In just over 10 years, Arborwell Professional Tree Management has become a multimillion dollar business, a leader in the tree care industry and a champion business model. An important aspect of their success is a culture of quality that highlights the customer service experience.

“In this industry the tree comes first. At Arborwell, the customer comes first. After all, without the customer, we don’t have a tree,” says Peter Sortwell, founder, president and CEO of Arborwell Professional Tree Management.

Quickly distinguished

Arborwell has been named one of the top 100 fastest growing companies by the San Francisco Business Times for the past six years and has made the Inc.5000 list for five years running. Sortwell has received several awards, including the Service Entrepreneur of the Year award from the East Bay Business Times in 2007 and the Most Admired CEO award from the San Francisco Business Times in 2009.

Arborwell services include tree pruning, removal, preservation, installation, plant health services, and arborist consultations to contractors, commercial property managers, golf courses municipalities and residential properties. Their arborists are all ISA-certified and use environmentally safe methods. They offer 24-hour emergency response and an unconditional satisfaction guarantee.

The respect and recognition that Arborwell has garnered since its start in 2001 is well earned. It isn’t every day that major challenges are turned into innovative triumphs.

Safety is the number one priority at Arborwell. Photo: Arborwell

A risk worth taking

Sortwell received a degree in plants and soils from the University of Maine and worked in his family’s small tree care business before moving west. After 15 years of climbing the corporate ladder of a large national horticulture company Sortwell suddenly found himself without a job. The company president had decided to restructure operations. As part of his severance package, Sortwell attended an all-day seminar that focused on identifying whether or not attendees had entrepreneurial aptitude. For some time, Sortwell had contemplated opening his own company, and the event gave him time to explore the concept. He sold his wife on the idea despite the risks involved. In order to finance the business they would have to mortgage their home.

Sortwell wanted to avoid building a company from the ground up, so he found a small tree service (Arborguard) and negotiated its purchase. The business came with a contractor’s license, two trucks, office space, two computers, a phone number and four employees. With the infrastructure in place, Sortwell changed the company’s name to Arborwell and plunged right in.

Employees at Arborwell contribute to the company’s dynamic environment. Photo: Arborwell

His vision was to blend an effective sales team with the finest arborists and quality customer service. His 30 years of experience in the industry provided invaluable hindsight and foresight. He recognized the need for Arborwell to specialize in trees, and by doing so has avoided competing with some of his largest clients: landscape contractors. “Working for a large company exposed me to a lot of issues. I saw that when various companies merged into one, there was a void left in the Bay Area, and I saw it as an opportunity.”

By the end of the first year, Arborwell had quadrupled its earnings from $500,000 to $2 million. Sortwell’s formula was a success, and Arborwell continues to experience exponential growth to this day. They currently employ 140 people and have a 2012 budgeted revenue of $18 million.

Creating a successful culture

Sortwell believes his success pivots on three points: dedicated customers, great employees and a focused marketing plan. “The best plan and the best arborists don’t mean anything if you don’t have customers lined up,” says Sortwell.

Sortwell spends a lot of energy ensuring that the image Arborwell projects reflects the culture of a professional, clean, safe, customer-friendly tree care service. This means everything from their logo to their Web presence must be a true representation of the company’s values.

Safety, customer service, sales, marketing and hiring are all top priorities at Arborwell. Sortwell’s experience helps Arborwell maintain impeccable customer service and quality despite their size and rate of growth. He recognizes that a company cannot continue to do things in the same manner and expect the same response at this rapid rate of growth. Arborwell’s infrastructure is constantly shifting to support their communication, response time and performance as well as if it were employing eight to 10 people. Sortwell says, “Coming from a big company, I saw a lot done wrong, and I used to remind myself: ‘How big can we get before we get bad?'” He adds, “I saw a lot of customer service issues fall through the cracks. We are big enough now that we’ve been able to departmentalize, which helps us stay on top of things.”

According to its shifting needs, Arborwell has changed their software, phone system, organizational charts and is currently implementing a customer relationship management (CRM) enterprise system. Sortwell’s business models include Zappos and L.L. Bean. “The way they deal with problems, communication, scheduling, it’s unbelievable. I want to be like that,” says Sortwell.

