Husband and Wife Tree Care Teams – Positives, Pitfalls, Paradigms, Paragons and Progressions

TCI’s Women in Tree Care Series

Since September 2017, TCI has profiled a number of women who work in tree care and the jobs they perform. We’ve looked at the issues women face working in tree care, as well as the assets they bring to the industry. This is the second-annual March Women in Tree Care issue of TCI Magazine. If you know a woman you think we should profile, please let us know.

It’s 6 a.m. My husband, Matt, and I stand comatose at the coffee pot in our kitchen. In a sleep-deprived fog, we wait for the beep to pierce the sleepy silence signaling the coffee is ready and we can start our day.

Another alarm sounds – BINGBONG. And again – BINGBONG. A motion alarm at the end of our drive announces when cars, deer or errant Canada geese enter the compound. Today is Tuesday, and the employees are arriving. No rest for the weary; our day has begun.

My desk in our recently converted joint office, formerly a den, looks the same as it did when I went to bed less than three hours ago. Covered in paper and files. I recently felt the need to institute a “no Postit Note” directive in my office, as I continually found sticky notes in my hair hours after leaving the office. My computer is on, with 35 internet tabs open and two unfinished email windows on the screen. We look around at our organized chaos, take a cleansing breath together and do our customary, “Let’s do this!” chest bump into a high-five routine. Ha! We do not really do this, and if you know Matt, he is not a high-fiver … or a morning person.

Matt jets out the back door to head down to the shop. I finish up my email, grab my 20-ounce white mug of hot, liquid personality and go greet our team to make sure everything is in readiness for the day.

Moments later the office is buzzing. A new day. Everything is ready! There really is palpable morning enthusiasm. It’s my favorite part of the day – until it isn’t. Text message received: “Sorry. Can’t make it in today. My car won’t start.” Fantastic. He is a driver on that crew, and Timmy Millennial doesn’t know how to drive a stick shift. Back to the board and switch crews up. No problem. Crisis averted.

Then, the front office announces that “Mrs. Smithers, whose trimming you have scheduled today, just emailed and said the dog trainer pulled a groin muscle and can’t move the car, so we will have to reschedule.” As the morning rapidly progresses, a chipper is jackknifed, a hydraulic line blows and Joe Veteran Tree Guy announces he’s “not going to keep babysitting all these newbies who can’t find their (butt) from a hole in the ground.” Around this time, my 3 year old runs into the office, sans clothing, and announces that she can’t find her pink sparkly skirt. Apparently my daughters are awake, and Dellaney, my oldest, is standing at the office desk in her jammies with every color highlighter spread out over Ms. Melissa’s desk.

A pretty typical day in our home/office. Did I mention that our home and office are one and the same?

We walk out of our kitchen down three stairs into our office. Down two more stairs, and you find yourself in the heart of Metropolitan Forestry Services, Inc. We have the perfect test-case scenario for the “how to separate work life and home life” conundrum, but more on that later. We continue to put out fires throughout the morning and the rest of the day. In actuality, every morning is some version of this one. Waking up on too little sleep, and, regardless of how solid the plans are when we go to bed, something changes and we have to adjust. This life and profession we have chosen is hectic and dynamic every day. What changes in our situation is the employee who calls in, the customer who reschedules or which one of the children runs naked into our office. Plan. Schedule. Adjust. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Such is life in the tree care industry. I thrive on the chaos and fast-paced living, but I have been in this industry for most of my life. Matt is constantly reminding me that, as an extrovert, I am recharged and fulfilled by those human interactions and chaos. As an introvert, he is drained by people and social interaction. He needs quiet, calm and solitude to recharge, and there is not much “recharge time” since he made the switch into the tree care profession. This is just one of the many challenges we face as a couple working together, and something we have to be sensitive to.

My husband is either a saint or a lunatic. He has chosen to work with not only his wife but his father-in-law, all while learning this crazy, complex industry. Marriage is difficult enough when you don’t spend every waking moment together. Life decisions are hard enough to make when both incomes are not dependent on a fickle and chaotic industry. Matt and I don’t have surefire advice on working with your spouse successfully, and we certainly haven’t figured all of it out. We have found the most success in talking with other couples who work together and taking advice in any form that it may come. Many agree there are both advantages and drawbacks to working with your spouse.

Advantages:

• Having a trusted partner in the trenches. Having someone you know is as engaged in the mission as you are and implicitly trusting them makes the stress of work a bit less than if you were working alone.

• A partner to share your day and experiences who really gets it. You both see what it takes to get a job done and can share the responsibilities.

• Relationship growth in working together to achieve great things and celebrating the wins together.

• Having a second set of eyes on the business is helpful for safety, security, recognition, etc.

Drawbacks:

• The stress that is injected into every aspect of work and life due to the hazardous nature of the work we do. When your better half is climbing, operating a chain saw or any of the other potentially dangerous parts of this job, it can exacerbate an already stressful situation.

• Even on a particularly challenging/tiring/stressful day, the responsibilities to children, pets and the home do not go away or even lessen.

• Losing personal identity; you begin to eat, sleep and breathe tree care.

