George and Lisa Pogue credit their association with TCIA, as well as becoming an accredited company in 2007, as the key to building the confidence they needed to grow a successful business.
Cumberland Valley Tree Service – Landscaping, a 24-year TCIA member company co-owned by George and his brother-in-law, Fred Schrom, was launched in 1978 from George’s father’s kitchen in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. From those humble beginnings, and through carefully planned growth, Cumberland Valley Tree now has four locations – Chambersburg, Carlisle and Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, and Hagerstown in Maryland – and has diversified its services to include plant health care, landscaping and small construction projects.
George started out dragging brush for his father, George Sr., when he was 14 years old. From there he went on to get his forestry degree at Penn State University’s Mont Alto Campus, near Chambersburg. He joined his dad and mom at Cumberland Valley Tree full time in 1985. In 1990, he married Lisa Whitfield, whose parents owned Whitfield Tree Service and were friendly competitors of George’s parents.
“Yes, I married the competitor’s daughter,” says George, president and general manager of Cumberland Valley. Lisa joined the company in 1999 and serves as chief financial officer. (For more background on the company and their path to Accreditation, check out the article, “Cumberland Valley Tree – Married to the Business,” in the May 2013 issue of TCI Magazine.)
Handing over the reins
When George Sr. turned 80 in 2018, he gave the business to George Jr. and his sister, Stacy Schrom, and her husband Fred. “But my father’s been doing trees since 1957, so he’s not giving it up completely!” says George. “At 86 years old, he still goes to work every day and runs our non-CDL log truck, hauling loads to the sawmill once, maybe twice a day.”
It became clear from the time George Jr. joined the company that his vision and ideas for growth tracked differently from his father’s. “My dad had been incarcerated in the past, and he was into rehabilitation and wanted to help men through the work-release program,” says George. “That was great for a while, but I wanted to be more professional and do scientific-based tree care and hire college grads in things like forestry, landscape design and landscape management.
“Our first college grad we hired was Jamey Schwartz (in 1995), and he’s still with us,” notes George. Today, Schwartz is Cumberland Valley’s plant-health-care-division manager.
George says when the recession hit, between 2009 and 2011, the company found itself in a precarious position. “The recession was an unwelcome guest for three years, but it taught us that the key to staying afloat was to diversify,” George explains. “We want to be full service for our clients – no job is too small for us. We’ve done jobs from $200 to $200,000.”
When it came time to expand the company, George says their growth was based on client feedback and needs. “That’s why we added our construction division, for people wanting decks and outdoor living spaces,” he says. “So now we have a four-person construction division doing decks, remodeling. We even flip houses. We buy them and do the work in the winter. It helps us stay busy.”
Growing with the help of TCIA
When TCI Magazine first wrote about Cumberland Valley in 2013, the company had 30 employees. A decade later, they have 85 full-time, year-round employees and as many as 98 during the growing season, according to Lisa. George adds that 97% of their work is residential, breaking down into 60% tree care, 30% landscaping and 10% PHC.
When it comes to taking advantage of what TCIA offers in the way of training, operations management, career pathing, networking and more, Cumberland Valley Tree Service – Landscaping is a fully engaged member company. “We’ve been working with TCIA probably 15 to 20 years,” says Lisa. “I think the first thing we did with TCIA was the Tailgate Safety program. From that, our safety director, Aaron Feather, started adding videos for every Friday meeting and even started his own YouTube channel.”
Lisa recalls that TCIA was offering physical, hard-copy checklists for its courses like Ground Operations, Tree Climber Specialist and Aerial Lift Operations when her company first started using its Tree Care Academy (TCA) materials. “Now it’s all part of Brightspace,” she notes, referring to the online learning platform that combines online learning and testing with evaluation in the field.
Offering a career, not just a job
“These days, recruitment is vital. You can’t just sit on your laurels,” says George. “And it’s tough to recruit without a plan or a purpose (to show potential employees). You have to have all your ducks in a row. I don’t want to be a stepping stone, I want to be a landing pad.”
To that end, Cumberland Valley currently uses one of TCIA’s newest Brightspace offerings called Career Pathways, which they customized to their own needs and call their Professional Development Plan. (For more on Career Pathways, read “TCIA Offers a Portal to a Better Career,” in the July 2023 issue of TCI Magazine.)
Cumberland Valley Tree Service – Landscaping
“Our mission, as arborists, horticulturists and landscape professionals, is to provide high-quality plant-health-care services, from initial design and planting through seasonal care into full plant maturity and preservation. We will provide for our clients: Comprehensive plant-care services, timely and
accredited and trained staff and services in accordance with green-industry
standards. With integrity and honesty, we will remain the zenith of our industry, cultivating, preserving and protecting God’s creation on the earth.”
