For this Texas tree care company, success is not measured in growth.
Guy LeBlanc subscribes to the “less is more” way of doing things. When it comes to tree care, he’s a firm believer in providing only the treatments that trees need rather than trying to sell extra services. And he doesn’t feel any need to take on more or bigger jobs in order to continually grow his company. While these approaches may seem financially shortsighted, LeBlanc says staying small and not overselling has helped him create a successful business with a devoted customer-base.
Tree care runs in LeBlanc’s blood. His father was an arborist in the Boston area, and LeBlanc remembers working with him as a youngster back in the 1970s. “I just grew up in the business and stayed with it after I left home,” he recalls. He started his own business in Austin, Texas, in 1983, meaning that Arbor Vitae Tree Care is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
The company serves almost exclusively the residential market. “I do very little commercial work, and that’s by design,” LeBlanc explains. “I did a lot more commercial work in the beginning, because I was trying to start my business and did whatever work I could. I find that most commercial accounts, and I’m sure there are exceptions, are interested in only doing the bare minimum for the absolute cheapest price. The people who hire me do so because they’re interested in the best quality of work they can get.”
Another reason he avoids commercial work is because Arbor Vitae is a small operation. “I don’t like having to wait two to three months for a paycheck, which can be pretty common with commercial work, so that also helps make it an easy decision for me.”
Arbor Vitae is a small company, and the goal is to keep it that way. LeBlanc does almost no advertising and Arbor Vitae has very little turnover among its clients. Word-of-mouth from satisfied clients is the most valuable form of marketing for the company. “About 60 percent of our work is repeat business, and almost all of the new work is coming through referrals,” he explains.
Being small lets him interact with customers on a personal basis, which leads to happy homeowners and more referrals, he notes. LeBlanc is the arborist at Arbor Vitae, and he works with one or two assistants. He says the biggest advantage to remaining small and not having to focus on, Inc.reasing volume is being able to select which jobs to take on. “I can be particular about who I choose to work with, and that’s a great blessing,” he states. If a customer proves to be too much trouble to deal with, “I don’t have to work for them,” says LeBlanc. “I’m grateful every day and conscious every day of that fact. If you’re constantly trying to grow a big business and do a lot of volume, you’re pushed into working for those kinds of people, and also probably trying to sell those kinds of people things they don’t really need.”
And the overselling to tree services is perhaps the area that LeBlanc is most concerned about. “I know companies here locally where everyone on their customer list, or as many people as they can, is getting fertilization treatments for their trees. And these are for well-established native trees that are perfectly adapted to our soil conditions and just flat don’t need it,” he emphasizes. “I’ve really been opposed to pumping the ground full of fertilizers when trees don’t need them.”
Concern for the aquifer in the Austin area makes LeBlanc careful about what types of fertilizers he uses and how often they are applied. “I only apply it when I see a need or when a soil analysis shows a need,” he says.
While he sees it as problematic, in LeBlanc’s view fertilization isn’t at the top of the list of most over-sold services in the area. “I think what is absolutely way over-sold around here is pruning,” he explains, again attributing it to tree care companies needing to produce greater volume in order to meeting sales goals and grow. “They put people on a yearly schedule to have their trees pruned. Here in the Austin area we have a pretty good urban forest canopy, but the vast majority of them rarely exceed 50 feet tall and they grow at moderate rates. They just don’t need a ton of pruning.”
Rather than prune every year, LeBlanc puts most of his clients on a cycle for about every four years. “There are many exceptions to that when trees are up against houses, for example, and there certainly is the occasional large dead limb that has to be removed. But as far as general pruning on the average mature shade tree every four years is about right.”
Not only does he feel trees are being pruned too often, LeBlanc also sees too much being removed. “Over-pruning stimulates lots of sprout production, at least on the kinds of trees we have around here. So they are stripping out all the interior branches and then loading the trees up with nitrogen, so there are sprouts shooting up like crazy. And that means the company needs to come out the next year to prune out all the sprouts,” he explains.
