One Washington-state business owner has grown his tree service business the old-fashioned way.
Steve Schwartz Sr., president of Superior Tree Service Inc., started his company in 1985 by working out of his home with a few chain saws, some ropes, an old dump truck, a pickup and approximately $800 to his name.
With those limited resources and a sore back from a work-related fall, Schwartz never dreamed he’d wake up one day more than 20 years later to find himself with 16 employees, 35 pieces of equipment, and a new half-million-dollar office building.
“All of a sudden, you wake up one day and realize you’re an owner of a decent-sized business,” he said.
Schwartz has watched his Pasco, WA, company grow in tandem with the area’s population and development.
“We’ve grown with the Tri-Cities. They’ve doubled in size and population,” he said.
Superior Tree Service serves the Tri-City area of Pasco, Kennewick, and Richland. The area has a population of approximately 150,000 people. Schwartz also has a crew based in Walla Walla, WA, 40 mi. from Pasco.
Trees Valued in Desert
Schwartz said that some people are surprised to learn that this area of the country features desert land with sycamore trees, rather than evergreens.
“Because we live in a desert, people tend to take care of their trees,” he said.
Deciduous trees are most common in the area, Schwartz explained.
“So we do a lot of pruning, as well as tree and stump removal,” he said.
Initially working from home to keep overhead costs low, Schwartz used his connections, ran some newspaper ads, and solicited work.
“It was just me and one other employee slowly building the business one step at a time,” he said.
While earning the trust of customers and cautiously investing in equipment, the young business took root.
Schwartz described being able to purchase his first lift truck as a defining moment in the company’s history.
“That [purchase] took my business to the next level,” he said.
In those lean first years, Schwartz didn’t even own a stump cutter, but subcontracting the work enabled him to offer his customers this service. After a few years, he was able to buy his own machine. Today the company’s fleet includes three Vermeer stump cutters.
While business currently runs approximately 65 to 70 percent residential and 30 to 35 percent commercial, Schwartz anticipated that its commercial business will continue to grow.
One of the company’s recent projects involved removing elm and locust trees from a vacant lot being cleared for condominiums.
Schwartz said that it often works with local excavation companies because of burn bans.
“For contractors, getting rid of debris is an issue,” he said. “We grind out the stumps completely, so they can do their subgrade.”
According to Schwartz, remnant wood chips are often put to good use.
Livestock producers and horse owners use them for bedding, and he estimated that it has given thousands of loads of chips to a local processing plant.
The local airport even uses them for dust control around the edges of the landing strip.
“It keeps our dump fees down, which helps keep our costs down,” he said.
200 Stumps a Day
Another recent job took the Superior Tree Service crew to a cherry tree orchard in Prosser, WA, approximately 35 mi. from the Tri-Cities.
As the orchard’s cherry trees matured, they were losing their color and quality because of overcrowding and shading. After the orchard had every other tree removed to allow more sunlight, the company’s task was to remove the remaining 2,700 stumps.
“We’re averaging more than 200 stumps per day with one operator — on a 2,700-stump project. That’s impressive,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz credited the Vermeer SC752 for the job site productivity.
“I like how efficiently it grinds stumps,” he said.
He also appreciated the machine’s AutoSweep system.
“We really like that [feature] because it regulates and governs the engine and cutter wheel,” he said.
In addition to the Vermeer SC752, Schwartz also owns an SC252, and he recently purchased an SC1102.
The company added two Vermeer BC1000XL brush chippers at the end of 2005, and Schwartz likes their low-maintenance requirements.
“They only have two knives instead of four, and they’re easier to change. They’re also double-edged knives so we can use two sides before replacing them,” he said.
Benefits of Certification
Schwartz sees being a certified arborist as an asset to both his business and profession. Certified arborists, like Schwartz, have met the required level of experience in a particular aspect of tree care and have passed a certification exam.
Some job contracts, like the Army Corps of Engineers for example, require certain types of certification. Schwartz trained his crews to follow proper standards and techniques.
Unless there’s an emergency, crews work a minimum of 10 hours a day Monday through Thursday. Schwartz said that his employees like working four days, a schedule that frees up Fridays for his two mechanics to service the equipment and change the chipper knives.
After working half-days in the field, and still trying to run the business, Schwartz said that he found his role in the company evolving in “kind of a progression.”
“We’re so large now, it takes a full work schedule to keep 16 people busy,” he said. “I’m on the run, and I’m always out talking to folks, putting together estimates, and scheduling.”
These days he spends half-days in the office and half-days supervising his crews.
When it comes to running the office, Schwartz relies on his wife Tammy.
“She’s good at what she does. That plays a big part in where we’re at today. She’s kind of like my right hand,” he said.
While Schwartz didn’t have a lot of money or resources starting out in the business, he did have an interest in trees that attracted him to the industry.
His earliest jobs were working in sawmills until the early ’80s market collapse. He tried his hand in logging and firewood cutting for a while, and also ran a tree service business with his cousin before branching out on his own.
Schwartz has come a long way since those early days when he worked from his home with just a few tools and trucks.
He takes pride in growing his business the “old-fashioned way.”
“I played it safe and took my time, and I built up a good business,” he said. CEG