The Economics of Mechanization: Rise of the Machines

Michael Euliano knew he wanted to mechanize when he founded Technical Tree Service in Goffstown, New Hampshire, in April 2018. But he lacked both the funding and the business expertise.

Euliano, now 32 years old, was a certified tree climber who came from a high-end pruning and removal background. Striking out on his own, he built his company from that base of skills – using a chain saw, climbing rope and tree spikes while operating out of his Nissan Altima.

“I climbed everything and rented chippers until I could afford my own, then bought my first chipper and kept climbing until I could afford my first bucket truck,” Euliano recalls. From there, he “just kept growing.”

Euliano created a relationship with lenders, refined his marketing, wrote business plans and bought a grapple-saw truck four years ago. He taught himself how to use it (“broke a few things here and there”) and focused on three key things: safety, efficiency and productivity.

“The grapple saw enabled me to multitask without putting myself physically or mentally at risk,” Euliano says. “I could do more with less. That was really the goal.”

More companies than ever are adding to their machine inventory in hopes of working more efficiently, more safely and – perhaps the trickiest – more profitably. For some business owners, mechanization has provided a payoff that is exactly what they envisioned.

In this piece, four business owners talk about their successes with heavy equipment.

Red Grapple on back of a white truck lifting a large tree trunk. example of mechanization.
“The grapple saw enabled me to multitask without putting myself physically or mentally at risk,” says Michael Euliano. “I could do more with less. That was really the goal.” Photo courtesy of Technical Tree Service.

Taking climbers out of the tree

One is Euliano’s Technical Tree Service, a second-year TCIA member company that serves a 20-mile radius around the Manchester and Nashua, N.H., area. Technical Tree employs two grapple trucks and two crews.

In a labor-strapped industry that takes a toll on the body and comes with aerial and other risks, Euliano found he was able to take himself and other climbers out of the trees. He could cut the tree and stack the logs using the 90-foot boom, without putting wear and tear on his body or those of his employees.

His business has benefited.

“The moment I bought the first grapple-saw truck, it doubled my profits immediately,” Euliano says. “We were burning through work. Then I bought another one. I upgraded and realized, ‘Wow, I’m almost tripling the profit of the first year.’”

Each year since, he says, he’s doubled or tripled his profits.

“We can put trees on the ground really fast,” Euliano says. “With a typical 70-foot oak tree, 20-inch diameter at the base, it takes us 20 minutes to put it on the ground,” depositing pieces of the tree onto the truck or directly into the chipper.

In comparison, a similar job with a bucket truck might take an hour to an hour-and-a-half, he says.

“Our set-up time is three minutes,” adds Euliano, who owns a Fassi Crane with a grapple that stays attached. “We put the outriggers out and down, and we go to work.”

Grapple truck with two workers nearby loadimg a tree trunk into a pickup truck demonstrating mechanization.
From the time he bought his first crane, Nich Maidment rented it to construction crews in the area. For that reason, he says, it’s been profitable since day one. Photo courtesy of Asheville Arborists.

A word of caution

There are things to beware of when you buy heavy equipment, including safety and monetary concerns, according to Euliano. While his grapple truck makes jobs quicker, for safety, the operator needs to be certain to set up on level terrain, get the outriggers out safely, park on solid ground and maintain distance from power lines. The owner needs to keep the machine busy to cover expenses.

As he’s grown his business, Euliano has found it worth the effort. He has another truck on order and plans to continue to expand.

“It’s a no-brainer that you’re highly productive when you have the right crew members, the right amount of work and the right systems in place to produce tree work,” he says.

Mechanization mission

Across the country, Ed Martinez, vice president of Rancho Tree Service, a four-year TCIA member company based in Bakersfield, California, is also a big proponent of mechanization. When he joined Rancho two years ago, the company was transitioning from being a subcontractor in line-clearance work to becoming a prime contractor. Rancho Tree Service does a significant amount of utility work – 95% of its workload – mostly in Northern California. It also does residential, commercial, storm-cleanup and orchard work in Kern County and parts of Fresno County. It has about 300 workers in the field.

Martinez has focused on safety and mechanization. Buying Sennebogen 718 and Sennebogen 728 material handlers (they currently own one of each) – which enable operators to cut and remove trees quickly and efficiently – achieved both goals. The company also added Albach Diamant mobile chippers and Air Curtain Burners.

