For JoAnn Cucciarre and Tonya Fry, success as commercial lenders in the tree care industry has nothing to do with gender. It’s mostly about knowledge.
“When they start talking about the difference between an elevator, a bucket or a diesel, I can talk that with anybody,” says Cucciarre, president of Northern Atlantic Financial, LLC, a 16-year TCIA corporate member company based in Souderton, Pennsylvania. “If they tell me they’re looking for a feller buncher, I know what that is. If they want a rear-mount flatbed, I know what it is. A lot of banks and a lot of finance companies don’t understand that.”
Harry Fry & Associates, a first-year TCIA corporate member company based in West Newbury, Massachusetts, primarily finances cranes and lift equipment and has picked up tree care under that umbrella. “We have been in the crane and lift industry for over 25 years, and in my industry, you’d better know what you’re talking about, otherwise they see right through it,” says Fry, associate vice president and the daughter of the founders.
“I have to give a lot of credit to my mom, who worked in the business as well,” says Fry, who started in 2004. “When they started the business in the late ’90s, the crane and lift industry – which covers the tree industry – was highly male dominated. When she would attend trade shows and industry meetings, she was one of very few women.
“Over the years, we have seen a huge increase in women being involved in the heavy-lift industry, to the point where now you have generational businesses and the daughters are taking over. There are quite a few of us.”
A strong market for lenders
Cucciarre identified the tree care industry as a strong market to get into when she started her commercial-finance company with three partners (she’s since gone off on her own) 25 years ago. Her first clients were Rich and Bill Mitchell, then with Aerial Lift of Connecticut, whom she met at a trade show in Connecticut. Rich now works for Bartlett Tree Experts and Bill works for Custom Truck One Source.
“There are not too many businesses where they keep buying equipment every year,” Cucciarre observes. “In tree care, there are always improvements, and there’s new equipment that gets them in and out of the job quicker and more efficiently. I found that once they started financing one piece, they’d get another piece, and then they kept coming back. Most of my business is vendor based, and secondly, customer based. I’ve had customers who I’ve been dealing with for 25 years who are still using us and still purchasing equipment.
“Sometimes I don’t even talk to a customer anymore. They shoot me a text, ‘This is what I’m buying,’ I take care of it, and the next thing you know, they have the documents to sign.
“I have a very good relationship with all of my customers. I love the fact that I’ve seen so many customers’ businesses grow over the years, from when they started out to now when they’re running multiple crews. It’s been a good journey.”
Like Fry, Cucciarre has had no problem becoming successful working within the male-dominated industry.
“I don’t think it (being a woman) is a disadvantage or an advantage,” Cucciarre says. “I don’t think it goes either way. I think most people deal with me and my company because the customer service is good, because of how up front and honest we are and how we lay it all right out on the line – that this is exactly what you’re doing, this is what you’re signing, this is what you’re buying and all of those things. Our integrity has always been 100%, and everybody knows when I tell them the rate is 5.5%, they can take it to their accountant and their rate’s going to be 5.5%. They can go to an auction and bid on a piece of equipment. They’re definitely approved. A lot of people trust us, and we’ve earned that loyalty with all of our customers.”
In her entire client portfolio, she estimates that only five are female-owned companies. In many cases, people don’t realize she owns hers.
“I don’t normally tell people I own the company,” she says. “I’ve had people call here and say, ‘I’d like to speak to JoAnn’s boss. She did a really great job,’ and that’s when they figure it out.”
An evolution in the business
When Fry first started, there were some customers who would only work with her dad. This was not because she was a woman, she thinks, but because they thought he knew more.
“What he was good at was pushing back a little, like, ‘No, she can handle this deal, she knows what she’s talking about,’” Fry says. “Now those customers who used to only work with him will work with me. I think that’s because back in the ’90s and early 2000s, it was still a little antiquated. It’s changed a lot, because men are seeing women in the industry and we do know what we’re talking about. I find that now it’s not even a thought.”
The company will sometimes finance another piece of equipment for an established client – whether it’s a vendor, tree care company or builder – but the central focus remains on cranes and aerial lifts. Fry has witnessed the evolution of crane use in the tree care business, as the equipment has become a valuable tool.
She’s found that the crane business owners and tree care owners have a lot of similarities. There are a lot of small businesses, as well as generational businesses.
“What I find is, whether it’s a crane company or tree care company, you have to be willing to listen, and they’re excited to tell you about their business. That’s what I think they all have in common. They’re excited to tell you about their business and how an acquisition will help them grow.
“That’s what’s neat about them – hearing from them how their business has evolved to become safer and more efficient. I feel like they can’t wait to tell you about it.”
Cucciarre also mentions the family aspect of the industry, seeing growing families at expos and trade shows, and growing businesses. Both women say they have never had an issue related to gender, and sometimes suspect that tree care guys are more polite in conversation when they’re around.
Fry shares an isolated incident when she called a customer who was on a job site.
“He thought I was my father, and the way he picked up the phone … he was swearing, and I said, ‘No. This actually is his daughter, Tonya,’ and he was like, ‘Oh my God, your father’s going to kill me.’
“I said, ‘It’s not words I haven’t heard before,’” she says. “It was the funniest thing.”