Crystal Kappen and her husband, Warren, each were running separate businesses before they started their tree care company, Kappen Tree Service LLC, based in Cass City, Michigan. “I had a cloth-diaper business, and Warren was operating an egg business,” she says.
At the same time, she notes, Warren and his brother Jason, who was in high school at the time, were doing some tree trimming on the side. And so, what started in 1990 as a modest tree-pruning business out of the back of a pickup truck has evolved into a successful tree care and utility-line-clearance company with 400 full-time employees.
“It just snowballed over the years,” explains Kappen, who is majority owner of the business, a TCIA member company since 1996. As a female majority owner, she was able to secure Women Business Enterprise (WBE) certification for Kappen Tree Service, which she says has played a part in securing some of the company’s utility-line-clearance contracts.
“It’s been an advantage for sure, since some of the contracts we’ve obtained are with utilities that have to meet a certain spend with woman- or minority-owned businesses. Then we also are required to meet a certain amount of spending down the line with woman- and minority-owned suppliers.”
Kappen, who oversees company operations and was in charge of the Accreditation process, says being a woman- and family-owned business is part of what distinguishes Kappen Tree Service in their rural farming area, which includes all of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan.
“But even more, it’s our reputation for safety – our EMR (experience modification rate) is an almost unheard of 0.52 – and how we treat our employees,” she says. “Every employee (all 400!) gets a birthday card hand-signed by management with a $20 bill inside. I know $20 doesn’t get you much these days, but our people say, ‘Nobody does that anymore.’ It really helps build employee morale.”
According to Kappen, the vast majority of their tree work is line clearance for several major utilities, with only about 10% being residential tree care. “We started with the local electric cooperative and then expanded to include larger utilities. What began as one service territory is now five territories.
“Our biggest challenge is hiring and keeping new hires,” Kappen continues. “But once they train, they tend to stay. Some who left and thought they were going to do something better ended up coming back to us and said they didn’t realize how good it was here.”
Kappen, who is a Certified Treecare Safety Professional (CTSP), along with her brother-in-law Jason, says her company was among the first to become TCIA accredited back in 2006. They’ve successfully renewed their certification every three years since. “All three of us were intent on improving our business from the start,” she says of herself, Warren and Jason. “I started hearing about Accreditation and knew this was a way to distinguish ourselves in the industry.
“I had been digging deep into OSHA requirements for things like having the required safety data sheets (SDSs) for chemicals on board our trucks. Before reading about this, I hadn’t known it was required. So I thought, ‘Let’s invite them in to identify our weaknesses and then fix them. That’s what Accreditation did for us – it made us look at everything, from paperwork to safety to a business plan. We learned that even though we thought we were doing everything correctly, there were areas we were lacking in.”
Thankfully, she says, they had a good business plan already in place. Extensive safety training was another area in which they excelled.
“The biggest thing we learned was that our policies, procedures and training logs all needed to be documented. This was something we hadn’t been diligent enough about. It took me at least six months to complete the Accreditation process, because it was just me working on it for the most part. I know our employees were sick of hearing from me about needing this and that, but a lot of them were excited about it when we got it.”
Having safety at the forefront, Kappen Tree Service operates its own extensive training facility on several acres. There, they bring in specialty trainers as well as utilize their own staff for things like CPR and first-aid training. The facility also is used for aerial-rescue training, both bucket and climbing; EHAP training; tree identification; herbicide training, where they bring in reps from their herbicide suppliers and manufacturers; new-hire/woodsman training, where they learn how to set up a work site, operate and work on a chain saw and start and run a chipper; and apprentice training.
“We train all apprentices in the spring and fall,” says Kappen. “We track the safety findings we have in the field and listen to the employees to see what they want training on. At the end of every training, we ask each group what they would like to be trained on in the next class. Another good source is to watch the industry to see what might be a good focus for us to train our employees on.”
The company also offers advanced journeyman training at the site twice a year, which might include throw bag, rigging, notching and felling, SRT and positioning. “We are very proud of our training facility,” Kappen adds.
According to Kappen, being a TCIA accredited company definitely has helped secure some of their contracts. “We heard at one time that DTE Energy was going to require it. Regardless, we always send our renewed certification to them.
“I would recommend Accreditation to anyone interested in employee safety and improving their company,” Kappen concludes.