• Working all the time.

• Taking time off is difficult when you both work in the business.

How can you separate work and life when your work is your life, and vice versa? Work issues will spill over into home life and home into work. It just happens.

Matt and Meggan Hargrave may not start each morning with a chest bump and a “high-five,” but they do usually try to start the day with enthusiasm. Photo courtesy of Metropolitan Forestry Services.

How to make it work

I solicited the advice of other couples who work together in our industry to get some insight on how they make it work in their companies and marriages. What types of challenges are specific to our industry? Much of the advice is what you would expect. Keep work separate from home. Have very separate and distinct roles. Take time for yourselves. Be respectful of each other. Solid advice, but how do we put this into practice?

• Have a real conversation about what each other’s strengths and weaknesses are. Put each other’s strengths to work for the company, while being cognizant of each other’s weakness so you can support and bolster each other where needed.

• Scheduling: Everything has to be scheduled when you are both putting your heart and soul into a small business. Schedule both professional activities and personal: date nights, kids’ activities, meetings, reviews, etc.

• Look to other couples in the industry as well as outside of it to glean advice from those who are doing it well, and even those who were not successful working together. As we all know, sometimes failures can provide the best insight.

Amy Grewe, of Arbor Aesthetics in Omaha, Nebraska, has some eloquent and thoughtful advice on the topic. She and her husband, Jeff, work together, and they have two small boys.

“Working with your spouse is an illuminating experience,” says Grewe. “The things that drive you crazy at home can drive you even more crazy at work. But maintaining a professional relationship in front of our crew is important. At work, we are business partners first and have had to work on the subtle messages we send with our body language, our choice of words and decisions and how we speak about each other when the other is not around. We’ve been in the business together for almost six years, and we are very much a work in progress.

“Working together works for us because we have such different skill sets. We rarely step on each other’s toes. When it comes time to make a big decision, we come at it from different perspectives. I’m in front of the books all day. He’s got his mind on sales all day. He watches the money come in. I watch it go out. We are advantaged to see things from two different angles,” Grewe explains.

“The hardest part is not to take things personally, and if you do, to have the self-awareness and maturity to shine the light back on yourself. We are so easily triggered by the words and actions of others, when really the pain is coming from within. Something you don’t like about yourself – not them – is touching a nerve. You cannot change the other person – and that’s just good marital advice, whether you work with your spouse or not.

“There is an incredible opportunity for personal growth while working with your spouse,” Grewe continues. “You have a choice every day whether or not you are going to look inside and do the hard work on yourself or waste your efforts on others. The latter comes with a tremendous risk of creating workplace toxicity. Employees need to know they are coming to work in a stable environment every day. They need to know our home life is not going to affect their work life.

“On that note, however, we keep it real – to a point,” says Grewe. “We are incredibly transparent with our staff about the therapy and counseling we do to keep our relationship healthy. If you are going to work with your spouse – or not – get a therapist! Everyone needs a good therapist!”

“On that note, however, we keep it real – to a point,” says Grewe. “We are incredibly transparent with our staff about the therapy and counseling we do to keep our relationship healthy. If you are going to work with your spouse – or not – get a therapist! Everyone needs a good therapist!”

Julie Weaver, who works with her husband, Bryan, at their company, Climb High Tree Service in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, says that working together helped her have a new appreciation for the work her spouse does.

“I sure didn’t appreciate what he went through physically and mentally on a daily basis until I started working alongside him on job sites, and now my appreciation for his hard work is through the roof,” Weaver says, “and I am a bit more understanding when he may be tired or grumpy and just seems to ‘check out’ some days after work. I appreciate what he does professionally a lot more, too. I know a lot of wives who have no clue what their husband does during the workday, and therefore they are missing out on an opportunity to see their husband work hard and master his craft. I am lucky enough to watch my husband work and be in awe of what he accomplishes.

“I love watching Bryan work – he is just very good at what he does, and is a true ‘artist’ in trimming and planning out removals as well as the way he relates to our customers. Recently, I was reading through an inch-thick file of customer notes that have been returned to us through the years with their payments. Reading all of the appreciation for Bryan and his work, his professionalism and the way our job sites are left once we are finished made me extremely proud of him.”

Julie and Bryan Weaver on a training climb. Photo courtesy of Climb High Tree Service.

There may be no perfect model for working alongside your spouse, but there are plenty of us muddling through it. It is a learning process that takes constant improvement, awareness, empathy and practice.

A big thank you for all the contributions and comments from our friends who are maneuvering through working with their spouses: Amber Delehanty, Stacey Marcell, Tracy Logan, April Petree, Doreen Hudson Orist, Sherry Gruenfeld-Farrow, Dominique Pascale Piche, Nora Bryan, Beth Gillian, Tina Hall-Tresselt, Danae Jackson, Carrie Poff, Julie Weaver, Amy Grewe and Amy Burkett.

Meggan Hargrave, CTSP, is president of Metroplitan Forestry Services, Inc., an accredited, 23-year TCIA member company based in Ballwin, Missouri. She and her husband, Matt, took the company over from Hargrave’s father, Dan Christie, in 2017.

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