By Tamsin Venn
Meggan Hargrave started working at her dad’s office at Metropolitan Forestry Services in 2007 when a spot opened that he had a hard time filling. She answered phones, filed and placed work orders as temporary office manager. Managers came and went, so she started filling those roles as well, and it became more of an “operational everything” kind of position. Ten years later, she is not only settled in but poised to take over the business upon her father’s pending retirement.
“I don’t think it was in either of our minds that I would take over,” Hargrave says of the tree care company in St. Louis, Missouri, that her father, Dan Christie, built up over four decades. Metropolitan Forestry celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2016.
Hargrave earned a master’s degree in International Business from St. Louis University, married in 2010 and she and her husband, Matthew, now have two small children. (She also has a brother and sister.) “Our plans to move from St. Louis and do other things went out the window,” she notes. “So we stayed on. We use the term ‘retirement’ for my father loosely. I am confident he will have a regular presence in the office. The plan is for Matt and I to take over, and my father will take more of a back-seat role as a consultant.”
Is her father thrilled that his daughter is taking over?
“He’s not the type of person who gets thrilled about anything. He’s not that warm, fuzzy type of person,” Hargrave says. “There’s some kind of solace that it’s being left to someone he trusts, but he’s very involved in everything. Most people would call that micromanaging, but I think that’s a typical tree care owner. You start out doing it all yourself, and then you grow and bring on staff, but your mindset is still doing it all yourself.”
Is there one major piece of advice Christie passed onto his daughter for her success in the next 40 years?
Hargrave laughs at the concept of there being only one piece, but answers decisively. “His philosophy has always been doing the right thing by the tree, which doesn’t always align with the customer’s wishes. He believes in not coddling and in getting straight to the point. One of the reasons he’s been successful is his knowledge of forestry and knowing more about trees and about why and where they work. He has the ability to look at a tree and, with his knowledge of science, see the whole picture of why the specific tree is doing well or not. He has a really high level of confidence that he knows what he’s talking about. He’s going to tell you plainly what is wrong with that tree, whether you want to hear it or not,” she says. “He’s fond of saying that people want to know what time it is, not how the watch is made.
“That is why people probably will not say he is warm and fuzzy, but they will definitely tell you that he knows what he’s talking about.” That is something Hargrave struggles with coming into her new role as company owner – her father’s 50 years of experience versus her 10. “There is so much more to learn and so much to teach people, to be in the position he is. It’s a never ending learning curve.”
The seven arborists on staff and the knowledgeable sales and plant health-care people all have benefited from Christie’s teaching. “He has some of the best and brightest people working for him,” notes Hargrave, who is also a certified arborist, thanks to the company. Although several companies in the area have passed business on to off spring – mostly sons – people remark, “That is so cool that you’re doing that,” says Hargrave. “Not a whole lot of companies are in the position to do that,” she notes. One sure thing, she says, is that Christie is leaving a solid company that he built over the past 42 years.
Christie began his working career in 1968 when he joined his friend, Tom Baskett, as a firefighter with the Bureau of Land Management in Priest Lake, Idaho. As part of a hotshot crew, the pair flew to Arizona, New Mexico, California, Washington and Oregon, where they were dropped to
fight fires in progress or to mop up. Then it was time for school.
“I earned a degree in Forestry from the University of Missouri,” says Christie. “I paid for a great deal of my college by working at a nursery and landscape firm in Columbia, Missouri. That job taught me a lot about landscaping, growing trees and tree species other than those growing in the forest. At that time, there were basically no forestry positions available for graduate foresters. I took a job with the St. Louis County Parks Department as the parks arborist, where I was in charge of all the trees, shrubs, etcetera throughout the St. Louis County Parks system, which involved some 25,000 acres.”
From there, he went to work for Sachs Properties as a forester for Chesterfield Village in Missouri.
“That was not a very interesting position as far as my expertise goes. It was in the early stages of development: a shopping mall, business districts and all of the construction inspections. All of this did help me learn some construction techniques. I also met some of the other trades people who I certainly have been using throughout my business career.”
By then he saw a need for a professional, quality-oriented tree care company in St. Louis, and he and his wife, Flicky, set up shop on a property they had bought a year earlier in Ballwin, which is still company headquarters and where the family lives.
“I started Metropolitan Forestry Services in April 1976. I chose the name of the business so I could expand into other areas in the future,” says Christie. “I was doing consulting, landscaping and tree care work. I also started MFS Properties, which is a landholding company. It all worked together so I was going to expand into MFS Wood Products.
“When I started, I had no employees; I had a pickup truck and a stump grinder. I set a goal of $80,000 gross volume in my first year. I made $100,000 and never looked back. Since I had never worked for a tree company, I had very little idea of how to go about it or the economics. Much of my experience was in the municipal area. Much of what I learned I learned very quickly through trial and error, success and failure.”
Today, that initial husband-and-wife operation has grown to more than 20 employees and specializes in tree care, landscape services and plant health care.
A Rising Tide
Metropolitan joined the National Arborist Association, now TCIA, in 1987. Christie has always worked to support TCIA as well as the tree care industry at large.
“Some of the major challenges I faced early on, in the ’80s and ’90s, were much the same as other tree care companies run into, but being in the Midwest, arboriculture and tree care were never thought of as a career. Basically, you were thought of as a farmer with a chain saw. There was very little respect for the thought and expertise that had to go into tree work, and the industry in this area had suffered greatly. However, the East and West Coasts had evolved with more quality and career-oriented tree care and arboricultural practices.
