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Truly An Original

detail of a Truly Nolen 'mouse car' VW Beetle with ears and decals
photo by Rusty Clark

I could argue that a sense of humor is one of the keys to success anywhere – but you definitely need one to stand out from the crowd in my adopted home in South Florida.

Perhaps no one illustrated this truth more memorably than Truly David Nolen, who died two weeks ago at the age of 89. Nolen made pest control cute with the company’s iconic yellow Volkswagen Beetles (or, perhaps more appropriately for an exterminator, VW Bugs), which sport mouse ears and tails. In doing so, he built the country’s largest family-run pest-control enterprise. Today nine of Truly Nolen’s 320 offices are found in South Florida, so area drivers can still expect to see the occasional “mouse car” heading for an appointment.

Nolen’s daughter Michelle Nolen Senner said in a statement: “Truly’s ‘rules to live by’ were, ‘Find humor in everything, even adversity. Stay positive and persistent to the extreme. Work hard, play hard. Do what you want to, not just to make money. Don’t be afraid to be different – take a chance!’”

Even those (like me) who did not know Nolen personally could see these rules at work in the way he developed his business. Nolen took a risk and set off on his own in 1955 to begin a pest control company in Arizona, despite the fact his father had founded a Florida-based enterprise 17 years earlier. (After his father’s death, Nolen merged the two companies.) His mouse car fleet transformed a service with a built in “gross factor” into one with a softer, more playful image. Nolen reportedly emphasized fun for employees too. The balance of joy and passion for the work paid off, and today the company has branches in over 60 countries.

Nolen serves as one of many examples of how creative marketing can help to propel an enterprise to the highest levels of success. Like Walt Disney before him, Truly Nolen’s company would not have been nearly as successful without an iconic mouse – though, unlike Disney, Nolen got away with using mainly the ears alone. Col. Harland Sanders, who franchised his fried chicken for the first time just a few years before Nolen headed to Arizona, made his own face and a state better known at the time for bourbon and horse races equally synonymous with fried chicken. More recently, Candace and Charles Nelson garnered attention for their bakery chain when Sprinkles Cupcakes introduced the idea of a 24-hour baked goods ATM.

Such success stories, including Nolen’s, illustrate his own wisdom (as relayed by his daughter): “Don’t be afraid to be different.”

Many of the tributes to Nolen after his death emphasized his sense of humor. Whether it was scaring off other swimmers with a judicious application of an eight track playing the “Jaws” theme or referring to himself as “Head Mouse” in the early days of his company, Nolen’s sense of humor was legendary. He once told the Miami Herald that the skipper on The Jungle Queen sightseeing tour would point out his Fort Lauderdale residence as “the home of a professional killer” – referring, of course, to the many termites and other pests that met their demise at the hands of Nolen’s exterminating empire.

Nolen Senner told the Naples Daily News that her father’s positive attitude continued to offer comfort even after his death. “I laughed that he passed away on Tax Day,” she said, “like he would find that really funny.”

Though not technically a Florida native – he was born in Indianapolis – Nolen grew up in South Florida and returned to settle in Naples in the early 1990s. And it is obvious that he made his mark on the region, given the outpouring of respectful tributes and fond memories triggered by his death. A procession of his iconic yellow mouse cars followed the hearse that transported his remains to his final resting place.

A legacy of humor, generosity and hard work is one that any man – including a “Head Mouse” – should be proud of. Nolen will be missed, but through those yellow, mouse-eared cars, he will keep bringing smiles to faces in South Florida and far beyond.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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