Although S&S Tree Specialists has earned myriad honors and accolades, the family-owned business doesn’t feel it has arrived, even after 35 years on the job.

“You should never feel like you made it; that’s when you get complacent,” says Steve Sylvester, founder and chief executive officer. “We are striving to reinvent ourselves constantly to keep up with an industry that changes on a daily basis. You might think tree care is about a chain saw and a few ropes, but just like any business, if you aren’t adapting, you’re drowning.”

Building the business

In 1976, when Sylvester started out, his focus was on general landscaping services. That changed when Dutch elm disease struck the St. Paul, Minnesota, area a few years later. Just as the company continues to reinvent itself today, Sylvester regrouped to provide the newly essential service of tree removal. By the late 1990s, the menu was rounded out with turf and plant health care. More recently, Sylvester and company have expanded into property management, including landscape enhancement and maintenance and snow renewal. During the holidays, they will take over clients’ decorating chores. Other services include urban forestry and athletic field installation and management.

Today, S&S services the Twin Cities metro area and western Wisconsin through its main office in South St. Paul and a branch in Luck, Wis. Removal services remain available, along with emergency storm services, tree fertilization, and insect and disease control. The firm consults on preventing construction damage and also offers landscape design and installation, property maintenance and hardwood mulch. Clients include commercial, residential and municipal accounts along with nursery retail centers. Most of the tree work is performed at private homes, with pruning and removal the most requested services.

No matter the weather, park trees have to be pruned. Photo: S&S Tree Specialists

It’s all in the family

Sylvester, who holds a degree in urban forestry and horticulture from Dakota County Vocational Technical College in Rosemount, Minn., serves on the Tree Care Industry Association’s board of directors and is a member of the state department of agriculture’s emerald ash borer advisory committee. After the pest infested St. Paul in 2009, the problem emerged as a priority, as ash trees are one of the most popular species for shading Minnesota homes.

However, Steve’s not the only Sylvester in the office. Louie Sylvester is president of the commercial property division and minority owner. He studied horticulture and small business at the University of Minnesota, Crookston. Tony Sylvester also attended the University of Minnesota, Crookston and is a Minnesota Department of Agriculture certified tree inspector. A minority owner, he serves as president of the tree care division.

Sylvester says S&S considers being able to hire many family members as its proudest achievement. “That’s followed closely by hiring a staff of young and energetic employees who understand our business and industry and are working daily to steer us into the next generation,” he adds.

Working with family does have its drawbacks. The seasonal nature of the business leads to long hours at certain times of the year. S&S holds memberships in several national groups, including the National Association of Landscape Professionals, the International Society of Arboriculture and the TCIA. Locally, the company belongs to the Minnesota Society of Arboriculture.

The company considers keeping its 50 full-time employees and 30 part-time/seasonal workers safe and efficient its greatest challenge over the years. The staff includes 22 ISA-certified arborists, five foresters, one certified sports turf manager and one board-certified master arborist. Some of the 15 women onboard fill positions typically held by men.

“Our employees are like our family, and in this dangerous industry we do everything we can to keep them safe,” says Sylvester, who adds that equipment and insurance costs are major budget line items. “Managing human error and mistakes outside of work has been challenging. If an employee receives a ticket or a driving while impaired charge and they have worked with us for many years, we have to restrict their driving privileges to comply with insurance. A mistake in their personal life could affect their career and our productivity.”

Marketing tree services

After a successful mass media branding campaign, including television advertising that ran for several years, the firmly established name recognition in its markets has allowed S&S to ease up on advertising. A local radio show, which includes phone-in questions from consumers, has also helped generate business. Sylvester and arborist-plant pathologist Mark Stennes host the Saturday afternoon show. Overall, however, the firm is focusing on more personalized one-on-one marketing to up customer retention, as well as create new relationships.

Sylvester says the company has taken the plunge into the social media realm. Its Facebook page is regularly updated with tips and teasers for the radio program.

“We have seen interest in our page increase over the past few months and have received a handful of new customers because of this presence,” he adds.

Web presence also includes a website with information on services offered; upcoming events, such as home improvement shows; and a downloadable newsletter, which won a 2010 TCIA Professional Communications Award.

Community service projects have included educating high school students about tree care and helping them replace trees lost to vandalism.

Strong customer service and outstanding job performance has long been key in the firm’s success.

“Treat every customer as if they are your only one,” Sylvester advises. “They’ll be with you for years to come. We have some customers who have been with us for 35 years.”

How do you get a tree out of a monkey house? Bring in a helicopter. Photo: S&S Tree Specialists

On the job

In its day-to-day operations, S&S uses light to heavy-duty Ford trucks. CAT is their choice for excavators and skid loaders. Vermeer and Rotochopper chippers and grinders are put to work in mulch production. The bucket trucks are Alltec and High Ranger. Western and Blizzard snowplows pull heavy duty during the long Minnesota and Wisconsin winters.

Making safety a top priority, the company has earned several awards for its performance. The TCIA presented company safety awards for S&S’s climbing class training and aerial rescue training, in 2006 and 2009, respectively. Crew safety awards for response to on-site injuries were given in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010.

The Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association recognized the firm’s work in identifying and protecting high-value trees within a construction site with its 2008 Excellence in Landscape Management honor. On the same project, removed trees were reclaimed and used for flooring and finishing wood for the building’s interior.

One of the firm’s most unusual jobs earned a TCIA Excellence in Arboriculture Award. S&S was engaged to perform a tricky tree removal from a monkey exhibit at the Minnesota Zoo. Their solution: take it out via helicopter.

Commitment to high-quality work, topnotch customer service and timely responses to changing conditions will keep S&S going strong for years to come.