It’s lonely at the top, and it helps for tree care business leaders to have solid branches for support. Enter TCIA’s Peer-to-Peer (P2P) program, the only one of its kind dedicated to the tree industry. It has been on a recent growth trajectory both in the number of participants and the variety of groups available for different income levels.
Each peer group is a facilitated, self-governing, strategic gathering of company leaders willing to share their backgrounds, skills and industry experiences. The purpose is to develop strategies, solutions and best practices for personal, professional or business development.
“Since joining the peer group, I have learned to lean on the group as a sounding board for new ideas,” says Trumbull Barrett. Barrett is president of Barrett Tree Service East Inc., an accredited, 16-year TCIA member company based in Medford, Massachusetts. “It gives you confidence to take risks you might otherwise not. And sharing your experience allows you to learn from the other leaders.”
“This is an activity I believe in that is very helpful to your business and creates a forum to get out of your own little world to grow your business and yourself,” says John R. Hendricksen. Hendricksen was founder and CEO of The Care of Trees, now part of Davey Tree, an accredited, 50-year TCIA member company based in Kent, Ohio. Now a consultant for Davey and living in Naples, Florida, Hendricksen has led a P2P group for high-revenue tree care companies for the past five years. His nephew, Robert Hendricksen, is a senior member of that group.
Importance of networking
“I am probably one of the elder statesmen within TCIA,” says John Hendricksen, who was president of TCIA in the 1980s when TCIA was called the National Arborist Association.
“I would go to the annual meetings and listen to the speakers, but also meet my peers. Usually I would get to talking to someone a little bolder or in business longer. I would try to glom onto their ideas, even to the point that, if I thought they were similar in scope to my company, I would go visit them throughout the year. Through them I was able to grow my own business.”
The first 30 years running his business, Hendricksen found TCIA instrumental in helping its growth. His company, The Care of Trees, merged with Davey Tree in 2008.
“The majority of that growth was from my peers. By having a peer group, that process doesn’t have to take 30 years, it can take a couple of years.” With a larger group of eight to 10 people, “someone will have a solution – or a whole group can brainstorm a solution – that can open options they wouldn’t have had on their own.”
Active participation required
One key attribute is having the confidence to act, Hendricksen notes.
“It gives you an opportunity to think that somebody had that problem before, and if they have gotten through it, then maybe you can do it, too. Then you can take action and move forward. A lot of the time you don’t have the information when you are by yourself.
“On a less tangible basis is friendships,” Hendricksen says. “You now have people who understand your business, and you can call them up and ask their advice on business or personal levels, which you didn’t have until you had peer interaction.
“People think they can come to peer group and get all the answers, but that’s not true,” Hendricksen adds. “They have to participate, and their participation creates the answers and suggestions and course of actions from other members. It’s not a cookie-cutter solution. It requires a commitment on the part of participants to do their homework. It’s not easy. Often, they are like chickens with their heads cut off trying to run their businesses.”
Solving real issues
TCIA peer groups follow roughly a similar schedule of four in-person meetings a year. These are interspersed with monthly Zoom meetings, sometimes more often, as well as group emails for in-between feedback.
What has Hendricksen’s group tackled recently?
“Probably the most on-point example I can think of is the recent government aid to businesses through the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) during COVID. We were able to work though it together as a group. Collectively, some of the members were already on top of it and others were not. But the ones behind the curve got the confidence to act. That resulted in a distribution of several hundreds of thousands of dollars from the government,” he says.
TCIA currently has three tiers of P2P groups based on yearly revenue, plus a group just for women.
Mundy Wilson Piper is former president and CEO of Chippers Inc., an accredited, long-time TCIA member company that is now part of Davey Tree. She also is a former TCIA Board chair. She will facilitate the new group for women in tree care who are either company owners, co-owners or in decision-making roles within their companies.
“This group is a little bit different. First, it’s women, because we’re in such a male-dominated industry. It’s a place where women have a space for the issues women share and that they are asking for. Also, it’s not to be exclusive; we hope in the future that we don’t have to have that.”
In forming a group, “One of the first things that is super important is establishing group norms and values. How are we going to operate, build trust and respect confidentiality?” Piper says. Participants also sign a confidentiality agreement.
“If you form a peer group with similar-minded people and with similar purposes, you can become a better leader for your own business. People have experienced the problem and can share, not necessarily advise. Advice is a tricky thing. But getting to understand what someone is struggling with in their business and letting the person who is receiving the guidance make their own decision is part of the process. When you get people who are really engaged together, who are focused on helping each other, who are asking great questions and have passion, you get something that can become so powerful.”
