Kimberly Paulson likens herself to being the “Forrest Gump of Arboriculture.” She spent her childhood years, before and after school, watering and climbing trees at the ValleyCrest specimen and landscape yard. Her parents worked for Stuart Sperber, co-founder of the ValleyCrest Tree Co. and a pioneer of tree care; she read early drafts of “Arboriculture: Integrated Management of Landscape Trees, Shrubs, and Vines,” now a bible in the industry, as it was being co-authored by Nelda Matheny and Dr. Richard Harris.
“I’ve been in the industry my whole life,” Paulson says. “There was no option for me to do anything else. Everything just kept falling into my lap.”
Paulson owns and operates The Tree Lady Company, a 14-year TCIA member company based in Winter Haven, Florida. She has served on the board of directors for both the Florida Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture and the Florida Urban Forest Council.
Before that, she was just a tree fanatic working with her family members, who were also in the green business. Growing up as the sixth child, Paulson developed a tough exterior competing against her brothers and sisters for attention.
“I had to be pushy to be heard,” she says, laughing.
That quality has not only helped her run a successful business, but it also has helped her become someone who is recognized within the tree care industry.
Paulson’s introduction to the green industry started early. Her grandfather, she says, served as a greenhouse guide to for Burton Sperber, Stuart’s brother and company co-founder, when the company they owned, now Bright-View, was still known as ValleyCrest. Throughout her youth, Paulson climbed trees in the San Fernando Valley area of California.
In her early years, there were virtually no women in the industry, let alone working in the field. Paulson had to jump through some hoops just to make it.
“My dad used to dress me up like one of the boys so I wouldn’t get harassed for being a little girl out in the yard,” she says. “I was allowed to run the tractors; I was allowed to be in control.”
Those early years, though, built the foundation for Paulson’s managerial style, she says. Because she was able to successfully work in the field, her finger is closer to the pulse of what the working crews need.
“I speak their language,” she says.
Paulson pulled back for a moment to consider what that language actually was, but her difficulty in describing what she meant exposed the inherent understanding of language and communication that can only come from someone who has been among the branches.
“I understand what the crews in the field need because I’ve been there,” she says. “So I just understand the needs of the workers and I understand the needs of management.”
Having a woman in a management position can offer advantages for the workers. Paulson believes that women are naturally more nurturing, which can provide field workers with a sense of comfort if they need to talk things out and raise concerns about their personal and professional lives.
Sometimes, though, running a tree care business as a woman can come with some awkward moments. When Paulson made her move from California to Florida, she was faced with some interactions stemming from a generational divide in customer base.
“I still to this day will go to the door of a client and, if the person is older – say, late 70s, early 80s – they’ll look around me for ‘the guy,’” she says. “They’ll say, ‘Where’s the guy?’ and I’ll say, ‘You know, you called the Tree Lady Company.’”
Thinking about the future for women in the industry, Paulson paused to survey the demographic change throughout her career.
“When Nelda Matheny and I would go to conferences in the mid-’80s, it was just 2% or 3% women. When I got into the industry in a management position, there were maybe only 7% women in the industry,” she says. “But today is much different.”
At arboriculture training programs, Paulson now will see a pretty even mix of women and men who attend these classes. Though there aren’t as many women out in the field, Paulson says that the offices are seeing an influx of women looking to get into the green industry.
“I know plenty of women and have worked with plenty of women who have worked as hard as any man I’ve worked with,” she says. “It’s not that they’re not capable of working in the field. I think maybe the lack of women in the field comes from a lack of industry exposure within our education system. Most young people don’t even realize the green industry is an option.”
As a passionate member of the industry, Paulson not only wants to see more women who love arboriculture and can think about it intelligently, but more men as well. She says passion can bring someone to wherever they need to be, but what’s missing in a lot of public schools are the programs and classes that direct younger folks into arboriculture.
“I always tell my husband that if I win the lottery, I’m going to start a vocational program to teach boys and girls how to climb trees,” she says.
Despite the promise of women’s growth in the industry, there is one disadvantage of being a woman in the modern era of arboriculture.
“The only good part about the old days,” Paulson says, “is that there was never a line for the bathroom.”