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An Innovative Family Business

February 4, 2021

In this episode of the Green Industry Perspectives Podcast, Ty Deemer welcomes Todd Kramer to the show. Todd is a certified arborist and the CEO of Kramer Tree Specialists.  Todd shares how you can’t grow without great people, how investing in his team has benefitted and allowed the business to grow over the years, and how he and his brother get along.

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ON THIS EPISODE, YOU’LL LEARN:

  • How Kramer’s has grown through multiple generations of family ownership.
  • Why they have innovated and developed services to retain older employees and to keep business flowing through the winter.
  • The importance of working with senior team members who balance you out.
  • How they conduct performance reviews and rate increases.
  • The role that continuing education plays within the company.

LINKS TO LOVE:

Full Transcript:

Ty Deemer:

You are listening to The Green Industry Perspectives podcast, presented by SingleOps, a podcast created for green industry professionals looking for best practices, tactics, and tips on running their tree care or landscape business. 

All right, everyone. Welcome back to Green Industry Perspectives. My name’s Ty Deemer. I am the marketing manager at SingleOps. And today I get the great opportunity to welcome Todd Kramer to the show. Todd is an ISA certified arborist, and he’s also the president of Kramer Tree Specialists. He’s got a ton of great insights to bring to us today. Welcome to the show.

Todd Kramer:

Hey, thanks for having me. Appreciate it.

Ty Deemer:

Absolutely. So Todd, we always like to start off every episode with the same question to provide immediate value to our audience, and for you, it’ll be coming from the perspective of your business, Kramer Tree. What would you say are the top two to three things over the years that have helped Kramer Tree be successful. 

Todd Kramer:

That’s a great question, and one of the biggest things for sure is purely education. The tree care industry, we’ve been around since 1974. And at the beginning of my career, there basically was no training. You just learned from somebody else. And then come to about the mid-90s, training became available. So education for sure was definitely one of the biggest things that helped our company grow. And another big development that we did throughout the years is career development with our employees. Like having a path for them to go, not just to have a job. So when we hire people, we’re hiring people for a career, not just an actual job. So those have been big things that helped grow company because you can’t grow without your people. The leadership team can be as great as they want, but you need to bring up more leaders. You need to bring up more skilled workers. And you have to be able to inspire them, and you have to be able to motivate them and you’ve got to enable them to develop their career. And if the people don’t grow, the company won’t grow. So those are definitely the first two. And the third one would be being involved in the actual community, being involved in the trade associations like ISA and TCIA where a lot of the training actually comes from. So being highly involved with those has been a great part of our company. Those trade associations have helped us, and we’ve helped them. We’re very involved with ISA and TCIA with training and also, with providing resources and volunteering.

Ty Deemer:

So we always like to have the guests provide their background. I know from your perspective, you’ve been a part of a family-run business, and I love for you to share what your journey into the tree care industry has looked like and then just some background on Kramer Tree, where you’re located and the different types of services you offer, team size, things like that.

Todd Kramer:

My parents started the business in 1974. I’ve been working for the company since before things were probably legal. So throughout all of my high school career, summer breaks, winter breaks, spring breaks, I worked. Part of that was you were required to work. So if you didn’t have a job, you worked at Kramer Tree if you were a family member, immediate family member. And as the years went by, the company grew. So starting my career, when I got done with high school, I definitely liked the atmosphere, actually and loved the work. I loved being outdoors. I was never one who’s going to be in an office. It just wasn’t for me. When I started working full-time would be 1989. And the company was run out of the house. I think we had about six or eight employees, and now we have 80. So constantly growing. And like I mentioned earlier, developing people and all that. I think it’s about 80 employees now. But I just love the atmosphere. And then the climbing was a bit hard for me. It seemed to be the ultimate challenge. Dragging brush is dragging brush. As good as that as the next person. But climbing was really aspired me to like how can I excel at that, how can I do that? At the same time, I was also doing a ton of rock climbing, mostly sport rock climbing. So I just loved the thrill of being at height, and it just seemed like tree climbing was the ultimate challenge. And I just wanted to be a big part of that.

Ty Deemer:

Yeah. That’s awesome. So specifically to Kramer Tree, where are you all located? And what types of services do you all offer? Is it general tree care? Do you have a PHC program? Just give the audience an idea about what you all do.