It’s not about women
What does Piper think is the biggest issue with being in a male-dominated business?
“I would love the group to address that question,” she says. “Everyone has their own perspective. Personally, I have found incredible support from all of my tree care colleagues, no matter their gender. I’ve been fortunate. I think there are often challenging obstacles not unique to tree care – pay equity, harassment, undervaluing the contributions of women. There are many things to address, many ways we can make improvements.
“I am such an optimist. I always believe that just because there is a problem does not mean we can’t find solutions,” Piper says. She adds that it’s also part of a broader diversity discussion with varied viewpoints.
“It’s like having a board of directors, group therapy or set of big sisters, in my case. You are getting the experience of people in different stages of their business development all wrapped up in one. It’s actually phenomenal,” says Piper.
Trumbull Barrett join the P2P group in 2019, just before COVID arrived.
“The primary driver was that our company was facing a transition, from a very small, roughly 25-person company to 30-plus-employee company. I wanted to connect with people who had gone through that transition or who were contemplating it themselves.” Barrett found out that TCIA had a P2P group and that his former boss, John Hendricksen, was the facilitator. He joined.
One discussion in that group focused on the confusing merits of the initial consultation fee with sales prospects.
“As many companies continue to do, we would provide the initial consultation for the prospect free of charge. In the group, some were considering charging and others not. I really saw how it (charging) could be a tool for quality leads, as opposed to transactional leads, in looking for long-term relationships.”
Barrett instituted that practice in spring 2019, starting at about $65 for an initial consulting fee.“It turned out that was too low, so we’ve since doubled it. We have not looked back. It’s huge. In this market, we are one of the few companies that do that. We focus on prospects who value our time and are looking to create a relationship, versus a one-off transaction. That has transformed our sales process.”
Bonus: A prospect is much less likely to miss the appointment after paying for it.
One other forward-moving action for Barrett included adding a turf-care division based on the experiences of several peers. Another involved opening a second office, only 10 miles away but solving the problem of Boston-area gridlock.
Finding what works
Chris Ahlum has transitioned from a participant to a facilitator. Ahlum is president of Ahlum & Arbor Tree Preservation, an accredited, 52-year TCIA member company based in Columbus, Ohio. His is a Tier-2 mid-level group for business owners with $500,000 to $1 million in annual revenue. Bill Owen, director of arbor operational safety with Monarch Landscape Companies, a five-year TCIA member company based in Milpitas, California, will facilitate the Tier-3 group for new companies.
For Ahlum’s group, the profile is CEOs in business from a couple of years to 10 years. The owner operator is used to doing all the work, and the company is now big enough that the owner can’t be crew leader, ground guy and invoice-collections person all at once, says Ahlum.
“The key is hiring people to help you out and grow in that space. It’s working with other companies going through it,” he says.
Not all of the information might be right for your company. “You take the idea and figure out how it works for you,” he explains.
Ahlum found the group helpful for one of the biggest issues a business owner faces – how to transition a company to a new owner. The challenge he tackled in 2017 involved his father, who ran the company (Ahlum is second generation) and who had been diagnosed with a serious disease.
“We had to transfer the business from him to me. I had eight other people (in the P2P group) helping me out. Some had already gone through a transition or were thinking about it, and it was pretty key advice for making me successful.
“One of the best things is the friendship,” says Ahlum. “I can get on the phone and talk to other peer members about work or personal matters. A lot of conversations happen outside the meetings. It’s knowing who to call for what, such as a health-care problem or a crane issue. It’s really that network that is valuable.”
Tad Jacobs, CTSP, QCL, is president of Treemasters, San Rafael, Calif., an accredited, 15-year TCIA member company. He also is a current TCIA board member. Jacobs is a huge cheerleader for TCIA networking and the P2P program, in which he was a former participant. We caught up with him poolside via phone at TCIA Winter Management Conference in Barbados in early February.
“If I reach out to my staff, they say to give everyone a raise; reach out to my clients, they say cut your rates; purveyors, buy more stuff; competitors, don’t work so much. But if you go to a peer group, they give you your best advice that is in your best interest, as opposed to their own best interest,” says Jacobs.
“As a business owner, I am used to making the decisions myself,” he adds. “When you are in the peer group, you learn to listen to the challenge and formulate your own response. You just become a little more methodical in your problem solving. This is because you’ve heard eight other answers, which allows for self-reflection.
“Being in the peer group, one minute you are a board of advisors to another member. The next moment you have a board of advisors of those same members helping you,” says Jacobs. “It’s a good balance.”
For more information on TCIA’s Peer-to-Peer Program, contact Suzanne Guzman, program administrator, at email@example.com.