“I knew the (Sennebogen) machines were going to be not only a game changer, but would disrupt the industry,” Martinez says. “With safety, reducing human exposure is key out there. It’s the heart of what we do at Rancho now, and what we’re calling Rancho Tree Service 2.0. Our evolution is based on safety and making sure we’re investing in the future.

“Mechanized solutions in the arboriculture and agriculture industries have a higher initial cost up front, but they lead to greater savings,” Martinez adds, noting that they also reduce crew footprint, human exposure and liability. “What’s also sometimes missed is the safe placement of the material onto the ground. With the proper placement, it saves money on the back end.”

The company still puts climbers into trees, but climbers are assigned to jobs where their expertise is most needed. “They’re definitely in the tight areas where the key climbers need to be,” he says, “but this allows us to get to more work faster.”

In the first year with the new machines, revenue increased 58%, according to Martinez.

Mechanization example overhead view of a green Sennebogen reaching across water to cut a palm tree.
“With safety, reducing human exposure is key,” says Ed Martinez. “Our evolution is based on safety and making sure we’re investing in the future.” Photo courtesy of Rancho Tree Service.

Adapting to meet demand

The change has helped Rancho Tree Service meet demand. It has also given it the ability to expand and be prepared for large storms, wildfire mitigation and post-wildfire cleanup. “The big guys are getting (the work) because they have the right equipment,” Martinez says. “I think you need to have a one-stop shop – you can provide key services, have the right equipment and be the right partner for each of your clients.”

A company needs to be cognizant of maintenance, training and safe practices, as well as understanding how the machine is used best, Martinez says. Rancho recently removed some palms by a waterway that were going to be tough to access. “We just reached right over the waterway and were able to cut them and bring them down on our side of the stream,” Martinez says.

“As we continue to grow, we know we’ve made the right investment in (going) mechanized.”

Worker wear and tear

Nich Maidment, CTSP, bought his first knuckle-boom crane roughly 12 years ago, and bought a second one three years ago, an Effer 655 outfitted by Altec.

“As much as anything, the equipment has allowed me to keep employees around,” says Maidment, co-owner of Asheville Arborists, an accredited, 13-year TCIA member company based in Asheville, North Carolina. “I don’t want to have a lot of employee turnover. We try to stay away from the jobs where it’s all just strictly manual labor. We try to cater to a higher-end clientele, things that are a little bit more mechanized and easier on the bodies.”

Maidment’s company services primarily residential and some commercial clients in a 50-mile radius around Asheville. Work ebbs and flows, and Maidment runs one to two crews, depending on the workload.

He was expansion minded once, Maidment says, but his focus has changed. His reliance on equipment is more about efficiency, which has provided pleasant benefits.

“Finding really top-end employees is tough, (and) keeping them is tough,” Maidment says. “I realized that instead of trying to do more and more, I can back off just a little bit, flow with the demand and ramp up production whenever I need to, but also have a safety net whenever something breaks. That’s been my philosophy, and I’m able to charge a little bit more to be able to do that.”

Mechanization and retaining workers

Maidment sees a direct correlation between mechanization and retaining workers.

“Good employees don’t want to work with junk equipment,” he says. “Instead of pushing crew members to work 40 to 60 hours, we’re pushing 30-plus hours of production work a week and keeping the weekly count of hours closer to 40. We don’t have the burnout, and we can keep them showing up week after week, month after month, year after year. It’s allowed me to be sustainable.

“I think egos in the tree industry get the best of a lot of us,” Maidment says. “Thinking that you’ve got to do more and more. Whenever you finish your removal early, you get another one, start on the next job – that sort of mentality. I’ve tried to resist that. As you get older, you mature a little bit, and you realize it’s not a sprint, it’s more of a marathon.”

Make it profitable

From the time he bought the first crane, Maidment rented it, with an operator, to construction crews in the area. For that reason, he says, it’s been profitable since day one.

If a company opts to buy one, he says, they should anticipate outsized repair bills. “Nothing costs less than $1,000, it seems,” Maidment says. “There’s a different level of maintenance and cost for it, but it was easily justifiable for me. In terms of production, it does what a crew of people can do in some cases. It pays for itself in getting things done and taking a load off.