Todd Kramer:

Great question. So we do everything you can imagine with trees. So we are located in the Western suburbs of Chicago, but we work the entire Chicago market. And we also have a utility division in Northwest Indiana. So we have a couple of crews in Northwest Indiana doing utility line clearance. But we’ve done over the years in the Chicago market. So we’ve always tried to figure out a way to keep employees, especially employees because again, we started in 1974, and we still have employees who have been working here since the early 80s. So we’ve always tried to develop a way to keep those employees. So the services we provide are probably a little bit different than a lot of tree care companies but obviously tree care. So we’re pruning trees, removing trees, planting trees, using tree spades to plant trees. And we also have a pretty big department of municipal brush pickup. So we work for I think eight or ten municipalities where the residents can put brush on the curb and we pick it up. We don’t chip it though. We use a grapple loader. We load it into trucks. We bring that material back to our office, our shop, our yard and recycle that into mulch and then sell it. So everything we bring in gets recycled, and it goes back out. So we don’t really have to go do a nursery dump or anything like that. Everything kind of comes back to our shop. And that was one of the services we wanted to provide to give our aging workers an easier job. They’ve been very loyal employees, great staff. We don’t need them on a log cart. We can give them a job that’s a little bit easier. And one of our big goals throughout all the years is just always having enough work. Living in the Chicago market, there is a thing called winner. So we’ve always tried to make sure our employees have year-round work. They have mortgages. They have kids going to college. They need the money. And those are always our best employees who are looking for year-round work. And we also provide, we do a lot of holiday lights, definitely more than anybody in the Chicago market. Our holiday lights crew, they start in September, end of September, and they don’t stop until about February. So that’s a big market. And obviously, PHC is a big market. We have nine PHC trucks that go out throughout the whole season. And then the PHC operators go to tree work in the winter. And we also do snow. That’s what we’re doing today.

Ty Deemer:

Cool. Well, that’s all a great perspective to hear for sure about the different services you’re offering. And I love the point that you made about offering services that your employees can kind of grow throughout their career with. Because you can’t have one of your older team members like doing what they did probably when they were 20 years old, 30 years old because it is tough work for sure. Earlier on in the show, we talked about how kind of your love for the industry started a really young age because it was a business your parents and now you and your brother Jeff now run it together. I’d love for you to kind of highlight what the experience of it being a family-run business has meant to you and maybe some of the benefits of it but also if there have been any times where that’s made it more difficult for you, to touch on kind of what having your name on the building name has meant to you.

Todd Kramer:

Yeah. Having my name on the building name can definitely be a challenge just because I just want to be Todd. I don’t want to be Todd Kramer. I’m a team member just like everybody else, and I always tree to present myself that way. We have a common goal, and our common goal is to work safely, provide a quality product for our clients, and then also be productive. And that’s our performance triangle. That’s something that’s on every piece of paper at the company. So that’s always been important. But the family business, when you grow up in it, sometimes you just know any different. With the company starting off with my first job as a very young man was like a 12-year-old, 13-year-old was sharpening chains with a chain tightener, doing that in a cargo van. We didn’t have a building or anything. I’d ride my bike there, and I got paid five cents a chain. And that’s what you did. So it was just kind of how it was. And I don’t have a lot of negatives. And I think a big reason is that brother and I and my father in particular, we just got along just fine. We often had kind of the same goals. But with the company now being as significantly more employees than it was in the past, my brother and I are actually polar opposites which works out perfectly because we’re never competing against each other. Right? So he really loves sales and business development, and I really like training and working in the field and being with all our teammates. But we do have a common goal. I don’t really have a lot of negatives except for a whole lot of hours. We don’t know what a 40-hour week is on the leadership team at Kramer Tree. 

Ty Deemer:

That’s great though that you and your brother are able to balance each other in that way because that’s one of the things that I’ve heard in family-run businesses. And whether it’s two brothers running it or a husband and a wife team, like that balance is so perfect, and if you’re able to have someone that complements you well, that can really do great things for the business overall. And like you said, you’re not having to compete because you recognize the value each other brings to the table.

