Managing Chippers, Stumpers and Crews for Efficiency

Crew members work together to maximize efficiency. “What we have done is cross-training. Everyone knows how to use each machine, from the articulated loader to the chipper and stumper,” says Colonial Tree Service’s Anna Birnschein. Photo courtesy of Colonial Tree Service.

Because we live in an age where every second counts and, to employ an old business axiom, time is money, why on earth would a tree care company want its most skilled crew members on cleanup, running chippers and stump cutters?

That’s the question posed to a group of TCIA member companies. The idea, we thought, was to have climbers and lift operators get the tree on the ground and have the cleanup crews come by later, thereby letting each group of skilled workers focus on what they do best. The answer seemed obvious, but turned out to be a more complex and, frankly, thoughtful assessment than one might expect.

The answers – plural – are highly dependent on your business model and management philosophy.

Anna Birnschein, president of Colonial Tree Service, an accredited, 8-year TCIA member company based in Waukesha, Wisconsin, has a business degree and deep corporate experience. She decided to join in the business with her husband, David Birnschein, CTSP, who started the business in 1986, and she since has become a Certified Arborist. “This is a fascinating industry, and I’m really enjoying it,” she says.

The company focus, her “passion,” as she puts it, “is to really see it move to a new focus not just on tree removal,” she begins, before addressing the equipment/crew-management issue. Birnschein says her vision is tree preservation and replacement planting. “This is how we are pivoting the company,” she adds, “building for next year, pushing replacement planting. Not a lot of people are doing that, but we think it is very important.”

But don’t get her wrong. “There are plenty of takedowns, actually more than anyone can handle,” Birnschein says. She points to the insect infestations as a case in point. “Right now we are at the apex of the emerald ash borer crisis. It will be mostly gone in three, four, maybe five years, so we have to think beyond that. People who got on the bandwagon to take these trees down need to think past the situation. The new emphasis is on tree care and planting.”

Reflecting on how to best use the company crews with respect to chippers and stump grinders, Birnschein does not adhere to the idea that crews should come in as needed based on their skills, for example, starting with the A-team of climbers or lift operators, having them do their thing, then following them with a chipper/stump-cutter cleanup crew, or one of each.

“What we have done is cross training,” she states. “Everyone knows how to use each machine, from the articulated loader to the chipper and stumper.”

Birnschein’s philosophy is “One and done and gone. The reason for that decision is the client,” she explains. “This is their experience, and from their perspective, we come, get the job done and leave … not a piece of the job here and there, maybe returning a few days later for a piece at a time.

“Tree removal is a commodity service in a lot of ways,” she says, “so we need to compete on something other than just price.” Birnschein says the advantages are, for the customer, “the job is done and clean and over, and for our business, there are no partial jobs and partial invoices and having to wait to invoice the job.”

There also are hidden benefits to this approach, in Birnschein’s opinion. “All equipment is used every day, and employees become versatile. And because they are not just doing the same thing all the time, they do not get burned out, because they may be switching from the stump grinder to the loader to the chipper. We assign the tasks at the start of each job,” she adds. “The crew doesn’t feel they are always doing the same thing. We’ve gotten feedback from employees who have worked elsewhere who tell us they are open to doing different things and not getting burned out.”

Continuing, she says, “Because they are not on an assembly line, they don’t check out. They maintain focus. When you change up what you’re doing, you have to engage, and that absolutely improves focus.”

A Colonial Tree arborist aloft has already moved to another tree while an arborist on the ground does a finish cut to prep for stump grinding. A third team member uses a loader to stage logs by the chipper as a fourth feeds the chipper. A fifth crew member will come in and grind the stump as the remaining crew moves on to address additional trees on the contract. Bluetooth communication systems keep everyone connected and aware of the seemingly choreographed activity. Photo courtesy of Colonial Tree Service.

Benjamin Tresselt III is president of Arborist Enterprises, an accredited, 28-year TCIA member company based in Manheim, Pennsylvania. “Most general tree care crews have a lead climber and a ground person, and that person may be a climber in training or it could be the crew leader,” Tresselt says. “Our work can range from removal to shrub trimming.”

