It was a circuitous route home for Jeff Schoeny, president of Shawnee Tree Services, Cincinnati, Ohio. The Cincinnati native went to school at the University of Colorado in Boulder to earn his degree in climatology, where he studied the effects of snow on the environment. “Human-induced climate change is undeniable,” says Schoeny, “the evidence supports global warming caused from excessive amounts of CO2 released into the atmosphere.”
After graduation, Schoeny, worked ski patrol in winter and was a river guide in the summer. “I’ve always been an avid skier and climber, so to work in ski patrol was great, but the money is not so good. I was making 10 bucks an hour and living in a double-wide with four other guys and I still couldn’t make ends meet,” he explains.
When he returned to Cincinnati, Schoeny sold insurance and then managed an apartment building while he started rehabbing houses. “Some of the homes I was remodeling needed tree removal and pruning. I started climbing again and one thing led to another,” he says.
With eight employees on staff, including four certified arborists, Shawnee Tree services the eastern half of the metro area. “Our clientele are mostly middle-class, two-income families with homes typically valued in the $300,000 range. About 55 percent of our work is removal and 35 percent is in pruning, the rest is stump grinding and fertilizing,” he notes. Schoeny would like to see those statistics change. “Post-World War II homeowners had a planting mentality, and for good reason: shade keeps utility bills down and enhances property values. But these past few decades, the trees have matured and need care – trimming, pruning and disease control. Young people are too busy; they simply want the trees removed. We try to educate them on the importance of plant health and maintenance, but we’re not always successful,” he explains.
Schoeny takes pride in the fact that his company has the equipment and skills to handle most any task. “We have a 23-ton National crane for the big jobs, in addition to our two Altec bucket trucks and a variety of other trucks.” Vermeer is the company’s chipper of choice due to the outstanding service they have experienced. “Four Ditch Witch mini skid steers are invaluable to us,” notes Jeff. “There’s not too much we can’t do, our guys are professionals, and we don’t cut corners.”
In their ninth year of operation , Schoeny is proud of the fact that his company was the first in Cincinnati to be accredited through the Tree Care Industry Association. “Certifications are important, they tell the public that we are a professional organization with high standards. And with new advancements in SRT systems [single-rope technique], anyone who climbs for a living should be certified climbers in both technology and biology. It’s tough finding qualified climbers. A big step forward would be for the industry to develop application-oriented trade schools. What we need is additional training in the technical aspect of climbing, like the Rope Walker System, for example. We should all be using it, but most have never had any experience with it,” he notes.
“Arborists are actually professional athletes. It’s time we treated ourselves with that level of respect, not only from a conditioning standpoint, but also from a safety and educational standpoint,” says Schoeny. “Our arborists at Shawnee Tree undergo continual training on the latest pruning techniques, rigging devices, crane safety, equipment management and aerial rescue. And our groundsmen must work at peak efficiency managing the needs of the climber as well as the overall work flow of the job site.”
Shawnee Tree offers pruning, removal and fertilization. “We don’t do any installation or snow removal,” he explains, “but we do work closely with several landscape companies that we have confidence in to handle the planting and installation tasks. Probably, the reason we don’t install is because my father was such an avid planter. My earliest memories are of being down in the middle of a hole, balancing a burlap-wrapped ball. That tends to make me averse to planting. But whatever the reason, we have enough to do in taking care of what’s already growing. We have an obligation to provide the very best service to our customers, we know our niche and that’s where we excel.”
Like all companies that deal with the public, service is the most important part of customer retention. “Our office manager, Amy, is the best. Service starts with that first inquiry and Amy treats customers like she would want to be treated. Her customer communication and follow-up keeps our clients aware of the process from beginning to end,” Schoeny says. “Ninety-six percent of our business is through referrals or from previous customers. Our professionalism and execution are our best advertising. We have a two to three-month backlog; thankfully our clients are willing to wait.”
The emerald ash borer (EAB) has a strong foothold in the greater Cincinnati area. Shawnee Tree has responded by educating its customers with available options: removal or TREE-äge (insecticide) injections. Shawnee tree then helps the customer sort through the decision making process. “Every tree has a different value to the landscape. The decision is very personal, and, in the end, we arborists are there to help guide the customer,” Schoeny explains. “The prospect of chemically treating ash trees with the intent of preserving them permanently can be rather daunting to many customers. It’s so important to disclose all of the facts about EAB, such as the insect’s permanence in the local ecosystem, the importance of regular treatment and the additional fertilization needs for any ash in an urban setting. In the end, the tree may succumb to drought or lightning anyway. Planting replacements which reflect the native species should go hand in hand with chemical treatments.”
Schoeny is still climbing. “I’ll go out on a site with a crew once or twice a week just to keep my hand in it. I enjoy the climb, but don’t kid yourself, in this heat, it’s hard work,” he says.
The company president, climatologist, arborist and skier races mountain and cyclo-cross bikes in his spare time. “There’s a couple of upcoming races, one is a 100k, that I’m interested in, but right now we’re too busy to think that far ahead,” he comments. “We’ll just keep on climbing to better see where we are.”
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in October 2012 and has been updated.