Todd Kramer:

Exactly. So my brother brings extreme value by providing work and providing the work that we want to sell and the work that we want to do and the work that we are equipped and trained to do. It does really work out incredibly well. And I’ve heard, like I’m sure you have too, horror stories of family businesses and where it’s all tragic. And we’re a little bit of the opposite. My brother and I, we have good active listening skills, especially as we get a little older. We’re actually listening to understand. He thinks this and I think that, but we have meetings. And we also have a great leadership team in all the different manages. So we have our own mechanics. We have two ships of mechanics that are working and maintaining all of our trucks. So we have our director of operations, Paul, who basically oversees everything. I actually directly report to him which is kind of—I say to that to people and like, what? You’re the boss. I’m like, I kind of do. I kind of do actually have a boss. Yeah. So he’s a great leader at the company, and he really helps motivate and enable all the different managers, whether it’s the office staff, the plant healthcare manager, the fleet manager, the mulch manager, myself, a trainee manager, the scheduling manager. So he kind of keeps everything organized and on track on a daily basis.

Ty Deemer:

When you were talking about the balance between you and your brother, you mentioned that he’s more business development minded, sales minded, and you’re more about training your team. And I think that’s a good segue to kind of the next topic we can talk about. Before we started recording, we mentioned that you are a huge believer in training and performance management and specifically safety as well. And I think that goes pretty well in line with what we had talked about earlier with being involved in some of these industry associations like TCIA and ISA. I’d love for you to touch on just what your strategy has been towards training and educating your team with all of that in mind and why it’s something you’re so passionate about.

Todd Kramer:

In the beginning of my career, there was no training. So like I said, I started in the late 80s. And training in the Chicago market, there just was none available. So the very first training, and my father was, he understood the value of education. He was the first team of what was called at the time, this was before your certified arborists, but Illinois had something very similar to New Jersey which had something called—I forget what it was called—but the Illinois Tree Surgeon. I forget the actual name. But it’s something to what certain cities have. My father was able to acquire that, and he told me it was a much harder test than being a certified arborist. But he definitely that education and knew it was important for industry. So our first experience for any training or education as a field worker was competing. So my brother and I started competing—my brother was also a field worker for many, many years. He wasn’t sales when he was 20 years old. So we were field workers, worked our kind of way up. But my brother and I started competing, I think it was 1991. My brother was one year older than me. So that was actually our first training experience was being involved in the Illinois Arborist Association and going to tree climbing competitions. My brother is a seven time Illinois tree climbing champion, seven years in row. So he won seven years in a row. I won second or third place those seven years also. That was our first step in getting any kind of education. And then having the value of being part of these trade associations and participating was the very first step in our training. Because there’s nothing available. And then once the mid to late-90s started, training became available. And we signed up. We signed up ourselves. We signed up a lot of other people. And it’s been a great success. And what we’re doing now with our training with top of our leadership team like Paul, something that I think is still super common in the industry. Training normally kind of takes a back seat. Production is first. Right? We have to get the work done. So I want to say four or five years ago, with Paul’s leadership, is we started doing scheduled training, like internally. Kramer Trees, we are a little bit lucky that there’s somebody like me at the company who can train internally. We still do a lot of external training, like bringing in other people. You don’t want to hear me every day. Right? We’re bringing somebody else. But what we’re doing now with our training is it’s actually scheduled. So in the past, it’s always been like on a weather day. So like my father, it’s raining. Bring the whole crew in. Bring in 30 guys and train them and then have the signoff sheet. As time went by, we figured there’s a much bigger value in training the staff on a scheduled time. So we have our annual training which we do in our first quarter, and that’s like basic chainsaw stuff, chipper, things we need to do every year. And then we have quarterly topics for quarters 2, 3, and 4 where the training’s actually scheduled. So then the training is proactive and not reactive. And what we’ve noticed is that training is way more effective use of our resources because it actually means something to the staff. It’s not, oh, it’s raining today. So now safety is important or now training is important. So once we started doing that, like I said, four or five years ago, maybe six years ago, where we did it proactively, we got some great gains out of that. 

