If members of the lawn care industry could dream up a spokesperson to represent them to legislators, activists and industry outsiders, who would it be?
He’d be a proactive, well-educated professional. He’d possess decades of experience and the respect of his peers and challengers, alike. He’d be assertive, passionate, yet level-headed. He’d be willing to devote time away from his business and family for the good of the cause and he’d have the ability to empower those around him.
He would be Ed Walter.
Lawn & Landscape honors green industry leaders each year at the Green Industry Expo.
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ENTERING THE INDUSTRY. In 1974, Washington Tree Service in Shoreline, Wash., had surpassed $1.5 million, and was heading for $2 million. The 26-year-old company was doing well, but co-founder Stan Raplee knew he needed a successor. He had his eye on the thirty-something husband of one of his relatives.
His prospective protégé was Ed Walter.
Aside from mowing his own yard, Walter had no green industry experience when Raplee approached him about joining the tree and lawn care business. Born in southern Illinois, the son of a small businessman, Walter had a management background with a bachelor’s degree in business and marketing from Southern Illinois University.
Also, he possessed a can-do attitude and sense of discipline he’d picked up in the military. When Walter graduated college, Vietnam was afire, and he went from a draft-deferred position to the No. 1 draft spot in his county. Determined to be in control of his destiny, Walter enlisted in the Army, entered officer candidate school and came out as a second lieutenant in the transportation corps. Thankfully, he was never sent overseas.
With experience gained as an Army commissary officer, Walter landed a job as a food broker after he was discharged. He was recently married and several years into his career when Stan Raplee approached him with an opportunity to join Washington Tree Service in a middle management position.
“Stan wanted to step back from the business,” Walter says. “We got along fine and I stepped into the company.” This is the humble way Walter puts it, but you get the idea that it wasn’t that simple. Lawn care experience or not, Walter was the man Raplee was looking for.
EARNING RESPECT. Since his days as a business student, it had been his goal “to climb the corporate ladder.” And when Raplee presented his offer, Walter knew this was his chance. “It was an opportunity to try my hand at running a business and it was an opportunity to have ownership,” Walter says. “It seemed like an opportunity to become president and CEO and fulfill my goal of getting involved in the corporate structure, large or small.”
Walter has been dedicated to his career at Washington Tree Service – and to the tree and lawn care industry – ever since. But it wasn’t always easy.
Washington Tree Service isn’t the kind of place where people work for a few years and move on their way. Today, 30 percent of the workers have been employed there for more than 20 years; 10 percent have worked there for three decades or more.
Imagine a young, well-educated relative of the owner joining the ranks in a middle management position in 1974, working alongside other managers who likely worked their way up from entry-level spray technician jobs. Imagine him supervising employees with the field experience and technical know-how he did not yet have.
“I wouldn’t have wanted to be in the position to be brought in like that and be expected to give these guys orders,” says Randy Mock, the company’s vice president who’s worked with Walter for more than 30 years. “It was a difficult position for him to come in and not know anything about the spray business and take a lofty position. It turned some people off around here. I think he handled it as well as anyone could.”
Walter eagerly learned the ins and outs of the business, from sales to spraying to customer service. “I didn’t have any industry experience – Stan’s decision to hire me was based more on my business background,” Walter notes. “So I started duplicating what he was doing – getting my feet wet in the field and learning the business side and the financials, which he wanted me to learn more than anything else.” To master the required technical skills, Walter spent time out on jobs, took courses and studied to earn his applicator license.
Name: Ed Walter
Company: Washington Tree Service
Location: Shoreline, Wash.
“I was starting behind a lot of people in this area,” Walter says. “I had to read more and study more and take different classes. I spent a lot of time early on reading professional magazines and technical bulletins to educate myself to catch up. I had to learn it while learning the business, too.”
But his dedication didn’t go unnoticed. “In time he gained the respect of everyone around here because of his work ethic,” Mock adds. “He pretty much learned it all. He worked six days a week back in those days and put in a lot of hours.”