When Sortwell saw early on that the company was experiencing continual growth, he sought help from a business training firm in order to ensure that customer service could keep up. This progressive approach is not typical in new businesses; it is more commonly part of a company’s damage control after years of poor customer service. Sortwell’s hiring method is also atypical. He focuses on hiring good, capable people he can train rather than focusing on a person’s background.

Peter Sortwell, a certified arborist, received a degree in plants and soils sciences from the University of Maine. Photo: Arborwell

“We have a remarkable culture. Everybody has their oars in the water, and everybody is pulling in the same direction. People are energetic and happy to be here. Our culture is different than most in this industry in that I’m not a micromanager. I hire good people and give them the tools and direction, but I don’t ask for a lot of reports. I leave a lot up to them. They see it, understand it and appreciate it,” says Sortwell.

This unique approach creates a positive dynamic at Arborwell. Sortwell acknowledges that his greatest personal challenge is keeping this great culture alive as they continue to grow. “As CEO of the company, I spend a lot of my time with employees setting the pace for a healthy culture. I’m happy with Arborwell’s size, but once a company gets this big it takes on a life of its own,” Sortwell laughs. “The growth keeps people excited.”

Daily operation

Arborwell currently has 81 trucks on the road and 81 towed vehicles, including Bandit chippers. They use Ford and International trucks and Altec aerial lifts. Specialty equipment such as winches, tree spades and cranes are also used. Through a wood chip recycling program, they are able to take what was originally a huge cost and turn it into income. Arborwell sells chips to cogeneration plants that feed the state power grid. At the biomass plant, wood chips are fed into a furnace and burned. The fire heats water, creating steam that is used to turn turbines and generators for Pacific Gas & Electric. Every year, Arborwell’s biomass recycling program generates enough clean energy to power about 600 three-bedroom houses.

Employees of Arborwell are known for being knowledgeable, helpful and professional, but it isn’t easy recruiting them. “Our biggest obstacle is finding field-level employees that can perform at the level we want them to perform. We can only grow as fast as the people can do the work and perform. If this industry had more qualified people in the field, we would have grown twice as fast.”

“I don’t feel that this industry has kept up with the times,” says Sortwell. “Companies can’t just place their name in the Yellow Pages and wait for the phone to ring. Business is not conducted that way. Companies need to hire good people, have dedicated customers, a marketing program and incorporate technology.”

A focused marketing strategy is important to Arborwell. Their logo integrates the image they want to project and their culture of quality. Photo: Arborwell

Guiding principles

Safety comes first and foremost. Arborwell is the third company in the state of California to receive Tree Care Industry Association Accreditation, a program built on a foundation of ethics, quality and consumer confidence. The program is a rigorous audit and examination of policies and procedures. This accreditation ensures customers that Arborwell has implemented best business practices, ethical business conduct, formal training and certification of employees, industry, state and federal standards compliance, consumer satisfaction through resolution, adherence to safety and quality standards, and better-than-adequate insurance coverage.

In 2011, Sortwell was sworn in as director of the TCIA board of directors. He believes his responsibility as a board member is to ensure that OSHA and ANSI’s guiding principles of safety and quality are universal. “I think every tree service company should belong to the Tree Care Industry Association. You get great marketing material, assistance in running your business, and they also offer the accreditation program.”

Recession-proof

In the midst of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s, Arborwell not only survived, but grew thanks in part to their long-range vision, good margins and in-house abilities. They saw the recession coming and knew their customers would have to reduce their budgets, so they devised a winning strategy.

“A typical customer will go searching for cheaper prices, so we took a strategic approach. We went to our customers first and asked them if they’d be interested in giving us more work for a slightly lower price. Some of our customers have very large portfolios and they agreed to give us 100 percent of their work. They all agreed without a second thought. The same account manager had worked with them since they started doing business with us. This was a huge selling point,” says Sortwell.

Moving forward

Arborwell is committed to helping communities and organizations through financial or service contributions. They recently partnered with a San Francisco Bay Area organization called Students Rising Above (SRA,) which helps guide and support low-income Bay Area high school students who are overcoming tremendous odds of poverty, homelessness and neglect, to fulfill their dream of a college education.

Arborwell’s growth shows no signs of slowing down. It’s impressive triumph at the hands of an experienced CEO with a unique approach to tree care service proves that there is a need in our communities for safe, clean, professional, consistent tree care service.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in May 2012 and has been updated.