Ty Deemer:

Yeah. That’s all really helpful information to hear, and I think the audience will appreciate your perspective of kind of the evolution of how Kramer has kind of changed their approach to training. If someone was listening to this, another tree care owner or president and said, hey, like I agree with what you’re saying, I’d rather be proactive with training rather than reactive, what are some simple ways that they could start implementing that in your business? Would you encourage them just to start blocking off time on their yearly calendar like you all have it? What would you say what could be their first step in really making sure they’re doing that? 

Todd Kramer:

I would definitely agree with that. Block it off. Because training equals safety. Right? We don’t want to be getting hurt, and you’re in the industry long enough, you get hurt or you see one of your co-workers get hurt. So to be proactive, that’s just it. It’s Tuesday. We’re going to do three hours of ascending train today with this group of people or we’re going to have of this training. Yeah, you just got to block it off to make time for it. And one thing we learned, it always pays to go to school. Right? School costs money. You have to do that. But you want to gain dividends on that. So what we noticed when we were doing these things very reactive like it’s a snow day or it’s rain day, we’re going to bring people in and train them, people weren’t listening. It was often a bigger group. So our training now is a smaller group. So I might have only four or five staff instead of 25. The training has been more effective because the results are better. They’re performing at a higher level because the training is actually better. Right? Because it’s a smaller group. 

Ty Deemer:

I definitely wanted to ask about that because I do think there’s a level of training that as the owner or the president, you can present it to your team, but it’s also important that they’re receptive to it. How have you been able to see your team become more receptive? Is it the smaller groups just automatically solve that or are there ways that you have incentivized your team to really take it seriously? 

Todd Kramer:

Well, yeah, we always kind of mentioned to them this is, yes, you’re getting paid for the training, but we expect results. Right? We’re making an investment, and that investment is in you. It’s not in me. It’s not in the company. It’s in you. We’re making that investment, and I do expect you to see some results. But we also have to be realistic that if I spend four hours training somebody, are they going to learn everything? Of course not. And that’s why we broke this up into these quarters. So I have three months to train the field staff in let’s say these three topics. But then I also have a whole month to coach them on it. So I can work in the field, and like, hey, we talked about this at this training session, we talked about this at this training session. Training is never one and done. It’s never there’s a two-hour classroom on chainsaw, and then here we’re going to spend an hour in the field. It’s not one and done. So you got to continually coach them. But breaking those up in a quarters where you can then have an actual focus on that training to get the results we’re looking for, and that those results are always career development. And of course, the staff working safer. 

Ty Deemer:

Yeah. That’s great insight. And with the content that your team is going over in those training sessions, I know the ISA and the TCIA are very proactive in continuing education. Is a lot of the content you get from those organizations or is it like created in-house? 

Todd Kramer:

Some of it’s created in-house, some of it would be from TCIA. They have the three different levels of training with the books. So we use a few of them, but we have what’s called lesson plans. Most of those lesson plans, I just put together which are a little more specific to our company. So there’s a lesson plan for stumpers because we have different stumpers that other companies might not have with different rules. So every training we do has a documented lesson plan behind that. And part of the reason of that is with career development, I don’t want to do all of the training. So I want this crew leader to do some training. So here’s a lesson plan, and it’s in English and Spanish. And you’re a very competent person and you’re confident. So you can do this, some of the more basic trainings that are required. But we definitely use materials from TCIA and ISA, and we do develop a lot of stuff in-house. 

Ty Deemer:

Yeah. That’s an awesome point to make moving forward about talking about career development. At the beginning of the show, you mentioned that is one of the three reasons why you believe Kramer has really been successful and grown over the last couple years. And I think it would be helpful for you to just speak to your mindset as the president towards career development and then maybe a use case or an example of how it’s played out for you all beneficially. 

Todd Kramer:

Yeah. Career development is we want employees to be here forever. We all know that turnover is very expensive. So we want employees to be here forever. So we kind of look at what is your skillset, what do you want to do? And we do that through for sure performance reviews which are documented performance reviews that are annual. In the tree department, we do them a little more than annually. We might do three or four a year on a single person. But getting that career development and getting people inspired and getting them motivated to like here’s your next step. So we have documents where an employee can say I just, I want to do better. I want to learn more. I can give them a document. Well, learn these skills. You’re like, here’s a checkoff list. Obviously, I’m not going to teach somebody how to rake better. I can’t teach every single employee how to use a Port-A-Wrap. You got to be proactive. You have to have some interpersonal skills to participate in a job briefing. And we do documented job briefings for every single job we do. But be proactive and ask the crew leader. Ask a crew member, how do I do this? Can you show me how to do this? Can you show me how to do that? And then we get reviews, and that might be quarterly, biannually, or annually. You get people to develop. It’s not just me. You know what I mean? I can’t teach every single person every single skill. But what I can do is inspire and motivate and enable everybody to work together towards a common goal. 

