Considerations For Entering The Tree Care Business


There are certain services in the lawn and landscape business that go together like, well, peanut butter and jelly. Lawn mowing and aeration or fertilization and weed control, for example. They just work naturally together. In this analogy, landscaping and tree care would be more like a fusion food. They can absolutely go together, but it takes just the right recipe to make the mixture work. Some landscape companies are large enough to warrant a whole division dedicated just to tree care — meaning they are equipped and function pretty much like a specialized tree care company. But for smaller lawn care and landscaping businesses looking to get into tree work, the winning recipe may mean focusing on “lighter” tree services (pruning and trimming in cases where climbing isn’t necessary, and removals of select trees in the right circumstances, for instance) and leaving the big tree jobs to the specialists.

Using subcontractors

That’s exactly the approach taken by Sunrise Landscape & Design in Sterling, Virginia. “We’ve always done tree work — it’s part of what we do,” says Joe Markell, president and CEO. “We want to do everything in-house and be the one-stop shop for our customers.” That said, Markell stresses that there are limitations to the types of tree jobs his company will take on.

“We can handle most ornamental tree pruning … and we can drop trees when they’re in open areas and we feel comfortable,” says Markell. “But when it comes to climbing and technical take-downs, we do use subcontractors when required, or just pass the work along.” He says it takes a strategic approach to evaluate every tree and site to determine which jobs the company should take on and which pose a danger or require highly technical knowledge and should be sub-contracted.

In comparison to most other types of lawn and landscape services, getting into tree work involves a big investment, not only financially for equipment but also in terms of training. “The equipment is part of it, but the biggest thing is safety — that’s the part that you really need to be up to speed on,” says Markell. “You’re using chainsaws, which not everyone knows how to operate safely. You’re using chippers, and that also requires more training.” While almost every aspect of work in the green industry requires training, the stakes are very high when it comes to tree work. “Being responsible and being safe is the biggest thing,” emphasizes Markell. “Anytime an employee touches a chainsaw we require they have chaps on to protect their legs and full-face-shield gear.”

Sunrise Landscape & Design doesn’t have enough tree work to warrant a dedicated tree care crew, so most employees are cross-trained to be able handle tree jobs when they come along.

Markell says most of his tree care work is done for existing customers — clients whose properties they already are maintaining and who need occasional trimming (either to elevate the tree canopy, to thin the crown or to remove deadwood). But occasionally his company does receive inquiries from new clients who need some tree work done. “We’ll try to get our foot in the door that way,” he explains. In some cases, trees are the entry to be able to provide additional services in the future, Markell notes.

“It can be. Typically, the risk the more profitable a service can be,” says Markell. He says there aren’t appreciably higher insurance costs for the company when it comes to the type of tree work they’re doing. “Because we’re not climbing and doing those technical things, it falls under the category of general landscape maintenance,” he explains.

Sunrise Landscape & Design describes its tree care work on its website and makes it known to customers. But Markell says it’s a service they don’t really push. “It’s not a focus for us … the work sort of comes as it comes.” But he says that it is a consistent source of income for the company. “There are always trees that are dead, or fallen branches that we need to deal with, so it’s always been a steady revenue stream,” he explains.

For a lawn and landscape company that’s interested in getting into tree work, Markell advises searching out training opportunities for employees on the equipment they’ll be using and the work they’ll be doing. “Safety is the biggest thing,” he emphasizes.

Needed: equipment investment

Another impediment to getting into tree care, even on a relatively small scale, is the investment required in equipment. Matt Cunha, owner of Matt’s Lawn Care and Tree Removals in Shelton, Connecticut, was in the landscape business for several years when a condo association he was working for asked if he could handle some trees that needed to be removed. He said because it was a big job, there was enough money involved that he was able to put a deposit down on a chipper. Cunha said it’s easier to get into trees this way, with a bigger project or two already lined up, than to simply try to handle a tree every once in a while and have to rent equipment, etc.

Cunha has done tree removals for two years now, and says that even with the equipment that he’s had to purchase (chain saws, a stump grinder, the chipper, a bucket truck), it is profitable. “It’s definitely worth it … There’s triple the money in tree work compared to lawn care,” he estimates, but also notes that there are some hefty additional costs that come with it. In addition to the equipment and some added insurance for tree removal work, he found it both difficult and expensive to find qualified tree climbers when required for certain jobs. “That might cost $350 to $450 a day,” he says.