The company’s career pathing starts from the very first day of orientation and follows a carefully planned series of TCA online courses that are mandatory during an employee’s first 90 days. Additional TCA courses are offered in things like tree rigging and removal, aerial-lift rescue and plant-health-care technician, earning employees a one-time bonus of anywhere from $75 to $200 each, depending on course length and intensity.
Lisa adds, “We also started typing up a formal offer of employment for new hires that outlines salary, health-care benefits, paid vacation, etcetera. No one used to do that, you just showed up. But we found that it makes every person who comes here feel valued.”
Value of credentials
Credentials are another part of creating valued employees. “We have four CTSPs (Certified Treecare Safety Professionals), one at each of our four locations,” says George. He also confirms that the company has 14 ISA Certified Arborists, six employees who hold the Tree Risk Assessment Qualification (TRAQ) credential and eight who are Maryland state-licensed tree experts. All employees are EHAP (Electrical Hazards Awareness Program) trained, and most hold the Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA) certification, because, George explains, “We do work for a fair number of strip mines and quarries.”
Additionally, Evan Brumfield, the Maryland and West Virginia territory manager, is the company’s first Board Master Certified Arborist (BCMA).
Diving into Accreditation
“When we hit the growing-pains size of our company, we realized we needed everything TCIA offers to help us,” says George. “Plus, I had friends in Pennsylvania who were ahead of me (in becoming accredited), and they put the heat on me. With us guys, it’s all about competition!” As it is, George says he believes his company was number four in becoming accredited in the state of Pennsylvania in 2007.
“By far, Accreditation has been the most beneficial thing we’ve done for our growth,” says Lisa. George agrees. “It forced us to sit down and put our thoughts into writing. I had it in my heart and in my head, but it wasn’t written down.
“Accreditation was important because I thought we were a little informal in our business and undocumented in our training,” he continues. “None of us had any business training, so this gave us the roots and structure that solidified us, so we’d have the confidence to grow. It gave us the pathway to become professional and structured and organized – and to have the confidence to compete.”
Lisa notes that when it came time to secure a line of credit, they realized they had no mission statement (see callout) or business plan. Going through the Accreditation process helped solve that dilemma. “It also forced us to create budgets and have a plan for expansion,” she says. “It gave us the foundation to go into a regional bank as an official, legitimate company. When they saw what we had put together, they were all in.”
“That leveled the playing field for us with the big companies,” says George. “It means we’re able to recruit head-to-head with them.”
Networking, training and just plain fun
Building friendships is another benefit of TCIA membership, according to George. He and Lisa have been attending Winter Management Conference (WMC) since 2005. “It’s kind of become our annual vacation. It’s where we meet our peers and share our experiences,” says George.
WMC is the industry’s premier networking conference. It’s attended by hundreds of like-minded tree care professionals who spend five days sharing knowledge and exploring solutions for their businesses, as well as meeting new friends and reconnecting with old ones.
“I’ve met good friends from Oklahoma, Missouri, Connecticut, Texas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Virginia,” says George. “It was our first year at Winter Management that we met other people who had done the Accreditation process, and that was what got us interested. We felt like we were 10 feet tall when we left that first conference, from the things we had learned.”
George adds, “I’ve met PHC people (at WMC) who taught us and helped us get our plant-health-care division going, and now we want to help other new businesses. I look for new people every year, those people wearing the first-time-attendee white ribbon. We feel it’s important to help them the way we were helped.”
In 2024, WMC will be held February 11-15 at the Marriott Resort Puerto Vallarta in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. For more information, visit wmc.tcia.org.
Also on George and Lisa’s annual calendar is attending TCI EXPO each fall. “We took 18 people to EXPO last year,” notes Lisa. “We pay anybody who’s credentialed to go and get CEUs (continuing education units) there. And we always go to the Pre-Conference events.”
“I go to more of the business things, Lisa goes to the Women in Tree Care events and other staff go to check out the equipment and get training,” says George. “That’s what’s so great about EXPO – you get the most diverse information there.”
“I’ve had some staff take me to vendors they like, which has led me to offering them a choice when it comes to things like clothing,” adds Lisa. “We even bought a crane there a couple of years ago. And we want our staff to be independent of us, so they can stay in different hotels if they like, and we might have one big dinner together.”
“We’re really looking forward to St. Louis,” says George. “We’ve never been there before, and we’re always on the hunt for new friends.”
For more information and to register for TCI EXPO ’23, to be held in St. Louis, Missouri, November 16-18 (Pre-Conference on November 15), go to expo.tcia.org.
Patricia Chaudoin has been a freelance writer/editor for more than four decades, embracing genres as disparate as tree care, golf, weddings, luxury travel and international non-profit NGOs. She has been writing for TCI Magazine since July 2016.