Ty Deemer:

So with those performance reviews, you mentioned in some cases they’re yearly or in some cases, they could be even quarterly—

Todd Kramer:

New employees for sure are quarterly. 

Ty Deemer:

Who performs those performance reviews? Is it like whatever the person’s manager is? So if it’s a crew member, does the crew leader do the performance review or is it one of your department managers? I’m just interested to see like how you task those different reviews across everyone in your business. 

Todd Kramer:

It’s always the managers who do it. It depends on how big the department is. Some departments are smaller and larger than others. So like the tree production department, that’s where I spend most of my time, it’s the biggest group of people. So I cannot develop a performance review on my own for every single staff. So then an email goes out to all the crew leaders. Hey, I need to do a performance review on this particular person. So I send them an email. They fill it out, and then I might have conversations with them. Then I actually put the performance review together with their help. And then performance reviews are going to be done with myself and Jim. Jim is—I am the production manager and the trainer, but Jim is really the production manager. I’m just more of the trainer. So Jim and I will do those together with that employee. And a lot of it is based on information given to me from the seven or eight crew leaders because the crews aren’t necessarily the same people every day. So the staff outside a crew leader might actually work with every single crew leader throughout the year many, many different times. That’s all based on skillsets. Do you have a CDL license? Can you operate aerial lifts? Can you climb? All those types of things kind of—so the crews can kind of get mixed up a little bit. 

Ty Deemer:

Yeah. I love the idea of having a system for those reviews. I just can imagine the benefit your team has had from them and the transparency it creates with your employees about how to grow and improve how they perform. So that’s really—

Todd Kramer:

It is really interesting because we used to suck at it. We didn’t never do them for many, many years. You just got in trouble is all you ever got. And once we started doing performance reviews, and then all sudden, somebody slips through the cracks, that person is coming up to us going, where’s my performance review? And then keep in mind performance reviews are not based on merit increases. I’ve never gone through a performance review and said, okay, you doing great, blah, blah blah, here’s a merit increase. That’s not part of what a performance review is. We do like micro performance reviews with merit increases. So like if we’re saying that this employee’s performing at a very high level, and they need a merit increase, there’s like a smaller performance review where a documented piece of paper with you’re getting a merit increase based on these exact skills, not because we like you, not because hey, you’re doing a great job. You’re getting paid more because you’ve acquired this. And hey, if you want another merit increase, acquire these skills. 

Ty Deemer:

Yeah. That type of process can only provide so much transparency for your team in how to improve and grow. And that’s ultimately how you keep people happy in the role. I talked to another podcast guest, and he mentioned how so much of keeping employees happy is just giving them a path or a projection of what their future is. And it sounds like y’all are doing that pretty well. 

Todd Kramer:

It’s so different now than it was 10 years ago, 15 years ago where the younger generations kind of almost require that. When I was growing up, it was just like work harder. And the company was much smaller obviously. You kind of learn. But as it grows, people don’t want to be left behind, and they can see hey, what do I need to do to get to where I want to be? It definitely makes a difference. 

Ty Deemer:

You mentioned at the top of the show how the community that those have provided has been huge to you and your brother and your business. We’ve talked about how some of the training materials that they provide have been huge with you all kind of leveling up on the safety and the performance of your team. But there is just a community element that I’d like to touch on. What has those tree climbing competitions, the annual conferences, what has all that meant to you over the years and what have been some of the things that you’ve taken away from it? 

