Donna Garner: From Firewood Runs to Technology Trailblazer

Jon and Donna Garner using the software in their own business.

Arborgold co-founder Donna Garner grew up in tree care. She has memories of her 10-year-old self riding in her dad’s truck with her brothers on firewood deliveries, raking the client’s lawn when her dad took her on a job and performing other tree care-related tasks.

Don Francis, Donna’s father, had learned the trade from his own dad. In addition to working full time as a schoolteacher, Don ran an Indiana tree care business and became an early member of the National Arborist Association, the organization that became TCIA. Years later, Donna and her husband, Jon Garner, successfully managed their own lawn and tree-health-care business for more than 18 years, having started by servicing her dad’s lawn-care customers.

Donna Garner

In 1995, Donna and Jon founded Arborgold and went to work on creating a leading field-service management and scheduling software, specialized for the tree care industry.

“Arborgold was founded as a direct result of the struggles we were seeing and experiencing both in the office and in the field,” recalls Garner, the company’s chief marketing officer. “My dad was doing quotes at customer sites, and I would type them up in the office. He would bring back his estimates, and as I would type up his quotes, I’d say, ‘Gosh, Dad, I can’t read your handwriting at all. How are your customers reading your handwriting?’”

Soon after, Donna was looking for technology solutions, including “something that would automate the bidding process. And that’s where Arborgold came in.”

In 1989, Don Francis’ company had implemented an early DOS-based business software, but in 1993, Apple released the Newton PDA, a hand-held device that translated handwriting to print, among other things. The Newton created a significant buzz, but it failed to deliver and ultimately was scrapped. “The Newton was groundbreaking and innovative. Unfortunately, the technology just wasn’t there at the time to make it practical and reliable,” wrote Marlon Mosley in his January 28, 2021, “Mistakes Were Made” blog, but the Newton was the precursor to the Palm Pilot and subsequent hand-held computer devices such as the Windows tablet and today’s iPhone.

Garner’s interest was sparked. “I thought, ‘My gosh, this is the device that’s going to transform the entire tree industry.’ A palm computer? Can you imagine back in the ’90s going out and doing a bid in your palm?

“To say the least, it’s been a long journey with technology in the industry, because we’ve seen everything from DOS to Windows to now cloud-based applications. Arborgold came alive with Microsoft’s Windows platform. We were never a DOS program. And then, in 2012 to 2013, we re-engineered the program to function entirely in the cloud.”

The Garners made it their mission to automate tasks in their industry, as they ran their tree and lawn-care business and used it to test and improve the software. They split their time between responsibilities for the two companies, with Donna doing marketing and sales as well as training new customers on how to use the software.

When Arborgold moved into the cloud, they knew it was the right time to sell their tree and lawn business so they could dedicate their focus full-time to their software company.

“I’m not a programmer by any means,” says Garner, who holds a master’s degree in counseling and psychology from Indiana University. “I’m a logic person who knows processes from the business end. My husband’s skills are truly unique. He’s a software developer and programmer and maintained his ISA Certified Arborist credential for many years.”

These days, Arborgold, a 25-year TCIA corporate member company based in Bloomington, Indiana, remains a family-run business. Both the couple’s son and daughter are actively supporting the company’s growth, as are 25 additional team members.

“We’re no longer a mom-and-pop software company,” Garner says. “Arborgold has really taken off. In fact, today we service multiple industries. Our clients range from lawn care and landscape maintenance to hardscape and plant health care. But I must admit, tree care will always have the most special place in my heart. I love talking to tree care professionals as they tell me their stories and challenges, because I’ve lived it. I can really identify with them.”

Donna Garner in the office. “Arborgold was founded as a direct result of the struggles we were seeing and experiencing both in the office and in the field,” she says.

Having grown up in the industry over the years, Garner says she’s seen many women enter what was a male-dominated commercial tree care field.

“I’ve worked with a lot of women in this industry, from project managers and executives to salespeople and office administration. I absolutely love seeing more and more women business owners. There are so many amazing, trailblazing women in this industry.”

Working with Arborgold, she’s met a woman who started on a crew and eventually took over that same tree care company. Additionally, her clients include a consulting arborist who decided to open her own business, as well as women in notable positions who sit or have sat on the TCIA Board of Directors.

“When I was younger, in the ’90s, the green industry was much more male dominated, and women were expected to work in the office,” Garner says. “I do think it’s changing, and I’m excited to see more women stepping up in this industry to work out in the field.”

She also notes that, while much of the focus in tree care is on jobs in the field, “there are a lot of women who work in the office who are big game changers.”

While Garner did some lawn care for the business she owned with her husband, she admits that none of the Francis kids inherited a love of manual outdoor labor from their dad. She pushed tree care technology because it was a passion, she says.

“Honestly, my other passion is helping people,” Garner says. “As I told you, I have a master’s in counseling. I love people, I love helping them. And most important, I want to know that I’m making a difference in their lives. Arborgold allows me to pursue that passion within the tree care industry.”

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