Pro Arb were recently given the opportunity to interview Jamie Myers, who has been in the arb industry for 28 years, and after having the passion passed on to him by his mentor, has gone from strength to strength in business. Pro Arb spoke to Jamie about continual training, the history of the Arboricultural Association and his love for martial arts.
What’s your role within the company, when did you get into arboriculture and when did you set your company up?
My role as the managing director involves winning new business, ensuring continued servicing to our existing clients, staff training and I occasionally get out and get my hands dirty, which is always good! I started in arboriculture 28 years ago, doing tree work and I set up Myers Tree Services 20 years ago.
Did you study arboriculture at college?
Not initially, I started off as an informal apprentice for a local Arboricultural Association approved company. My neighbour was a climber for them but he hit an obstacle in that he had no driving licence and he needed a driver. I was looking for a job so I fell into it really. The company was known locally for their quality of work. I worked for them for 8 years and within a couple of years I was out running a crew for them. I was trained by a great guy called Tony Fletcher, who passed away last year, but he was very well known in the west London area as someone who could deliver high quality work and he passed the skills to me and he also passed the passion for the work to me too. That was in 1988 and in 1995 I went to Capel Manor College to do the RFS course. I set up my own business whilst I was doing that course. I went back to Merrist Wood in 2010 for some further education and I’ve added other bits and pieces over the years too.
So you find constantly updating and educating yourself is very important in this line of work?
It’s imperative, you can’t trade without it. You have got to keep current. If you don’t keep up you start to look stupid in front of clients. The industry moves so fast.
How did you find being your own boss initially?
It was frightening! I was a young man with a young family and we’d just bought a house, then I decided to set up a business, which are probably the most stressful things you can do in life in one go. The worst thing was looking at the diary two weeks into the future and seeing nothing in it. But I lived and worked in the area all of my life and I had a lot of good contacts. The work started to come through because of the quality of work I provided.
How many staff members do you currently employ?
There are 5 of us at the moment. At our largest we had 14 or 15 members of staff.
What’s the reason behind downsizing the team?
A number of things that all collided at once really. At lot of the local authorities in the local area that we were working in went out to 5 year contracts to attract the big contractors whereas previously there were a lot of tree companies that all got a bit of the pie. So that revenue stream dried up. Latterly, there was an insurance blip in the market and although we had no claims on our public liability insurance, they wanted to put our premiums up by about 400%. It’s ridiculous really as we couldn’t carry that overhead. Later on came the credit crunch and recession so I thought we’d be better off just going back to being me and a climber, a lad and Claire, my wife, doing office work.
Is most of your work in the domestic or commercial market?
It’s probably a 50:50 split currently. We do some work for a large green services provider that has a grounds maintenance contract that includes tree work and we cover that aspect for them. We’ve been doing that for just over a year and it’s working really well. I like the domestic aspect of work because it’s nice to meet different people and that work is varied. With the commercial work, it’s nice to have the security of knowing home much is coming in over the next 12 months.
How do you win your work?
The new work generally comes from the domestic market. We do tender for some commercial work. I would like to break into the local authority market but we’re too small at the moment. Historically you have been unable to tender for this work if your turnover isn’t high enough. I understand that those rules have changed but we haven’t seen anything that has sparked our interest yet. We do always keep an eye on the tenders when they come up.
Have you always been a member of the Arb Association and are you passionate about the association?
When I first started in business, I had the view that the Arb Association was an old boy’s network. The company I trained with were Arb Association approved and I personally didn’t see any benefit to it. I didn’t see anything that they were getting that the other contractors in the area weren’t. About 6 or 7 years ago I met Paul Smith at the association and we had a discussion. The association has changed massively over the last 25 years and it is more inclusive and they are trying to get more people involved. They’re also trying to increase the skill level within the industry and to me that’s important. We went through the auditing process and got that accreditation. Our guys, Daniel and Luke worked incredibly hard. They got a massive boost when we got accreditation because they put in a lot of the effort to get us there.
Do you constantly train your staff?
It’s more on an ad hoc basis. There is always training that needs to be done. It depends on what the requirements are as to whether we get an external provider or do it internally. Dan, my son who does most of our climbing work, is 22 this year and has been in the industry since he was 16 and he’s been climbing since he was 7, so for him it comes natural. The training I do with the whole of my team is outside of what you can buy commercially.
So it’s more like a mentoring arrangement?