Todd Kramer:

Yeah. It’s actually meant a lot. With the industry, it’s a small industry, and there was just not a lot of training available. So if you want training, the best way to get some training is to talk to people. Like I mentioned earlier, my brother and I started competing in the early 90s, and then I competed for 23 years. I never stopped because I love the community and I was also having success. So it’s performing well, particularly at a chapter level. So in those 23 years, I won 10 times I think. At the international level, not a ton of success, but my success has always been hey, if I can make top 10, that’s a success for me. And I did that about half the time. Very successful. But the true benefit of that was just meeting all of these other climbers from all over the world and all over the country and bonding these relationships that we learn from each other all the time. I have so many arborists in my cell phone thing. Like how are you guys dealing with this? What are you doing with this? And it’s with the carabiner and it’s not the rope. It’s more about the bigger picture. So building those relationships at the tree climate championship has been a huge development in my career because then I can learn from all these other people via networking. And the same thing goes with ISA and TCIA. I got really involved with, and still am very involved, in education with them because I got really inspired at a young age from the Illinois Arbor Association. When I was starting to have success with the tree climbing championship, I was asked by at the time a person at the Illinois Arbor Association, hey, can you come teach this course which was a course of climbing and safety which was a classroom course. Two hours to teach people how to pass the exam to become a certified arborist. And I was like yeah, I could do that. So I kind of figured that out, and then I just grew this passion of training. It went to, I became a board member for the Illinois Arbor Association, and I built a tree stand. And that was more than 20 years ago. I actually built a couple different tree stands which I use for Illinois Arbor Association. But I’ve used it at GEI with Mark. I’ve used it at Indiana. I’ve used it in Wisconsin. So I just kind of grew a passion for that training and then also the training at ISA at the annual conference and then a lot of training at TCIA. I’ve been a speaker there for probably last like 15 years off and on, and that’s on many different topics. So being involved in both those, all three has been a huge benefit to learning. You got to be in the community, and that community is now, like it’s all my friends and a wide range of friends from all over the country. And learning from people from all over the country, you learn different countries have different policies. Are these policies good or bad? Can we implement some of these? It’s just been a wonderful experience being involved with these organizations and being involved-involved, not just going there for CEUs. Going there to actually get involved. 

Ty Deemer:

One thing to note about the tree climbing competitions, and I just want to double down on what you said, that probably is one of the best ways to get a feel for the actual community of tree care. I was at the Knoxville championship last year, and that was my first international championship. And just the entire spirit of that event is pretty incredible. You can just feel the community as soon as you walk up and just see everyone encouraging each other. But all the conversations off to the side about like not just about climbing techniques but about their businesses and how things are doing. I was super encouraged by that for sure. 

Todd Kramer:

Yeah. It’s been amazing even at the chapter level. You bring it to the international level and then the—I’ve never actually been to the Europeans but I’ve been the North Americans. What’s so amazing about that community is every time I competed, I went there in the mindset to win. I’m a competitive person. I like winning. Don’t always win though. But walking away, I won. I’ve learned so much, and I’ve gained so many networking opportunities to further my career and to further my employees’ careers by gaining this knowledge. So I’ve never been to a tree climbing championship that I lost. 

Ty Deemer:

Yeah. I love that point. And then too just with those conferences, like you mentioned, the things you learn, the relationships you make, that’s what makes them worth going towards. If someone that’s listening to this episode in the tree care space has never been to a tree climbing competition or hasn’t been necessarily involved at a deeper level than going to one of these conferences for the basic education that they have to go for, what would be like some of the first level ways you would encourage them to start getting involved? 

Todd Kramer:

With the local tree climbing competitions, and every chapter is different. It’s like the Illinois chapter, it’s generally in the Chicago area. It’s where I live. So it’s easy to go to, but it’s a huge market. Other chapters like the Midwest chapter are big. So you might be 500 miles away. If you’ve never been to one, just go. Just go to one and see what it’s all about. And once you go to one, participate after that if you liked what you saw. Participate by either competing and/or volunteering because you’re going to learn more about just being a volunteer sometimes than you would be as a competitor. Like how to do a gear inspection, what are the rules, understanding all that. And like you mentioned, you were in Knoxville, and the vibe at these competitions and that’s why I think some of the people who aren’t involved in these climbing communities, I think it’s competition. So it’s like a football competition. But it’s not. Everybody’s very friendly. I can’t tell you how many times I saw somebody getting ready to do an event, and one of their competitors was helping them configure and straighten out their equipment because they were a new competitor, they’ve never done it before, and they’re about to make a mistake. And then a competitor is like wait, wait, wait, let’s fix this, let’s tidy this up. Right? So the environment in those communities, it’s not like a competitive community. Of course, people are there to win, but it’s just so friendly and open and everybody willing to help everybody else especially at the end of the day. 

