This is the third and final part of a series by the author. Part 1, “Musings on Tree Work and Plant Health Care After 40 Years in the Industry,” (TCI, October 2020) covered his getting into the industry, the importance of mentors and the education and training needed for a career in PHC. Part 2, “Programs, Treatments and Fertilizers,” (TCI, December 2020) covered schools of thought on PHC programs, diagnosing sick trees and plants, fertilizers and treating trees and plants.
In this final installment of the series, we’ll discuss the business of PHC, including recordkeeping, sales and marketing and the importance of cash flow.
Recordkeeping and paperwork
Recordkeeping is absolutely important and imperative! You cannot survive in arboriculture and plant health care (PHC) programs without keeping good records.
These records should include:
• Who is the client and what is their address?
• What is the prescription for each tree?
• Who applied the treatment?
• What plant(s) did they treat?
• What products did they use?
• What is the specific target insect, disease or soil issue?
• What is the rate of the product used? How many injection units, gallons, pounds of product were used?
• When is the proper time to treat or re-treat?
• What time of day was the plant treated?
• What was the temperature at time of treatment? What was the wind speed and direction?
• How long did it take to administer the treatment?
• How long was the driving time from the shop to client A; then from client A to client B, etc.?
• What were the gross sales of insect and disease treatments, number of fertilizer/soil-therapy treatments, etc., so far this month and year? Last year, and the year before, both by the year and by the month.
Recordkeeping is necessary to help you know which products to order for the coming year. If you know you used 10 cases of Mauget products, 16 liters of Arborjet G4, four gallons of Short Stop tree-growth regulator, 10 cases of Safari insecticide, 11 Sigma Organics 88-count jugs of imidacloprid 1.6-ounce packets and 100 gallons of Nature’s Pro Bio-Tree & Shrub liquid-fertilizer concentrate last year, you can project you will probably come close to using the same amounts this coming year. It also allows you to have some negotiating power to purchase your products at the best price.
Recordkeeping gives you a baseline to determine if you are doing more, the same or less work from one year to the next. You have a means of measuring your internal sales and production performance. Analysis of sales records and data is one of the most important ways upper management can get a handle on what is happening in the field.
Lastly, recordkeeping gives you answers in case of a spillage accident, or if a client says your treatment killed the dog or caused the death of a plant, or if an employee claims to be poisoned. This is all vitally important in our litigious society.
Marketing and sales
Another “Moneyism” (advice from one of the author’s mentors) for you: “It is a lot easier to project a positive image, even when small, than to change a poor image once you start to grow.” Some of you remember the old cowboy shows of the ’50s and ’60s. You remember those towns the cowpokes would ride into. Well, they were sets for the show. There were two-by-fours holding up the façades of most of those towns. You’d go through the door and there would be nothing there. As the cowpoke went through the door, a scene change took place, and you were in a different setting that looked like you were inside of a building. When you are a small company, you must build a façade and image, even if it is not filled in behind. As time goes on and you grow your company, the rest of the town and buildings are built out and filled in.
If you are not currently offering a PHC program, then do not expect your clients to rush to contact you about it. You have to be a walking, talking public-
relations executive! If you don’t toot your horn, no one else is going to. Marketing is simply letting the client and public know you can offer more than just tree pruning and takedowns. However, you must change your paradigm. You have to do more than give Mrs. Schmidlap just a quote on the tree pruning; you have to look for other trees and tree and plant problems in her yard and bring them to her attention. Let her know you can help her with those problems, also.
If you currently have a sales team and a PHC program, it is imperative that you analyze each sales representative’s previous year’s sales. Find out what specifically they are selling. You will find out if they are stuck in a rut of selling the same things over and over. If so, they are leaving “money on the table.” You don’t want to browbeat them for this. You simply need to have a pleasant in-house discussion and sharing of these things. Once the errant sales rep has it brought to their attention, they should start to expand their sales into the missing areas.
Are all sales representatives selling both PHC and tree work? If not, you are leaving money on the table. Your sales force must become conversant in all aspects of the trees and plants in your area of the country.
So – marketing? I hung my hat on the J.J. Mauget Company’s slogan, “We Save Trees,” in 1977. I also implemented the slogan “Excellence in Arboriculture” a few years later. And I hung my hat on “Tree Topping Hurts.” These are things I wanted the public to know in as few words as possible.
I branded the latter logo in every way and every place I could think of. I created and had manufactured signs with the anti-tree-topping logo. I sold them to the city of Knoxville and other cities. They are placed near schools and parks and other public places, so they are seen by children and adults on a daily basis. The slogan is now emblazoned in the minds of the citizenry. They do not know why it hurts, but they know they do not want their trees topped.
This message (Tree Topping Hurts) was broadcast in a jingle on the local public-radio station for years in relation to my former business, Cortese Tree Specialists. Clients could and would recite it to me.
