Consider how rare it is these days for a company to have been in business for more than 100 years, and even more so for it to remain within the same family for those four generations. The history of Van Yahres Tree Company (VYTC) of Charlottesville, Virginia – established in 1919 by George Van Yahres, and a TCIA member company since 1965 – is an obvious source of pride to the company’s current co-owners, the brother-and-sister team of Jake Van Yahres and Shana Clarke.
Jake begins by explaining how his great-grandfather got started in his own tree business. “George was with the Davey Tree Company on Long Island back then, working on the trees at some of the huge estates there,” he says. “At that time, the practice was to fill the large cavities of decayed trees with concrete to supposedly stabilize them. But George was always really innovative – he has about 40 patents registered in his name – and instead of using concrete, he came up with the idea of using cork, because it would be more flexible and not as heavy as concrete, so it would be less detrimental to the trees.”
According to Jake, it was a bid his great-grandfather put out on a grounds-restoration project at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in 1919 that launched George into his own business. “Monticello had all these decayed trees,” says Jake, “and all the other (bidding) companies were going to use concrete, but George proposed cork, and it was that innovation that got him the job.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
George’s son, Mitch, was the next Van Yahres to come along and share his passion for trees, establishing the full-time Charlottesville branch of VYTC in 1949. “Mitch was one of the first environmental arborists ever,” notes Jake. “Eventually he became a politician, serving in the Virginia House of Delegates, and he was always using his platform to fight for trees and the environment.”
Interestingly, Mitch’s 2008 obituary read in part, “He tended trees for a living and people for a lifetime.”
Jake continues, “Our dad, Mike, bought the business from Mitch in the mid-’90s and took it to the next level as a landscape architect.” According to the company website, Mike Van Yahres holds a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Virginia, and has been a noted speaker across the country on the subjects of campus design and tree management.
When asked how long they have been involved as the fourth generation in the family company, Shana says, “I’d been working in the business side for more than a decade, prior to becoming a co-owner with Jake this past February. Actually, I think I wrote my first business plan for the company in ’97.”
According to Shana, even though she’s not an arborist – her professional background is in marketing and advertising – she has absorbed a lifetime’s worth of knowledge about trees and arboriculture. “You can’t grow up with two landscape architects for parents (yes, her mom, too!) without learning a lot about trees and their value to the environment. Our parents would even quiz us on tree identification on our family vacations!”
Jake, also owner of a visual-arts and advertising company, notes that he’s been going to the VYTC shop “since I could first walk. I’ve been around the shop my whole life.”
Now the two siblings share ownership duties in a logical way. Shana says she works with the company’s general manager, Stacy Moren, to ensure exceptional customer service and help her oversee sales, while Jake oversees production with VYTC’s lead working arborist, Jeremy Thompson, who’s been with the company almost 20 years.
Currently, says Shana, Van Yahres has 15 full-time employees and a client mix of about 80% residential and 20% commercial.
“One of our most notable institutional clients is Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond,” says Jake. “They’ve been voted one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the country, and in 2017, they were named as a recognized arboretum. They have some of the finest examples of native trees in Virginia, including white oaks, tulip poplars, black gum and sycamore. We’ve been fortunate to work with David Gilliam, general manager of Hollywood Cemetery, in caring for their trees for decades.”
Shana notes that she owns a slightly greater percentage of the company than Jake, and thus was able to have VYTC certified as a “SWaM” – Small, Woman-owned and Minority-owned – business within the Commonwealth of Virginia in August 2020.
Ironically, Shana says, “COVID landed on our doorstep just four weeks after Jake and I acquired the company. So that’s been one of our primary considerations since buying it from our dad in February – dealing with the challenges of the pandemic.”
That said, the new co-owners have managed to uphold the standards set by the previous three generations of the Van Yahres family. “I think what distinguishes us as a company is, number one, we’ve been around for 100 years,” says Jake. “This is definitely a case of standing on the shoulders of those who came before us and recognizing the work they did fighting for trees.”
Shana adds, “Also, we are laser focused on the entire health of the tree. We take a holistic approach to tree care, right down to the soil and the conditions the tree is living in. We are seeing so many stressed mature trees, especially among the white oaks in our area, and much of that is environmental stress from seasons of drought and high heat. We have so much responsibility to care for these trees.”
“We need to push and even stay ahead of the science in these areas,” Jake notes, adding, “And we always pride ourselves on finding the best climbers and best athletes to work for us. It’s a pillar of the company.”
Though Van Yahres Tree Company earned its Residential/Commercial Accreditation back in 2011, Shana says she remembers the process clearly. “Jennifer Jackson, our office manager, was instrumental in taking on the Accreditation process and working with my dad and me. We had recognized that it’s an important process and had always wanted to do it, we just had to get our arms around it. Our motivation was that we’re always striving for excellence and to make the company better, and this was a way of formalizing that. It was a significant commitment, but one that was well worth it.”
According to Shana, the most surprising part of Accreditation was that “we had a lot of these processes in place, but not at all organized. For instance, our fleet is one of our most expensive assets, but our fleet data wasn’t formatted. It forced our hand to do it, to get organized and keep track of fleet-maintenance logs and records, repair costs and inspections. Really, all this is a huge financial benefit – we give credit to TCIA for these tools.
“Jennifer reminded me that TCIA was extremely helpful in guiding us through this somewhat daunting process,” Shana adds, “because going through the checklist for the first time can be a little overwhelming.”
When asked if they feel they’re leveraging their Accreditation status adequately, Jake quickly responds, “No! A big focus for 2021 is going to be leveraging our Accreditation. We looked at how many tree care companies there are across the country and how many are accredited, and it’s about 1%. So TCIA Accreditation is the gold star of the rating system in the tree care industry.”
That said, VYTC does have its Accreditation logo featured front and center on its website, and Jake says that Accreditation decals appear on all fleet vehicles and Accreditation patches are on all crew outfits. “We just went through the renewal process in late 2020,” adds Shana, “and it was pretty seamless.”
When asked where they see themselves as a business in five years, Jake responds, “First, it’s always been about educating people on how valuable trees are and how important they are to combating climate change. We will constantly be educating people in our community about the ecological benefits of trees.
“Next, we want to be innovative in our technology,” Jake continues. “Mitch did the first tree inventory in Hollywood Cemetery 35 years ago, compiling everything in a huge notebook. Then Mike took tree inventories and tree-
management plans into a digital format. Now we have all this tree-inventory software to show people how we can manage their trees, and we want to take it to the next level.”
Finally, Jake says they want to expand their plant health care (PHC) operations with their head of PHC services, Will Allen. “We’re actually blending our own custom nutrients to address a client’s specific soil pH issue, which is pretty cool,” he notes.
As Shana summarizes, “Customers today put a lot of emphasis on reviews, and as Jake said, we consider our TCIA Accreditation to be the gold star in the tree care industry. Going through the process helped us formalize our policies and procedures, which in turn made our company safer, smarter and more efficient.”
With innovation – and Accreditation – at its forefront, expect to see Van Yahres Tree Company around for many decades to come.