Partnering for Response Ahead of the Storm

This crew from Arbortrue, a four-year TCIA member company based in Porter, Texas, was deployed by HMI for storm cleanup following a storm in Texas. Photo courtesy of Brad Phillips/Arbortrue.

As profitable as storm work can be for tree crews that clean up after Mother Nature’s messes, there are ways for companies to form partnerships ahead of time to make the opportunities more numerous, less problematic and more profitable.

Storm networks are lead-generating organizations that work with insurance companies and homeowners to coordinate all the elements required to bring in what are known as “the first first-responders” – the tree care companies that open the roads and help return a storm-devastated area to normalcy. But to take advantage of these opportunities, tree companies have to prove their merit long before any storm hits.

“We are pretty specific about the type of company we want to work with,” says Doug Cowles, founder and president of HMI (Horticultural Asset Management, Inc.), a 13-year TCIA Corporate Member company based in Cary, North Carolina.

HMI’s website describes the company’s core mission as providing insurance adjusters and homeowners with qualified tree care professionals to assist with emergency tree removals and consulting services, and to support subrogation analysis, liability claims and large commercial losses involving plant material. It does this through a network of credentialed tree care companies, certified arborists and other experts. Emergency tree removals are available in 40 states and the Caribbean. The network boasts fully credentialed tree crews, “over 80% of which have been accredited by the Tree Care Industry Association.”

Whether the work is a matter of routine consulting or responding to emergency work, Cowles says that even though the skill sets may be different, “We use the same network for both. In both scenarios, we work to high tree care standards and want to present to the insurance company a layer of quality they can rely on that focuses on the details and follow-through they need to settle a claim.”

Working with the best

“Because emergency tree removal is needed – the largest thing we are involved in right now – we have to assure that who we work with will be the best,” Cowles continues. “That is why we put a high value on companies with professionally credentialed crews, workers’ comp, general liability and a certified arborist on staff,” he says, noting that these are just a few of the minimum criteria HMI requires. “These pre-qualifications,” Cowles maintains, “assure the insurance company that they will be working with the best in the industry.

“For the member, this is an opportunity for tree care to show off skills by doing work safely and responding to, but not gouging, customers, which is a big problem in a post-storm situation,” notes Cowles.

He explains that the partnership among the insurance companies, HMI and its tree care company members “helps by aggregating work through the insurance clients who are accepting of the pricing we present.”

He says, “We provide guidance to each insurance company so they have a good understanding of what they will have to pay for professional tree work. We do not cater to the insurance company trying merely to get the right price and not the best work. Some are biased toward low price. This is not our customer.” Rather, he says, “It is the insurance client who needs to provide safe and efficient services at a price on which they can rely.

“I believe, in the long run, the insurance company does not pay less for someone who is cheap,” says Cowles. “Why? Generally, there’s no extra damage when clients are cared for by the best tree companies.”

Cowles has seen some third-party reviews of post-storm work done by others. “It’s mind-numbing what is being passed on,” he says, with respect to quality of work and fair pricing. “Insurance companies do not need to deal with that.

“In our network, we get highly valuable, qualified leads for our members from insurance carriers who have agreed to pay for the work. Typically, the filed claim is not just a limb in a backyard, it’s a high-value lead,” Cowles explains, meaning it is a more significant, meaningful and profitable assignment. “We just passed our first part of the year, and we track our members’ close rates.” He reports, “We now close three-quarters of all leads we send to our members.”

More billable hours

HMI also works to take even more of the headache away, allowing the owner and crews more time to get profit-
producing work done. “We’re also involved in the administrative and payment side, since we have the structure to get the member paid,” he says, and the timeliness of that process speeds up cash flow.

Referring to the recent tropical storms, including deadly Category-4 Hurricane Laura, Cowles says, “Some members will deploy long distances.” He notes that at the time of the interview, “We now have five crews lined up to go, knowing where their work comes from, HMI, and they know the process, the client and how they will get paid.”

