collections at Indianapolis’ Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. “They’re just part of our world.”

The Eiteljorg has been working with Insects Limited since 2004, before McKune joined the museum. Kelley visits every four weeks as part of an integrated pest-management program that includes detecting any infestations early, before damage occurs.

McKune also ordered the Westfield company’s traps and lures while at another institution in Bozeman, Montana.

“They’ve carved out a really strong niche in museum pest management,” McKune said.

Indeed, Insects Limited has a national reputation as “a company that works effectively with the special concerns of cultural institutions and the safety of delicate art collections,” Claire Hoevel, senior conservator of paper at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, wrote in an email. IMA has been a client since 2002.

In recent years, the company also has begun to explore retail sales, developing its GreenWay line of pesticide-free products targeted at homeowners rather than businesses. The demand isn’t new, Mueller said, but it was difficult for the small firm to tap into such a large market. The Internet has made that easier.

“It’s coming along,” he said of the retail push, modeled after a successful home-products firm in Denmark.

Mueller and his wife, Mary Beth, own Insects Limited outright. A former schoolteacher, Mary Beth has helped out at the business over the years and still serves as a valuable sounding board.

“We have a board of directors meeting every night at supper,” Mueller said with a chuckle.

Older son Pete has a stake in Fumigation Services, and his brother Tom started at Insects Limited this month. Someday, Mueller hopes to hand the reins of both companies to daughter Francie, who has an MBA and lives in Peoria, Illinois.

“It’s a family business,” he said simply.

So who is the official bug-killer in a family of professional assassins? Mueller laughed before offering an unexpected response.

Insects are probably more tolerated at the Mueller house than most,” he said, sharing that he had been “assaulted” by spider webs in the basement just the night before. “I kind of like watching them. When you observe them, you can learn something - why or how they do things.

“I respect them,” he continued. “I don’t think of them as creepy creatures. They’re survivors that have been around this planet for a long, long time.”


Information from: Indianapolis Business Journal, https://www.ibj.com

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