It’s a cycle, he says, that’s bad for the trees and bad for the homeowner. “In my opinion, it’s all about making money and not about proper tree care.”
Finally, LeBlanc says he sees tree pest treatments being oversold. That is often as much on the shoulders of the client as it is the tree care company, he notes. “They see webworm or oak leafroller hanging everywhere and people are horrified and start calling. My phone will be ringing off the hook, and I often tell people, ‘You know what, in a month they’ll be gone, so don’t worry about it.’ Even in heavy years where they’re really causing defoliation, my experience is that a healthy tree is going to withstand that, so no treatment is necessary.”
LeBlanc says whether its pruning or treatments, he prefers to take a very conservative approach. And he feels that, in the long run, clients appreciate it.
“The vast majority of my work is pruning, that’s probably 70-plus percent of what I do,” says LeBlanc. Tree removal represents a very small percentage of his business, because it’s another area where low price nearly always gets the job. He finds there are many “fly-by-night” companies throughout the state who will get removal work even though they lack professional qualifications, and many times don’t even carry worker’s comp or other insurances. “I’m not interested in competing on that level,” he says. “I just stay away from the market, the only removals I do are for existing clients.”
His pruning work is done exclusively by climbing. Other than clearing utility lines, LeBlanc feels it’s difficult to do quality pruning from a bucket. “Even on jobs where you have the access to get a truck in there, you just don’t get quality from a bucket, you’re mostly approaching the tree from the outside and not getting good angles on your cuts because of where the bucket can go. You need to be in a tree to prune it properly,” he says.
He is intrigued by newer Spider Lifts that allow access through small openings and can reach up into tall trees. “They are very, very maneuverable. I think they are going to become more and more common in the industry,” he predicts. “I think they could be a reasonable alternative to climbing.”
Beyond pruning, the majority of LeBlanc’s other work is tree fertilization and consultation, such as advising on tree preservation during construction projects.
His arsenal of equipment, Inc.ludes a top-handle Husqvarna. “It’s the first time in my career I’m using a Husqvarna and I really like it,” he explains. “For my big saws, I use Stihl and really like those.”
LeBlanc uses a Petzl Sequoia saddle. “It’s more of a modern saddle. For most of my career I used a Weaver saddle, which was leather and canvas. Several years ago I converted over because of weight, the new one is about 5 pounds lighter and I’ve found it to be, Inc.redibly durable; it’s held up beautifully.” He does caution that the newer, lighter saddles would not be as good for those doing a lot of tree removals, because it’s not as easy to have a bigger saw hanging off of them for long periods of time.
As his choice of saddles has evolved, LeBlanc says he’s also evolving on his climbing techniques. “I’m becoming a bigger fan of the SRT ascent technique. I’ve been a very proud, adamant footlocker my whole career,” he explains, noting though that there have been many innovations and modifications in terms of technique and gear that are changing his mind. In particular, he recently saw a modified ropewalker system demonstrated that convinced him to adopt that same approach. At 53 years old, he says, he needs to make energy efficiency and joint preservation modifications to prolong his climbing career.
While he has no plans to grow the size of his company in the future, LeBlanc notes that staying small doesn’t mean you have to turn down bigger jobs. Arbor Vitae and a few other very small arborist firms in Austin partner together on a regular basis to be able to handle bigger jobs. “We’ll work together and just sub-contract each other. Usually, once a week we’ll pair up and do a large job together. We just have a standing agreement,” he explains.
This gives smaller companies the opportunity to bid on larger jobs without feeling the need to, Inc.rease employees and add extra equipment and then sell more and more services to justify the overhead. It’s an approach that many feel is necessary but which LeBlanc is proving is not the only route to success: “There’s a saying that if your company isn’t growing, then it’s dying. But I think there’s definitely a happy medium.”