Women In Vegetation Management: Commitment, Leadership and Passion

Abigail Hufnagle, above, studied forest technology at Pennsylvania College of Technology. She is now a utility forester/work planner with ArborMetrics Solutions in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

ArborMetrics Solutions, LLC (AMS), based in Asheville, North Carolina, and Sylvan Lake, Alberta, Canada, is a vegetation-management company whose clients include utilities, municipalities and government agencies throughout North America. A new TCIA corporate member and a subsidiary of Asplundh Tree Experts, LLC, a 45-year TCIA member company based in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, the company provides a variety of opportunities for women on the vegetation-management side of tree care.

Monitoring the pulse of ArborMetrics

Driving AMS’s commitment to people power is the company’s Project Management Office (PMO), a juggernaut of high-energy, dedicated and mainly female professionals who love the outdoors, trees and plants almost as much as what they do for a living, according to Rachel Barker, PMO director. “I have got the best group of people. Together, we utilize all the aspects of thinking styles; we analyze, organize, personalize and strategize. We are a great team of people who work here,” says Barker.

Rachel Barker, right, director, Project Management Office, with Candace Wyman, assistant executive director of Trees Columbus. All photos courtesy of ArborMetrics.

AMS’s Project Management Office coordinates and oversees all AMS projects and contracts. Team members of the PMO have extensive experience and specialization in arboriculture, human resources, business, horticulture, utility forestry, technical writing and more. This diversity helps AMS’s administration supply its customers with the right person for the right position, thus strengthening AMS’s motto of “People Are Our Power.”

Barker, who’s been at AMS since 2012, might be described as having a finger on the pulse of all things AMS. Owning the PMO function, plus safety, training, key-performance indicator (KPI) tracking and regulatory compliance, she revels in her role as chief cheerleader, cajoler, coordinator and champion. “I like to push people, to get their maximum. I try for my style to be more of a servant-leadership style. I try to always go above and beyond to serve the managers who work for us as well as our employees and our vendors. I humbly strive to always treat everyone with dignity and respect, but my high expectations are sometimes expressed as tough love.”

Barker, who has a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from Auburn University and a Master of Public Administration from Columbus State University, and is a certified project management professional (PMP) and Certified Arborist, saw that style in one of her early mentors, a man she still calls her friend today. “I was his deputy director of operations for public works in Columbus, Georgia. He was a retired command sergeant major, and his approach was, ‘You lay out what the requirements and expectations are for the job. We’re all working to reach a goal, and we have fun doing it. And you treat everyone with dignity and respect along the way.’”

Barker started out in Columbus as the city arborist and was promoted to deputy director, responsible for urban forestry and beautification, and a whole lot more. “I had rainwater. I had streets. I had the landfills, garbage collection and many other divisions. I had over 400 employees, plus 350 state inmates, working for me,” says Barker.

She’s also built and sold a thriving plant-leasing business and was the first woman public-works superintendent for the City of Opelika, Alabama. In that role, Barker managed 46 square miles of rights of way as well as the city’s horticulture and tree care programs. Immediately prior to AMS, she was a regional urban forester in Montgomery, Ala., supporting cities in a three-county area.

Reflecting on her days at Auburn, Barker notes, “I started in the School of Forestry, and I was the only woman in any of my classes. I never saw another woman, even though they were supposedly there. I came back the next quarter, and I went into horticulture. And when I walked into my first horticulture class, I was with my people.”

Finding a job to love

Amy McMillion, operations lead for ArborMetrics in the U.S., took a circuitous route to her dream job. She has bachelor’s degrees in both nursing and business, with a technical-writing minor, but found herself unfulfilled in related work. “I came across the advertisement for a field position at AMS. They agreed to interview me because they liked my cover letter. In the interview itself, they asked questions about trees. And I must credit my grandfather for me being able to answer them. It was not a formal education, but he gave me a great knowledge foundation,” says McMillion. “I interviewed well, and they hired me. I knew right away that it was a great fit. I loved the field work because it was all outdoors.”

