It isn’t every day that someone in the tree care industry gets a call from a representative of the U.S. military to inform them they’ve won the Department of Defense Patriotic Employer Award.
But that’s exactly what happened to April and Brad Petree, husband and wife co-owners of Petree Arbor, Lawn & Landscape, Inc., located in Blount County, Tennessee. Based on a nomination submitted by one of their employees – Certified Arborist/SSgt Louis Vandergriff of the 465th Engineering Company, U.S. Army Reserves, Birmingham, Alabama – the couple was chosen to receive the honor from the Tennessee ESGR (Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve) unit.
According to the ESGR website, “The Patriot Award reflects the efforts made (by employers and supervisors) to support citizen warriors through a wide range of measures including flexible schedules, time off prior to and after deployment, caring for families and granting leaves of absence if needed.”
“We were totally surprised by the award,” says April, who adds that they had no idea Louis, who has been with Petree Arbor for four years, had nominated them before he left on his deployment. “We got a phone call from this gentleman to go through background checks with us. But I was asking him all kinds of questions instead because people get scammed all the time,” she says with a laugh. “Once he explained, we realized it was for real.
He also said it’s extremely rare to present the award to a couple, so it was even more special.”
There’s more to the nomination, but first, a little backstory. Brad and April, who’ve been married 22 years, started Petree Arbor in 2000. Prior to that, Brad worked for a boat manufacturing company (Sea Ray, based in Knoxville), and April had a career in banking with BB&T.
“I had watched April’s cousin do tree work,” Brad notes, “and I was intrigued by the tools, the smell of the wood, the honest labor and just being outdoors. These days, it’s a bad day if I have to stay indoors and be in the office.”
“Some people get into this work for the money, but most people I know have a love of it for its purest form,” he continues. “If you really love what you’re doing, you do it even when you’re not making a lot of money.”
When the Petrees decided to start their own company, it was from humble beginnings.
“The first chain saw we had we borrowed from my dad,” April says. “Then we added one piece of equipment at a time as we could afford it. We had a dump truck we converted to a chip truck in 2003, for instance. And we both came into the business from our knowledge of customer service, which isn’t the way most people start. We did it backward.”
According to Brad, who is a Certified Arborist, he got most of his tree care knowledge from outside sources, such as ISA, TCIA and ongoing horticulture courses at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. “It’s a long, hard road to becoming self-taught,” he explains. “I took classes in things like insect control, pathogens, and fungus, the whole scope of the green industry. This year I’m taking a PHC (plant health care) class through the University of Maryland. I literally could take classes as a full-time job.”
“I’ve always stayed in the office doing bookkeeping and organizing the guys,” says April. “Brad is sales and the face of the company.”
As part of their company’s growth process, Brad and April decided in 2018 to acquire a knuckleboom crane and launch a dedicated crane crew. “Ironically, Louis was sitting at our conference table with Brad, getting ready to start his crane certification through Cranes101, when he got the call that he was being called to active duty,” recalls April. “He has his CDL and was going to drive our crane. But instead, he was deployed to Africa in early 2019.”
Vandergriff , 28, has served in the Army, both in active duty and the reserves, for eight years. He explains what the Petrees’ support has meant to him and his wife, Kaitlyn, and their two children, ages 2 and 6, over the years. “They’ve always been super helpful, which makes it a whole lot less stressful for me when I leave. I was gone almost a year this time, and they were always there for my wife and kids. When my wife had a flat tire, Brad came over and patched it and then filled the tire up so she could get on the road again–things like that.
“It kind of stinks for my employers, because legally the Army takes precedent,” Vandergriff continues. “But April and Brad have always been flexible and supportive, not at all combative like a couple of my employers in the past. I’ve been called up a few times since I’ve worked there, and I always knew I had a job when I got back.”
In his formal nomination of the Petrees to the Tennessee ESGR unit, Vandergriff states, “Regardless of my duty requirements or assignment duration, Brad and April Petree are both more than supportive to myself and my family. They are always able and willing to assist my family while I am performing my military duties and allow me to have greater peace of mind leaving my family for extended periods of time. The support they provide … allows me to perform my duties with greater focus, energy, and proficiency. They value service to country and have employed several service members over the years. While they do not serve in uniform, they serve through their unwavering support of those who do, and it is for this reason that I am requesting recognition for their patriotism.”
Sadly, when Vandergriff got back from his latest deployment in October 2019, it was right after the Petrees had suffered a devastating fire at their business that caused almost a million dollars in damage.
“We were all over the local news for a week,” says April. “It took 81 hours to get the fire totally under control, but by then most everything had burned to the ground. My office completely burned down, computers, desks, everything you accumulate over 20 years. Our work orders were gone and all backups were gone. We had customers calling, wondering why we hadn’t shown up for jobs. Basically, we’ve had to start over from scratch.”
April explains that their business property adjoins the McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base. “The Air Force even came over with their huge water tankers to help with the fire. Thankfully nobody was hurt, and the fire was contained to just our property. You think all is lost, but it isn’t. You can always rebuild. But we lost our (ESGR award) plaques in the fire, along with two American flags we had hanging in honor of Louis.”
Because their newly acquired knuckleboom crane was damaged in the fire, the Petrees have had to put their crane crew on hold and reduce their number of full-time employees from 17 to 12. April notes that she currently operates the business from her mom’s kitchen table until they can get permanent office space. Regardless, Vandergriff says he returned to work full-time right before Thanksgiving and has been doing ground work, running the loader and performing equipment maintenance.
According to April, “Our main focus was getting things back up so our employees didn’t lose their jobs.” Despite their recent difficulties, April says there was one highlight that came about from their Patriotic Employer awards and their business’s proximity to the airbase.
“Brad got to fly in a KC135 (Stratotanker) refueler,” she notes. “It was a real thrill!”
Editor’s Note: The Petrees and other TCIA members who have suffered major business losses due to fires will be featured in an article about how to make sure your business survives a fire in an upcoming issue of TCI Magazine.