Providing tree care in the metropolitan New York City area seems like quite a challenge. Almstead Tree & Shrub Care Company LLC has spent nearly 50 years getting it down to a science. If there’s one thing the team knows, it’s that science changes all the time.

The early days

When Founder and President Richard E. Almstead started out in 1964, he was a teenager looking to earn some spending money during the summer. He probably didn’t envision that his one-man company would expand from its original corporate office in New Rochelle, N.Y., to a four-location business with his sons and 100 employees on board.

One of those sons, Ken, is now CEO, while Michael serves as vice president. Ken says the Almsteads consider that their early operations continued from Richard’s youthful beginning through the 1980s. During that time, the company provided general tree and shrub care including removals, fertilizer applications and pest treatments. Selling firewood was a sideline, along with putting equipment to alternate uses, such as inspecting and changing streetlights.

The location brought opportunities for unique jobs, as well.

“There was the occasional renting of aerial lifts for movie shoots in Manhattan, or water trucks for wetting down a road for mimicking outside rain for films and commercials,” Ken says.

The precedent for keeping on top of innovation was set early when the 1970s gas shortages posed a challenge for the young firm. The company converted its trucks and chippers to operate on propane, which created a local demand, leading Almstead to sell the fuel alternative out of its New Rochelle location.

Ken Almstead talks about root systems with students at Horace Mann Elementary School in Riverdale, N.Y., at an Earth Day event. Almstead also donated and planted a tree for the event. Photo: Almstead Tree & Shrub Care Company

On the job

Today, Richard, a past president of the New York State Arborist Association, spends much of his time overseeing a sister company, Almstead Nursery & Mulch. Sons Ken and Michael handle the tree care side of operations, along with related divisions.

In addition to CEO duties, Ken is an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist. He specializes in all aspects of tree and shrub care, with emphasis on organic care; mature tree planting and preservation; tree protection; care before, during and after construction; and multiyear tree care development programs. He is horticultural chair for Cornell University’s Cooperative Extension.

Vice President Michael is a licensed arborist in Connecticut and maintains client relations. As a soil food web expert, he has led the company in implementing organic land care services. Michael is an advocate for sustainable landscapes.

With two New York offices (Hawthorne and New Rochelle), one in Stamford, Conn., and another in North Haledon, N.J., Almstead serves the entire greater New York metropolitan area. Over the years, the firm has expanded into five divisions: arbor care, plant health care, organic care, consulting and lawn care. Tree services include custom pruning, tree removals, stump grinding and planting.

The company’s clientele includes commercial, municipal and residential accounts. Visitors to Manhattan’s Central Park may spot Almstead crews performing pruning and removal services. Other staffers are introducing hundreds of new trees and shrubs to the Felician College campus in Lodi, New Jersey.

A Connecticut branch team member uses an Air Spade to perform a bare root transplant. Photo: Almstead Tree & Shrub Care Company

Making it all happen

Over the years, Almstead has seen a lot of equipment come and go, and has had the opportunity to try myriad brands. Most vehicles are Internationals. Almstead uses several tow-behind Vermeer grinders and two Rayco Super RG 50s. For skid loaders, the crews count on an ASV and a Bobcat, while also putting Komatsu and John Deere front-end loaders to work. Kenworth, Mack and Peterbilt roll-off trucks transport wood, wood chips and mulch.

About four years ago, Almstead charged the Sherrill Tree Company with a custom equipment project. The compost tea truck Sherrill devised was the first of its kind.

“We brew our own actively aerated compost teas and have had many clients, both commercial and residential, on tea programs for a number of years with great results,” Ken says.

To promote well-aerated and healthy soil to support tree care, the company brews fresh compost tea daily from bags of locally produced, top-quality leaf and twig compost. Adding only natural foods, such as humates and fish oil, that encourage microorganisms to reproduce, the teas are concentrated extracts of the beneficial organisms contained in compost. Teas can be applied as soil drenches, soil injections or foliar sprays.

“After several years of practicing compost tea brewing, our organic care specialists have developed a custom recipe that has proven to be highly effective among the trees in our area,” Ken adds.

Almstead is a strong proponent of the air spade. The company invested in a custom-built air spade trailer to house the air compressor and other components.

“Over the past 10 years, we’ve really invested ourselves, intellectually and financially, in the science of organic property care,” Ken says. He and several other Almstead arborists are Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) certified organic land care experts.

Behind the scenes

As a family business, core principals like integrity, honesty and sound ethics are important at Almstead. Key business practices include providing more than clients expect, offering customized care, maintaining an educated staff, and exercising versatility as markets and needs change. While high-quality tree care is emphasized, Almstead also understands that speedy service is important, as well.

“We aim to always be true professionals in all aspects of service and management and giving the client more than what they expect,” Ken says. “We provide real personalized custom care and service, working with the premise that establishing trustworthy relationships with clients and employees is the utmost priority.”

The commitment to education doesn’t end with the staff, it’s at the heart of the Almstead marketing program. Their award-winning communications aim to inform current and potential clients about best practices in arboriculture.

After air spading in a hub and spoke pattern, an Almstead crew member backfills around a mature beech tree with organic compost at the Wave Hill public garden in the Bronx, New York. Photo: Almstead Tree & Shrub Care Company

“It’s always great to get a call or email from someone who obviously took the time to read an article or letter from us and is now interested in having their beeches checked for Phytophthora or has noticed an included bark crotch in a twin-stemmed tree,” Ken says.

The Tree Care Industry Association presented the company with Professional Communication Awards for its newsletter in 2008, 2009 and 2010. The company’s brochures merited the honor in 2008.

The company has also plunged into the social media world. A blog is used to enhance the print educational campaign, and highlights about community events are available on Facebook.

“Posts about volunteer projects we’ve done tend to get the best response, and it’s great to be able to have little conversations about those things,” Ken adds.

Meeting the challenge

Michael Almstead says the greatest challenge for the company has been recruiting quality staffers.

“To be successful as an arborist, an individual really needs a solid base of scientific knowledge along with strong business sense, and that can be a tough combination to find,” he says. “Add to that finding someone who is committed to upholding our values and standards as a company, and it can turn into a pretty tall order. Knowing how hard it can be, we’ve been lucky to find the people we have now.”

Ken says that for him, meeting that challenge with a team that boosts impressive longevity is the achievement he is most proud of.

“The vast majority of our field employees have been with the firm for 10, 15 and 20-plus years,” he says. “It feels great to give out awards recognizing that level of dedication to our company, and I believe it is also a testament to our dedication to our employees.” Almstead recognizes years of service during its annual summer picnic.

Ken adds that for a young or growing tree care firm, having a dedicated, focused team is key.

“Look at all aspects and opportunities in this green industry and survey what is being asked for in your specific market,” he says. “Analyze your clients’ experience, from start to finish, and establish the mechanisms needed to fulfill the best experience possible.”

He says that industry associations are great sources of client and vendor referrals and education. In addition to ISA, NOFA and TCIA, the company belongs to the Connecticut Tree Protective Association, the New Jersey Society of Certified Tree Experts, the Greenwich Tree Conservancy and the Arbor Day Foundation.

It’s tempting to say that Almstead Tree & Shrub has arrived at the sweet spot, but Ken doesn’t agree.

He says, “We very much run the company on the premise that if you are not growing in various ways, then you are contracting. Nothing is a constant, and if you try to stay the same, most likely you really are contracting in various aspects.”