That’s what I try to do. The thing that people don’t teach is quality pruning. Very few people take CS40. It’s pretty much a non-qualification because nobody takes it but you see so much bad pruning around, whether it be on the street trees or in gardens and I try and really force the quality of the pruning and shaping. I try and pass that on to the team. You need the formal qualifications to back up what you know but I try to do some training beforehand so they know what I want from them.
When you are recruiting, do you find it easy to find employees who are at a high level or do you bring them in with basic skills and train them to the way you work?
I’ve done both over the years. Both have got their bonuses and pitfalls. If someone comes into our small business with the full complement of qualifications and skills, sometimes they tend to try and be the ‘big I am’. We are a family business and we socialise outside of work as well as working together. If they don’t fit into our company, they don’t stay. On the other had I’ve taken guys on with no qualifications, trained them up, put them through the formal qualifications and they’ve gone on to do great things with us and in the industry.
What are the issues you have faced recently when running your business?
The issues are the same year on year. For us the problem is keeping hold of kit, thefts have gone through the roof. We’ve suffered from break-ins. At the back end of last year we had a break-in where the thieves only managed to partially get the door of the yard open but they still managed to relieve us on £10,000 worth of kit. Over the last twenty years I’ve probably lost 5 or 6 chippers, a couple of stump grinders, 2 or 3 trucks as well as saws and climbing kits. It’s never been recovered. Security is always an ongoing issue. Even when you’re working in a domestic setting and you’re working in a back garden, you still have to think about security of the truck with a chipper on the back out the front. You could walk around to the front of the house with a big pile of brush, and your chipper would be gone.
How are you combating this?
All you can do is insure your bigger kit. The smaller stuff like climbing kits, for what it’s worth to insure them, it just isn’t worth it. We wouldn’t be anything without our staff and I couldn’t be any more complimentary about them, and they are very security conscious. They know the costs of things and they know we can’t always replace kit straight away and they understand that. I think they know how difficult it makes their job when things go missing so they are extra careful with kit.
Are you Check-a-Trade members or any of the consumer trade schemes?
Yes we do Check-a-Trade. We don’t actively monitor everything that comes in and where it comes from. We moved to the south coast a few years ago and Check-a-Trade is really strong around here. We’ve tried to break into the market here but people are working for peanuts. We did the Check-a-Trade as part of that and we’ve had some good work out of it. My issue with it is, although it’s better than nothing because it gives the consumer some confidence, all you are being assessed on is your systems, for example your time keeping, you gave them a written quote and an invoice for the job. The bits I’m less happy about are where they ask you about the quality of the work. They get you in because they know nothing about their tree and as long as you cut branches off that allow the light that they want through, the quality could be absolute rubbish, but they are happy.
So your reputation has helped you get a lot of work, is that something you’ve gathered over years of experience? You must get a lot of jobs through word of mouth…
Absolutely. Customer service is paramount. Claire doesn’t work full time in the office but she responds to clients as soon as she can. I don’t like taking customer calls on my mobile, I like them to go through the office because then the whole procedure has been logged. There is nothing worse than getting a phone call at 10 o’clock in the morning whilst you’re in the middle of a job, saying you will call back later but by the time the job is finished, you’ve gone back to the yard, or got back home and think, oh no I’ve forgot to call that person back
What’s the next step for Myers Tree Services?
We will get the house move out the way first which is going to drop us into the area where the majority of our contracting work is. Hopefully we will build our domestic offering so we can put two teams out. I’ve got the equipment to do that so it’s just a case of actively trying to build up work in the new area.
Do you think pricing is the most important thing in the industry? You pride yourself on quality but do you think potential clients take more notice of the cost than the quality?
You will always be up again people who will quote next to nothing to do a job. Most often these people know next to nothing about the job.
Do you think the public know that?
I think that comes across a lot of the time. It depends on whether they are getting one quote or a selection of quotes. I also think it depends on where they come across your company. If they are just getting you off Check-a-Trade, you could be quoting against a guy who runs a two man team with no office background. If he’s not VAT registered, on a £400 job he’s automatically £80 less expensive than me. When you get in front of a client you have to impart your knowledge on them. Price will always be a factor because people don’t want to just throw money away.
What are your interests outside of work?
I’ve got two big dogs that I absolutely adore who keep me busy. I enjoy martial arts, I’ve been doing Taekwondo for the last 17 years and I teach a bit of that too now. I’ve also just started to get back into fishing again!