Having started out with a 1990 Toyota pickup and a used Stihl MS200 chain saw, and after 10 years of pouring everything I had into building a company, I was faced with an existential crisis. Would the acquisition of a new, larger company cause the downfall of my entire organization?
The thought of acquiring a larger company created many fears and unknowns. From what I knew, most mergers were unsuccessful, and I wondered how this situation would be any different. I had never acquired a company before and found myself asking, “What in the world have I gotten myself into?”
The new company was located 40 miles away, and, with the brutal Southern California rush-hour traffic, I feared the loss of time, the anxiety I experience when stuck in traffic and the logistical challenges of running two separate locations at opposite ends of San Diego County.
Cultural integration was another fear that preoccupied me. Every company has its own culture, and I had worked very hard to create and promote our successful culture. But how would I mesh ours with a different culture that had been around for almost half a century? “I wonder what their culture is like,” I pondered. “Will it be anything at all like ours?”
An established culture
During the previous 10 years, I had worked very hard to build the culture at my original company, Coastal Tree Care. It’s something I am very passionate about. We are not just co-workers, we are a family that works together. We regularly celebrate successes; we recognize and honor each other on birthdays and work anniversaries. When times are challenging, we are there for one another.
We schedule quarterly team-bonding events away from the workspace. We have gone camping together with our families, rented big party boats, gone surfing, enjoyed days at the beach, gone bowling and more.
The core values we have established are strong, and we live within those values. We use Slack, a cloud-based, internal-communication platform that contains dozens of channels. One channel is titled, “Core Values Shout-Outs.” It is used for team members to nominate each other for exercising behavior aligned with our values
Every Monday at our team huddle, we recognize all of those nominated and place their names in a hat. We then draw a winner to play a Plinko game board, where prizes such as gift cards and climbing gear are awarded. Everyone on the team looks forward to this each week. I wish I could take credit for this idea, but I stole it from my dear friends, Jeff and Amy Grewe of Arbor Aesthetics – whose company culture is very inspiring
Our tight-knit team of 12 was happy at Coastal Tree Care, and we had developed a very healthy culture.
An opportunity and a threat
Last year, I was presented with an opportunity to acquire Rancho Tree Service, another tree care company in San Diego. I met with Paul Flores, the owner, and we had an instant connection. More important, our visions were aligned. It seemed to be a perfect fit, so I quickly committed to acquiring his company. I was excited, confident and driven; but I also felt anxious and nervous. In fact, for the first time in my professional career, I was somewhat terrified of what the future held for me – and for my team.
Rancho was comprised of 18 amazing and talented individuals. There was one glaring problem, however; the Rancho team was culturally very different from ours. The previous owner, Paul, had developed a distinct top-down management style, whereas my management style is much more inclusive and collaborative. His team never held morning huddles or safety meetings, let alone team-building and team-bonding events. The focus was less on safety, culture and client experience and more on production, profit and customer service. I realized the profound amount of work ahead of us to coalesce these two diverse organizations.
Within this culture, Paul succeeded in developing a team whose members were incredibly loyal, not only to him, but to the company and each other. He was thought of as a second father by the core group of employees, who had all started as teenagers and had been with the company for more than 25 years each.
I asked myself, “How will I ever gain their loyalty?”
Combining two teams
I immediately began pairing the teams. I wanted the new employees from Rancho – now the “North Team” – to work with the pre-existing Coastal employees – now the “South Team” – to integrate field operations. Not only did I want the North Team to appreciate the safe, skilled and methodical work environment of the South Team, I also wanted the South Team to advocate for me. I knew I was under heavy scrutiny from the new employees, and hoped the respect I had earned from my pre-existing employees would somehow rub off.
We then merged both teams and names to become Rancho Coastal, a conglomeration of the old and new. Then we painted and rebranded the work trucks, along with all of the equipment. We provided new gear and tools to the climbers, as well as new shirts, hats and swag for the entire crew. We did everything I could think of to show the new employees that the inevitable changes of this process would be for the better.
Despite all of our efforts in the beginning, the North Team was not warming up to me, and I was struggling to connect with them. I could sense the grief of loss. Perhaps the changes reminded them of the loss of Paul, their leader and father figure for their entire professional careers. Things had come to a crisis point by the time Suzanna, our sales manager, approached me and said, “Morale is down, and the North Team needs to hear from you!”
I thought to myself in a near panic, “After all of our efforts, had we not made any progress at all? Had we even gone backward?”
Finding a way to connect
I knew I needed to find a way to connect with the new employees. I needed to meet them at their level, while still being my authentic self. Then I remembered a lesson I had learned many years ago; in any situation, especially one of crisis, the best “story” to tell is the truth. I found the courage to be vulnerable and to share my story – the whole story, with all of its bumps and bruises, and let the chips fall where they may.
