From tree care to commercial lawn care and more

From the interest English immigrant John Davey took in preserving trees while working as a cemetery groundskeeper 130 years ago to today, The Davey Tree Expert Company, headquartered in Kent, Ohio, has grown to cover 45 states and five Canadian provinces.

After starting his company to perform tree care for property owners, Davey wrote a book on the subject that was published in the early 1900s, and expanded his work to wealthy East Coast landowners.

Bedding plants add color to the landscape and, when well maintained, enhance property value. Davey crews install and maintain flowering plants and shrubs around commercial buildings.
Photos courtesy of the Davey Tree Expert Company.

His services caught on, and the company developed a branch network based on the foundation of tree preservation. The company then began adding several tiers of services, including lawn care and landscaping, utility and consulting services.

The Commercial Landscape Services division focuses on the commercial sector through multiyear contracts for a client base that ranges from single office buildings to government site ground maintenance. Within that division, services include mulch and bed maintenance, storm damage response, monthly grounds care, landscape renovation, flower and bulb planting, snow removal, irrigation and deer repellent. Standard crews are equipped with zero-turn mowers, walk-behind mowers, two-cycle blowers, trimmers and edgers. The company is introducing Toro stand-on mowers to its fleet, as well as other machinery that is used for golf course maintenance.

While the Commercial Landscape Services division has a standard program, not everyone wants it, says George Gaumer, vice president and general manager of the Commercial Landscape Services division of the company. “It is a starting place. We’ll tailor it to their needs, property and expectations,” he says.

The tree care division’s focus is on the residential sector, and that division does a great deal of public education to teach people about how trees benefit the environment. The company also helped develop the National Tree Benefit Calculator. Visitors to the company’s website enter in their zip code and the names of the trees on their property to discover the monetary value the tree brings in terms of stormwater management, property values, energy conservation, air quality and carbon emissions reduction.

Irrigation installation and maintenance is one of the many offerings from Davey Commercial Landscape Services.

Because the company must stay abreast of regional landscaping concerns and municipal codes, each branch is headed by someone who is not only a strong business person, but also involved in the industry through local trade associations and keeps on top of local codes and landscaping challenges.

Gaumer notes that one of the keys to the survival of The Davey Tree Expert Company through economic ups and downs and two world wars was the creation of an employee stock ownership plan in 1979.

The company, which employs some 6,800 people, has been employee-owned for more than 30 years, is the largest employee-owned company in Ohio and one of the top 20 largest in the U.S. Gaumer, says that such an arrangement attracts employees who are personally invested in the company’s success. “People in the company have a long-term attitude that the company is partly theirs, and that they are not working for somebody whose name is on the truck, but working as part of a group where nobody owns more than 3.5 percent of the company,” he says.

Mowing is one of the offerings from Davey’s Commercial Landscape Services Division.

In terms of hiring employees, managers take referrals from existing employees, Gaumer says. “We offer a referral bonus to our folks,” he adds. “I think even if we didn’t offer that bonus, they would still enjoy bringing their friends into a company where they like to work.” The company has been able to attract good workers, but Gaumer says that once the economy experiences an uptick, “my challenge is making sure that we can provide career opportunities and growth opportunities to those excellent candidates to stay with us.”

Gaumer says there has been a recent shift in the mindset of some clients of the commercial landscape services division away from service and quality to price. “Service, quality and price used to be in balance, but now, because of the state of the economy and the commercial real estate market being challenged, price is a bigger issue today,” Gaumer says.

Even with tight budgets, company employees believe it’s important to provide the correct plants for the landscape and adapt it to the client’s budget, Gaumer says. “You really need to understand what the client wants, what is their level of expectation, and then focus on making sure they are getting the most important services to take care of their landscape,” he says. “That is a very large investment, so we want to make sure their program includes the plants that are most horticulturally important. And, also to manage the budget they give us to provide them the best quality and best appearance within those horticulturally correct boundaries.”

Davey commercial landscape services division often advises its clients on what will thrive over the long run. A bad decision during the landscape construction phase, such as planting a tree with roots that will infiltrate underground utility lines or using thirsty plants in a water-starved area, “can become perpetual and very costly in the long term,” says Gaumer. “That’s something that is important for our whole industry—designing, building and maintaining—that we have to pay attention to on behalf of our customers,” he adds.

To be efficient in this economy, Gaumer’s first priority for his division is to excel at the fundamentals of doing business. “We have to pay attention more than ever to the fundamentals: customer satisfaction, closely managing each job to its budget, and maximizing efficiency in every process,” he says. “If we can keep our costs down and provide consistent quality and reliability, we will be the best value for our customers.”

Davey crews that work in sensitive locations adapt their work to the needs of the site. At Arlington National Cemetery, crews adjust their schedules to avoid disturbing funeral or memorial services.

Gaumer believes what sets his company apart from others is that customers indicate on surveys that Davey Commercial Landscape Services is “easy to do business with and reliable.” Customers indicate they like that the company follows through on its word, does the job on time and does it well.

One way that Davey Commercial Landscape Services division has become more efficient is through route optimization. “A preferred customer might take us off our route—we wouldn’t turn against them by any means—but our marketing drives our route optimization and density, which is really important today to be competitive,” Gaumer says.

Gaumer hopes the industry will be able to work its way out of the depressed pricing that has become “epidemic.” “It’s really sad, some of the desperation pricing that some of our competitors have chosen to move forward with,” he says. “Whether that’s because they are trying to maintain cash flow to pay the bills—I have no idea what would cause someone to move forward with some of that pricing that we’ve seen.”

While some business costs are decreasing in a broad sense, Gaumer says that five years from now, he believes other costs will be higher. “Costs for our goods, our equipment, our fuel and our benefits are probably going to be higher than they are today, and we need to make sure we can pay a competitive wage to attract career-minded people,” he says. “In order for a business owner to make a decent return, they are going to have to get the pricing back to where it should be. I’m afraid that once you offer a customer the kinds of discounts and reductions that you see in certain cases, it’s going to be really hard for those folks to all of a sudden find more money in their landscape budget.”

Davey Commercial Landscape Services division has identified nine proven methods to help clients make their property more eco-friendly.

  1. Proper plant selection, which minimizes irrigation, fertilizer and pesticide needs.
  2. Lawn space: the conversion of high-maintenance turf to low-maintenance plant space.
  3. Perennial color displays.
  4. Proper mulching to retain moisture.
  5. Energy-efficient landscapes that cut down on cooling and heating bills.
  6. Soil testing for proper plant selection.
  7. Irrigation system audits.
  8. Water conservation efforts, such as low-flow devices and rain gardens.
  9. Green maintenance practices, which include recycling and use of equipment in such a way as to reduce carbon emissions.

Carol Brzozowski is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has written extensively about environmental issues for numerous trade journals for more than a decade. She resides in Coral Springs, Fla.