Arborist Enterprises’ approach has been to train and assign its crews to deal with the ebb and flow of the work site using the skills they have on the job in front of them. Photo courtesy of Arborist Enterprises.

Tresselt’s approach to crew and machine management is to “put them where they are most effective, even if sometimes the job does not necessitate the most technical skills.” Whether it is a complex crane-assisted removal with multiple things going on simultaneously with many pieces of equipment or simply pruning a small tree and cleaning up afterward, his approach has been to train and assign his crews to deal with what he calls “the ebb and flow, using the skills they have on the job in front of them.

“As far as stump grinding goes,” Tresselt says, “we generally do not do it in conjunction with the tree removal but will follow up with a stump-cutter crew of one person, sometimes two, depending on the cleanup.”

He stresses that the intention is “not to tie up highly skilled people on smaller jobs.”

The reason for the follow-up approach Tresselt favors is that his company’s objective is to try to mechanize as much as possible because of what he recognizes as a labor shortage in the industry. “It can be problematic to get all equipment on one job at the same time – a chipper, bucket truck, skid-steer loader plus a grinder.” By breaking down the job, he better manages the logistics, “which can be an issue.”

Arborist Enterprises is proactive, with mini skid steers and larger skid loaders and trucks plus small and large chippers, especially larger ones that have winches to lift heavy wood and brush. Photo courtesy of Arborist Enterprises.

Commenting on how the company integrates chippers into the process, Tresselt begins by stating, “We don’t like to lift a lot of wood. Let the machines do the job. If they (the machines) get hurt, they can be fixed rather quickly; not so with people. So we are proactive, with mini skid steers and larger skid loaders and trucks and small and large chippers, especially larger ones that have winches to lift heavy wood and brush.”

Continuing, he says, “If we do stump grinding, it can be anything from grinding and backfilling all the way to removing debris and replacing with soil and sod. Crew and equipment all depend on the job and resource allocation.” That’s when, he says, “we may need to have two people for efficiency and quickness – and safety.”

Tresselt stresses that, “We do not take any chances when a job requires more equipment or personnel. When a job requires it, we will send more as needed. We want to be safe. And we never send only one person out if there is off-the-ground work.” Usually, whether the job is a takedown, pruning or chipping, for example, he will send out at least a crew of two in case a worker is injured and needs help, and therefore has someone available to call 911. “The only exception, in most cases, will be stump grinding,” he says.

Tresselt echoes Birnschein in that, while the objective is to (have crew members) do any element of a tree job, including what appears to be routine chipping and stump grinding, “First determine what the job entails to get it done well and efficiently and safely, then determine how to allocate personnel and machines.”

Robert Miller, Jr., owner of M&M Tree Care, an accredited, 16-year TCIA member company located in Milwaukee, Wisc., takes the approach that, “When we do tree trimming or removal and cleanup to include chippers, we do it at the same time. Then we send in a stump grinder with a separate crew.”

Miller does not want to “pull off the tree specialists” for grinding work.

“A couple of crew members on the ground clean up as we go so that when those in the trees come down, we are cleaned up,” he reports. “On bigger jobs, we may have two or three on the ground cleaning up as the tree comes down. Then it’s on to the next project. Within a week, we will send in a stump grinder and do that part of the cleanup.

“The bigger trend I see is in the areas of mini loaders, skid steers and small tractor loaders,” Miller says, recalling the days of hand feeding chippers and light cleanup using wheelbarrows.

“Fifteen years ago, you did not see all of that equipment in tree care,” he says. “Now, we can work faster and safer and maybe eliminate needing another person.”

Machines will feed the chipper and the stump grinder will reduce the stump, he notes. “Today, by adding just three pieces of equipment – chipper, stump cutter and mini loader – you can do a complete job with just four employees,” Miller observes, noting the value of cross training the crew.

In observing the marketplace in general, Miller says chippers and stump cutters are part of an integrated group of machines that allow for versatility, from a complete job to one where a crew may do a takedown and leave the stump for a follow-up crew to chip and grind later.

He summed it up this way: “It’s interesting how different companies have different ways to get the job done. The equipment presents many ways for a job setup, and people will tweak things – and it all works.”

