Getting a phone call that your tree care business is up in flames is something no one ever wants to experience. Yet for the owners of several TCIA member companies, that’s precisely what happened, and the experience had the potential to be life changing and business altering. When the unthinkable happens, it’s too late to ask whether you had adequate insurance or how you can recover valuable files and work orders that have been destroyed. So these members we interviewed, who recently suffered devastating losses from fire, offered some valuable advice they hope other tree care businesses will take to heart.
For August Hoppe, current TCIA board member and president/co-owner of Hoppe Tree Service based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin – a 20-year TCIA member company – the news came as a call from a police officer in the wee hours of the morning on Saturday, January 4, 2020. Hoppe’s Grafton, Wisc., location was completely engulfed in flames when the Ozaukee County Sheriff’s Office responded to a call about the fire. “I live about 25 minutes away from that shop,” explains Hoppe, who operates a second shop in Caledonia, “and when I got there, it was total devastation.”
Among the equipment Hoppe says they lost to the fire were two loaders, a tracked lift, four trucks, six trailers, a skid steer and two stump grinders. “We still had some equipment that survived,” he says. “We just had to go to work the following week with fewer toys.”
According to Hoppe, the fire was part of a news crawl the following day during a highly watched NFL game being played in Green Bay (Packers vs. Seahawks). “So about 1.5 million people saw it,” says Hoppe with a laugh. “We knew we had to get the word out to our clients right away that we were still out there working. I also wanted our guys to know they were still getting a paycheck. It was important for us not to have to lay anyone off .”
Thankfully, Hoppe says, the business has always had “a strong and robust email list, so we were able to send something out to clients right away that was very similar to the blog we put on our website. It was very employee focused with photos of our crews in front of equipment, to send a positive message that we were ready to go.
“Thankfully, Grafton is a dispatch location, so we had very few records stored there,” he adds, “and we have cloud data storage. It’s so important to have your data backed up.” He notes that the company’s Urban Wood Lab, which creates unique wood slabs for practical and decorative uses such as mantlepieces and table bases, was unfortunately a complete loss to the fire, along with the wood kiln they used in the drying process.
Hoppe credits the quick response of local utilities, equipment vendors and other contacts with helping him and his crews get back to work as quickly as they did. “We were back up with utilities the Monday after the fire,” he explains, “and we had equipment vendors who expedited equipment delivery to us. I even had a Chicago-area tree care business that I know through TCIA loan us a bucket truck.”
As it so happens, Hoppe had been planning on building a new Grafton facility before the fire broke out. “Our contracted builder, Pinno Buildings, was able to move up the timetable on the new 5,000-square-foot building we already had planned, and it should hopefully be ready to move into this spring.”
According to Hoppe, the cause of the fire officially is undetermined, “so we don’t know if it was electrical or what. The Grafton Fire Department did an outstanding job,” he adds. “They worked with 12 other fire departments from about 3:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. that Saturday and used 60,000 gallons of water to put the fire out. The next day they came back with another 1,000 gallons to drench the site.”
Hoppe says he is happy with the way his insurance claim is going and how Hoppe Tree Service was covered at the time of the fire. “Our agent has been very responsive,” he says. “It actually came as something of a surprise to me that we even had $65,000 worth of business interruption coverage. And thankfully, we had lost-employee-equipment coverage, since a couple of employees had their personal climbing gear burned up. If I learned one thing (from the fire), I think it’s that I need to look a little closer at my building contents coverage.” For more insurance advice from Hoppe, see “Plan Ahead to Protect Your Business” on page 28.
Hoppe notes that most municipalities’ fire departments will come to your place of business and conduct a fire inspection. “They’ll say things like, ‘Use fewer extension cords,’ or ‘Don’t store fuel here.’ Listen to them, they probably know what they’re talking about.
“The (tree care) industry community has been so good to us,” Hoppe concludes. “We were very fortunate. We had overwhelming support from everyone, including our clients and employees. I just want to acknowledge how great these people were. As I found out, you don’t face this kind of thing alone.”
Sadly, sometimes disaster strikes as the result of noncompliance on the part of someone else, as was the case for Coastal Tree Care, a four-year TCIA member company based in San Diego, California.
“We weren’t responsible for the fire,” says owner Joseph Eves, who explains that the blaze that struck his business in April 2019 started in the business adjacent to his, where they manufactured surfboards. “They had open containers of combustibles, including these huge 50-gallon drums of epoxy. The official cause of the fire was determined to be spontaneous combustion.