Arbor Masters, which deploys for storm work for HMI, had this crew cleaning up a fallen tree in Tulsa, Oklahoma, following a storm in 2018. Photo courtesy of Arbor Masters Tree & Landscape, an accredited, 22-year TCIA member company.

As Cowles puts it, “We support the members throughout FEMA disaster declarations, finding jobs for them. We also are their back office for big deployments.

“Our (insurance) customers need us when a big storm hits because they need a lot of tree companies that can absorb the work.” Cowles stresses, “Most companies that go to storm areas cannot meet the qualifications of a TCIA member company, and if they cannot meet certain TCIA qualifications, they are not up to par with what we require.”

Outside of storm work, and with respect to the consulting side of HMI, Cowles maintains his organization has “the world’s largest database on replacement costs, with algorithms for 10,000 trees and shrubs, by cultivar and species – kind of a blue book for tree material,” for use in residential, commercial and golf-course consulting to assist with profit-and-loss analysis. “We also get involved with vineyards and orchards with fires, and specialties such as cannabis, hydroponic tomato farms and almost any plant material as a go-to resource for the insurance industry.”

With respect to finding and maintaining customers on behalf of its members, Cowles says, “Over the years, the company has invested a great deal of marketing/sales resources to make our services known to the insurance industry. We use a combination of direct sales and trade-show attendance throughout the year to attract new clients. We also offer continuing-education classes on how to accurately adjust claims that involve damage to, or from, plant material. The reason insurance companies use HMI is that we provide high-quality services at costs that an adjuster can have confidence in.”

What do members say?

Kevin Caldwell, founder and president of Caldwell Tree Care, an accredited, 23-year TCIA member company based in Roswell, Georgia, has been an HMI member for more than a decade. Although his company did not deploy to Louisiana for Hurricane Laura in August, he’s had his share of weather-event cleanups, including Hurricane Michael, which struck the Panama City Beach, Florida, area two years ago this month. He offers additional perspectives.

Caldwell Tree Care, an accredited, 23-year TCIA member company based in Roswell, Georgia, deployed for HMI for this storm cleanup in 2019. Photo courtesy of Caldwell Tree Care.

“We developed a relationship with the sheriff and other law-enforcement organizations, largely through HMI,” Caldwell reports, and the benefits went beyond what one might expect. In addition to assistance getting to and through storm-ravaged areas, Caldwell says, “There’s a lot of unlawful activity in and around a storm event, including foregoing permitting and licensing, and good law-enforcement relationships have helped us to function legally and smoothly.”

Caldwell says he was referred to the network by a colleague from Missouri. “It was early in the start of networking, and Doug Cowles came to see me. I may have been the first one in Atlanta to sign up. Obviously, HMI refers work to us in our own city and also provides the option to travel to storm events throughout the country.

A crew with Bofinger’s Tree Service, an accredited, 12-year TCIA member company based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, removes a tree from a house after a storm in mid-September 2020. Photo courtesy of Bofinger’s Tree Service.

“We’ve done close to 10 major storm events for HMI, and the assignments have been relatively smooth and lucrative,” Caldwell says. He adds, “Not everything goes perfectly smoothly, of course, it’s the nature of a storm event where there is tremendous damage. There is a lot of stress for the client. One of the huge benefits of the network is support with customer service.

“I think what I would say to a TCIA member is that networking helps to legitimize our business. I’ve encouraged the network to work with accredited TCIA members,” Caldwell says. “That validation and Accreditation helps everyone do things safely and legitimately from start to finish. That is the essence of the product – legitimate and well-documented service with everyone doing the same thing in the same way, following TCIA procedures and protocols.”

Long-term payoffs, too

FJ Runyon, president and CEO of Timber Warriors, a seven-year TCIA Corporate Member company headquartered in St. Charles, Missouri, likes to point to what he calls “repetitive revenue,” which is another way of saying follow-up work from customers who become loyal, regular customers, typically arising from an emergency call.