Jon Hanisko, manager of the residential services division of Lucas Tree Expert Co., an accredited, 39-year TCIA member company based in Falmouth, Maine, says historically, as with most tree care companies, the crews have gone out with removal equipment and a chipper, and if a stump is needed to be taken out, the crew leader will set that up for a later date. But, as previously noted, things are changing.

“We now subcontract,” Hanisko states. “We do not use our crews to grind stumps. We do tree work and use a subcontractor to take care of the grinding work. We use two operators locally who own their own stump-grinding business. They invoice us, and we invoice the customer. We are the go-between for that,” he adds.

Otherwise, on the crew, he continues, “Everyone takes on every role, including being the person running the chipper, regardless of skill set.”

However, Hanisko notes, in special cases, namely storm response, the division of labor speeds up emergency-response time. “What we are seeing in large storm-response situations is crews taking trees off houses and power lines and leaving the debris for other subcontractors to haul away. That way we get to more customers in a day by eliminating the easy work from more highly skilled crews.”

That approach has filtered down to the local level. Hanisko says, “The operator we use has his own tub grinder and processes tree material. That saves us a lot of time not having to chip debris, so we can move on to the next job of taking a tree off a house.” In these cases, there is an added bonus, according to Hanisko. “This approach saves us time and also is a savings for the customer, who does not have to pay a premium based on skill sets.”

Related to all of that, according to Hanisko, is the trend toward “using more and larger equipment, including chippers with winches, which speeds up the job and reduces the labor load. We are into an era of mini skid steers and bulk loaders, which saves wear and tear on the bodies and lengthens the careers of what we call our urban athletes, not to mention that there are far fewer injuries.”

Though the subject here is the most efficient use of chippers, stump cutters and crews, Rolf Briggs, consulting arborist and owner of Tree Specialists, Inc., an accredited, 34-year TCIA member company located in Holliston, Massachusetts, says today’s tree care paradigm is about finding a better way.

Briggs’ business these days is focused less on removals and more on planting and preservation. He reports that about 10% of his business is removals, and much of that is subcontracted out. “We do pruning, bracing, AirSpade work and some planting, but the rest of the business is consulting,” Briggs explains, adding that his outfit “has two consultants on board.”

Briggs’ approach is that there always is a better way to do things, training and observation being key elements. He calls it his “different route” to success. For example, he has a staff member, a field supervisor with more than a decade of experience who was educated and trained at the Norfolk (Mass.) Agricultural School and the University of Massachusetts, whose sole job is to look for better ways to do things, and who works with individuals and teams to achieve that goal. “He may work with a person all day to ensure he or she can wrap a cable or run a stump cutter,” he observes.

On the day of this interview, Briggs reported, “Today, he worked on our first-aid kits, taking a look at the trucks (several days before), then ordering all that was needed to restock them with extra supplies. Then he did a tailgate session to go through the first-aid kit, explaining what must be in it and backup (supplies) for it. Now, if the kit gets used, all crews know to replenish it.”

In another case, Briggs recounts, his specialist did a parking plan for all the trucks. Taking a day, he made an assessment of the facility and, using his own experience, worked on a plan for where all the trucks should go. “In one dedicated day, he found a better way to park the fleet and worked with the crew leaders to reorganize a better way to pull in and out.

“We have empowered employees to figure out better ways to do things, better than I can on my own as an owner or operations manager,” Briggs adds. The next day, that specialist was to work in the area of plant health care.

While some may think this approach is expensive, Briggs disagrees wholeheartedly. “We have found it to be extremely cost effective, especially as people learn things so fast with the supervision they get. And we get to billable hours faster than if we put people in the field and watched for five years for a better way,” he quips.

Another example is the custom development last winter of an electric spray rig that works off the electrical system of a one-ton truck, eliminating what Briggs characterizes as “gas-guzzling and loud” fuel-based equipment.

Specifically regarding stump grinders, even though his business model is limited in that area, Briggs says he does have a grinder that goes out once a month to do a few removals. “We do not own a log truck, but we have a partner who will come do for us what we need done.

“We do not want big stump grinders, but what we do have we do not beat on,” he adds.

In conclusion, Briggs states that whatever the business function might be, from buying and using stump cutters, chippers or other equipment to developing one’s own equipment and processes, success in the modern tree care business environment boils down to “think outside of the box!”

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