Many companies offering basic landscape maintenance services also take on “light” tree and shrub care work.

That’s part of the reason that Cunha says he’s recently begun to subcontract out some tree work, and at least get a cut of the revenue from the job.

Zeppa’s Landscaping Service in Kentucky has also recently decided to scale back on the tree work that it does. The company initially added tree work because it is a full-service firm and was getting requests for tree care, says co-owner Antonio Zeppa. “And it is lucrative; that’s part of the reason we wanted to get into it,” Zeppa adds. The company found, however, that tree work is difficult to do efficiently without a sizable investment in equipment.

“If you really want to do tree work right, there’s a lot of equipment involved,” he explains. “We had a climber, but to really do tree work properly and effectively, we needed a boom truck, a chipper truck, a chipper, a stump grinder — you’re probably talking about a couple of hundred thousand dollars of equipment just to get one crew going.”

So within the last year, Zeppa’s has decided to be more selective in the tree work it takes on. “We’ll do ornamental trees, and we’ll do evergreens. If it’s a pear tree that’s 20 or 30 feet tall, we can do it. A pine tree, because the wood is light, we can do. We can do both pruning and removals on trees like that,” says Zeppa. “But taking on big oaks and things like that, we’re just not doing it anymore.”

He says the company’s crews have the ability to take on that type of bigger wood, but again, it’s a matter what they can do efficiently. “We had a climber, which was nice. We’d do bigger trees. We’d do stuff over top of houses. But there was a lot of rigging. Because we didn’t have a crane, we’d bring stuff back to the tree,” he explains. And once it was on the ground, there was no chipper, meaning that material that would normally be chipped needed to be removed from the site in a dump trailer. “Basically, we’d make four trips when a company that had a chipper could have made one trip to dump everything,” says Zeppa.

So while the crews did a good job, the lack of efficiency cut into potential profitability. “And efficiency is one of the core values at our company,” he notes. “We just weren’t being efficient at tree work, especially when you look at how efficient we are with the other services that we provide. It just wasn’t making sense.”

The bottom line, says Zeppa: Getting into tree work involves “a heck of a lot of money, and a heck of a lot of liability.” In fact, when Zeppa’s began offering tree services, it decided to create a separate company for liability purposes. “And insurance costs were very steep, Zeppa adds: “The worker’s comp on a tree climber was between 30 and 40 percent [of payroll]; on a normal lawn care employee, we could be between 4 and 6 percent. So there’s a drastic difference.”

Specialized skills required

The greater equipment investment required for tree work is just one example of the differences between lawn and landscape work and providing tree services, Zeppa points out. Another reason that mixing the two together can prove challenging is the specialized skills that tree work requires. A mowing crew can be sent out to a property to take care of the lawn, including trimming and blowing and maybe aerating and fertilizing while they’re there. But a mowing crew isn’t likely to also be able to prune or remove a tree on the property. “It really requires separate crews, because it’s so specialized,” says Zeppa.

Now the company takes a different approach when tree work is necessary. “If it’s a client and something we can manage, we’ll do it. If it’s a current client and something we can’t manage, we have a preferred partner [in the tree care business] that we use and we’ll send the lead to them,” says Zeppa. It’s usually only if it’s an existing client and a substantial job that Zeppa’s will subcontract the work through their company.

“In that case, we’ll run it through the company and make maybe 20 percent by subbing it out,” he says. In most cases, though, Zeppa’s is happy to just hand the job over to its partner. “Let them make some money, and hopefully they’ll filter some leads back our way eventually,” says Zeppa.

So what advice does he have for a lawn and landscape company thinking of expanding into tree work? In Zeppa’s opinion, the best way to succeed is to be able to focus on tree care and only tree care. Essentially, that means “running it like a fullblown tree care company,” he says. Zeppa says that his company, with about 20 employees, found that difficult to do. “Maybe at the next level — a company with, say, 50 employees, then you could make a whole division out of it, rather than just one crew,” he says. Of course, every company needs to find the recipe that works for them.