My dad was born and raised in South Africa.
He arrived in the US by way of college in the Netherlands, two years working on the Kibbutz in Israel, and a beautiful American woman. You can fill in the blanks. Dad worked hard at Dillard Paper Company as one of many cogs in a corporate wheel. To get by, we cleaned office buildings and churches on nights and weekends.
I grew up the oldest of five children in southeast Raleigh, among the other working class families that made up our neighborhood.
That’s the nice term we use to describe hard working families barely scraping by. One of my earliest memories as a wee lad – all of 5 years old – was emptying trash cans at Southeastern Microfilm. Hard work was a big part of my upbringing. If I wanted anything other than the basics, it was up to me to earn the money.
At the time I thought I had a hard life, but looking back my childhood was ideal. I learned the essentials in life. Dad taught me hard work, attention to detail, and tenacity. Mom taught me the importance of learning, compassion, reading, and doing the right thing.
Meanwhile, dad was reaching his boiling point. He was underpaid, underappreciated, frustrated, and working long hours – for what? He resigned and decided to apprentice at a tree service for one year. This was a gutsy move for a guy with a wife and five kids.
Then in 1997 he founded Leaf & Limb Tree Service.
Word of mouth and a $50 ad in the local Ad-Pack garnered him his first clients. He was always fair and delivered high quality services, so his reputation spread. Plus he would hang out and chit chat, which always made people happy. Over the coming years, he built a loyal client base that kept him and a few employees busy year-long.
He had attained his dream of owning a small business in America. It did not pay a whole lot, but at least he loved his work and could now enjoy time with his family.
Over the coming years I graduated from Duke, met the love of my life, and took a job as an economic analyst at a firm in DC.
I then used my savings to start Lark Tours, a company specializing in luxury travel in Africa. It was a blast. I created my own trips, took clients to Africa, and had the time of my life. Most importantly, Lark Tours was a real-life crash course in business operations and development.
Fast forward to 2008. The economic downturn was devastating for the tree service industry.
By the end of 2009, dad and mom were facing very real hardships, like many Americans during those years. But with everything I had learned, I had the skills and experience necessary to help Leaf & Limb.
Those early years were hairy. Dig out of holes. Get the business in order. Get financially solvent. Advertise. Acquire clients. Organize. And bootstrap – a LOT.
Luckily, we were (and are) quite creative.
Our first real test came in late 2010 when we began hiring new employees and needed workers compensation insurance.
Turns out, rates are insanely expensive since the tree service industry is currently the 4th most dangerous in the US. Because of this, 90% of tree services do not properly insure their employees (according to statistics from TCIA).
When the majority of our competition is skipping out on this huge cost and undercutting our prices by 30%, how could we afford to play by the rules and survive? How could we ever hope to win business, much less turn a profit?
We stuck to our guns.
Employees matter. People matter. Doing the right thing matters.
We knew there had to be a way to crack this nut. It took ingenuity and a lot of hard work, but we did it. By the end of 2011 we had turned the ship around and become financially solvent.
This first victory was exciting! By 2012 we had purpose to our stride.
Thus began the age of enlightenment for Leaf & Limb.
We established our values, chief among them “do the right thing” and “show that you care.” We read everything we could get our hands on, always on the lookout for deeper truths, whether relating to trees, people, business, or existence. We soaked up knowledge like a sponge and expanded from traditional removals and pruning into the complex world of tree care and consulting.
We continually thought outside of the box, defied industry norms, and achieved a remarkable 35% growth per year from 2010 until the time of this writing in summer of 2017. During this same time, we grew from three fellows to 40 incredibly talented individuals.
Along this journey we realized that we must do more than improve the lives of our clients and employees.
We must also improve our community and our planet.
If we are growing, caring, and learning more with each passing day, how could caring for community and environment not be a natural extension of who we are? This business journey is an opportunity to make a difference!
And that, my friend, is why this is a rags to riches story. The riches we have gained are this: we set off on the journey of building a business and along the way we discovered something far greater: business is an opportunity to do good for others, build community, and protect our planet.
In all honesty, we are nowhere close to where we want to be. We still have much to do in terms of offering better services for our clients, providing better lives for our employees, giving back to our community, and caring for the environment in earnest.
We can do better. And we will.