The people I’ve worked with throughout the years, today I’m doing a deal for them for a million dollars, but I started out with a $20,000 deal, and it gradually went up,” says JoAnn Cucciarre, making a point echoed by many other equipment-finance professionals working with the tree care industry. “Normally, someone doesn’t come to me out of the blue and say, ‘I want to borrow a million dollars.’”
Instead, customers establish the financial relationship with smaller loans to help grow their business. That history creates the foundation while building the business, says Cucciarre, president of Souderton, Pennsylvania-based Northern Atlantic Financial, an 18-year TCIA corporate member company.
“Once you get your first loan, you can build off of that, because then you have that history of showing you’ve borrowed for the company before,” she says. “Honestly, in a tree care business today, this new equipment that’s coming out almost does the tree work for you, the way some of this equipment works. Where before it would take you almost a day to take a tree down, you can do it literally in 15 minutes now.”
Equipment financing has always been part of company growth in the tree care industry. In the past five years, with the shift toward mechanization as a way of working safer, more efficiently and with fewer personnel, there has been a boom in financing to buy equipment, according to those we spoke with for this article. And it has continued despite the supply-chain problems of the COVID years and this year’s rise in interest rates.
Business-equipment finance companies
Business-equipment finance companies tout the fact that because they know their industries, they bring a better understanding of how equipment can pay off for a company. They also tout a shorter form to fill out and a quicker, more-efficient process. Asked to think of one success story, Cucciarre mentions three, all of which followed a similar pattern.
“Shawn Emmons (Emmons Tree & Landscaping, a 17-year TCIA member company based in New Milfort, Connecticut), Matt Bartelme, CTSP (Bart’s Tree, a 12-year TCIA member company based in Woodbury, Conn.), Stacey Marcell (Northeast Horticultural Service, an accredited, 13-year TCIA member company based in Milford, Conn.),” says Cucciarre, rattling off the names. “They all started out with a smaller piece, and today it’s the larger deals, the buckets, the grapple saws, the spray trucks. Spray trucks are getting more expensive now.”
For a client who comes in with a solid history, equipment financial professionals say turnaround can often come in no more than 24 hours. For a client with an unusual circumstance, be it an optimistic vision or a less-stellar history, they can still help get it done.
A little knowledge, and a little work
Eileen Carter is regional sales director for Dimension Funding, a first-year TCIA corporate member company. The company is headquartered in Orange, California, though she’s based in Birmingham, Alabama. In her 35 years, she has arranged some loans in the upper six figures. Part of her job is gathering information and educating clients on the loan process.
“I have a conversation with a customer,” she says. “Most of my business comes from referrals from vendors, and I have a conversation to get an idea of what they think their credit is, if they have comparable credit – which in English means, if you want a truck for $50,000, have you financed anything for your business near that amount? So I’m educating them as well.”
She looks at the same things most lenders look for
“The important thing is time in business,” says Carter, who specializes in the commercial tree care and wastewater-management industries. “How long have you been an owner in the tree business? Some people will work for an Asplundh or some other big company and then decide to go out on their own. They’ll tell you they’ve been in business for 15 years when, in reality, they’ve worked for somebody else and are just starting their business.
“When they’re looking for an equipment purchase, whether it’s small or large, we want to make sure they’ve been in business at least three or four years, so we can get a handle on whether they understand the responsibility of being a business owner and all that’s incorporated into that,” she adds. “When you’re an owner, there is no 9-to-5 job. I mean, it’s 24/7/365. Some people just think, ‘I’m going to own my own business and do what I want.’ Well, you can’t really do that, especially when you start to hire employees.”
Different types of clients
There are different types of clients. Some have built a history of business borrowing, are experienced in the process and are confident in their ability to get the loan and take on the responsibility for larger pieces of equipment. Others are less certain. Others may have credit issues that make them an uncertain credit bet. In those cases, Carter says, she’ll dig a little deeper to find potential and solutions.
“If you help me to help you, we can work that out,” she says. “Some people have some (debt) issues from the past that they’ve actually paid off, like maybe a car or truck was repossessed. They think because they paid it off that their credit score will jump. The problem is, nobody knows you’ve paid it off unless you send backup to the three credit agencies and report that and ask them to take that off of your credit (report). Then your score goes up.”
Creating a “honey-do” list
In some instances, she’s told those people who’ve had past credit issues how to go and repair the record. She gives them a list of tasks she offhandedly calls a “honey-do” list. They have done that, and then come back and secured loans.
“I had a customer who had a very low score and worked hard,” she recalls. “We kept in touch. Every week he’d call me and say, ‘OK, you told me to do this and this, and I’ve done that.’”
She didn’t check his credit right away, because she knows it takes time for the credit bureaus to update scores. But once he finished his tasks, his credit was repaired.
Once he had his loan and bought his equipment, he took a picture. He sent it with a letter that read, “This is all because of you.”
