For Dyson Forestry, storm cleanup can be great for business but their heart is in serving their regular customers.
Carl Dyson is not your typical small business owner. He does not strive to get bigger, does not agonize over ways to better the competition, does not see himself one day heading up a company whose workers number in the hundreds—or the dozens for that matter. As founder of Dyson Forestry, he is content going about his business caring for the clients he has in southern Maryland and focusing on his core tree care strengths: fertilization, Plant Health Care, pruning, insect and disease control, and tree removal. When the east coast continued its cleanup from the ravages of Hurricane Irene, tree removal and debris cleanup overshadowed most other facets of his business, placing a good deal of emphasis on the pair of Morbark chippers he runs. There’s no denying those chippers have paid dividends in solid, reliable performance.
Inadvertent Change of Direction
Professing a love for forestry, Carl Dyson graduated from Virginia Tech with a Bachelor of Science degree in that field and, upon graduation, worked a civil service job doing land management for the U.S. Navy. Later jobs included utility arborist for SMECO, his local electric company, then a move to Baltimore where he spent a few years with Davey Tree, a large national tree service company. Not totally sold on urban forestry, he decided to head back to the southern part of the state.
“When I came back home, I had initially planned on working for one of the area tree companies, but quickly decided against doing so, citing the generally disreputable nature of such operations,” he says. “In a rural area you tend to get a lot of ‘weekend warrior’ tree companies, that is, lawn care companies who also happen to do tree work or other companies that happen to own a chainsaw. As an arborist, I wanted to provide much more than that.”
To meet short-term needs, Dyson worked for The Greenery, a local nursery, doing plant installations. He says that, although he wasn’t hired because of his background and credentials, any time a customer came in with a tree-related question, everyone would point to him.
“After a while, I became the go-to guy for tree issues. Eventually, they started giving me tree service jobs as a part-time, weekend-only thing. At the time it was meant to only be something to sustain me until I found a career. But I really liked the work and liked dealing with the customers. So, even though it was not my original intention, those weekend jobs led to me starting my own business.”
Though he carries six different arbor-related licenses in everything from forestry to tree farm inspection to sediment & erosion specialist, Dyson is not one to flaunt his credentials. He does firmly believe, however, that arborists provide a level of service far in excess of what other non-certified companies might offer.
“Arborists generally express a need to do things right, to want to constantly improve and better their knowledge, to be a committed part of the industry. It really helps define their companies. Professionalism extends to every part of the job, and you can see that as you drive up. We try to leave our jobs looking nicer, maintain our equipment better and hire better employees. Simply put, it’s really more about pride and professionalism than it is about being licensed.”
Because arborists tend to migrate toward the urban area where the demand for their services is much greater, Dyson says he was at one time the only working arborist south of Washington, D.C., a fact which allowed him to have a niche he hadn’t anticipated.
“I was a bit of an oddity setting up a business in a rural area,” he says. “But I did it and was doing fairly well concentrating on residential tree care and working off referrals, until an opportunity came up that changed things quite a bit.”
Beat the Clock
The game-changer to which Dyson refers was a job opportunity in Virginia that was a combination project involving VDOT and Rappahannock Construction Company, Inc., a private company that only hires and works with Virginia Tech alumni. He certainly met the scholastic criteria, but it was the job constraints themselves that seemed the most challenging.
“This company was contracted to do a road expansion and had spoken to several of the larger tree service companies, the best of which told them they could do the job in six weeks at a cost of $60,000. The contractor called me and said they had only budgeted $25,000 for the job and asked if I could come and have a look at it.”
Dyson went, saw what needed to be done and told the contractor that, as long as his crew would be allowed to work unencumbered (often an issue when there are a number of different companies on a job), he felt they could do it in a week. It’s important to note that, up to this point, he had been renting chippers from a number of different dealers and manufacturers in the area, but had already decided that the Morbark unit would be his chipper of choice. With the road job in hand, he knew he needed to make a purchase.
“I called the Morbark dealer’s salesman and started things rolling,” he says. “He knew I was getting ready to buy, but was surprised when I said that he’d have a sale if he could get that chipper to me by Monday. To his credit, he did it.”
Armed with that brand new Morbark Tornado 15 chipper, Dyson Forestry hit the jobsite on a Monday morning determined to meet the tight deadlines set by VDOT and the contractor.
