Many folks dream of quitting their job and starting their own business, but few do. Even fewer who do start a business are successful. Chris and Allison Keenum are the exception on both counts. Whether or not they feel ready, a lot of folks may be forced to start a new venture thanks to a lost job, and perhaps they can learn something from the Keenums’ story of success in a most unusual venture.
The Keenums have developed their business in the highly unlikely area of pest animal control. This is probably not one of those suggested business start-ups one would see in Entreprenuer magazine, but the Keenums may be fortunate it is not. Recent business research has shown most successful new businesses start in a niche market larger companies cannot or will not serve. They begin in a very small way and they are, surprisingly enough, what most people would call undercapitalized.
When I asked Chris about this, he quickly agreed. "We started with about $2,000 worth of equipment and liability insurance and a borrowed extension ladder from my father-in-law."
Chris grew up in the woods and on the creek banks of the Tennessee Valley hunting, fishing and trapping every spare minute he had.
"I just loved that stuff," he said.
But, it was Allison who came up with the idea.
"She never read my magazines, but one day she happened to pick up one of them and saw an article about animal damage control," Chris explained.
She asked Chris what they were talking about. He explained wildlife could be a big problem in some situations and some businesses, mostly in the Northeast, had developed to take care of the problem.
She was quiet for a few minutes and then she said, "Chris, that’s what you need to do on your days off from work. You’re perfect for it."
Chris tried to explain to her those businesses might work up North, but not in the South.
"I told her, if folks down here have a problem with wildlife they just take care of it themselves. They don’t need to call anyone," he related.
Allison said, "Chris, every Southerner doesn’t live in Massey (the rural community where the Keenums reside). A lot of them live in cities, and they don’t feel comfortable handling those types of problems."
She also pointed out there were many Northern transplants here who were often afraid of the unfamiliar Southern wildlife.
Allison stayed after Chris for two weeks to get him to look into it, and he kept giving her reasons why it wouldn’t work until, just to get her to leave him alone, he made a few calls and then began to get excited himself. He readily gives Allison all the credit for the birth of the business saying there is no way he would have ever have pursued it if not for her.
It took five years of working at it part-time until they felt it was time to go all the way with it. In 2001, Chris quit a good job with benefits and set out into unknown territory. He was now in business for himself.
"I woke up with sore jaws every morning from grinding my teeth until I finally made the decision. Once I actually turned in my notice, my appetite came back and I was sleeping well again. A huge weight was off my shoulders," Chris said.
As you might expect, Chris has a lot of wild stories to tell. Once he was called to a house to remove a raccoon from under the floor. He put his head in a spot so tight to find the animal that both his ears scraped against the sides of the hole. Checking first to the right and not seeing anything he moved his light and then checked to the left only to see a very angry, bristling mama coon with three babies at her feet less that a yard away. He was blocking her only escape route with his head!
Knowing a coon can kill a dog twice its own size he said a fast prayer and as quickly as possible pulled his head out.
He said, "If she had attacked me I couldn’t even have gotten my hands over my eyes to protect them. You’d better believe I was scared."
Once he was called to an elderly lady’s house to get a snake out of a toilet (a call not as uncommon as one might expect). By the time he arrived, the snake was down the drain and stopping up the toilet. This meant he had to remove the toilet in order to get the snake. That turned into a major job since the bolts were too rusty and had to be cut off.
While he worked, he saw the lady walk by the door a couple of times and stare at him in an odd way. In a few minutes he heard her call the police and tell them that a man was in her bathroom stealing her toilet! It turns out the lady had Alzheimer’s and had completely forgotten why she had called him. Fortunately, her son was there to straighten everything out.
Chris said the biggest problem he has is that some people just don’t see this as a real business with expenses that must be paid and a family of four to live off of it.
"Sometimes I get a call out to a subdivision with half-million dollar houses in it and some guy wants me to catch some problem beavers and let me keep the pelts as payment," he stated.
Needless to say those guys get a lesson in economics very quickly.
His regular checks come from large industrial plants that are usually on the river. These plants own large tracts of land that are inhabited by a great deal of wildlife. Occasionally the animals end up in the plants where they are a danger to themselves and the employees. That’s when Chris comes in to relocate the animals.
He has captured everything from gators to bats to geese gone bad. Chris generally does what he refers to as critter control in Morgan, Madison, Limestone and Lawrence Counties, but he travels around the state to take care of bats and birds.
Chris said one thing that surprised him was how much of what he did depended on what he learned from his father in the construction business as he was growing up.
"You’d think this is all about animals, but at least half of what I do hinges on understanding how buildings are constructed," he explained.
It is refreshing to hear a man give his wife so much credit for his success. He repeatedly emphasized that because of Allison’s encouragement and faith in his abilities he was able to try this venture. He said she really does all the business end of things, and he just does the field work.
Chris grinned and said, "She often threatens to fire me, but so far has let me stay on."
"I’ve got the perfect job for me even though it is a whole lot of work. I know it would not exist if not for the Lord," Chris added.
Chris and Allison are available for speaking to groups and they have some more humorous and interesting animal stories to tell. To contact Keenum’s Problem Wildlife Control call (256) 462-3919.
Keith Johnson is a freelance writer from Morgan County.