Focused on the future

The state of the tree care industry is directly tied to the state of the economy. That’s the message from some tree care industry leaders in different parts of the country who see continued challenges, but also share a sense of optimism about the opportunities that may lie ahead.


PHOTO COURTESY OF HARRISON KEELY/SXC.HU.

“I see the economy moderately inching forward,” says a hopeful Mark Poliak, president of the Indiana Arborist Association and branch manager with The Brickman Group (www.brickmangroup.com) in Indianapolis. “You have to hope for the best. It’s not like there’s tremendous growth right now – it’s barely creeping forward – but I do think things are on a positive trend.”

In the meantime, it’s crucial to continue to foster relationships with customers, Poliak states. “The discretionary spending is what has dropped out of the market,” he observes, adding that many customers are asking, “Do I have to do that now, or can I do that later?” While that sentiment can be discouraging, in such cases he says he tries to find ways to work with property owners. “In this business, we want long-term customers, so we need to say, ‘That’s not a problem. We’ll phase this work and work within your budget,'” Poliak advises. “Hopefully the customer will remember that type of relationship and will have us come back to do some more work in the future.”

Poliak says that, perhaps now as much as ever, it’s important to educate the general public about the importance of proper tree care approaches: “When you take a look at a $1,000 quote versus a $500 quote, your immediate response is, ‘Wow, I can save myself $500.’ But if we can educate the public that there is a difference in working with a trained professional, hopefully they will see the value in the extra $500 to have the job done well.”

Poliak says he uses various brochures and information from the International Society of Arboriculture (www.isa-arbor.com) that explain pruning techniques and other tree care guidelines to help educate customers about proper tree care approaches. He also points out to current and potential customers that money spent on their trees is an investment, impacting the overall value of their property. “Saving a little money now and having a dead tree three years from now doesn’t do them any good,” Poliak states. Improving curb appeal and, thus, the overall value of a property is a message that carries real weight in the current real estate market, he adds.

Finally, with customers reluctant to spend money, Poliak emphasizes an approach of phasing the work over time. “At least on some of the larger projects, if we can phase the job out, it seems to be a successful approach. That way the customer doesn’t necessarily have to outlay everything all at once,” he explains. If the economy improves, customers might be willing to have more work done, or sign off on larger jobs, he notes. “I think in the residential market there’s a willingness to spend a little more money if things do get a little bit better,” says Poliak.


PHOTO COURTESY OF MARTIN BOOSE/SXC.HU.

Steve Castrogiovanni, a certified arborist with Mead Tree and Turf Care (www.meadtree.com), in Lisbon, Md., and president of the Maryland Arborist Association, says he sees some positive signs that things may be improving. “The economy has been very strange this year,” he says. “In the height of summer, I know of several companies that didn’t have any work at all, but then at the end of the summer, all of a sudden everyone seemed to have a six to eight-week backlog of work.”

Castrogiovanni attributes some of that inconsistency to media coverage of the economy and various political dramas that have played out in Congress having to do with the national debt ceiling and other budget issues. “I think people really held on to their pennies until they saw that things were going to get worked out,” he explains. That uncertainty is a big part of what’s causing customers to either put off or scale back on tree work, he feels. “It’s definitely taken on a ‘do only what is absolutely necessary’ kind of tone,” says Castrogiovanni. “Services like lightning protection and fertilization might be put off. If it’s a big dead branch over a house, that needs to be taken care of.”

“Obviously, the economy has a big impact on us in this industry,” agrees Nick Crawford, owner of Crawford Tree and Landscape Services (www.crawfordtree.com) and president-elect of the Wisconsin Arborist Association. “Things have continued to be slow, but I think a lot of the companies that have made it through the last few years are continuing to plod ahead.”

One effect of the slow economy has been to increase pressure from those getting into tree work without the proper training, qualifications or insurances, notes Crawford. “Here in Wisconsin, there is no state license required to do tree work,” he says, which opens the field to anyone with a truck and a chain saw.