Ty Deemer:

That’s awesome because the one thing that I would encourage people to do is not only can you go for a fun weekend to get exposure to a new event, something fun, but you might just find your newest network for the person to bounce off your biggest business decisions with or equipment decisions with. That’s something that I saw when I went. You could just tell, really doubling down on what you said, that it really is a place for collaboration and to check in and just really get solid advice from other people that are in the exact same shoes as you. 

Todd Kramer:

Yeah, absolutely. We’re looking to make a capital investment in a piece of equipment, and I’ve got like 10 people I can go reach out to and go, what do you know about this piece of equipment? And they can reach out to 10 other people. I’ll call this person. Like do you have this piece of equipment? I think maybe you did or you know somebody who does. And then within two phone calls, I could have 25 different answers to make this capital investment on some kind of piece of equipment. 

Ty Deemer:

Yeah. So if you’re listening and you aren’t convinced, you need to get involved at those events when they all come back post-pandemic I don’t know if we can sell it much more than that. It’s a great thing to do, and you can learn a lot from it. As we go to the kind of last half of the episode, Todd, one question that I would love for you to touch on is just as we’re transitioning into a new year, a lot of businesses are thinking about a lot of things right now. And one of those is typically like goal setting, benchmarks to hit. And I’d just be curious to hear from your perspective what are Kramer Tree’s kind of biggest goals as you all go into 2021? It could be in the terms of business development or team growth or maybe just personally for you. What is a goal that you have going into this year? 

Todd Kramer:

Some of our goals at Kramer Tree for this year are for sure to have business development because business development means we have then the opportunity to train and grow people’s careers. So we’re kind of always looking towards doing something different. What’s a new market we could hit or what’s a new product we could hit? And then we also kind of just refer back to budgets. We put budgets back. Budgets are kind of goal setting for every department. Every department manager puts together their budget. Here’s your budget. Can we meet these goals? So that’s a big one. But yeah, we’re always kind of looking for something new to do. But that’s kind of hard because we kind of do everything. But under this whole pandemic thing, our goals this year are to keep people safe, have our company policies be in line that are—and this all started a year ago though—have our policies be in line to be respectful to employees who are in situations that we cannot control. So we have company policies for the COVID if you got a family member that tested positive or was exposed and you get paid time off for you to wait those four or five days so then you can go get a test. So you’re not losing your paycheck. And part of that is if you were potentially exposed, not to come to work, to influence somebody not to come to work if they were potentially exposed. So it’s been a rough go with a lot of management meetings about that and a lot of changes. The company policies are changing often just because the rules change. 

Ty Deemer:

Yeah. I feel like for everyone this has just been the year of flexibility. Right? Everybody’s had to adapt in some way or another, whether you’re a tree care company or like SingleOps and you’re in the tech space. Everybody’s had to do something to really do what you said. Because you can talk about whether it’s fair or frustrating or whatever the term is, but at the end of the day, it’s about making sure your team and your clients are safe. So I think that’ll be a theme really moving forward in 2021 and beyond. Everybody’s going to be thinking about that conversation a little bit more than we ever expected. 

Todd Kramer:

Yeah, exactly. And then just keeping everybody safe as a goal this year. So your goals are going to change with the environment you’re living in. So one of the primary goals for 2021 is definitely increase our training because training did kind of slide a little bit because we couldn’t have people in the building, especially at the very beginning. I’m used to groups of six or seven. We do some classroom. Then we go outside. But we’re kind of really close to—we might have to be close together. So we definitely want to ramp up our training this year. We’ve got things figured out how we can do that. We’re lucky enough that our building is actually pretty big. So we do have some bigger rooms where we could easily have six or eight people still spaced out, masked up. But who knows? Those rules might change. Who knows though? But yeah, our training this year did kind of slide off somewhat. One of the biggest goals we have is let’s ramp that up. Let’s figure it out. Let’s be proactive and not be blaming our lack of training on the environment. 