“When the fire department showed up, they saw the entire building with smoke coming from it and didn’t know which side the fire started on,” Eves continues. “So they broke down the first door they came to, which was ours, and started hosing down the inside. We ended up with significant smoke and water damage. Any clothes, uniforms, shirts left in there smelled like a campfire.”
Eves says thankfully, all of his equipment was parked about 100 yards away from the shop itself, “so none of that was impacted. We were able to go to work the next day, but we had to work remotely for about four months. And the women who are pretty savvy Millennials, so everything important was backed up and was also on laptops they take home every night.”
But the story gets worse from there. It turned out that the surfboard company had no insurance. “Now I’m in the middle of a huge lawsuit,” Eves explains. “This definitely has been a learning experience. You have to be 100% informed and prepared. Our landlord self-managed the property, and he wasn’t very organized, and he never required proof of insurance.
“I suppose as a new company at the time, I was looking around for the cheapest place possible,” he adds. “In our new place, which is about seven miles from where we were before, they (property management) checked us out thoroughly. I have something like a 23-page lease from them. And I have a new insurance agent who has me on better coverage. I put a lot more effort into researching this.”
According to Eves, one of his 2020 goals had been to move into a new space anyway, “so this helped us turn a really negative experience into something positive. It was kind of fun looking for a new space, and the guys got excited at the prospect. We moved in around September 1, and we’re in full operation and loving the new space. Bottom line, we were able to take something potentially tragic and turn it into an opportunity for growth.”
About nine years ago, G. Bourne Knowles and Company, a TCIA member since 1989, experienced a four-alarm blaze at its shop and yard in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. Owner Bourne Knowles says he was in his greenhouse with his foreman early that morning in December 2012 when he suddenly saw flames erupting from the second-story window of the business’s attached post-and-beam barn, built in 1851. “The next 20 minutes was a hectic scene as dedicated employees scrambled to get trucks and equipment out of harm’s way,” Knowles wrote in his blog the following spring. “It took four fire departments to get the fire contained, as 40 to 50 firefighters poured 1.2 million gallons of water on the inferno.”
Knowles now explains that the cause of the fire was arson. “Somebody had been going around the area setting fires, and they think it was him. The barn was just so much tinder.”
Remarkably, Knowles says he eventually was able to send all his crews out that same day for their scheduled work, trying to gain some sense of normalcy after helplessly watching his family’s place of business for the past 50 years burn to the ground. “We spent the next five days setting up a temporary office in my son’s house and sending out crews from my pickup truck,” he explains. “Since we were able to save all the trucks and most of the equipment, we never missed a day of work. But much of our 52 years of collected pictures, awards and all the contents (of the office) that you take for granted, like reaching for a phone number, were gone.
“Eventually, we got an office trailer and set it up on the site,” Knowles adds, “and we rebuilt at the same location.
“As far as lessons learned, I realized that commitment to what you do is most important. There will always be bumps, large and small, and I believe they can be a constant test to that commitment. The company is stronger because of what we went through and because of the dedicated employees who worked with me through the rebuilding process.”
A piece of advice Knowles passes along to other business owners facing a disaster is to hire an independent insurance adjuster to represent their companies. “This was the best advice I got after the fire. The adjuster takes a small percentage of the total, something like 8%, but what he got us for a settlement was way better than what we’d thought or hoped we would get.”
April and Brad Petree, co-owners of Petree Arbor, Lawn and Landscape – a nine-year member company out of Louisville, Tennessee – were on their family vacation last September when fire struck their place of business. “We had just crossed over the Canadian border when we got a call from our general manager saying everything was on fire,” says April. She says they flew home immediately, and Brad stayed at the site three nights as firefighters worked to control the blaze.
According to April, the fire started with a piece of equipment. “Our excavator was being used, and Scottie Hembree, our general manager, saw smoke. He turned it off, then turned it back on to move it and it wouldn’t start, but flames were coming out from under it.”
April explains that they always brought their tree debris back to the yard whole and would grind it there to be used as mulch for the landscaping part of their business. “Unfortunately, there was about 70,000 cubic yards of debris that fed the fire. We lost most of our equipment, including a crane we’d just gotten, and my entire office – computers, desks, everything you accumulate over 20 years in business. All our work orders were gone and all our backups. Basically, we’ve had to start over from scratch.”
