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April 2008
Men In Trees
By Janet Kropinak

     Patrick George is the picture of a lumberjack. Donned in utility boots, arborwear pants, weathered jacket and woolen cap, his burly appearance and athletic build give him an intimidating stature. His rough exterior belies the soft spoken guru who takes a holistic approach to tree care, speaking esoterically about the intricacies of the tree service industry and the importance of stewarding the environment.

     Notably, the only attribute missing from the persona are the tree spikes on his boots. George rejects the use of spikes to maneuver trees, not for obvious reasons like the potential for transmission of diseases, but in advocacy of tree health generally.

     Living the mantra: “Hurt tree, hurt me”, he is a conscientious objector for all things non-tree-friendly and an unstoppable champion of proper tree care and preservation.

     Which is to say, George might be in the tree removal business, but he isn’t always willing to remove your tree. He believes that trees can be more important than line items on a budget and has grown his business one tree at a time, which may sound clichéd, but is true—he still remembers every tree he has ever been involved with.

 

Budding Business Plan

     At the age of 24, Patrick George combined his love of trees, his passionate spirit and his sense of moral responsibility and founded Heartwood Tree Service. A self proclaimed kid at heart, George, like many children, grew up climbing trees, but unlike many, never outgrew his passion for it.

     In the midst of pursuing a degree in forestry at N.C. State, George grew impatient and decided to take his education and experience and enter the business world. He firmly believed there was a major void in the tree services industry: “No one was thinking about the trees themselves; the industry saw them merely as a means of making money,” he says shaking his head.

     “I was looking to bring a higher cause to the industry and help elevate the status of tree preservation,” he says. “I saw it as my responsibility to educate people on the importance of their trees and the best ways to care for them.”

     So in 1979, George decided that he could best serve these principles by making it his business to promote a passionate commitment to trees, and thus Heartwood Tree Service was sown. The “heartwood” is the center of the tree, the part that provides the strength allowing it to grow above all other life. George’s mission: “I wanted to help lead our industry into a higher level of social respect and professionalism.”

     It was George’s intimate working knowledge of trees that helped him carve out a niche in the market early on. George says his hometown Charlotte served as a great launching pad for the company because of the appreciation and awareness its residents have for their trees: “Charlotte is defined by its trees; they are the ultimate accessory to the city and that was and still is a real boost for business.”

     In the beginning, Heartwood was a two-man shop consisting of George and his partner Lance Muse. George describes the dynamic of their relationship by saying, “Lance handled the business and I was the talent.”

     When, after only a few months, Muse left Heartwood to pursue other opportunities, George had to quickly adapt to being a businessman, which he admits “took some getting used to.” As his knowledge of the industry evolved, so did his understanding of being a business owner.

     “I had to learn how to better communicate with people and forced myself to go and start knocking on doors, because that is what needed to be done to make the business work,” he recalls.

     “It was my love of trees that helped me embrace mankind,” he laughs. “I knew that if this business were going to succeed, I needed to find new and innovative ways to educate people on the importance of tree care and maintenance, which has remained a top priority for us over the years.”

     In 1982, after a rugby injury sidelined George from tree climbing, he totally dedicated himself to running the business, assembling a team of experts who could take on responsibility in the field.

     Using his rugby team as a recruiting tool, the Heartwood family began to grow. “Rugby players demand the same physical energy necessary for tree work,” says George. “They find hard work appealing and have a certain lust for life that has benefited the Heartwood team.”

     First and foremost, George says he looks for people with a positive attitude and good work ethic. “This type of work is mentally challenging and physically demanding and is not for the faint of heart,” George comments. “We are looking for people who can add to the team dynamic already in place and who are able to be contributors.”

     As the years progressed, growth continued for Heartwood, and as word spread of their service and dependability, their clientele list expanded along with it.

     Looking back, starting a business at 24 could have been a risky decision, but George says that for him, it was the only decision. That is not to say that it was easy: George keenly felt the difficulty of being that young with that amount of responsibility.

     “It is scary to be out there doing this on your own, but it is also very liberating,” he recalls. “I had to learn to believe in myself and communicate that confidence to others.”

     Over the past 29 years, George has become a businessman and dedicated leader who values his team and their contribution to the organization. The Heartwood family, which now consists of 27 highly trained individuals, has built a successful enterprise with a reputation for knowledgeable service and expertise.

 

Branching Out

     Heartwood, which began essentially as a pruning business, has blossomed into a full-service company which also offers consultations and evaluations, removals, stump grinding, fertilization, tree swings, and lightning protection for both residential and commercial projects.

     Though their offerings have expanded, pruning still represents a large portion of their business and George feels strongly about its benefits. “Pruning helps manage the risks associated with daily interactions. It helps keep our homes safe, the neighbors jealous, and the value of our homes increasing,” he comments.