Years ago, Knoxville, Tennessee, started a spring home-and-garden fair. I was one of the first companies to sign up. The first year I just had a table with a tablecloth hanging over it. On the table I placed pinecones, oak galls, a cross section of a small tree with fungi growing out of it, moth-pupa cases I had found hanging in trees and some literature from the Tennessee Division of Forestry and the local agricultural extension service. Another year, I created a lightning-demonstration model for this show. In another, I brought in a 12-inch-diameter, topped-tree section and hung hats on all of the branch stubs, illustrating the concept that “topped trees are nothing but giant hat racks.”
One year, I brought in a large cross section of a white pine that had been cut in the late 1940s. At the time, it was noted as the largest-known white pine in the state of Tennessee. I polished it down thoroughly and laminated it, then pins and identification tags of dates significant to the local history were put on it. I can tell you, it was a major draw to our booth.
I discovered I was tired of competing with those who let their fingers do the walking through the Yellow Pages. Yes, at one time there were Yellow Pages telephone-advertising directories, and they were a very expensive form of advertising. It dawned on me that my major clientele were folks who supported the arts: symphony, opera, art museum, dance, plays, library society, botanic gardens and arboreta. My clients liked listening to classical music on public radio. My advertisements were never in-your-face hard and crass. They were pleasant, tying tree preservation to Cortese Tree Specialists. The folks who support the arts usually have disposable income available to keep their trees looking good. They genuinely appreciated that I would put some of my funds back into helping their favorite arts group or charity.
There are a lot of groups, schools, civic clubs and garden clubs that need speakers. Go speak, pass out cards or brochures. The phone rings, you increase sales. I made lists of the civic clubs and had my administrative assistant draw up a short letter introducing Jim Cortese as a potential speaker for their organization on tree-related issues. We did this for the local radio and television news shows also, making me available to discuss tree-related issues.
Then there are all the charities that have balls and events to raise money. Most will have a silent-auction area where many things are set out on display, and the members of these groups go by and bid on the items. (Although in times of COVID-19, many of these are now virtual.) I had tree work for attendees to bid on at every opportunity I could. This was especially good for two reasons. First, even if the folks did not bid on my item, they looked at the Cortese name and later, when they suddenly had bugs chewing on their trees, they remembered us and called. Then there were those who actually bid on the tree service offered. By the end of the evening, I had a job sold. All I had to do was work out the details. All of this is valuable company branding.
Cash flow is king!
I have found over the years that cash-flow management is the most important thing I ever did. If your business does not have good cash flow, it will go under. Probably the most important lessons young arborists have to learn, often painfully, is that cash really is king. I’m not talking about paper money – I’m talking about cash flow.
In reality, it doesn’t matter how much money is coming in in the future if you don’t have enough money to get from here to there. Your employees can’t wait on paychecks until your customers pay. Your landlord doesn’t care that you’re talking to potential investors and may have the money in a couple of months. Your suppliers probably will not be willing to extend your credit any further, and you may not be able to purchase the goods you need in order to treat your clients’ trees and receive payment.
More tree/arboricultural services fail for lack of cash flow than for lack of profit. There are two main reasons for this:
• Tree-service owners are often unrealistic in predicting their cash flow, or have no clue as to what this is. They tend to overestimate potential income and underestimate expenses.
• Tree-service owners fail to anticipate a cash shortage and run out of money, forcing them to suspend or cease operations, even though they have active customers.
One possible solution for consideration: Do you have a bank, credit union or other financial institution “line of credit?” If not, then you could be in trouble when the phone calls slow down or when your clients are slow in paying.
This is something you need to do while the getting is good! It is impossible to get a line of credit during bad times. I recommend a minimum of $40,000-$50,000 or more. This is something you do not use unless you are really up against it.
Not the end, but the beginning
Regardless of where you are on your arboricultural journey, if you work hard and study hard, talk with your colleagues and have confidence in yourself and what you are doing, success will come your way. It is about education – educating yourself, educating your employees, educating your clients and educating the citizens of your community. The more you educate, the higher the bar is raised in your community and the greater the separation between your company and your competitors.
Why is this so? Because your competitors are stuck in “old arboriculture.” You are helping the citizens of your community know what modern arboriculture is all about – and why they should have you taking care of their trees and plants!
A short primer on cash flow:
Jim Cortese is an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist (BCMA), a member of the American Society of Consulting Arborists (ASCA), president and CEO of Jim Cortese Consulting Arborist, a 40-year TCIA member company based in Knoxville, Tennessee, and president, CEO and the major stockholder of TIPCO (Tree Injection Products Company), Inc., a seven-year TCIA Corporate Member company, also based in Knoxville. He started both TIPCO, a distributor of plant-health-care products nationwide, and Cortese Tree Specialists, Inc., in 1977. Cortese Tree Specialists had an average of 15 full-time employees for the 35 years prior to its sale to The Davey Tree Expert Company in 2013. He also is a 2020 recipient of ISA’s True Professional of Arboriculture Award.