The road back from the fire has been tough, according to April, but she says their main concern has been keeping as many of their employees on the job as they can. “We went from 17 employees down to 12, mainly because we lost the crane, so we didn’t need a dedicated crane crew anymore. And we’re still waiting to make a decision about whether to rebuild on the same site or go to a different location in town.” For the time being, April says, she runs her office from the kitchen table at her mother’s home.
When it comes to insurance, she and Brad did not realize they should have had coverage for the 70,000 cubic feet of mulch destroyed in the fire. “I don’t know how our agent missed that,” she says. “Now we’re facing the season with no mulch. Also, our outbuildings that held our tree care and landscape materials, like tons of seed and irrigation supplies, weren’t covered. I just assumed they were.”
April adds that, though they’ve collected most of the insurance money, they are waiting for the price of equipment to drop before purchasing replacements. “That’s one thing to ask your insurance company,” she notes. “Are they going to pay full replacement cost or just actual cash value? Also, we definitely use the cloud storage now to back up all our files. I think where we took the biggest hit was losing all our data.”
When it comes to having adequate insurance coverage in the event of a disaster, Jeffry Blackman and Kevin Sellke of ArborMax, which provides insurance specifically for tree care companies, have this advice for business owners. “Ask yourself, ‘Is my building covered adequately?’ You may want to obtain a tentative estimate from a local contractor every five to seven years to determine the approximate dollar amount needed to replace your building in the event of a loss. There’s also demolition and debris-removal coverage to consider – coverage for the expense of knocking down and removing debris from the location before new construction can start.
“Then there might be a fire department service charge,” Blackman continues. “Do you know if they charge this fee in your city or county? Does your policy provide the coverage? Also, does your policy include any coverage for pollution that results from a covered cause of loss? And, in the event of a partial loss, are you going to have to bring the entire building up to current code? Has this potential expense been contemplated?”
Blackman suggests one last important consideration. “Business interruption coverage becomes extremely important in the event of a loss. In order to be properly covered, you need to have a conversation with your agent regarding revenue, ongoing expenses, busy and slow times of the year, etcetera. Without working through this process, you may find you are inadequately covered in the event of a loss.”
Blackman says every agent should provide a coverage worksheet the agent and client can go through to determine the correct amount of coverage. “It’s an investment of time on the business owner’s part, but it’s very valuable when done correctly.”
When asked when a business owner should consider increasing or changing their coverage, Blackman advises, “It’s important for business owners to keep accurate records of equipment they purchase or sell, improvements to their buildings and any changes to their auto schedules. These need to be reported to their agents promptly to insure coverage. And prior to policy renewal, they should review coverage with their agent and, with their agent’s help, determine if they’re appropriately covered.”
As an idea of what to expect in the event you must file a claim, Blackman and Sellke outline the basic process. First, an adjuster will contact the insured to determine the facts of the claim and conduct an investigation into the claim. In the event of a fire or theft loss, the insured will be asked to provide a detailed list of the “business personal property damaged or stolen. We recommend the insured take a video of the property owned and used in their operation to help with the inventory in the event of a loss, and that video should be stored off-site.”
Blackman says most property claims would be adjusted on an Actual Cash Value basis until the property is replaced or totally rebuilt. He adds that, in the event of a loss to the building, both the insured and the insurance company “will obtain and provide their own estimates for the repair or replacement cost of the structure.”
Blackman concludes, “Because every loss is different in some way, each claim and situation will require slightly different handling and procedures. That said, this information is normally a good starting point for the claim-handling process.”
Bottom line, the best way to protect your tree care business – according to those who’ve been there and done that – is to plan proactively and make sure your insurance coverage is adequate for your needs. Because you never know when the unexpected might happen.
Plan Ahead to Protect Your Business
August Hoppe, president and co-owner of Hoppe Tree Service, has this advice for how to stay on top of your business’s insurance policy, which is critical in the event of a fire or other disaster.
• Review your coverage at least annually.
• Make sure you have an engaged insurance agent who understands your business and will be your advocate.
• Be sure you have an updated list of vehicle, equipment and building contents. Review this annually to make sure values and coverages are adequate for your needs (comprehensive vs. liability).
• Think strategically about your insurance and your financial position. How much loss are you willing to absorb if something catastrophic happens? How much insurance do you need?
• Understand your ancillary coverages such as tool loss, property contents, employee property and business interruption.
On a related note, Hoppe says to be sure you back up your critical files (cloud storage is great for this) and that you have an emergency plan in place for various scenarios that could affect your business.