Dawna Deakins, whose husband, Denny, and son, Sean, co-own TreeHugger Complete Tree Care, based in the greater Des Moines area of Iowa, says she wants to promote TCIA Accreditation in the hope of encouraging other small tree care companies to pursue the credential.
“We had the grit, grace, and dreams of most small-business owners, but we also understood that hard work alone would not be enough to get us where we envisioned ourselves and our company,” explains Dawna. “We needed help building practical procedures and policies if we were going to operate at the level that was possible for us, so the TCIA seal of Accreditation became our goal.”
TreeHugger has been a TCIA member company since 2019 and an accredited tree care company since March of 2023. Denny, Sean and Dawna started their family business in 2014 and haven’t looked back. “We have been wildly fortunate that all three of us work together so well,” says Dawna. “Denny has the old-school roots, techniques and grit, while Sean has the five-mile millennial vision for mechanization, which reminds us that hard work is more than labor.”
Dawna notes that running a family business is difficult, and she understands the challenges others face in that respect. “Every day, Denny, Sean and I experience both the achievements and the challenges together, and with that comes an opportunity to stay humble and be proud of our crew and the company we are building,” she says, “because at the end of the day, we are family.”
Dawna says she hopes their story of achieving Accreditation might connect with other small-business owners who need support for their dreams. “That’s the kind of community TCIA is. I knew little to nothing about managing a tree service, but I trusted that TCIA was a good place to start. When we raise the bar in arboriculture, no matter how small a business we are, we support arboriculture as the skilled trade it is.”
As office administrator for TreeHugger, which has seven full-time employees, Dawna was the driving force behind the Accreditation process. She is a CTSP (Certified Treecare Safety Professional), while Denny and Sean are ISA Certified Arborists. Sean also holds the TRAQ (Tree Risk Assessment Qualification) credential and is an NCCER Certified Crane Operator. “Our crew is highly skilled, and credentialing is actively encouraged,” notes Dawna, “but it’s not required. That said, I envision having more Certified Arborists on board this coming year.”
TreeHugger specializes in crane-assisted tree removals, “which helps to keep our crew safe and avails us to opportunities for large and difficult removals that other tree companies may not be equipped for,” Dawna explains. “We have recently begun developing a plant health care division (PHC) for our customers to support our urban forest’s longevity, health and welfare.
“Denny, Sean and I had no business education or experience in business ownership,” Dawna continues. “We were a family with a history in tree care and a vision for a future in arboriculture. The TCIA Accreditation process has helped separate us, grow us and help us build the business we dreamed of. That matters for us, our crew, our company and the communities we serve.
“We had the grit and could give each other the grace to lean into each new day, but that can only last so long. TCIA offered us a roadmap to safety policies, business practices and training programs that would propel us to a level we wouldn’t have reached with only the work of our hands.”
For Dawna, one of the most valuable aspects of TCIA membership is the sense of camaraderie. “One of the things I love about TCIA is the mentoring input. Suppose I have a question about something – like PHC, for instance – or need honest feedback or advice on an office-related situation. In that case, I can pick up the phone and call another member, even a board member, or talk to John Lewis, who is our TCIA Midwest rep.”
When it came to the Accreditation process, Dawna admits that the checklist was very intimidating at first. “I had no idea how to create a business plan, for example. Like many owner-operator companies, we started with an old Asplundh forestry truck and chipper and a handful of chain saws, not a business plan,” she says with a laugh. “We had a vision, it just wasn’t on paper. So I stared at this blank piece of paper and wondered how I would get this done. Soon, I learned to appreciate the process of Accreditation, which built structure and stability for our business, our crew and our customers.
“The most difficult part of the process was answering the question, ‘Where do you want to be in five years?’ Creating a business plan and diving into the nuts and bolts of what we were doing pushed all of us into thinking more about where we were headed.”
Dawna adds that, from an operations aspect, having the structure of Accreditation in place “makes it easier for our business to grow and the crew to do their job. It has the cause and effect of accountability with policies and procedures we as owners can depend on and the crew appreciates. From a 401(k) plan to a boot allowance, our crew believes we support and value them.
“We were already operating well, so it (Accreditation) helped us raise the bar for ourselves and become a better company. Now we’re operating at the level we always knew was possible. If you keep chipping away like we did, eventually that old Asplundh truck can become a brand-new Palfinger PK 65.”
Dawna stresses that small, family-run businesses need all the advantages they can get in order to compete in today’s tree care world. “In layman’s terms, it’s a big industry out there with many tree companies competing for customers. You can close the gap by becoming accredited, and it’s well worth it. Regardless of whether you’re a $5 million company or a $500,000 company, there’s a spot at the Accreditation table waiting for you. And you will be welcomed, just as you are.”
Patricia Chaudoin has been a freelance writer/editor for more than four decades, in areas as disparate as tree care, golf, weddings, luxury travel and international non-profit NGOs. She has been writing for TCI Magazine since July 2016.