Amy McMillion, project management office operations lead, U.S.

Since then, McMillion has never looked back. She’s attained both arborist and utility-specialist certifications and enthusiastically jumped into the work and culture. “I started out as a utility forester, walking the rights of way and writing up vegetation plans,” she says. “Then, after I had been at ArborMetrics almost two years, they needed some other people on different projects. So I would take short-term projects and get to travel. My first out-of-town assignment was Northern California. I went out there and worked the project for 12 weeks and learned a lot.”

McMillion’s trajectory at AMS has been altogether meteoric and organic. “When the Project Management Office needed someone part-time, just as we were growing, they called me and asked me if I would like to try that. It just kind of became full-time after that,” she says with a big grin. “I’m now the operations lead for the United States for all of ArborMetrics.” In that role, she provides support for all U.S.-based AMS projects. “I tell people my job is to make everybody else’s job easier. That’s why my position exists.”

Living the dream

After a childhood spent communing with nature, Amanda Mendez knew what she wanted to do with her life. “I was always involved with cleanups and environmental events, so there’s always been that passion, and it really just stemmed from growing up with my mom. She always got us out,” she says. “We went hiking as a family and camping during the summer. And that really kind of fostered that love for the outdoors. Basically, I just didn’t want to work in an office.”

Amanda Mendez, technological administrator, Project Management Office.

From Southern California, Mendez made her way to Oregon State University’s College of Forestry. “We were really fortunate. I would say, especially your junior and senior year, at least three or four days, you have some kind of field class,” says Mendez. “They have a really amazing program. All the teachers and students are really involved. There’s a lot of club activity. They have a full forest they manage, and you spend a lot of time out there.”

Through Oregon State, Mendez was able to attain a series of summer internships with Oregon’s forest service. After graduation, she moved back to California and ended up working in utility forestry. She’s held a series of progressive positions within AMS over the last six years, and began working in the PMO in 2020.

She muses, “The industry is still very male dominated. You’ll go to an outside training and it’s mostly men. But at AMS, you can see a large presence of women. AMS has done a great job of creating an environment and culture where women feel comfortable and confident, and they want to stick around. AMS has many awesome, intelligent, hardworking women.”

Leading in Canada

The PMO’s operations lead for Canada is Amie LaCharite, who has parlayed a degree in psychology and positions in human resources and administration into a career at AMS.

Amie LaCharite, project management office operations lead, Canada.

“I started out as the field administrator at one of our sister companies near the tail end of their project,” says LaCharite. “In this position, I managed our recruitment, helped submit timesheets for payroll and, overall, just helped wherever there was a need. This gave me an opportunity to assist in areas like safety and ended up being my ‘foot in the door’ to joining the ArborMetrics team.”

In her current role, LaCharite owns project management in addition to HR and payroll and supports business operations for Canada. Regarding working in a traditionally male field, LaCharite is extremely positive about her experience at AMS. “While our field is male dominated, it doesn’t always feel like it. Our team is very respectful and mindful of all our team members. I came from another male-dominated industry, and I find the difference between the two companies is night and day. I’ve never felt uncomfortable here,” she states. “All the folks we work with are wonderful; they’re very progressive and accommodating. Our team has a shared goal and vision. We all want a workplace that’s diverse and well represented.”

Next on the professional-development list is her project management professional (PMP) certification. She’s also working on continuing to use her voice. “Rachel is very strong, and she’s a wonderful leader. She’s a person we can always look to for guidance. While I’m incredibly grateful to have so many positive male mentors on our team, it is nice also to have a female mentor like Rachel,” LaCharite says. “She’s always reminding me that what I have to say is important and I have a seat at this table now for a reason, so I need to continue speaking up. It’s important that, as women especially, we don’t shrink ourselves.”

Robert “Bob” Richens is the vice president of ArborMetrics Solutions, LLC (AMS), a TCIA corporate member company based in Asheville, North Carolina, and Sylvan Lake, Alberta, Canada.

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