     The Heartwood team performs pruning services as part of routine maintenance as well as for safety and structural reasons and aesthetic appeal.

     Tree removal is another facet of the pruning services. A Heartwood arborist always conducts an evaluation prior to removal to make sure there are no alternatives to preserve the tree. And when tree removal is deemed necessary, they make sure it is done safely and efficiently.

     Because there are so many contributing factors involved in tree work, a consultation is conducted before any course of action is taken. “Maintenance requirements and economic contribution can vary dramatically by condition, size, location and species of tree,” George explains.

     On the business end, an important facet of George’s job is finding out a customer’s objectives and tailoring his approach to fit their needs.

     “Some people come to us because they are looking to increase the monetary value of their home or its aesthetic appeal, or because they have an emotional attachment to their backyard tree,” says George. “Understanding this and working with it has been essential to our success.”

     “We work hard to help people realize the importance of their trees and the value they add to their home and to the city as a whole,” he continues.

     One significant problem for Charlotte trees are the semiannual attacks by cankerworms, which break out in both spring and fall. Cankerworms are seen as such a problem in the area that the city council has agreed to spend $2.5 million on an aerial spray this spring. The city’s decision was in response to pleadings from the “Cankerworm Coalition” of which George was a member.

     In addition to the cankerworm plague, Charlotte area trees had an especially tough year in 2007. “Between last year’s Easter freeze, the extremely hot summer, and the prolonged drought we’ve had, tree care is more important than ever,” explains George. “We are likely going to spend much of this year preserving the trees from the damage that has been done.”

     George notes that the abundance of construction around Charlotte is also accelerating the need to take tree care seriously.

     What can you do to help your trees at home? George says that mulch is one easy step homeowners can take to help their trees. This enables the soil to maintain a cooler temperature in the summer months and helps retain moisture. Another good idea are soaker hoses, which enable moisture to penetrate the soil down to a deeper level where the tree roots are, beyond where the turf roots exist.

 

Staying Safe and Keeping Green

     George admits that the tree care industry carries with it many risks, but he takes this seriously and works hard to keep his staff educated and informed about necessary precautions and up to date on all safety regulations including CPR/first aid certifications.

Every Friday morning, mandatory safety seminars are led by Jeff Fabian, a certified tree care safety professional. Heartwood’s commitment to safety was recognized in 2005, when they were awarded the Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA) Safety Award. Heartwood also holds the distinction of being North Carolina’s first TCIA-accredited tree service company.

     Liability insurance and workers compensation are one of the more costly aspects of the job but George stresses its importance and sees it as a nonnegotiable necessity.

“Because of the inherent risks this job brings, we take every precaution to ensure our guys stay safe,” comments George. “It’s about minimizing the risks.”

     George is not a believer in accidents, but instead views them as mistakes. “When you make a mistake out there, somebody gets hurt or worse, so we do everything in our power to prevent that from happening.”

     Heartwood’s strong team camaraderie is another incentive to stay safe. “We are a   family, so we do our best to watch out for one another up there. Besides, you realize that someone else’s mistake is just as likely to hurt you as someone else,” he comments.

     Going the extra mile doesn’t only apply to safety, but also in staying ahead of the curve on certifications. Heartwood has 13 ISA-certified arborists on staff, 7 certified tree workers, 2 certified tree safety professionals and North Carolina’s only certified tree crane operator.

Certification is required for someone looking to become a consulting arborist, crew leader or manager but encouraged for everyone. According to the International Society of Arboriculture, these certifications are awarded to individuals who have achieved a level of knowledge in the art and science of tree care through at least three years of experience and have passed a comprehensive exam.

     Heartwood’s commitment to safety is only rivaled by their commitment to the community. They stay involved by participating in such activities as the Charlotte Arborist Association’s Annual Tree Climbing Championship, where they will serve as a sponsor later this month. They also sponsor the annual Tree Shaker mountain bike race in Rock Hill, S.C.

     They have been involved in pro-bono work with such preservation groups as the Friends of Freedom Park, where they fought the removal of the cherry trees and have undertaken the responsibility for their care and well being for the last three years.

     Although global warming is rarely seen as a positive thing, George admits that it has prompted people to think more about tree care and educate themselves on things they can do to prevent larger problems down the road. This coincides nicely with Heartwood’s focus on increasing the public’s awareness and understanding of the importance of trees.

     Similar to the heartwood of the tree, Heartwood’s strength comes from its core. This group of tree lovers have devoted themselves to the science of tree care and to their craft, which has secured them their spot as Charlotte’s premier tree service professionals.

Janet Kropinak is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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