“For tree care companies working with us, we have advanced technology that operates much like Uber (ride-on-demand service). Tree care companies are vetted and approved ahead of time to work for us. An insurance adjuster will tell us of a job, and we have a mobile phone app to notify members who can accept and go right to the job. This is the way the insurance companies are going,” he notes.

Crews often respond from all over the country to where they are needed, and a network organizer can help provide the proper credentials. Photo courtesy of Arbor Masters Tree & Landscape, which works with HMI.

Acknowledging that routine emergencies far outweigh storm work, Runyon says, “We can limit your area to a 35-mile radius if you want. You have to ask for it. You will get a notification on your cellphone app that there’s a job in your area. The message tells the proximity and provides a job description. The first person to answer gets the job. It is never bid. That’s a big advantage, not to have to spend time on the bidding process. This way results in more paid man hours.”

In emergency situations such as post-storm cleanup, Runyon maintains, “With tree care, it can be difficult to project costs. We developed a cost program of time and material to make sure the member companies get paid appropriately and do not lose money, and it works out pretty well.

“When I started in tree care in the 1970s, I climbed with no lanyard and chased storms,” he says. “I got in contact with Allstate and Nationwide (insurance companies), realizing it was best to develop a system for tree safety to get a job and to make a profit.” The objective, Runyon says, was to ensure a fair market value so neither side would try to take advantage of the other.

“To be part of Timber Warriors, you have to do a couple of jobs first,” he explains. “A company may or may not have the right skill set or demeanor or customer service. Right now, a new company would join 1,500 members and thousands of crews. That means through Timber Warriors, I can do more work in one day than I could with my tree care company in a year, and I had the third-largest company in the county where we worked, by far.”

He quickly adds that, because of his vetting, “We’ve done way more than 20,000 jobs and have not had a serious injury or fatality.” Runyon attributes that to “using the right people and taking time to do things right. We don’t rush, and we have the right safety equipment.”

National effort

At the time of our interview, just as Hurricane Laura zeroed in on Louisiana and Texas, Runyon said Timber Warriors already had crews from New England in the area and a crew from California on the way. To illustrate how much work can be had from networking, Runyon says that for notorious Hurricane Sandy, the “superstorm” that struck the East Coast in October 2012, he had one tree care company from Arizona that came to New York and stayed 18 months doing insurance and residential work.

Similarly, for Hurricane Michael, Runyon reports that on one day he had crews from Seattle, Miami, Texas, Massachusetts and the Midwest on the ground.

In a storm emergency, credentials can be a nightmare, he says. “For storm work, Timber Warriors provides a logo for members’ trucks that lets them go anywhere, working off our license.”

According to Runyon, joining Timber Warriors requires liability and workers’ compensation insurance, and, “We want you to be affiliated with a formal training program such as TCIA offers. We want only well-trained professionals. Some who are self-taught may think they are the best, but they are not.”

Runyon says he is eager to work with and help develop professional, quality tree care companies. He recounts one newly minted company, the principal of which had significant experience with a large national tree company. The new company had been in business just two months and was looking for jobs. Runyon’s advice was, “If you are to be a professional, you have to work like a professional.” After mentoring the company in areas from training to insurance and essentially bringing this fledgling up to Timber Warrior’s standards, Runyon says the new outfit has worked a lot and “made almost $300,000 just with me.”

Runyon maintains that this approach, working with insurance companies, can drive steady business. “Your customer base can go way up quickly,” he maintains. “Right now, I have things going in 10 states that are not even storm related.

“Supporting members goes as far as helping hook up our members with training,” he says. “For example, we worked with TCIA’s Peter Gerstenberger, who facilitated a crane video for us and gave it to TCIA to give to members for free.”

In the end, setting your sights on a network or tree care partnership enterprise can be a strategic part of storm-prep planning that can pay dividends long before the clouds arrive and long after they clear out.

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