Things were tough when Alvin Burger (rhymes with merger) started his pest extermination business out of a bedroom in his mother-in-law's house in 1960. He didn't even have the ''right'' suit to wear when he went to dine with an exclusive business club at a swank Miami restaurant.
But, exterminator extraordinaire that he is, he did have the brass to take a curious peak behind the draperies on the restaurant wall - just in time to see ''a million'' roaches break for cover. His indignant cry, ''Get me the manager!'' may not have ingratiated Mr. Burger with his hosts. But it led to his first major contract. His unorthodox approach to the pest-control business has alternately infuriated and pleased the industry, and some admit, upgraded standards.
From the paneled headquarters of his $17 million-a-year business - ''Bugs'' Burger Bug Killers Inc. - Mr. Burger today still can't subdue the animation with which he tells this story of how he landed his first big account. ''Everyone was laughing when I told the restaurant owner I would guarantee I'd get rid of every pest or he didn't owe me a dime. The steward immediately started taking bets (from skeptical employees), and he ended up making more money on the deal than I did,'' when the restaurant's stubborn roach and mouse problem was actually cleared up.
Mr. Burger's bold guarantee - 100 percent pest elimination, or no charge - is an unorthodox approach that has challenged the very nature of the pest-control industry with this philosophy: Why ''control'' pests when they can be eliminated? (Even the name of his firm, incorporating the word ''killers,'' is a subtle dig at the ''control'' industry.)
His employees use the same chemicals commonly used in the industry, but in maximum dosage and applied ''very, very thoroughly'' with custom made equipment. When ''the average exterminator'' comes upon a cluttered or dirty area in a building, he ''walks in and sprays right over the mess,'' Burger says. But Burger requires clients to be clean and cancels as many as 200 contracts a year because customers don't do their part.
He has marketed this idea with panache more characteristic of Madison Avenue than of the out-of-the-way Miami industrial park where his operation is based.
Mr. Burger broke with industry trade groups nearly 20 years ago when they were not receptive to the young upstart's philosophy. But today he often speaks to pest-control groups to help motivate them, says Jefferson Keith of the National Pest Control Association in Washington.
After his initial success in the Miami market, which has enough exotic pests of unusual dimension to support a 14-page pest-control section in the Yellow Pages, he flamboyantly branched out to other areas. He has won 10,000 accounts in 43 states, to become the nation's largest independently owned extermination business.
He plans to move into the residential market this spring. And Mr. Burger, whose desk is emblazoned with the slogan ''The bug stops here,'' is not modest about his company's success. He charges up to 10 times what his nearest competitor charges - and claims it's worth every cent.