Regardless of the economy, standing out from the competition requires emphasizing professionalism, says Crawford. “For example, TCIA’s accreditation program is a great way to distinguish yourself and differentiate yourself from others out there,” he says. Then it takes an effort to educate customers on the value of that type of training. For instance, if Crawford senses that a potential customer is going to be seeking other bids, he encourages them to talk with other accredited companies. “Then I know it will be an apples to apples comparison, and they’ll be assured of a high level of work. I try to tell people that it’s not all about having the tree on the ground at the end of the day. Somebody that doesn’t know what they are doing might be taking unnecessary risks, or they might take your money and only do half of the job and then leave,” he says. There’s plenty of competition like that out there, Crawford adds.

“We call them ‘Pickup Truck Chuck,'” jokes Mark Poliak in Indiana of the unqualified, often uninsured, individuals soliciting tree care work. The slow economy has brought even more of these types of players into the marketplace, he observes. “In the slow economy, it’s always tempting to go the lower price, and that’s Pickup Truck Chuck.”

The best way to compete against these operators is through education, advises Poliak. He says that at state association gatherings, arborists often talk amongst themselves about the importance of continuing education and certification. “These are important issues and ways to differentiate yourself from your competition,” he points out. “As an industry, professionalism is constantly talked about – it’s something that gives you a competitive advantage, and it also benefits all of us.” In Indiana, the message seems to be getting out. Poliak reports that the number of certified arborists working in the state is growing, and that membership in the state association is increasing.

Castrogiovanni points out that a Maryland state regulation helps to support the true professionals working in the tree care industry there. “Maryland is unique because we have the ‘tree expert’ law,” he explains. “You have to have a license to do tree work in this state, and that applies to everything, even removals. And there’s actually a number you can call if you see someone you believe to be unlicensed and the [state] will come out and enforce the law and shut those people down. So we do have a small equalizer in our corner.”

To be a “tree expert” in Maryland requires passing an exam and carrying a minimum amount of insurance. This levels the playing field field so that professional companies aren’t competing against fly-by-night operators.

One thing the slow economy hasn’t seemed to change is the challenge of finding good employees. Despite high unemployment rates, finding qualified employees is as difficult as ever, reports Castrogiovanni. “You can find a qualified ground man, but finding a tree climber is not an easy thing to do,” he says. “A lot of the good employees are being held on to. We have a lot of people come through our door who say they’ve been let go, but we often find out there was a reason they were let go. Your top climbers and good workers are hanging on to their jobs.”

Regardless of the economy, there is always a demand for qualified employees, says Crawford. “Even with the high unemployment in this country, I still see a relatively low number of qualified applicants coming along. It’s bizarre that there are so many people looking for work, and yet it’s still so hard to find good folks to hire. The best people are probably still employed,” he says.

Crawford says a new program run by the city of Milwaukee to train workers for a career in tree care has proven successful, and his company found two solid employees through this avenue. “They got a grant and they’re paying people to go through this 10-month program, which gives them everything from climbing experience to classroom instruction,” he explains. “It’s funny, because when the graduation date nears now there are a number of tree care companies sort of competing to hire the top graduates, which is good to see.”

Crawford is optimistic that those graduating from colleges and training programs will find an improving job market. “I think that people have held off and deferred a lot of tree maintenance, but I think they’re starting to say, ‘Well, the economy is not really coming back, but I can’t put this off any longer,'” he says. “We’re seeing a lot of that.” Crawford says he can “definitely see” a scenario where, if the economy does pick up, there will be a dramatic improvement in the industry as tree care professionals respond to the pent up demand for tree work.

Castrogiovanni agrees that once the economy picks up there may be a surge of tree work that’s built up over the last few years. He explains, “Trees aren’t your typical landscaping component. You can hold off installing hardscaping or planting a shrub, but if there’s a big tree looming over your house, sooner or later you’re going to have to do some pruning. So I do think there are a lot of people who have been holding off having tree work done for the past few years that eventually will have to open up.”

Another reason to be optimistic, says Poliak, is the increased appreciation people have for trees these days. “Public awareness of proper tree care is greater today than it was 15 years ago,” he says. “I think the whole green movement has helped with that; there’s a [value seen in] having healthy trees around your environment rather than just seeing trees as something that’s going to require you to rake leaves every year.”

Nearly every industry is hoping for an economic rebound to spur growth, and the tree care industry is no different. “I think the optimism is still there. I like to see the small improvement we’ve seen over the last year as a good sign, and I think most of the contractors in our association are feeling the same way,” says Poliak. “We’ve sort of had our tails kicked, but now we’re on the upswing and we’re ready to grow.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.