A tree may grow in Brooklyn, if you recall the 1943 novel by Betty Smith, but a tree care company is thriving in Bedford, New York, the leafy Westchester suburban home of SavATree. The tree, shrub and lawn care company, which was founded in 1978, has 53 locations around the U.S. and employs 1,420 workers. It was able to retain and attract new talent last year by creating jobs for general tree care workers and tree climbers, whose wages range from $16 to $34 per hour.
“We recognize that we need to be nimble and creative in order to retain our vital team members during the pandemic, and to recruit new team members. Retention depends on our ability to keep our teams safe, informed and productively serving our customers,” says Michael Reid, regional vice president of SavATree. “Our overall retention rate for the calendar year is 74% as of November 1, which is 20% higher than the industry average, and 5% higher than the same time last year.”
SavATree’s focus in 2020 was to ensure the company could generate enough work to retain tree care workers and tree climbers, and to satisfy strong customer demand during the pandemic. A top priority was to make sure that hourly workers did not experience a decrease in income. SavATree also faced the challenge of ensuring safety for workers whose job now requires both climbing trees and working during a pandemic.
Because SavATree is regulated at the state level, it quickly formed “The Solutions Squad,” a group tasked with collaborating with industry partners to secure the “essential business” designation in each state. “We succeeded in continuing to provide our full suite of services in the vast majority of states we serve,” says Michael Schoeni, regional vice president of SavATree. He adds that The Solutions Squad is also responsible for identifying all state-level mandates and guidelines that impact the company’s business practices, so that it can maintain compliance in all locations.
SavATree relied on its partner, Manhattan-based private equity firm CI Capital Partners, to achieve its employee retention goals. Staffing was a main topic in all board meetings, and CI Capital facilitated the sharing of best practices from other portfolio companies to assist SavATree in achieving its retention and broader personnel goals, while also leveraging its network to clarify state-level restrictions early in the pandemic.
When asked what middle-market companies can learn from SavATree’s job retention success, Reid and Schoeni were clear: First, lower the barriers to entry into your organization by creating interesting entry-level positions. “There are many people who want to change fields—specifically leave industries that were impacted by COVID and move into those that were more resilient,” they said.
Second, develop career paths and training programs for entry-level workers. Finally, acknowledge and reward both new recruits and seasoned veterans who complete training. “Have a formal process for identifying high-potential team members and be sure that they are adequately challenged, know they are valued, and can see a future with your company,” Reid and Schoeni said.