She responded, “No. It’s because of us.”
“We often see crane companies and/or tree-service companies striving to grow their businesses,” says Tonya Fry, vice president with Harry Fry Associates, a four-year TCIA corporate member company based in West Newbury, Massachusetts. “One of the biggest roadblocks comes when the customer wants to purchase their first large piece of equipment. This purchase is different for every company. Maybe the company’s first large purchase is $100,000, $500,000 or $1 million. The roadblock with this is when the customer is requesting financing for more than their revenue base.
“For example, they want to purchase a $1 million crane and their current revenue is only $750,000,” Fry says. “We have been successful in some situations in working through this, but I tell my customers, ‘You need to be willing to put in the work and provide me with the information I am requesting.’ In situations like this, I need to illustrate the customer’s vision to the credit group and prove to them how the customer is going to pay for it.”
In addition to the usual financial package (income statements), here are some things she needs.
Clean personal and business credit – No tax liens, bankruptcies, etc.
Work story – Why does the company need this unit in particular? Will it make their work more efficient? Will it enable them to do different jobs they cannot do with their current fleet?
Projections – What additional revenue do they anticipate this unit will produce? What are the expenses associated with the purchase?
Jobs – Does the company have any contracts or master service agreements it will obtain if they buy this unit? Can the company supply letters from potential customers stating that if the tree care company obtains this unit, the company intends to use the tree care company’s service?
“We try and support the vision,” says Fry, who started lending for cranes in the 1990s and gravitated into tree care from there. “It’s the American dream to want to build a business and grow it.”
But she cautions that it may take some work, and in some cases, it’s just not going to happen. What she will do is her best to get lenders to come on board.
“I’m saying, ‘All right, I’m going to take a stab at this for you, but my job is going to be to convince somebody how you’re going to pay for it,’” Fry says. “‘So I need some good projections. How much are you losing in revenue by not having it? What do you think you’re going to gain? What are your expenses going to be? Do you have customers who have said they’ll use you if you get this piece? How much business do they think they’re going to give you? We know these are revenue-generating pieces, but I’ve got to prove what your vision is.’”
Building on success
In his 17 years, he’s had plenty of success stories, says Joel Schuman, business development manager at Western Equipment Finance, a 13-year TCIA corporate member company. It’s headquartered in Devil’s Lake, North Dakota, although he works out of the Minneapolis area in Minnesota.
“One very common success story I’ve seen over and over is with customers in the tree care industry who are just getting started,” Schuman says. “They’re going to buy a stump grinder to get started in their business, and that business, if they do it right, is going to grow, and we’ll help finance that first piece of equipment.
“Let’s just say it’s a smaller stump grinder, and they’re maybe doing the work part time on the side,” poses Schuman. “Then they develop that into an actual full-scale business. That same customer, a year, two, three years later is now back for a larger stump grinder. I’ve seen that evolve over time with some customers over a 10-year period. Where, from their very first $25,000 stump grinder, now we’ve got 15 loans with them and we’re financing everything for them – trucks, trailers, chippers, bucket trucks, aerial lifts.”
The biggest loan he’s ever done was for a national company, roughly $15 million, Schuman says. But the more typical loan is for $150,000.
Loyalty is a big part of his business model, Schuman says, noting that it’s a company value to treat everyone with respect, and that value has paid off.
During the economic downturn of 2008-09, several clients defaulted on loans, and Schuman recalls, “We, as a finance company, owned and had possession of more equipment than most dealers around the country. We had to liquidate a lot of equipment. Those were bad times.”
Most of the time, a lender would not see those customers again, Schuman says, but there were a couple who, 10 years later, came back as re-established businesses to seek financing. “I can recall one off the top of my head who did come back, and we ended up financing again for them,” Schuman says. It’s been about a year since they’ve spoken, but Schuman reports, “I think he’s doing OK.”
For the tree care company owner looking to invest, there are some key takeaways.
First, a personal credit score of 675 or better is recommended. Don’t check your credit score too often, as that pushes it down, but be aware of your score. Also, understand that credit mistakes don’t need to dog you forever, but they might show up at the wrong time. Therefore, if you can fix them, fix them.
Second, understand that being part of the industry and actually running a business are two different things. Time at the helm of your business is what counts.
Third, a history of financing works in your favor, as it proves you can pay.
Fourth, have your financials in order. For bigger packages, be ready to supply more information.
And. of course, if one listens to our experts, seek a loan with a person who understands your industry. It will make the process simpler.
It’s also a good way to avoid the thing most tree operators hate – paperwork.
David Rattigan is a former correspondent for The Boston Globe and People magazine who has written for the Tree Care Industry Association for 19 years. He’s received 15 awards for journalism, and is currently an adjunct communications professor in Massachusetts. His work has appeared in seven national magazines including Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News, The Robb Report, The Christian Science Monitor and Lawyers’ Weekly USA.