In addition to gaining the respect of his peers, Walter had to gain the respect of the man who hired him. Although Raplee brought him on to lead the company into the future, it took a while for Walter to win Raplee over entirely, although he had moved up to the ranks of vice president and general manager. “It was the mid-80s when for the first time I got the feeling that Stan was pleased and getting ready to leave me in charge,” Walter says. A company in Tacoma approached Washington Tree Service, asking for a buyout. It was Washington Tree Service’s first opportunity to open a branch location and Raplee turned to Walter to make the decision. “It was the first time I got the feeling that ‘You’re on your own and here you go,’” Walter says. “From that time on he just kept moving a little more out of the daily activity and into the background.” The Tacoma location opened in 1984 and seven additional satellites have opened since.
Said to operate the company with a true top-down management style, Raplee did not relinquish his title as president and CEO until the late 1990s.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever been around someone who’s been the boss of a company for 40-some years,” Mock says, speaking of Raplee. “Ed wasn’t really allowed to completely run this place. He definitely put his time in here. He shows respect to everybody who’s here. And he showed a lot of respect to Stan.”
STORY TELLING. Washington Tree Service – and the industry in general – faced another challenge during the 1980s. At that time, activism surrounding pesticide issues was mounting. Walter’s proactive, upfront approach to combating restrictions and communicating the industry’s message is where his peers say he’s made the biggest footprints.
|ED WALTER ON GIVING BACK|
Q. What does the term “giving back” mean to you?
A. “Giving back is the willingness to open up and share to others some of the things you’ve learned, the mistakes you’ve made and advising them on how not to make those mistakes. It’s also about volunteering your time for different efforts and also sharing your good fortune. If you’ve been finan- cially successful, share it.”
Q. Describe a situation where you feel you gave back to the industry or your community due to a cause or effort you believed in and how this impacted you in your career.
A. “I can’t think of any one specific cause, but being involved in the extra curricular activities like volunteering to sit in front of legislative committees, going to press conferences and volunteering throughout the state – that’s giving back.”
Q. Who is one person you admire most for giving back and why?
A. “There’s one local individual that I admire greatly for doing what he does. A pitcher for the Seattle Mariners, Jamie Moyer – they just recently traded him to Philadelphia, but he has a foundation that helps families and children. He and his wife are intimately involved and they do excellent things for the community. That’s a tremendous example of giving back to the community for your great fortune.”
Q. What is one thing you do to teach your employees the value of giving back?
A. “I encourage and support the employees when they have outside-the- industry volunteer programs they’re involved with – either with advertising or financially. I like to think I encourage them to be involved in these and I don’t think I’ve ever not given my support.”
Q. In your opinion, what are the top three things a lawn care operator or landscape contractor can do today to establish a trend of giving back and start experiencing the benefits?
A. “I admire companies that create a program or a project that encourages employees to get involved in giving back to the community in whatever they chose to do, and recognize or reward them for it. Leading by example is another good way to do it, but then sometimes that tends to focus on you rather than what the project is. Another way is encouraging involve- ment in associations.”
The industry faced an onslaught of bad press and state and local regulation, including the loss of registered pesticides and buzz about notification requirements. Walter was already involved in the Interstate Pesticide Applicators Association, a group of professional pesticide users from Washington and Oregon. “One thing Stan encouraged me to do was get involved in associations, work with government leaders, the department of agriculture and legislators – and I’ve done that for 30 years,” Walter says. “By having a relationship with these people and an opportunity to talk with them, it’s given us an opportunity to present our opinion from a position of respect and authority.”
Walter and others at the IPAA were instrumental in coordinating efforts to prevent state and local pesticide regulations, much like those that have infiltrated Canada over the years. In the early 1980s, he helped organize busloads of people to go to the state capitol to speak with legislators and attend hearings. “Western Washington state is a hotbed of environmentalism and we had a very active anti-pesticide organization that did very well at getting the ear of legislators,” says Chris Senske, president of Kennewick, Wash.-based Senske Lawn & Tree Care, a fellow IPAA member who’s known Walter for close to 30 years. “It took a real yeoman’s effort to get their ear or at least get the other side of the story told. And a lot of that was done with Ed’s effort.”
