A Career in Arboriculture- From Inception toward Retirement

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Same article as published (below)

If you asked me about my career goals in 1975, I never would have thought I’d be where I’m now, thirty eight years later.  As an arborist, my experiences may be similar to your own.  But perhaps I can provide a different perspective. My career in arboriculture provides me with an interesting, rewarding, and fulfilling  journey through life…and it keeps getting better.  

My mom wanted me to be an architect, at least after her hopes faded of me becoming a doctor.  I did well in school until I entered those late rebellious years as a teenager.  I quit college in Boston in 1975 and was caught in a lifestyle with no direction.  My next move was California where I engaged in assorted jobs until a friend proposed a partnership in the tree business.  I really had no idea what was involved at the time but soon found myself in a two man operation, owning a small pick-up truck, climbing gear, clean-up tools, and assorted chain saws.  In 1977, our yellow page ad, a basic insurance policy, a sign on our truck, and a stack of business cards made us true professionals.  Despite the awkwardness of hanging from a tree with a Homelite XL-925  dangling from my saddle, I persevered in my new found business.

I acquired experience working in trees that involved the technical skills of body thrusting, spiking, topping, drop crotching, lion-tailing, descending and bucking up wood. This was an ideal job for a hard working, young man.  But a year later, the partnership failed and I was on my own.  I had achieved one year of experience, but no basic  knowledge about arboriculture.  Yet, I was good at interacting with customers and knew how to leave a property looking tidy.  Over three decades later I still observe this minimal business model among many tree companies.

In 1979, I was awarded my first big contract and also experienced my first severe accident.  My employee and friend was killed, while leaning on a chain-link fence, 100 feet away from where a broken power line dropped and made contact.  The high tension wire snapped from the pole after the limb I cut was yanked in the wrong direction by a gust of wind.  This was a huge tragedy, a devastating setback in life, and an incredible eye-opener; A lesson that I would never forget.  Although safety programs had a low profile during those years, it was the time that my awareness of risks and safety commenced.  With so many programs offered by the Tree Care Industry Association and International Society of Arboriculture, its a shame that many tree service owners still don’t practice safe operations until an accident or tragedy occurs. These programs are key to promoting safe work practices for tree workers.

Eight years after my introduction into tree work, I attended my first WCISA regional workshop in Santa Barbara while working on a municipal tree reduction (drop crotching) contract.  I had the privilege of listening to the late John Britton, among other experts, and was inspired by their presentations and passion for trees.  I was also encouraged by our former city arborist and WCISA past president Dan Condon.  Thus the turning point in my career materialized in 1987 when I became certified as an arborist.

From that time forth, the seed was planted and my journey through Arboriculture began to germinate.  Similar to trees, careers grow from the foundation in which they are started, how they are nourished, and the affects of the surrounding environment.  My involvement in the International Society of Arboriculture was the turning point in my profession.

Despite my indifferent attitude as a teenager, my early education and minimal college experience gave me an academic start that I was able to build upon through further education.  I nourished that need through publications and workshops, largely ISA founded.  This initiated friendships and networks with people in the Western Chapter and Internationally through the ISA.  This involvement also led to my chairing the educational program of three annual chapter conferences and several regional meetings.  I entered the speaking circuit on a local and ISA level, offering educational tree related presentations.   My next step was joining the American Society of Consulting Arborists (ASCA) and becoming a Registered Consulting Arborist.  Finally in 1997, I took hold of the opportunity to become an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist.

Educational opportunities and involvement in our industry’s professional organizations were encouraging and motivating.  They helped me develop self-confidence and significantly contributed to my advancement as an arborist and a greater success in business.

Together since 1977, my wife Lynda and I created a loving family unit.  We worked hard but provided time with our children while remaining loyal to our commitments and responsibilities.  Yet the challenges of running a business and supporting a family create tense situations that test the strength of any relationship.  Many couples and business owners are aware that communication skills are never ending and require constant practice.  Complacency or lack of awareness will stress a relationship and a tree business.  I think that communication skills are the most important discipline and challenge in running a business and sustaining good personal relationships.

