FREDERICKSBURG, VA. -- A few years back Joe Wilson got a frantic call.

Would he please come over right away to get rid of a bat?

Wilson, president of PermaTreat pest control, suggested the caller simply open a door and shoo away the furry winged creature.

"If I come over, it's going to cost you $35," Wilson told the man.

"I don't care what it costs," was the reply. Wilson was on his way. "When I got there, this guy and two women were huddled in the corner" in the living room.

A tiny brown bat clung to the wall in the kitchen. Wilson took out his handkerchief, gently plucked the creature from the wall and tossed it outside.

"That was the easiest 35 bucks I ever made," said Wilson, 47, who no longer makes house calls.

In eight years, he has parlayed a small pest-control company into a $2 million-a-year business with four offices. He has also branched out into carpet cleaning and real estate.

Bugs, bats, squirrels, termites, fleas, roaches and the occasional raccoon have been good to Wilson, who grew up in the Shenandoah Valley town of Buena Vista.

At one point in his career, he was on a fast track to the president's office at Orkin Exterminating Co., now the nation's largest pest-control chain.

After graduating from high school in the early 1960s, Wilson went to night school at the University of Richmond and delivered Eskimo Pie products to Reynolds Metals Co. offices.

He landed a job in Reynolds's accounting office in 1963, but he quickly discovered the prospects for advancement were not good.

"Accounting was not my bag," Wilson said. "I had this itch to go out and meet people."

A friend suggested he check on a job with Orkin. At that time the company was not a household name and had just been bought out by Rollins Inc. It was headed for big-time expansion.

"I said, 'An exterminator? You've got to be kidding.' " He went for the interview anyway.

What clinched it was not the money or the benefits, but a company car.

"I was driving a '49 Chevy. I needed a {new} car," said Wilson. "That's what got me into the exterminating business." He had to lie about his age -- management trainees had to be 21. He was 20.

In a matter of months, Wilson was a branch manager. In the next few years he rose quickly through the ranks.

By 1978, Wilson was Orkin's youngest vice president. In 1981, he was asked to manage the Atlanta district, the company's largest.

"I was close to fulfilling my dream of being president of Orkin," Wilson said. "I had mixed emotions because I had been a field person my entire career and I guess I was somewhat of a maverick."

The district headquarters in Atlanta was a place where employees had to wear jackets to the lunch room, where the floors were buffed to a surreal shine and where Wilson realized he would never fit in. At the time, he was making $125,000 a year in Orkin's Chicago office and drove a company-supplied Lincoln Continental.

As it happened, Wilson's mother, who lived in Virginia, became ill. While he was visiting her, he stopped by Fredericksburg to see Alfred Hall, a former Orkin worker who founded PermaTreat in the mid-1960s.

Wilson had filled in for Hall a few months here early in his career.

"He had built up a nice business," said Wilson. "I thought to myself that I was doing a lot of running around and that I wasn't that much further ahead than these other guys."

The year was 1982 and the region was in the throes of a recession.

"It was a tough time," Wilson said. "Houses were not selling real well." The result, he said, was that extermination jobs for new homes were cut back.

And there were other problems -- he was commuting to Chicago and his mother was in a nursing home in Virginia.

In 1983, the situation began to turn around for PermaTreat.

Business was so good that by year's end the company made its first acquisition: M&M Exterminators in Triangle. In 1988, Wilson bought Northern Virginia Termite and Pest Control Co. and Atlas Pest Control, both in Manassas. Two years late PermaTreat acquired Buckman Pest Services Inc. in Warrenton.

"When I bought PermaTreat, my goal was a million dollars a year gross within 10 years," Wilson said.

"It's been eight years and we're approaching $2 million this year."

He started with six employees and now has 31.

He also owns PermaClean, a carpet and furniture-cleaning company. Wilson's wife, Mary, handles the finances.

Sixty percent of his business involves termites. Other pests -- mice, ants, roaches, bees and fleas -- make up the rest.

According to David Boose, president of the Virginia Pest Control Association in Richmond, PermaTreat is among the largest independent companies belonging to the 187-member association.

Wilson, a past president of the trade group, has worked hard for pest-control interests and is a member of the Virginia Pesticide Control Board, Boose said. He also has been selected Virginia's small-business executive of the year.

The industry has had its share of problems in recent years as concerns about the environment and protection of the Chesapeake Bay have intensified.

"It's very hard for an independent today to keep abreast of all the changes," Boose said.

Years ago there were few guidelines, he said, and exterminators would concoct mixtures of whatever toxic chemicals they thought would work. Now, all must use chemicals approved by the Environmental Protection Agency and employees must be trained.

Because they often can't keep up with the changing regulations and competition, many smaller companies are being swallowed by the chains and larger independents, Boose said.

The sagging economy is another problem. Pest-control companies do a big chunk of their business treating new homes. When contractors aren't building, they feel the pinch.