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The Gods of Retail: ServiceMaster

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Fighting the plague of termites with the power of faith.

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There comes a time when there's no further recourse: Your home has succumbed to termite infestation, crabgrass has claimed the majority of the front lawn, and that recliner is responsible for your sciatica.

Sure, you can try wishing away this biblical plague, or you can get down on your knees and plead to the heavens for a savior to answer your call.

And lo, from that shining light, walks ServiceMaster, mighty father of Terminix, ChemLawn and Furniture Medic.

The enterprising redeemer known as ServiceMaster began under truly holy circumstances. Before founding the company, Marion Wade -- a door-to-door salesman and former minor-league baseball player -- nearly lost his sight after a chemical explosion. During his recovery, Wade underwent a religious conversion and prayed for guidance.

It came in the form of Kenneth Hansen, who joined forces with Wade to form ServiceMaster in 1947. In his autobiography, The Lord Is My Counsel, Wade described the ServiceMaster name as "perfect in every area: Masters of service, serving the Master."

In 1959, the company's first franchise license was sold in Great Britain, thus spawning ServiceMaster International.

Following one of his speeches on the ServiceMaster gospel, Wade was approached by a nun, who suggested that he expand the company into hospital housekeeping. He did so in 1962.

Over the next few decades, the acquisitions came fast and furious, across a host of markets: pest control, landscaping, construction, restoration and home inspection.ServiceMaster expanded its franchised operations in 30 countries, soon becoming a leader in outsourcing.

During this time, ServiceMaster's Christian motif became ever more pronounced: Outside corporate headquarters stood an 11-foot statue of Jesus washing a disciple's feet, the company's stated objectives began with the maxim "Honor God in All We Do," and employees regularly held Bible study groups.

Some analysts blamed the company's fixation on religion as responsible for the weakening of its business in the 1990s.

In an effort to aid ailing stocks, Jonathan Ward was brought in as the company's first non-evangelical chief executive in January 2001. Ward did, however, maintain a churchy tone by opening meetings with readings from the book of Isaiah.

In March 2007, prayers to end the company's financial woes were answered: ServiceMaster was bought out by private-equity firm Clayton, Dubilier & Rice for $5.5 billion. And the company's executive vice president, Steven Preston, was chosen by the notoriously devout President Bush to be the nation's secretary of housing and urban development.

The Lord works in mysterious ways.


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