“Me and two other climbers were just blowing the tops off the existing trees,” he says. “I had three guys on the ground winching them in, and we kept moving along right down the line. The other companies on site stopped what they were doing to just watch both the climbing and the chipping. In fact, there was an excavating company behind us digging the stumps, and they were amazed at the sizes we were putting into that Tornado 15. I probably sold three chippers that day,” he jokes.
With the deadline hanging over their heads, Dyson and his crew worked a string of 12-hour days and by project’s end made that original company’s estimate look ridiculous.
“We did it in four days,” he says. “It was a challenge and a real ‘baptism by fire,’ but we ended up making everyone happy, establishing ourselves as a player on jobs like that and had the chipper half paid-off on that project alone. Not bad at all, I’d say.”
Calm Before the Storm
It is said that a little research goes a long way, and Dyson put that axiom to the test prior to purchasing his chipper. In fact, he says he probably took research to a whole new level in the time leading up to the road job.
“I know what I did was probably overkill,” he says. “But, as a small company, if I make a bad purchase, it can be devastating. When a firm like Asplundh or Davey Tree makes a purchase, they do so based on low bid; they are buying 100 chippers at a time. I’ll buy two chippers in 10 years, so I had to be sure of what I was getting. For me, the Morbark chippers just say “heavy-duty” and “dependable”—that works for me.”
That dependability came into play late in 2011 when the entire mid-Atlantic coast was reeling from the effects of Hurricane Irene. Anyone with a chipper or grinder was in demand, and Dyson says he was no exception.
“I generally have 5-10 jobs a week, and we had 10,000 phone calls in the month of September last year; it was just insane. We tried to help as many people as we could, so we were working seven days a week, every daylight hour, we hired some extra crew, and so on. But you can only do so much, and there was so much devastation that the only approach is to triage—to pick the customers that need help the most. Unfortunately, after a storm, everyone thinks their situation is the most dire. Conversely, in this storm I found that the people with the most damage seem to be the most mellow.”
To illustrate his point, Dyson recalls a phone call from a customer who asked him to come over when he could. “He said there was no rush, but when I got there he had four or five trees down, one of which was in his house. He just said: ‘how much worse can it get?’”
Awareness is Key
Today Dyson’s business is slowly returning to normal and is at a point where things are much more manageable. He still owns two Morbark chippers—the original Tornado 15 and a newer model Beever M15R purchased in 2010—and has had other occasions on which both were needed at the same time. As a rule, however, he tends to limit the amount of machinery at work on any single work site.
“I find that if there is too much going on at once, it’s an invitation for someone to get hurt,” he says. “We are extremely safety-conscious, and I like to have a controlled jobsite, so we take basic steps like powering down the chipper before starting up a chain saw. It might cost us 15 minutes over the course of a day, but that’s much better than losing a worker to injury.”
Taking Care of Business
In the eight years since he started his business, Dyson has had to temporarily staff up to meet demand (as in the case of the road job and the storm cleanup), but generally operates with three full-time and two part-time workers. In that time, he has also worked with his share of equipment manufacturers and dealerships, making him something of an expert on that subject as well.
“I had an issue early on that prompted me to write to Morbark to express my dissatisfaction with the first chipper,” he says. “They responded like I’ve never seen a large company respond, got me in touch with Jason Showers, one of their key sales engineers (now Morbark’s Product Management Manager), and resolved the issue. In doing so, they turned a disgruntled customer into a lifelong user; that’s a huge turnaround and speaks volumes for the company.”
Even on the dealership level, he adds, there have been some nice surprises. He says that while some dealers tend to forget you after the sale, others like Elliott & Frantz, their Morbark dealer, have been there when they needed them.
“I’ve had a great relationship with Jesse Plummer, my salesman, and the folks in their Jessup office. When I used to drop a machine off at the previous dealer’s shop for repair, it would be weeks before I’d get it back. With these guys, my biggest problem is that, by the time I get home, they are already calling me to say it’s ready.
“There’s no denying I’m probably the most reluctant business owner working today,” he says. “I’m still not sure I know where I want to take this. But at least I know that, with a good crew and reliable equipment, I can do what I love best: keeping my steady clientele satisfied and tackling new projects as they come available. That part I do have figured out.”