We called a team meeting with the North Team. With Suzanna translating my every word, I forced myself to drop my guard and began speaking.
“Twenty-five years ago, I was in a very dark place living in Ohio. I had come to realize that I needed to make different, better decisions. I knew I needed to change my lifestyle, or I would end up dead or in prison. Then I decided to move to California to start my life over.
“It was challenging and scary. I was alone, I was broke and I couldn’t find my way.”
Although I could hear the nervousness in my voice, I sensed that I at least had their attention. Every single person was staring at me, waiting to hear what I would say next.
“But guess what found me? Tree work!” I exclaimed. “Just like tree work found all of you, tree work found me! And just like Paul, I started with nothing, building a company from the ground up with nothing but heart, desire, a used truck and a chain saw.”
As they looked at each other to gauge each other’s reactions, I could see their facial expressions change.
“When I found out that Paul was moving on,” I continued, “I saw an opportunity to merge two of the best tree care companies in San Diego County. I am not here to change things; I am here to learn from all of you. And I am here to do two things.”
I could feel their anticipation and curiosity building – along with my confidence – as I explained, “One: I am here to create a future for all of you. Two: I am here to carry on Paul’s legacy.”
Their smiles told me that I was really connecting with them at this point.
“Those are the two things I am going to do for all of you. In return, I ask that you do two things for me. One: Be patient. Be patient! Two: Give me a chance. Just give me a chance!”
I paused to gauge their reaction as Suzanna translated. There were vague mumblings in Spanish that were suddenly interrupted when a long-term employee yelled out, “Respeto! Respeto!”
Even my limited Spanish skills allowed me to recognize this most reverent Spanish word for “respect,” and it was a very good sign. The kind of sign that cannot be manufactured or faked.
“There will be growing pains, I promise!” I continued, “But together, as a family, we will succeed! We will be better and we will be stronger than ever before!”
With that, the entire team stood up, clapping and cheering. I felt proud that I had connected, and I was unashamedly emotional as well. I knew that we were about to embark on a journey of discovery together, and I was very excited to lead the way!
While I had certainly created a connection with the North Team, I knew it would take much more to earn their respect and, ultimately, their loyalty. I had made a promise to them, a promise I intended to keep.
And I knew they were observing closely to see if I would honor my word.
The next step was to try to discover who we were as “Rancho Coastal,” as opposed to who we had been as the two separate entities. We needed to define who we were, what our mission was and what our purpose was, as well as our core values.
At the time, my good friend, Josh Morin, from We Love Trees, was working with me in a consulting capacity, and I asked him to help facilitate this journey of discovery. Josh said he was honored to accept, and we set a date for him to travel to us in San Diego. I worked with my leadership team for a solid 16 hours over two days, brainstorming in a conference room.
We went deep. We laughed, we cried and we learned about and supported each other. Then we each told our individual stories in order to unpack the content that created the foundation of who we were as a team, and what our collective values were. It was a beautiful journey of discovery, and we could not wait to share it with the entire team.
It was now time to erase any source of division and come together as one unified team. I decided that the best way to accomplish this was to activate our recently revealed core values using our Core Value Shout-Outs. Though it was a hard slog at the beginning, due to all of this being new and different to the North Team, slowly, after many weeks of repeating our weekly tradition, everything began falling into place. The North Team became as enthusiastic as the South Team.
At a team meeting in January 2023, we shared the goals that had been set by leadership. We then had another team meeting in June to review all we’d achieved together. Also, we reviewed our goals for the remainder of this year.
Leadership observes the needle moving at a weekly cadence, while very little is noticed by the production team because it happens so gradually. When we displayed the slide with all of our achieved goals, the reactions were priceless! It was an absolute joy to watch their expressions and reactions.
Celebrating the team
To that end, we always follow our team meetings with a fun bonding activity. After this meeting, we chose an indoor go-kart racetrack as our destination. At first, some of the North Team was apprehensive. Perhaps this new experience was even a bit awkward and uncomfortable for some.
After only one lap speeding around the track, all the nervous energy had evaporated, and hard-working, mature adults were laughing like children. The good-hearted vibes echoed off the walls as the Rancho Coastal team raced like Grand Prix drivers.
I was absolutely oozing with joy. I have seldom felt such a profound sense of pride in my team as I did that day. But also I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the thought that formed in my mind, a thought that I often remind myself of when things get tough: “We did it!”
Joseph Eves, CTSP, is owner of Rancho Coastal Tree Care, an accredited, eight-year TCIA member company based in San Diego, California.