When Jud Scott earned a bachelor’s degree in religion in the late 1970s, he thought his next step would be going to graduate school, perhaps studying law, or “going out and getting dirty.” Since he’d spent his summer breaks doing tree work, he chose the great outdoors. Decades later, his award-winning tree service firm and consulting business are flourishing.

“I started out picking up sticks literally,” Scott says of his beginnings. “I had a $600 pick-up truck.”

Photo: Vine and Branch.

Once he chose tree care as his career, he realized the importance of education in the field, and soon became a certified arborist. In the 1980s, he named his Carmel, Indiana, business Vine & Branch, Inc. and joined the Indiana Arborist Association and the International Society of Arboriculture. “I also joined the Tree Care Industry Association, which helped me firm up my business model and emphasis on safety and education,” Scott adds.

He is proud that competing companies sometimes tap his firm’s knowledge base, and the company continues to support educational efforts by conducting no-cost tree inspection classes. “There is a gulf developing in the industry between professional arborists and ‘the other guys,'” Scott says. “Hopefully, we can educate those [who aren’t as aware of the importance of safety and insurance]. Clients don’t always know the difference.”

Branching out

Vine & Branch now employs 15 full-time workers and two part-timers. Brothers Andy, Tim and Mike Pell round out the management team. Scott, company president, says the family connection is mere coincidence. Andy, a master accredited horticulturist, is vice president, while Tim, also an accredited horticulturist, serves as chief organizational officer. Mike is arboricultural sales manager.

“These longtime staff members are the key to my business,” Scott says. Most employees have been on board for a decade or longer.

Yet, over his 35 years in the business, he has found hiring career-minded employees the most challenging aspect. He has even tried Purdue University career fairs and traditional advertising. “The best employees we have are those we’ve brought in because they had an interest in the industry and wanted to learn, and we trained them ourselves,” Scott says.

Although the human resources arena has been daunting, Scott is most proud of the team he has assembled. Customer surveys demonstrate that more than 90 percent of clients are well-satisfied. On the initial study, Scott was surprised by the positive feedback, anticipating that it would instead reveal a need for customer service improvement. All customer feedback is shared with the crews, who earn recognition stickers for their helmets.

Scott personally returns any complaint calls received and asks the dissatisfied client to come in and explain the problem to the staff. Through such interactions, he’s learned that communication, including returning calls and emails promptly, is crucial to earning customer accolades. Vine & Branch has since earned a TCIA Professional Communication Award.

This sample of Vine & Branch’s work earned an Arbor Day foundation award. Photo: Vine and Branch.

On the job

Vine & Branch offers the full range of tree care, visual tree assessments and comprehensive plant care. Emerald ash borer disease is a primary maintenance concern in the firm’s service region of the Indianapolis area.

The company serves a number of residents with large trees on their properties, commercial and municipal clients and a number of country clubs and golf courses. Vine & Branch maintains historic trees, such as a red oak planted by President Benjamin Harrison in 1875. Hazard tree recognition is the firm’s specialty along with tree preservation, and it has earned nine national tree visual assessment awards from TCIA and several awards for tree preservation.

Scott says general tree maintenance is a large part of Vine & Branch’s work. “Someone will call and say that their trees look bad and ask us to have a look,” he explains. “Some have park-like settings on their residential properties and we work with them regularly. We love that kind of work.”

It gets challenging when clients change their vision midstream. Scott recalls a longtime customer who invested in extensive landscaping. After a landscape architect installed a brick patio, the clients decided to remove a black cherry tree in the middle of a garden. That meant that Vine & Branch faced a tricky extraction that had to be made in sections. A similar obstacle came at the request of a local zoo, but that removal involved a palm tree, a variety uncommon in Indiana. Scott relied on his network of relationships forged through membership in national industry groups to develop a plan of action.

Scott and company like to employ cutting-edge equipment to facilitate those difficult jobs. They drive white Ford trucks detailed with the company logo and go with New Holland skid loaders. Vine & Branch prefers Vermeer chippers and grinders and STIHL chain saws. One of their newer items is a bucket spider lift that can negotiate 32-inch gates.

From a business perspective

Scott says the economic downturn led the company to evaluate itself and trim unneeded fat. He adds that even his best clients have curbed their budgets.

Visual tree assessments help prevent unhappy endings such as this one. Photo: Vine and Branch.

“We’ve worked twice as hard to sell the same amount and worked with a lot more people,” he says. “We’ve reconnected with our client base and refreshed our relationships. I think that will pay off.”

Those relationships are at the heart of the firm’s strategy. Scott easily clicks with people and encourages that trait in his staff, relying on customer relations and word-of-mouth for advertising. Vine & Branch further builds its brand with pro bono work and a solid Web presence. Web optimization and strategic use of Google ad words have aided Internet marketing.

The company is taking small steps into social media with a Facebook page and YouTube postings. Scott sends several personalized educational emails each year using the Constant Contact e-newsletter management system.

Moving into consulting

As much as Scott enjoys the “dirty” side of the business, he also likes consulting. But, blending the two in one company was confusing to potential clients, so he formed a separate firm, Jud Scott Consulting Arborist.

Scott works with attorneys, insurance companies and others to resolve issues involving trees. He helps decide if tree damage was caused by lightning or improper care, and helps resolve disputes between neighbors and disagreements between property owners and service providers. A registered consulting arborist (RCA) with the American Society of Consulting Arborists and past president of that organization, he often serves as an expert witness and offers forensic services.

For example, in consultation with an attorney, Scott advises on the liabilities that property owners, managers and developers face. For instance, court rulings across the country demonstrate that ignoring hazardous trees can result in penalties for damages that result, mandating regular inspections by qualified professionals. The team alerts lawn maintenance professionals that obstructing fire hydrants can result in a civil liability for property owners. Thus, snow removal crews should clear hydrants, while lawn maintenance workers should not yield to client requests to hide the eyesores with bushes or other installations. The same is true of street signs.

How do those involved in tree care at all levels protect themselves? Scott and Attorney Peter Beering advocate a written tree inspection and management policy, with documentation of remediation efforts. Consult with a local lawyer on state and municipal codes. Discuss the plan with an insurance agent; a solid tree plan may help reduce premiums. Work with a consulting arborist trained in visual tree assessment and hazard tree recognition.