Ty Deemer:

Absolutely. So in general, throughout your experience with Kramer Tree, do you have what you would consider a favorite failure, maybe a lesson learned that really impacted how you all approach what you all do? 

Todd Kramer:

I would say there’s two different ways to look at the failures. We’ve had failures where we sold work we weren’t competent to do. We didn’t have the equipment. We didn’t have the training. We didn’t have the manpower. That’s one. And I’d say it’s the bottom one. The first lesson is seeing people get hurt. I’ve seen it. I’ve been hurt myself, and I’ve seen my co-workers get hurt. So those are the biggest lessons learned is when you see somebody actually get hurt and witness it. And it’s better to witness it than hear about it because I’ve had that too where I get the phone call. Hey, this guy’s, this happened. So those are definitely the biggest ones, and that’s why the training is so important. That’s why it’s so important to be involved in these organizations. That’s why it’s so important to be networking. That’s why it’s so important to expand your knowledge by being involved in the entire community because that’s where you’re going to gain your strengths and not get those phone calls. 

Ty Deemer:

Yeah. I mean I think that’s been the theme of this show is just the importance of how important safety and training is in the tree care space and just letting the audience be aware of all the resources out there to make sure you and your team are taken care of and safe at the end of the day. 

Todd Kramer:

Yeah. And there’s more resources now than there’s ever been. And it is frustrating when you when you see people not make that capital investment of training and not taking their staff. And even like with all the years of going to TCIA, I’ll see like these much smaller companies because they’re working in a much smaller market. I work in the Chicago market. The market is huge. So you have more opportunity to expand your company. But I’ll see year after year, here’s this company of four employees. They got their whole company there, and they’re there every year. It’s four people. That’s a huge capital investment, but it’s clearly paying dividends. Otherwise they wouldn’t be there. Right? So here’s the company owner paying for the hotels, paying for the travel. These people are on the clock eight hours a day. Fielding nobody. You know what I mean? But they’re there. It must have value to them. And when I do see some companies that just refuse to spend that money on training, and I can’t tell you how many proposals I’ve given for training where that’s way too expensive. Okay. It’s your opinion. 

Ty Deemer:

Yeah. Just move on. And I love the point you made about how training is something that companies of all sizes can invest in, and it’d be a worthwhile investment. Whether you’re running one crew or whether you’re running 20 crews each day, it’s something that can be prioritized. Well, Todd, we’re towards the end of the show. I do always like to finish each episode with the same question, and it’s really just wrapping up and saying what are you most excited about next with Kramer Tree or with these industry associations? What do you see coming in the future that kind of fires you up and what you’re looking forward to? 

Todd Kramer:

what’s kind of firing me up with the trade associations is can we just get back to it? We’ve taken a year off. Right? So I’m excited with the trade associations to get back to trade shows, to mingle with people. And I also want to get back to doing all the public speaking. I’ve done a bunch this year still but outside, in pavilions. But getting back to that community is something I’m looking forward to. And I’m also looking forward to new speakers. Let’s hear a new voice, speaking particularly at TCIA for, I don’t know, 10 or 12 years, sometimes on two or three topics every conference. I love seeing somebody new come up, and let’s see your opinion. Let’s see how you perform. I don’t know everything. So I’m just looking forward to hopefully we can all meet in Indy in November. Wouldn’t that just be—if that happens, that is going to be the biggest TCIA ever. 

Ty Deemer:

Yeah. You and me both on that note. I think, and probably along with a lot of people listening, ready for some normalcy again, ready to meet. Well, Todd, I really appreciate your time today. We covered a ton of topics. We talked about your family-run business, the journey that you’ve had, your involvement with associations. We really talked a lot about training and performance managing. And I think that the audience that’s listening at the very least will walk out and say one of two things. Number one, is this something that we need to start investing in more than we already are? Or number two, wow, I need to go ahead and look for when the next tree climbing competition or conference is. So I can’t thank you enough for your time, and hopefully, I look forward to seeing you in Indianapolis later this year. 

Todd Kramer:

I hope so. It’d be fun. And I appreciate the opportunity. Thank you very much. 

Ty Deemer:

Yeah. Thank you. Talk soon.

Conclusion:

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