Telling the lawn and tree care industry’s side of the story became a sort of second job for Walter over the years. In 1988 he helped found Washington Friends of Farms & Forests, an association of pesticide applicators from a variety of user communities. The organization’s founding principle is to provide a balanced viewpoint for news stories about chemical use and provide oversight of statewide issues affecting pesticide use.
Though Walter no longer serves as a board member for “Friends,” the organization’s Executive Director Heather Hansen hears from him often. “He’ll see an article in the newspaper and call me up and say, ‘What do you think about this? Should we write a letter to the editor?’” Hansen says, explaining that one of the greatest things about Walter is the fact that he’s “a doer.” “Other folks see an issue and say ‘Somebody should do something about this.’ He’ll call and say ‘I think we should do this.’”
Walter’s spent many hours away from his family and business testifying before the state legislature on pesticide issues, as well as representing the industry at numerous local government meetings over the years. “Time and time again he’s at meetings explaining, ‘If you read the label and follow directions, it’s safe,’” Hansen says. “It’s important to have people in the industry to explain ‘I wouldn’t use anything on your lawn that I wouldn’t use on my own.’ You need people who are willing to take the time to educate the public and meet with editorial boards,” she adds. “Ed is a great spokesperson for that.”
The 1990s brought more activist challenges, but Walter’s poise and foresight have helped to protect lawn care-friendly pesticide policies in the state of Washington for more than a decade. Once again, Walter helped assemble a statewide coalition of pesticide users and manufacturers to defeat oppressive laws that would create burdensome regulation. Working closely with other IPAA members and then-State Senator Patty Murray, Walter in 1992 helped write new legislation on pesticide-sensitive registries. “He led the discussion to get everybody on the same page in terms of what we were willing to talk with legislators about and what we needed to do to defeat the other side,” Senske says.
The result was sections 17.21.420 and 17.21.430 of the Washington Pesticide Applications Act.
“The part that made everybody nervous, but looking back was really the right thing to do, was not only the posting, but notification of those that were deemed sensitive,” Walter says. “People thought we were really creating a hornet’s nest, but it’s now accepted as a very successful program.”
More than 14 years later the legislation has not been altered whatsoever. “It’s been a far-sighted and well-thought-out plan,” Senske says. “The real result of his vision was that the rally cry of the anti-pesticide activists was silenced not just for a while but for more than a decade.”
Walter’s reputation as a voice for pesticide users and the mutual respect he’s fostered with regulators landed him on the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Advisory Board as the urban landscape representative.
His long-time colleague Mock explains why Walter has emerged as a statewide leader. “People rely on him because, No. 1, he’s been an integral part of the equation for such a long time,” he says. “No. 2, he’s upfront and not just one to sit by and say, ‘Oh well.’ No. 3, he speaks well and is able to explain himself and the issues well.
|KEEPING OPTIONS OPEN|
Reorienting Washington Tree Service’s structure to empower employees at all levels is one point of pride Ed Walter emphasizes in his 36-year career with the company.
Another one of his accomplishments – becoming a leader in natural lawn care – is a direct result of that effort.
“Over the last year and half we’ve introduced a natural program to mirror our traditional program in both lawn care and tree and shrub care,” Walter says. “I believe we’re one of the only companies who’ve done it.
“We had been hearing more and more from customers who wanted us to develop this program, and we also looked at some criticism that our industry receives for not offering it,” he says, noting the issue is a prominent one in environmentally sensitive Washington state.
The company’s newly reorganized management staff designed and developed the natural program. “It’s a result of empowering people to do things and creating the opportunity for them to do it,” Walter says. The “Natural Choice” products meet the criteria established by the Washington State Department of Agriculture organic food program. Materials used in the natural applications include seaweed, fish fertilizer and sulfur. Management developed training and prepared employees with a list of responses for potential FAQ about the differences between the traditional and natural programs.
