Noel Boyer has been in the tree care industry for 20 years: the first decade as an employee and the second as an employer. He says it was that first 10 years of work that gave him the knowledge and experience to eventually start his own company, All About Trees, which he has grown over the last 10 years.
“I learned everything about the business and the industry,” Boyer says of his time working for another company. “That gave me a huge advantage. If you wanted to just come into the industry and start a tree company with no experience, it would be pretty tough to figure things out on your own.”
Boyer graduated from college with a degree in philosophy. “But what I really needed was a J-O-B,” he jokes. So he signed on with Cherokee Tree Care, a tree care company in Springfield, Missouri, owned by arborist Tim Crews. “I was making $7 an hour dragging brush,” Boyer recalls.
What he ended up getting, though, was a whole new career path, and a mentor: “The owner was a good teacher, and he immediately started teaching me,” Boyer says. “Then I went to a tree climbing competition and realized that this [profession] was going to stick.”
One of the things that set Crews apart from some other employers was his willingness to invest in and involve his employees, says Boyer.
“He would pay for all sorts of educational trainings for us. And after reading the book ‘The Great Game of Business’ [by management guru Jack Stack], he opened up the company books to all of the employees. That was eye-opening for me,” Boyer says. “Making $7 an hour and seeing our crew do a job for $1,500, I thought, ‘This guy must be getting rich!’ But when he opened up the books and I saw how much he was spending on insurance and fuel and equipment and advertising and everything else, I thought, ‘This guy isn’t making anything!'”
After Boyer had been on the job for seven years, Crews sold Cherokee Tree Care to a larger, regional tree care company. The work environment changed, and, after three years of working for the larger company, Boyer knew he needed to make a change.
“I was making really good money, but I was unhappy,” he says. As fate would have it, around that time he received a call from a couple who were interested in selling their small tree care business, A&A Tree Service.
“They had been in business for 12 years and they had a very good reputation and very good clients, but they had remained intentionally small,” says Boyer. “For me, the timing absolutely couldn’t have been better. I considered it an omen.”
While he had pondered starting his own company from scratch, he saw one big benefit to buying an existing business: “I knew the phone would be ringing [from] day one,” says Boyer. “Even if it didn’t ring much, I was planning on starting small.” Having an existing client base was particularly important as Boyer had a non-compete clause with the regional tree care company he had left that prevented him from contacting or working for their customers for two years.
He didn’t purchase any of the former owners’ equipment or facilities; nor were there any debts or payments to take on. “Basically, I bought blue, clear sky,” says Boyer. “I bought a company name, a phone number and a client list.”
He scraped up enough money to pull off that buy-out by selling some belongings, maxing out a credit card and borrowing some money from family, but then had to visit his bank to talk about a business loan to finance the purchase of equipment. “I bought a used chipper and a used chip truck. In total, I had less than $30,000 invested in equipment when I started up,” he explains.
The bank also was reassured by his previous experience in the industry, Boyer adds: “One of the first things they asked me for was a business plan, and I was able to put that together very easily because I was so familiar with the numbers we were doing at the other company I worked for. At the same time, they were a larger company and I knew my business plan wasn’t going to be like their business plan. My plan was to start small, operate with lower overhead, and be able to charge less because my expenses would also be lower.”
In his first year operating A&A Tree Service, it was just Boyer and one part-time employee. “I climbed every tree and sold every job,” he recalls. Profit margins were high because expenses were low. Using that model, over time he was able to purchase additional equipment and eventually hire more employees without the need to ever again take a bank loan. “I buy all of our equipment in cash; we don’t borrow money. I have a great relationship with the bank and I could get money if I wanted, but I’m a very frugal business owner.”
In fact, even now, Boyer believes in buying used equipment when he can. “We have very nice equipment; it’s in great shape, it doesn’t leak oil on driveways, it’s all inspected – but it’s all 15-year-old stuff. We just bought a 75-foot Hi-Ranger bucket truck.” There have been a few pieces of new Vermeer equipment along the way; the company has seven pieces of Vermeer equipment, ranging from chippers to mini skid-steers to stump grinders.
While his core philosophies about running a business have remained the same, Boyer has changed one thing. In 2009, he underwent a complete “rebranding” to change the name of his company from A&A to All About Trees. The former was derived from the original owners’ last names, but Boyer was concerned about his company being confused with a number of disreputable, low-cost and start-up operations using names like “AA” and “AAA” to get listed first in the phone book. “Plus, I just thought that All About Trees is a more appropriate name for what we do,” he adds.
Both before and after the rebranding, the company has grown. From about $150,000 in billing in his first year in business, Boyer has grown All About Trees to a company with 11 employees (nine of these are certified arborists, soon to be 10) and $925,000 in billing in 2014. Ninety percent of the work is residential, with a specialization in climbing – everyone in production is a climber; there are no dedicated grounds workers. While Boyer once was essentially a one-man show, there are now eight employees on the production side, including Boyer. He thinks there is potential for the company to continue growing, but he has been careful never to sacrifice quality for growth.
“I’ve made it a point through the years to never force growth,” says Boyer. “My goal at the beginning of a year has never been to add ‘X’ number of employees or have ‘X’ number of new billing. Even right now, I could add three or four more employees and run another crew and keep them busy. The problem is that we’re not really ready for that yet as far as managing that while keeping quality up and training up.” He describes All About Trees’ growth as “organic.” “When I’ve got the right people in place to manage things, then it becomes OK to add employees, or buy a new piece of equipment, or add another crew,” he explains.
Boyer’s management approach hasn’t gone unnoticed; he recently was recognized by the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce, which presented All About Trees with its 2015 Small Business Award. Like his mentor, who remains a close friend, Boyer places a premium on the education and safety of his employees, whether that’s the regular in-house trainings, or paying for employees to take ISA and TCIA classes and achieve certifications.
“I’m huge in investing in education and making sure my employees know their stuff. I don’t want ‘tree guys with a chain saw’ out there, I want certified arborists with a real passion for what they do,” says Boyer.