Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Stacie Zinn Roberts

Stacie Zinn Roberts


Growing again

Trees & Ornamentals

Tree services are rebounding after the Great Recession.

September 5, 2014

When the economy floundered during the Great Recession, tree companies did not escape unscathed.

“Generally, we saw customers deferring their tree care expenses when possible. If there were needs such as insect pressures that were going to affect health versus cosmetic issues, customers spent money on health issues for the tree and deferred cosmetic services,” says John Gibson, president of Swingle Lawn, Tree & Landscape Care, based in Denver. “Additionally, pruning services deferred to longer cycles unless there was a major storm that caused damage, therefore requiring immediate attention.”

Money for turf.

During the recession, tree-related revenue dropped dramatically at Senske Lawn & Tree Care. Based in Kennewick, Wash., Senske operates eight offices in eastern Washington, Idaho and in the Great Salt Lake region of Utah. The company also offers pest care services in Las Vegas.

Tony Fisher, maintenance general manager, says that the company divides its tree services into two divisions – tree care, categorized as tree health-related services such as fertilization and pest management, and pruning, which includes all trimming services. Tree care makes up 8.4 percent of annual sales for the company. Pruning is significantly less at 4.8 percent of overall revenue. From 2008 to 2010, revenue in Senske’s tree care division dropped 13 percent, while pruning decreased by 7 percent.

Bjorn Gjerde, Senske’s CFO, attributes the decline in sales of both divisions during the recession to customers choosing to put their money into their lawns as opposed to their trees. “A tree can hold on for a few years if it needs pruning, as opposed to a lawn that can turn yellow if you don’t take care of it,” he says. “Pruning is more of a luxury.”

The downturn was even more painful for Randy Hannan, owner of Safety Tree Services in Sedro-Woolley, Wash. The company offers tree pruning, tree removal, stump removal and trimming services in four counties in northern Washington. Six years ago, during the doldrums of the economic slump, Safety Tree’s sales were slashed by a third. “It was horrible,” Hannan says. “Even my regular clients who have budgets weren’t spending their money.” Customers like maintenance contractors and commercial construction companies that normally used Safety Tree to perform tree removal on road construction projects or to clear land to build homes stopped calling. The business, Hannan says, “was just not there.”

Ready to rebound.

But all is not doom and gloom, at least not anymore. All three companies recorded a recent uptick in overall tree service calls. In the past three years, Senske reports a 13 percent increase in tree care, and a 26 percent increase in pruning.

At Safety Tree, Hannan says business is booming and his five full-time employees can hardly keep up with the demand. They’re scheduling jobs as far out as four to five weeks. “It just started coming back noticeably in the last two years to where we are busy year-round again,” Hannan says. “Now, we are back doing a lot more maintenance stuff. People were not having that done. We were just doing hazard trees. Now, we’re doing maintenance work, grooming, making their places look nice again.”

The story is similar at Senske. “Our lead time for jobs has stretched out significantly. It used to be that we could get to a job in a few days. Now, it’s a few weeks,” Fisher says. To keep up with demand, Senske has hired 15 new tree service employees in the past three years, and the company’s management is considering buying new tree pruning equipment for the tree service fleet. Swingle’s Gibson says “2014 will be our largest year in revenue in our history.” What this means for the tree service industry overall is that the downturn appears to finally be over. “We definitely have seen a rebound,” Fisher says.


The author is a freelance writer based in Mount Vernon, Wash.

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