Step out of the lift that takes you to Pesbusters' office, and you are greeted by a giant painting of a furry rat. There's little doubt of what the staff at Pestbusters do.

In contrast to the drab, grey exterior that's typical of many industrial buildings, Pestbusters' office in Ubi is modern, bright and decorated with cheerful art pieces of various insects.

Even the dramatic centrepiece hanging from the ceiling in the meeting room is one that immediately draws attention.

What appears to be an artistic fixture resembling a large cage filled with used lightbulbs is actually a rat trap, the company's chairman and CEO, Thomas Fernandez, explains.

"To people outside, pest control is not a sexy job," he says. "So how do we make it a sexy job? We do it by being creative in our thinking. One way is how we do up the place and make people go 'wow' when they come in, and attract them to work with us."

"Chemical in the blood"

It was by accident that Mr Fernandez fell into the unusual business of pest control.

While he joked that it may be because of the "chemical in his blood" that resulted in his career path, it was no laughing matter when he first started out.

"I first took up this job to fund my studies. It was a lot to do with mixing chemicals back then, and I almost died," he says. The incident aroused his interest in proper pest management, and so he decided to head overseas in 1982 to educate himself after he realised there was no such training in Singapore.

It was at a pest control conference that he met his mentor, Ken Doty, from Fort Collins, Colorado. Mr Doty was a veteran in the pest management business and was also the president of the Colorado Pest Control Association. He took Mr Fernandez under his wings and taught him a brand new approach to managing pests.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Pestbusters was established in 1991 after Mr Fernandez returned, with a chosen niche in the healthcare and hospitality industry.

According to him, Pestbusters has a 95 per cent market share servicing premium five-star hotels, and about 75-80 per cent servicing privatised hospitals in Singapore.

Mr Fernandez says what sets the company apart from other pest control firms out there is the use of a holistic approach, instead of "fire fighting".

"For example, if there is a rat problem in your house, you must know where the rat is, how it is entering your property and how it is surviving. You don't just go in and cull all the rats. There must be regular maintenance of a pest-free environment. Pest control is not a sprint, it's a marathon," he explains.

Keeping staff

Mr Fernandez attributes his company's success to its people, and says talent management is critical for attracting and retaining workers.

The company employs approximately 115 people.

"The attrition rate is about 60 per cent for the first two years of staff. This is because people don't really know if this is the right sort of job for them when they come in. After the first two years, people tend to stay for a longer time.

Most of my people stay with me for over 20 years," he says.

A 2015 study titled Talent & Productivity in Singaporean SMES conducted by Roffey Park found that out of 401 small and medium enterprises surveyed, two-fifths reported difficulty attracting suitable employees often.

Mr Fernandez points out that the manpower challenge forces the firm to be more creative as they are pushed to a corner.

They must develop new ways to do things and "make an unsexy job sexy".

He cites the example of Google as an ideal workplace.

"Most people know that Google is not an easy place to work at - there is a lot of pressure," he says.

"But the management leaves it to you to get results. So if you want to sleep, there are sleep pods in the office. If you want to exercise, there's a gym. A lot of SMEs can emulate that kind of culture. You don't have to reinvent the wheel."

Aside from doing up the office to give it an appealing vibe, there is also a strong family culture coupled with an open-door policy, he says.

Mr Fernandez says that leaders should make sure that staff can communicate with them freely. It is also important to go to the ground and understand their problems, he adds.

"This is something I have learnt from Tony Fernandez of AirAsia.After hours, he joins his staff at the rooftop where they gather for drinks and relax. That's when they are able to chat with him and for him to find out what issues they face. They don't feel that he is a 'big boss'."

Investing in talent

Mr Fernandez says that his company's biggest achievement is in its continuous commitment to investing in its people.

"Most SMEs don't want to train because it is a cost and they lose production time.

However, if you are able to invest in your people, they will be more productive.

They can differentiate themselves from all their competitors in the end," he explains.

At Pestbusters, training and development is something that is taken very seriously.

The wall of their meeting room is plastered with accolades such as the People Developer Standard and the National Training Award.

"We can take in a greenhorn who knows nothing about the industry, and educate and train them with the knowledge, technology and technique to become ambassadors of our brand," says Mr Fernandez.

"A lot of customers say that our staff always have a smile on their face, they extend their hands for a handshake, and sit down with them to discuss the problem.

We train them to take pride in what they do and be respected for what they are doing.

Our ambassadors who are at the frontline help take our company to the next level."

Staff also get the opportunity to plan their own career paths.

"I always ask my staff where they would like to be in three to five years.

If they want to be somewhere, we motivate and inspire them along their path. I have had technicians who are now in international business development," Mr Fernandez says.

He points out that all his managers today are "ground-up" and must "have had their hands dirty".

"If you want to work with me, you have to be on the field. You must walk the talk," he explains.

Future plans

One challenge that Pestbusters faces as an SME is the rising cost of business, mainly attributed to rental and parking. He says that Singapore's growth has also plateaued, and that is why the company needs to look outward for expansion.

His goal for the next three years is to bring the Pestbusters brand across the world. The company is currently in talks with potential partners in Dubai and the UK.

Despite being in the industry for more than three decades, Mr Fernandez still gets excited about new developments taking place in the pest control scene.

"Imagine technology that allows you to suck up the air in a hotel room and tells you if there are bed bugs. The future of pest management will be extremely intelligent," he says.

"We evolve constantly with the change in environment and demand, as the pests also have adaptations. It is a continuous journey to outsmart pests."