My teaching position at Santa Barbara City College followed my earning an Associate Degree at the same college several years earlier.  I started as a guest presenter in the Environmental Horticulture program that soon developed into a one unit, eighteen hour course.  Over the past seventeen years my course has evolved into a full semester, three unit class.  Becoming an instructor of Arboriculture at Santa Barbara City College helped me develop a skill to communicate many complicated concepts to students and clients. My involvement in education with adults facilitated my ability to teach green industry professionals and other people who were interested in trees.  This additional bonus helped to strengthen my profile in the community as an expert in my field.  

While my children were growing up, I  discovered the joy of working with them and their classmates in school.  Short programs in the classroom that introduced trees in a simple  manner were always a hit among the kids and well appreciated by the parents.  These experiences also built a high profile in the community and certainly created many new relationships.  An arborist’s involvement in the community is hugely fulfilling and one of the best marketing tools that I have experienced.  Arborists that miss out on community involvement, miss out on a tremendous opportunity.

After I survived a stroke in 2000, I recovered with a vengeance and became a certified spin instructor at the local health club (spin is a group fitness cycling class).  I found this supplemental income generator to keep me focused on fitness, build leadership skills, and diversify my interests.  It also encouraged me to participate in six Tour Des Trees since my stroke.   Aside from friendships, fitness, and experiences, the Tour des Trees provided an opportunity to give back to the industry by raising money for the TREE Fund and increasing awareness of trees in communities throughout the United States and Canada.  I encourage recreational athletes who share this desire to give back to the industry and are looking to fulfill a fitness goal, to participate in the Tour des Trees.

In 2005, my tree service became the second TCIA accredited company in California.  This marked a significant advancement toward the next biggest turning point in my journey.  As my career grew, so did my passion toward the science and art of consulting.  After the Bartlett Tree Experts purchased my company in 2007, I established a full time consulting practice.  This bold but scary change in my career came with a whole new set of challenges, some of which I am experiencing today.

I think that many young people in this industry define a consulting practice as the place where arborists go to die.  Although I can hardly agree, I do see my consulting practice as the next logical step that gets me closer to retirement.  The working energy definitely changes over the years.  No doubt that Newton was correct when he said “Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but changed from one form to another”.   Besides it being a scientific law, it is also a philosophical statement.

In my past six years as a full time consulting arborist, my practice has been interesting and extremely fulfilling.  I think you will find a similar opinion among consultants who are members of, or Registered through, the American Society of Consulting Arborists.  We may also be in agreement that a decline in income during in the formative years of establishing a consulting practice can create quite an obstacle.  I was fortunate to sell my tree service the year before the recession.  But like so many other people, I also experienced reduced income and increased debt.

While struggling though some tough financial times, I found ways to deal with negative feelings and worked at turning them into positive experiences.  I used the hours when work slowed as an opportunity to create and begin to implement a business plan.  This would hopefully lead me to my goal, that of building up a successful consulting practice and my eventual retirement. 

My plan started with some soul searching and finally a mission statement [see the mission statement on my web site].  I acknowledged that I wanted to make a difference in my community through education of other tree workers, the public, and myself, while creating a highly credible business. This would happen through my teaching, presentations, working with individual tree workers, children, teachers, and local organizations.  I created my Treemendous Blog that offers an educational and philosophical approach to disseminating information.  I also developed a database application (hired a professional) that allows me to efficiently run and market my business.

In summary I am pleased to report that my business has finally resumed to a comfortable level and my plans are leading to some exciting improvements.  A successful career is built on a solid foundation of education.  It grows by the nourishment that feeds it including communication skills, continued learning, commitment, credibility, integrity, community, and marketing. 

It’s been thirty six years since I first picked up a chainsaw.  As I age, I continue to grow and remain excited by new information, new experiences, and new relationships.  My career so far has been a journey that is rewarding, fulling, and nothing less than amazing.  Stay tuned for the last segment of this article.  But don’t hold your breath, I think it will be awhile.

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