Spring is the time when nature comes back to life. For tree care companies in many parts of the country, there’s a similar feeling. Even in the far north, most continue operations during the winter months, but it’s often on a scaled-back level, with limitations on what kind of jobs can be done and smaller crew sizes. When the growing season returns in the spring, the demand for tree services comes rushing back to life, too.
Getting people in place
High Falls Tree Service in Rochester, New York, runs one crew through the winter and adds a second crew once spring hits, says owner Erik Matzky. That means devoting time to employee recruitment — both trying to bring back employees who were good performers in the past as well as finding quality additions.
Matzky says he’s found it works best to try out new employees during the winter months whenever possible to see if the fit seems good. If it turns out that they’re good candidates, great. If not, there’s still time to try someone else before things get really crazy in the spring, he notes.
“Winter is a time when you can evaluate whether a new employee is going to be productive,” he explains. “Or to see whether they like the industry enough to think of it as a career down the line.” Plus, he adds, this approach allows time to get new employees trained so the whole crew is ready to hit the ground running come spring.
“You can’t be monkeying around with that in the spring, that’s your busy time,” he says.
And once that busy time hits, Matzky says he tries to rotate employees through different crews “so that nobody is getting sick of each other … and we can find out who everyone is happiest working with.”
He adds that, fortunately, everyone tends to be excited in the spring to really get back to work, so morale tends to be good. “And my personal approach is to try not to overwork them. I give them their weekends, and we try to keep it down to 45 to 50 hours a week in the field, so they’re not getting burned out. Because there are still two to three more seasons to go in the year,” Matzky explains. “We probably lose some work because we’re not working 12- to 15-hour days and weekends, but everybody is getting to spend time with their families and they’re happier.”
Farther to the south, spring is different than it is in northern climates, but still is a busy time in the tree service business, says Art Morris, general manager at New Urban Forestry in Athens, Georgia.
“We don’t slow down [in the winter] quite the way they do up north … so we don’t have the same kind of challenges to ramp up to hit the ground running in the spring. That being said, it does tend to get busier for us in the spring. People start going outside and looking at their trees, and the phone starts to ring a little bit more.”
New Urban Forestry is always on the lookout for good employees — “if I find a good employee, I’m going to hire them regardless of what time of year it is,” says Morris — but doesn’t necessarily do a spring hiring to bring additional people on for that time of year.
What kind of work is in high demand during the spring? “The biggest thing for us is ramping up for our plant health care side of the business. We have to get all of our soil nutrient analysis ready to go for clients who are on soil care programs,” says Morris. “What tends to sneak up on us is that first warm week in the spring. Here in Georgia, that can happen in February. That can mean things like ambrosia beetles are starting to fly, so we have to be ready with our treatment programs and soil care once the soil temperature gets up and we suspect pest problems will be starting.” Because the company uses a lot of biological controls, timing is important, so there is a lot of monitoring of temperatures and growing degree days during the spring.
And up north, it’s the same thing. “For us, we do plant health care, so we’re really busy getting that up and running as spring approaches,” says Matzky.
But calls come in for plenty of other services, as well, he notes. “It sounds weird, but spring also tends to be a busy time for tree removals,” he explains. While that’s the kind of work that can be done in the winter, many property owners aren’t thinking about it at that time. “People are outside more, they’re looking up, they’re raking things up,” he explains.
Plus, there sometimes has been damage to trees during winter storms that requires them to be removed. There’s another reason that this relatively costly service spikes in the spring, Matzky points out: “That’s when people are getting their tax refunds.”
He adds that High Falls Tree Service, which is more geared toward tree preservation and trimming, might price removals a little higher during this busy time of year, especially for jobs that the company isn’t as excited about taking on. You have to be more selective during the busy spring rush about which jobs make the most sense, Matzky explains. “We know where we’re making money and where we’re not; in the spring, from a business standpoint, it’s about cash flow,” says Matzky. That being said, once the calls really start coming in, the company tries to take on as much work as it can.
Getting ready for the rush
During the winter, on days when the weather prevents outdoor work, High Falls Tree Service focuses on its equipment, so that everything is ready to go when spring arrives.
“We go through everything to try to make it look nicer and be sure everything is working, so we don’t have breakdowns when things are really busy in the spring,” Matzky explains. “Other than that, we try to break even [financially] so that we’re not in a hole when spring comes and we can hit the ground running.”
Morris says that New Urban Forestry also makes sure in the somewhat quieter lead-up to spring that all of its trucks and equipment are up to date with maintenance. “That way, when we do get busier, we’re not dealing with downtime with trucks and chippers and trailers,” he explains.
He’s found another spring-prep tactic that works well. “We try to visit our clients before spring hits, so that we already have an idea of what needs to be done and we’re not just waiting for the phone to ring,” he explains. “If we’re walking the properties with them in January, we can put a plan in place for March through September.” Evaluating properties in advance and setting up different services helps not only from a sales perspective, but also in terms of evening the workload for the company, so that there isn’t a lull, followed by a surge in requests when temperatures do warm up and people are outside more, Morris explains. “It helps to even out some of the hills and valleys in regard to production scheduling.”
Because things can get hectic in the spring, managing customer expectations is important, say both Matzky and Morris.
“We do end up running a much larger backlog of work in the growing season than we do during the winter,” says Morris. “We might be two or three weeks out in the winter, and up to eight weeks out during the summer.” He’s found that front-end communication with customers is key to managing their expectations.
And Morris says that outstanding quality of work is the best way to make clients happy when they have to wait during busy times of the year. “Our clients are hiring a premium tree care company, so oftentimes they are willing to wait for really good quality. We just have to be sure to communicate that clearly up front, and then deliver exceptional care when we do arrive,” he explains.
“Scheduling is our biggest nightmare,” says Matzky. “It’s by far our biggest downfall.” He says he’s tried various systems but has never been able to find one that works great. It’s difficult when things are busy and the weather is unpredictable to say with certainty how many jobs can be completed in a given day or week. Ideally, he’d like to have at least two weeks in advance scheduled, “but one rain day can mess up 15 jobs, so we try to run uncommitted, but people want commitments,” Matzky explains. “For the people who are frustrated that they had to wait, the best thing you can do is make sure that your work is so good that, in the end, they feel it was worth waiting for.”
Another complicating factor is that because it tends to be a wet time of year, the ground can be soft. That can mean jobs take a little longer to complete as crews make every effort to avoid damaging lawns and landscapes. “We may try to minimize damage by making a plywood path to get equipment in, or to avoid making a path across someone’s yard from a lot of trips in and out,” Matzky explains. Some jobs may be climbed rather than relying on equipment in order to lighten the footprint on the property.
Matzky says another challenge is educating customers, who are excited to get everything done in the spring and have their landscape looking perfect, that it’s better to wait to prune some trees. “On ornamentals, for example, we try to wait until they’re done blossoming, so we try to push those jobs off, if the customers let us,” he explains. “A lot of times, though, things are dictated by the customer, and they don’t always listen to you.”