In an industry marked by labor shortages and hiring challenges, Stacy Hughes, president of Hughes Tree Service – a 30-year TCIA member company based in Omaha, Nebraska – credits his company’s high employee-retention rate to treating his people well. Hughes’ father, Terry, founded Terry Hughes Tree Service more than 60 years ago (he passed away in 2018), and his son notes that he took over the business from his father in the mid-’90s.
“I’ve taken the business from basically a mom-and-pop operation to having 60 full-time, year-round employees. We don’t lay off in the off-season, and haven’t in 15 years, and we only have about 5% turnover annually. Our average tenure is eight years, and five out of our 60 employees have been with us for 20 years.”
Hughes Tree Service covers the Omaha area and spills over into western Iowa. According to Hughes, 70% of his business is residential, with the remaining being commercial, including land clearing. On the residential side, Hughes Tree Service does plant health care, root-zone therapy, insect control – he says they were on the cutting edge of battling emerald ash borer – and tree pruning and removal. “We do a lot of removals in the winter,” Hughes adds. “We also do commercial snow removal, and I have a mulch operation as well.”
Every year, says Hughes, he tries to schedule a large Arbor Day project at a local non-profit such as a church, school or cemetery. “Arbor Day started in Nebraska (in 1874), so I feel like we should honor the day,” he notes.
Setting themselves apart
When it comes to what sets Hughes Tree Service apart from the competition, Hughes is quick to answer. “It’s our professionalism and our ethics,” he says, “and those are a direct result of our going through the Accreditation process. It was a great way to distinguish ourselves from others in the area.”
Hughes adds that his company was the first accredited tree care company in Nebraska, earning its credential in 2005. “It increased our visibility tremendously,” he says. “I saw it as a great way to stand out and a great marketing tool. For the longest time, we were the only company in Nebraska to be nationally accredited, and I put that everywhere! I was blown away that our competitors didn’t get on board (with Accreditation) right after that.”
Hughes continues, “I’ve been a fan of the Accreditation program since its inception (in 2004) as a great way to become more professional and organized. We’ve been going through the audits every three years now, and it’s still the best thing we ever did, the best money I ever spent. I totally see the value in it. And yes, it definitely has brought us more interest (as far as getting jobs) at the large, commercial company level. And potential employees see an organized, professional company, and they know working here can be the start of a career rather than just a short-term job.”
As Hughes stretches his memory back more than 17 years to his company’s original Accreditation process, he recalls putting together a team of four to five key people who pulled the necessary information together. “Everybody had a section to do according to their area of expertise,” he says. “It really wasn’t that hard. It took maybe six months, and we did the majority of the work in about 90 days over the offseason.
“Writing the business plan was the hardest part,” he says. “It definitely took the longest time the first time we did it. Now, the funny thing is, I do this (update the business plan) every year by myself, and it’s the best tool I have. You can’t believe how much things change in this business year over year! I update pricing, business projections, even the number of competitors that have come and gone.”
One thing Hughes learned during the Accreditation process was the need for better organization. “We needed to document our training a lot better and keep better employee records. We weren’t nearly as well organized as we are now.”
Increased safety training has been a huge benefit of going through Accreditation, also resulting in having three CTSPs (Certified Treecare Safety Professionals) on staff. “We do weekly tailgate meetings, and we bring in professional, outside safety instructors annually,” Hughes says. “Probably 90% of our training materials are from TCIA. We try to get in 10 hours of continuing education per employee, per year.
“Our company mod rate is 0.74, which essentially means we’re 25% safer than other companies. That means we save on our Workers’ Comp premium, and we split those savings 50-50 annually with our staff as part of the profit-sharing program. We treat our people well here – it literally pays to be safe.”
As Hughes looks to the future, he says he can see growing Hughes Tree Service to 100 employees within five years. “I have some big plans, but I can’t discuss them yet,” he says. No doubt they’ll include even more opportunities for building employee morale and loyalty.