Employee-owned Lewis Tree Service has proven an exception to the struggling logging business.
Headquartered in Rochester, New York, Lewis Tree provides vegetation management services to utilities and governments primarily in the eastern United States. “We’ve tripled in size in the seven years that I’ve been with the company, and we are continuing to grow at a pretty good rate,” says Mike Moser, director of fleet and purchasing. “In the last few months we have seen utilities reducing their vegetation maintenance some, but I don’t expect that to continue long term,” Moser says.
Founded in 1938 as a small family-owned local tree service, the company is now the third largest company in its industry, according to Moser. By 2000 the company was 100-percent employee-owned.
A handful of employees work in the corporate office, but most are field personnel spread out in 15 states with a few in Canada. At least 90 percent of the company’s business comes from utilities, both investor-owned and co-op, providing vegetation management around distribution power lines.
The growth business, however, is vegetation management in the right-of-ways for high-voltage transmission lines.
“The utilities are investing more into better maintaining the transmission right-of-ways, so we’re bidding on that type of work more often,” Moser explains. “I think the blackout in the Northeast a few years back contributed to a renewed concern for maintaining transmission lines. There is a big push to upgrade the lines, which means the vegetation needs to be reclaimed and right-of-ways widened back to spec, if they have been let go.”
Whether the work is under distribution or transmission lines, vegetation management involves primarily mowing and tree trimming. Herbicides and tree growth regulator products are also tools for controlling vegetation growth.
Another facet of the business is storm emergency response. Lewis Tree crews, equipped with either man buckets or Prentice self-loaders mounted on trucks with dumping log/brush bodies, are dispatched to clear vegetation so power can be restored.
Moser is responsible for purchasing, assigning and managing the maintenance schedule for 3,600 pieces of equipment – everything from small brush cutting attachments to large site prep tractors.
Transmission work requires more heavy-duty equipment, and with that business growing, Moser has added to his fleet. Last year he purchased two 220-horsepower Prentice 2764 site prep tractors, the workhorse for the company’s transmission jobs. The Prentice tractors are all equipped with self-recovery winches and ride on standard Firestone 28L x 66 tires. The two newest tractors are powered by Cummins QSB 6.7-liter engines that meet Tier 3 emission requirements.
For most jobs the tractors are equipped with the Prentice MR-244 rotary ax, which clears an 8-foot path and cuts down and mulches trees up to 7 inches in diameter. “That’s what we’ve always used. We’ve tried drum-style brushcutters over the years and found them to be high maintenance and too expensive to operate, where the rotary ax from Prentice has been great for us – economical to maintain compared to the others.”
Moser said that the drum-style brushcutters produce a finer chip. “But to justify the added cost of acquisition and maintenance, we needed more production and we just weren’t getting it,” he says. “The rotary ax does what we need it to do.”
When Lewis Tree is called on to take down trees to reclaim a transmission right-of-way, the site prep tractors are equipped with a Prentice feller buncher attachment.
The company’s standard vehicle used in both distribution and transmission line work is an aerial bucket truck towing a wood chipper. Chippers are Bandit Model 200XP and Altec Model 1200, both 12-inch, control-fed, disc style. A ground person feeds the tree trimmings into the chipper with the chips blown into the enclosed dump body of the truck.
“Then we have to find somewhere to dump the chips, and in many areas we have to pay,” Moser explains. “If the work is rural, it’s not as much of a problem because the farmers love to put the chips along their fence line for weed control. But in urban areas, especially in New England, it’s an issue.”
Basic communications in such a far-flung organization are easily handled by cell phone, but the company is also exploring something more high-tech. GPS systems are being installed in 400 on-road vehicles in the second stage of a pilot test. “This is a tool that will allow us to better manage the equipment fleet. Field supervisors can track the location of their equipment and also use the data to monitor and score driving habits to enhance their safety program,” Moser says. Eventually the whole fleet will be equipped if the pilot test goes as they expect. Off-road equipment would be the final implementation stage.
With more than $10 million spent every year on maintaining and repairing equipment, the GPS system is also a tool to control and reduce these expenses by allowing the company to schedule maintenance based on actual equipment use, report fuel tax electronically and monitor engine overheating conditions. Equipment operators handle the day-to-day maintenance and repairs on their own machines, but the company relies on outside vendors who usually provide road service for major repairs and maintenance.
Lewis Tree lists seven values on its website, with safety as number one, for good reason. “Our industry is dangerous for a lot of reasons. We’re working around high voltage power lines, on the side of the road dealing with traffic, 70 feet up in the air in a bucket truck, and we’re operating chain saws and wood chippers,” Moser says.
The company gives safety more than lip service. “We’re always out there promoting safe work habits and actively caring for each other,” Moser says, “which is the basis for being safe. It’s not just watching out for ourselves; it’s not accepting someone else doing something he or she shouldn’t be doing.”
The number of field safety supervisors has doubled in the last year and a half, and the company conducts quarterly safety meetings that everyone attends from the company president on down.
Moser predicts that the company will double in size in the next five years through a combination of organic growth and acquisition.
“We have a reputation of high integrity that starts with our president, and I think that goes a long way. Because of that and the high level of quality that we try to give to our customers, we are often looked at as the vendor of choice,” Moser explains. “Typically, larger customers will have multiple contractors maintaining their vegetation. That works well for us because now they have something to compare us to and we typically come out on top. That is where most of our growth has come from over the years.”
Reprinted in part from Timber Harvesting & Wood Fiber Operations, Sept.-Oct. 2008.
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