One company covers 28 states
Providing vegetation management services to 28 states across the nation is no easy task, but Trees, Inc., Houston, Texas, does it with a level of professionalism, safety and quality that is difficult to match. The company started in 1953 as a small, family-owned business with a few crews. Soon, its reputation for unparalleled customer service sparked a trend of continual growth that has led them to become one of the largest tree service companies in the nation.
From coast to coast
Covering this extensive territory means working with a variety of growing seasons and trimming cycles. “We have crews in the Florida Keys and we have crews up in northern Minnesota, so we go from one extreme to the other,” said George Leszkowicz, vice president of Trees, Inc. According to Leszkowicz, the trim cycle can range in different areas from three or four months to 12 years in northern areas.
The cycles within each state can vary a great deal, as well. Joe Sterbenz, a regional manager at Trees, Inc., said, “In southern Minnesota the cycle is about three to four years, and in northern Minnesota it’s about six, it’s quite a big difference within a state.”
Working with an expansive territory presents other challenges, as well. Traveling can take a toll on regional managers, but it is necessary to ensure the crews are meeting the company’s high professional standards. “Getting quality people in each area makes my job easier,” said Sterbenz.
This has been both a challenge and one of the major accomplishments of the company. “Of course, selecting the right people for the right position is important, but being able to give them the tools that they need to perform and that they need to get the job done is equally important. We have a system that has been successful and we’ve been able to take that business model, and transfer that model to [employees] to give them the best environment to be successful,” said Leszkowicz.
No job too big or too small
One of the advantages to having a large territory and, in turn, a large crew, is that the company is able to tackle jobs of any size. In total, Trees, Inc. employs more than 2,000 people, 95 percent of which are field personnel. According to Leszkowicz, “We don’t consider anything too small, anything too large. Our culture has been that we’re a small company and we pay attention to customer needs.”
Crews are trained and equipped to handle a wide variety of vegetation management tasks from right-of-way (ROW) maintenance to emergency storm restoration work. The management structure ensures that crews approach each job with the highest level of professionalism. “We have qualified general forepersons who visit the crews in the field daily or weekly. Then we have a qualified supervisor out in the field weekly with our people to make sure that quality is being met,” said Sterbenz.
Trees, Inc. also has the flexibility to move crews and equipment from state to state to meet deadlines and handle every job effectively. “When you employ our company you get all 1,800 people backing you up,” said Leszkowicz.
Safety first and foremost
Much of Trees, Inc.’s training is designed to ensure that every employee stays true to the company’s motto: “Safety First … No One Gets Hurt!”
“Everything we do is supervised, on-the-job training. We don’t allow an employee to perform a task alone until he is trained and proficient at that task,” said Sterbenz. This ensures a safe working environment, not only for the person performing the task, but for other members of the crew and their customers, as well.
This is of the utmost importance to Trees, Inc. Sterbenz says, “Our first and foremost value is the safety of our employees and our people. It doesn’t matter how many trees we trim or what we do. Safety is the first thing when the day starts.”
The biggest challenge in maintaining a strong safety program is working to make sure that every employee is not only cognizant of safe working practices, but that they remain passionate about performing each job safely, even after working in the field day after day. “All employees tend to get complacent at times, and I think that we, as far as management goes, have to keep up the safety enthusiasm every day,” said Sterbenz.
The focus on safety carries through to the operation and the selection of equipment. No crew member is allowed to operate equipment without first undergoing a complete training process. According to Sterbenz, many equipment manufacturers are willing to work closely with the crew to ensure that everyone who will be utilizing the equipment understands how to operate it properly. “They come over and spend some time out in the field with us assisting us in the training, to make sure our people are thoroughly trained,” he said.
“We want to make sure we are doing everything possible to ensure that our customers’ crews understand how to operate the equipment safely, so we make it a point to be a part of the training process. It’s always been great training the Trees, Inc. crews because it’s very important to them that everyone fully understands the safe operation of each machine,” said Heidi Boyum, president of Jarraff Industries, an equipment manufacturer in St. Peter, Minn.
Trees, Inc. uses lift trucks, mowers, Geo-Boy Brush Cutters, mechanical trimmers, Jarraff All-Terrain Tree Trimmers, chippers, buckets and more.
Beyond the general safety benefits the equipment offers, Trees, Inc. also considers the specific benefits of each piece of equipment. Manufacturers continue to make new developments in an effort to provide a safer machine.
“Training is just one aspect of the importance we place on safety. We also incorporate specially designed features into our equipment to improve safety, as well. The Geo-Boy, for instance, offers improved visibility with full Lexan, No Mar windows, a rearview camera and floodlights mounted in both the front and rear of the machine. The ergonomically designed cab is pressurized to keep dust and debris from entering the cab during operation. This helps maintain a clean, safe and comfortable working environment for the operator,” said Boyum.
According to Sterbenz, some units offer more in the way of safety than others. When mowing ROWs, the type of cutter head is a consideration. “The flail head that’s on some brush cutters doesn’t throw the debris. It’s a very nice head. It does a clean job,” said Sterbenz. Leszkowicz added, “I think that’s a key component because of the danger of things flying out. We’re talking hundreds of feet and 10 to 20-pound pieces of wood, so that safety feature really helps.”
The mechanical benefits
The safety benefits of the equipment Trees, Inc. utilizes is just the tip of the iceberg. The company relies on its arsenal to improve productivity, increase efficiency and minimize costs. “Equipment definitely plays a big role in our industry in making sure that we have the right tools out there to provide a cost-effective product for our customers. Using a piece of equipment is a lot more cost-effective than having ground labor do it manually,” said Sterbenz.
Mowers, in particular, prove their worth when reclaiming right-of-ways that haven’t been maintained for 15 or 20 years. “To go in and hand-cut, chip and remove all that brush, crews would be there for a long period of time. Having a mower with a flail-type head is definitely a savior. We can go right down the right-of-way with one person in the machine. It’s safer and a lot more cost-effective.”
Maintaining a fleet large enough to cover Trees, Inc.’s expansive territory is yet another unique challenge that the company faces. “We’ve developed a support team to keep the equipment running in top shape,” said Leszkowicz. Sterbenz added, “Our crew forepersons are taught from day one how to do the daily maintenance cycle. Then, I have an equipment person for our region that is in charge of oil changes, the hours and things of that nature. He ensures that the oils and the fluids are getting changed in the time frame required by the owner’s manual.”
From time to time the company has to rely on the manufacturers to assist with maintenance. With units all over the country, this assistance is often given over the phone, but some companies will send technicians to the field, if necessary. According to Sterbenz, “They are there at a moment’s notice for a phone call. They have offered to send field technicians out to help us in case we have an issue, and they are always there to answer a question.”
The writer is director of client services for Lime Valley Advertising, Inc.