Courtney and Audra Kelly were born and raised in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. This also is where they put down roots, started a family and decided to establish a tree-service business. At Audra’s urging to “take a chance,” the couple began their company, ArborTech, in October 2008 in Gilmanton, New Hampshire.
“My earliest exposure to horticulture and arboriculture was working at a landscape center when I was in my teens,” says Courtney. “And I was very lucky that my high school had a vocational center attached to it where I took agri-science classes.”
He also worked in logging off and on during this time and became a firefighter and EMT before becoming a utility line worker in his early twenties. While working as a line worker, he had the opportunity to work with a fellow employee who was an extremely talented climber. “He taught me a lot, and we enjoyed working together on the weekends doing difficult takedowns,” says Courtney.
Audra had worked for the Yellow Pages, aka the phonebook. “That experience gave me an understanding of advertising and led to our first ad, which cost more than our mortgage,” Audra says. “It seemed reckless at the time, but we knew if we could acquire one job a month from it, it would pay for itself. After that, it was all about proving ourselves, and then word of mouth became the best advertising.
The early years
“In October 2008, our country was in the middle of a recession,” Audra recounts. “Right at the beginning of winter – in New Hampshire.”
“The economy was on a downturn, and here we’d decided I’d leave a steady, well-paying job to start our own tree care business,” Courtney adds. “Our family and friends thought we were out of our minds.”
“We thought, ‘If we can make it through this, we can make it through anything,’” says Audra. And make it they did.
A few years into the business they reached six full-time employees. It was time to “go hard or go home,” according to Courtney. They realized they needed to pay more attention to the administrative side of the business. In 2014, they became members of TCIA.
“TCIA was and still is the resource we tap into to move forward,” Audra says. “They definitely have been the biggest contributor to our success on the administrative side.”
In 2018, they bought land and built a four-bay shop with office space in Gilford, N.H., the adjacent town. They now have 16 employees comprising three to four crews, a sales team and an office staff.
Building a reputation
The key to success
“The key to success is providing the best service, having a work ethic that beats the competition and forming relationships,” Courtney says. “What sets us apart is listening to people and establishing connections. We are building clients, not one-time customers. I’d say more than half our clients are repeat.”
“We are known for being able to take down the most daunting of trees,” Audra says. “We have great relationships with other local tree companies that will refer these types of jobs to us. That’s what led to our tagline, ‘Tree Removal Experts,’ years ago.
“Court has always been on the cutting edge of operating safer, more efficiently and with the proper gear,” she adds. “And it may sound small, but cleanup is huge to our clients. We’re constantly hearing people say, ‘It’s like the tree was never there.’”
The Accreditation process
ArborTech is one of an elite group of tree care companies that holds dual Accreditation, both Residential and Utility Contractor (UC). It earned the Residential credential in August 2022 and UC in February of this year.
“I knew Accreditation was the best-in-class designation for our industry,” Courtney explains.
Audra put together an Accreditation team that included herself, Courtney and their HR staff. “It was a collaborative effort,” she says. “I took the templates and made them ours, which is why it took so long (one year). We made the systems work to fit our company needs.
“I already had developed a small business plan. However, as I dove into the Accreditation criteria, it became a real eye opener. The business plan was definitely the hardest part for me. Turns out I thought I was doing better than I actually was,” she says with a laugh. “For instance, I had never even considered having a succession plan.
“The process was so beneficial to us in terms of policies and procedures,” Audra continues. “ArborTech has become more deliberate, purposeful and intentional, which is extremely beneficial to our team and to our clients, who we have always considered to be ‘Our Boss.’”
Audra says that after the initial Accreditation process was completed, it seemed like an obvious decision to go for their UC Accreditation. “It was a logical ‘next move,’ seeing as how we are vendors for our local utility. We just had to go a few steps further for the UC credential. Most of the legwork was already done.
“We are proud to be one of only 13 other tree companies in the United States that are dual accredited,” she notes.
A culture of safety
With three CTSPs on staff, including Courtney, he says safety is of utmost importance at ArborTech. “We have a very apparent culture of safety. Our onboarding is slow, because we want every employee properly trained.”
In addition to weekly tailgate safety meetings, ArborTech hires outside experts for quarterly trainings on topics such as climbing gear and proper tree identification. They also were awarded an Arborist Safety Training Institute (ASTI) grant in 2022, which they used to host a training in single rope technique (SRT). “We very much enjoy having a large facility with a training room and plenty of shop and outside space so we can invite other tree care companies to our training events,” says Audra.
The Kellys’ community involvement doesn’t end there. They also participate in several career fairs, including the New Hampshire Forest Career Field Day and some held at local high schools, where they can demonstrate exactly what they do as arborists. “We’re proud to have the opportunity to show our youth what this profession has to offer,” says Audra.
As for the future, the couple hopes to add plant health care (PHC) to ArborTech’s list of offerings, as well as expand the company’s presence in the Lakes Region. “Within five years, we foresee another location that will mimic what we already have as far as space, layout and people” says Audra. “Our reputation precedes us, and we wouldn’t be where we are today without our team and the support of TCIA.”