“The other equipment that is worth every penny is mini skid steers and material handlers. Those easily do the work of three or four people on the ground over the course of a day. I was talking with my mechanic about it, how we don’t have the need to get our trucks into tricky spots because we can just take the debris to the trucks.”

Expansion minded

Also in North Carolina, Nathan Morrison began Charlotte-based Arborscapes, a nine-year TCIA member company, in 2000 with business partner and childhood friend Jason Tebben.

“My background’s tree care,” Morrison says. “I have a degree in urban forestry from Ohio State. My business partner’s background is landscape horticulture, and his degree is in horticulture from Ohio State.

“I helped him do landscape installs, which I didn’t have much of an idea about how to do. That was his background. He helped me do tree care, because that was my background, and the two interests combined to become Arborscapes. That’s how we got our name. We grew year by year and added a few employees here, added a truck there, added machines. We ran (Toro) Dingos, little wheeled units (mini skid steers) back in 2000, probably two or so.”

They used the Dingos for landscaping and to load up wood when they were doing tree work. It made the jobs quicker and saved their bodies from wear and tear.

“We used whatever tools we could to make the job easier,” Morrison says.

Adam Caughey, Arborscapes’ certified grapple-saw operator, performs some maintenance. Photo courtesy of Arborscapes.

Making work easier with mechanization

That was the company’s first form of mechanization, and other machines followed – larger skid steers first, and then more as the company grew.

“Probably in 2007, we started realizing that the larger trees we had to remove were a lot easier using a crane,” he recalls. “I was the climber, and we would rent cranes with our operators from different companies in Charlotte. We would use their crane to basically strap up the tops and limbs of trees. I would climb and make the cuts and the limbs would basically float up through the air and then go down very carefully to the ground, where we had to process them and clean them up with a chipper.”

Servicing residential and commercial landscape and tree clients in Greater Charlotte, the company has 70 employees. They also have 51 vehicles on the road and “countless numbers” of machines. Those include a crane with a 112-foot boom and a knuckle boom with a grapple saw, a BIK TC-126.

“(The knuckle boom) was one of the riskier decisions we’ve made, because it was $640,000 and we didn’t know what the return was going to be,” Morrison recalls. “After the first year, we thought of selling the truck, because my operator at the time was using it, but it wasn’t being used as efficiently as it really should have been.”

Addressing inefficiencies

To better use the knuckle boom, Arborscapes had its operators work with trainers from New Jersey Crane Experts.

“My operator’s learning curve went up significantly,” Morrison says. “On top of that, my sales arborist understood a lot more about how to use and sell the work for the grapple-saw truck. It wasn’t just for these gigantic tree removals. We decided it was better and more efficient for medium-sized tree removals on our jobs.

“Our grapple saw could go from one job to another to remove trees, while the other part of the crew would prune and continue doing the rest of the work they could do without the grapple saw. We were able to figure out the efficiency of it. We use it almost every single day.”

That’s just one of many machines in Arborscapes’ inventory.

“We have 14 Vermeer mini skid steers,” Morrison says. “They work well for both the tree and landscape side, because you can change out the attachment heads. You can put a trencher on it, you can put a grapple on it. You can put a bucket on it for loading mulch and soil and doing landscape projects.

“Every one of those machines is valuable to us,” he adds. “They help the crew work efficiently and not have to work as hard, especially in our hot summers when we get up to 95 degrees.”

Mechanization conclusion

Echoing a sentiment expressed by others, Morrison notes that investing in equipment has benefits beyond profitability, including safety, employee retention and long-term growth and stability. It is part of building a company and a culture, he says.

“Your gross profit grows, and your debt gets paid down month by month by month,” Morrison says. “When the machine is paid off in five to seven years, depending on how long the term goes, hopefully you’ve taken care of that machine to the point where it can go for five more, 10 more years depending on what type of equipment it is.”

The company has a mechanic on staff and a routine that includes regular degreasing, greasing, filter changes and washing.

“People have more longevity at companies that have equipment that is good and that is kept up with,” Morrison says. “Providing smooth-running, effective and clean machines is part of creating an environment to attract and retain a quality workforce, which is an important part of building infrastructure.”


    1. The answers to those questions are probably machine specific and are best addressed to individual manufacturers. – editors

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