When Jeff Pannell and his father were clearing land and building fences in the Texas Hill Country, little did Jeff know that someday he and his future wife would be operating the largest utility-contractor tree service in that area. Kathy Pannell, Jeff’s wife, is now president of Pannell Co., a second-year TCIA member company based in Leakey, Texas. With Kathy as president and majority owner since 2017, Pannell Co. is an official SBA Women-Owned Small Business.
Kathy and Jeff have been working together for 25 years, handling mostly utility contract work. “My dad saw an ad for a contracting job and told us about it, and we got it,” Kathy explains. “And we’ve had that same first contract with Bandera Electric Co-op for 25 years.”
Kathy says she was working as a teacher in the beginning, doing payroll and the business end of things for Pannell in her spare time. The couple’s two sons, 25-year-old Ty and 27-year-old Tanner, also have joined the company as vice presidents, and are poised to take over when their parents eventually retire. Kathy notes that Tanner is an ISA Certified Arborist, and adds that Ty is working on becoming certified as well.
Pannell now has six utility contracts that cover work in central and south Texas. The company has grown to 92 full-time employees and operates with 35 bucket-truck crews. “Our growth and safety program took a huge jump in 2017, and that was the result of Tanner reading everything he could find about safety in vegetation management and reaching out to surrounding utility companies,” says Kathy.
“We’ve always done a little bit of residential side work, but we’ve kept so busy on our contracts that the residential work has been less of a focus – but we definitely see a need for it,” she continues, adding that she sees the company expanding that side of the business in the future. “We also just started doing storm work last fall, working with a storm-response company. Our first job was in Oklahoma, and we’ve done a few others since then. I have to say, the crews have learned a lot about storms.”
As for what makes Pannell Co. stand out in the local utility-contractor tree care field, Kathy says it’s the distinction of holding on to that small-company work ethic, even as they’ve grown. “These two young guys (Tanner and Ty) are so energized and enthusiastic, and we get high praise about their work from local foresters,” says their proud mom. “I also think we’ve kept that small-company feel with good communication. We have that personalized service with every contract. The foresters we work with know they can pick up the phone any time and get one of us.”
When asked what motivated her and her team to pursue TCIA’s Utility Contractor Accreditation, Kathy gives all the credit to her office manager, Jacy Gray, who came on board with Pannell in January 2021 – and who just happens to be recently engaged to Tanner.
“Jacy got on this (Accreditation) when she came to work for us,” notes Kathy. “Anything tree care related lands on my desk, and this sparked an interest. I should have done it way earlier, but it definitely was Jacy’s doing. Our team was asking, ‘How can we make ourselves a more legitimate vegetation-management company and keep our employees safe?’ and one of our bucket-truck salespersons, Jerry Gilbertson, said, ‘Have you heard of Accreditation?’”
Jacy, who earned her Certified Treecare Safety Professional (CTSP) credential specifically for Accreditation, says, “I thrive on lists and spreadsheets, so this wasn’t overwhelming. I broke the process down into smaller lists and gave them to the appropriate people with a deadline. All in all, it took about six months.” Pannell Co. earned its Utility Contractor Accreditation in July of this year.
As for challenges, Jacy says, “We had to beef up some of our policies, and that made us more professional on many levels. I think Accreditation is one of the main reasons we got our most recent contract with American Electric Power – it’s our first non-co-op contract, which is big. I think Accreditation is what set us apart (from other bidders) and gave us more credibility.”
Another challenge came in the form of the exponentially huge growth Pannell Co. has seen since 2017. “Because our growth sort of exploded in a short period of time, we had to catch up in some areas, like safety,” says Jacy. “We were already doing a lot of the required things, but they weren’t recorded. We had to redo our safety policies – a lot had changed since they were first put in place. Then it was a matter of relaunching our safety program and implementing the safety trainings.
“Then, logistically, it was a matter of getting all the safety manuals and accident kits together, which were rewritten in both Spanish and English – that was a TCIA suggestion,” continues Jacy. “And we had hard copies put in every truck.”
She adds that her previous job as a process engineer for Kellogg’s, where she did a lot of safety walkthroughs at the plant, came in helpful during the Accreditation process. “It made it really obvious how much we needed to streamline our processes.”
When asked where she sees Pannell Co. in five years, Kathy says she sees the business growing into a widely recognized leader in the tree care industry, as well as having a full-time residential branch of the business. She also notes that their estimated growth of 30% over the past year or two has made them look closely at how they service their clients.
“We want to take care of our current contracts and carefully grow and maintain those,” she says. “We want to get comfortable with these new ones and make them all good, solid contracts.”