“I think it’s just an excellent opportunity for us,” he adds. “We’re responding to the marketplace, but still offering the traditional program because not everything can be done with the natural program. It’s also an excellent PR tool for our customers to deal with their neighbors.”
EMPOWERING OTHERS. It’s clear that Walter has given back on a large scale to the industry he was indoctrinated into more than 30 years ago. But his leadership skills have touched the lives of the people around him on a personal level.
“He is honorable in all aspects of his work and life, raising two successful children through college and caring for his wife of at least 30 years,” Senske says.
Ed has been married to his wife, Patty, for 37 years, to be exact. It’s been 30 years since life threw the couple a curveball – Patty was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
It’s been challenging, Walter acknowledges, supporting his family’s unique situation while remaining dedicated to the company and the industry. But with families, there’s give and take. “For the first 25 years, I was working six and seven days here, and the family was extremely supportive of that,” Walter says.
“He’s a hell of a family man,” Mock says. “He’s gone through a lot of adversity, but he isn’t a whiner.”
The Walters have two grown children – a son and a daughter, who worked minimally in the business throughout the years. “My wife and I decided that we wanted somebody else to teach our kids how to work,” he says. “We figured they would learn better if it wasn’t mom and dad teaching them.”
Walter, however, learned his work ethic from his father. If you ask him, he says his leadership style was shaped primarily by his dad, who ran several small businesses and was well-respected for his community involvement and conduct. “My father influenced me on how to handle people, how to respect employees and customers, and that you have to devote a tremendous amount of time and effort and make some sacrifices to make a business successful,” he says.
The way Stan Raplee ran Washington Tree Service indirectly affected the style Walter adopted when he took the helm, Walter says. As the founder of the company, Raplee operated as the “captain of the ship.”
“As the founder of the company, his style was more autocratic,” Walter says. “But only one person can do that – the founder. My style had to be more inclusive. I had to take advantage of the leadership team we’d assembled and rely more on them to get them involved so they felt they had ownership in the business.”
Lessons learned from both of these men add to Walter’s reputation for being a well-informed, encouraging, even-keeled professional who leads by example.
“He’s a good listener – he doesn’t make snap decisions,” Mock says. “He tends to research things very well.”
One goal of the self-described “Polo-shirt-and-slacks guy” is to maintain a positive, level attitude. “I never want people to think ‘What kind of mood is Ed in today?’” he says.
Transitioning the company from a top-down approach to a team-centric one is what Walter calls one of his greatest professional accomplishments. Four years ago, he re-oriented the company structure, positioning himself in a bottom-up, encouraging role. “We tried to empower the employee base to give them some accountability and recognition they needed and deserved,” Walter says.
He relates this experience to one of his favorite quotes about leadership from former president and Army General Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Leadership is getting others to do what you want them to do even if they don’t want to do it.”
He says the structural realignment was a major change for the employees, many of whom were content doing things the way they’d always done them. “It was a big change in everybody’s comfort zones. It stirred the pot, but they’ve handled it very well,” he says.
Walter’s emphasis on empowering those around him translates to his association involvement, as well. He’s always encouraged involvement in IPAA, Friends and other industry groups, as well as the opportunity for training and educational seminars. He says he fosters future leaders by providing them with reading material and giving them “as much responsibility as they can handle.” Walter also urges employees to get involved in the community with outside-the-industry volunteer programs.
“He’s very much a team player,” Hansen says. “In any group there are always folks who say ‘I wish we could do this, but I don’t know how.’ Ed will just encourage people to do things and come up with a plan.”
Mock attributes Walter’s dedication and leadership in the company and the industry to being raised during a time when people were expected to be accountable for their actions. “Thirty years is a long time to be in one place – you don’t see that much lately,” he says. “Ed made a decision that this was going to be his career; he stuck to it and did what he had to do.”
That, and a whole lot more.