“The business expertise of the tree care business owners was greatly lacking as far as pricing of the work that would enable you to pay good salaries to your employees and also give yourself a profitable salary. I realized I would not be able to stand alone and charge for my good work if no one else did, so I began teaching seminars and business classes geared to the arborists and the nursery people. That met with great success and resulted in some of the sales people charging more for their work and increasing the profit level of the business owners.”
In 2010, he received the Award of Merit from TCIA, the association’s most prestigious recognition. The award recognized Christie’s six years of service on the TCIA board, from 1998-2004, and his efforts to develop training programs for members so they could work safely and profitably.
“As a chair of what used to be the (TCIA’s) Education and Employee Development Committee, I realized that the association had some of the best training materials, but they were produced in a helter-skelter fashion. With the help of others, I started what is now the Tree Care Academy program that tries to put all these great training materials into some sort of order that can be logical and followed.”
In presenting the award, Mark Garvin, TCIA president at the time, noted, “Quiet service may be the best description of this year’s honoree. He devoted his time over the years to the Excellence in Arboriculture Committee, Education and Employee Development Committee, Winter Management Conference Committee, Site Selection Committee and the Government Affairs Committee.
“For six years he served as a member of TCIA’s Board of Directors. During his tenure, all who served with him described him as very effective – a board member who was never afraid to broach any subject. … Perhaps most importantly, in times of rapid change and the launching of new strategic initiatives, he insisted the Association stay true to its values and ethics. This was particularly true in his insistence on looking out for the interests of the average member. … We are a far stronger and more effective association today and into the future because of his leadership.”
Receiving the award was one of the most memorable highlights of Christie’s career, he says. “I wasn’t prepared for that at all,” says Christie. “It is a great honor that I will always cherish and remember.”
Passing of the Chain Saw
Christie says he believes wholeheartedly in the usefulness and importance of networking, and that is the main advice he would pass on to his daughter to ensure her success for the next 40 years.
Early on he became acquainted with many people in the business of landscaping and nursery growers as well as tree care companies. “I felt it was important to network with those people and pay attention to what they were doing, good and bad. I became president of the St. Louis Arborist Association, and also president of the St. Louis Landscape Nurseryman’s Association. I belonged to all the other groups pertaining to grounds management,” he says.
“I also had become a member of ISA and NAA (now TCIA), a registered consulting arborist in ASCA, Missouri Consulting Foresters, SAF, etcetera. This certainly kept me on a learning curve, not only from a technical standpoint, but also from a business standpoint.
“Many of the people I have met in these organizations have become lifelong friends. When I have a particular problem, I generally know someone who has already had that problem and found the solution, so I can call on them to solve the problem without me making all of the mistakes that have been made in the past.
“I had learned early on that networking with people in your industry, and even those related to our industry, is extremely important. Many of those people were the sources of quality referrals. That helped me get started in the right direction, doing quality work and charging a fair price.”
He has been busy introducing Hargraves to many of his contacts, most recently at TCIA’s Winter Management in Maui this past February. “Knowing people, so when you fall you have a name you can call to get advice, is worthwhile,” he says.
In terms of the business and financial side, he speaks of the merits of touring other people’s businesses to figure out how they do different things, particularly fellow TCIA members. “Someone like me, with eight to 10 employees when starting off, could talk to people with 200 employees, and they were happy to talk with me about some of the obstacles I was facing. People are really free with their information; you’re dealing with people you’re not competing with.”
“I have always had a motto of ‘Do what you do well and let others do the rest,’ and I have stuck to that over the years and it has helped me be successful. We have identified many off shoots of the industry that we could have added to our business and been quite successful at, but that would have watered down our core values, and pretty soon we would have been mediocre at everything.
What will be the biggest challenge for company owners in the future?
“The work force. Difficulty in getting quality employees who are work oriented,” says Christie. “Of course, we are not the only industry facing labor problems, but I think ours will be a bigger problem than most. Many years ago, our employee demographic was the 18 to 25 year olds. That work force has aged considerably, making it necessary to consider better benefits, more insurance programs, more retirement programs, etcetera.
“The business is not something you just put a novice into to use a million dollar piece of equipment and pick up some logs. Even with specialized equipment, you’re still going to need boots on the ground,” he adds. “I would relay that to my daughter and everyone else who is getting going in the industry.
“Learn as much as you can about your competitors, always surround yourself with good, quality people who you can rely on and do not allow yourself to get bogged down in the day-to-day activities and problems. You need to be looking at the big picture and down the road. It is anybody’s guess where this industry will be in 10 years. Things will change, and you simply can’t do it all,” Christie advises.
Closing the Door
“The industry has been very good to me,” says Christie. “I’ve traveled all over the world, and that has been fun. It’s been important to have a good partner. My wife has been an official part of the business and sacrificed a lot and travels with me.” His children grew up with the children of other tree care company owners, he says, adding that those once 6-year-old friends are now important contacts for his daughter.
The handing over of Metropolitan Forestry Services has been a gradual and well-thought-out process. Three years’ work with an accountant was insurance for an easy transition, Christie says.
“As of January 31, 2018, at the end of our fiscal year, I turned the business of Metropolitan Forestry Services, Inc., over to my daughter, who now owns the business. I can only hope that this industry will be as rewarding to her as it was to me.”
According to the contract, Christie, 70, will remain an employee for the next five years, then “retire.” An avid bird hunter, with past trips to Russia, Africa, Argentina and New Zealand, Christie will undoubtedly spend some of his new free time traveling. He’ll also spend time with the grandchildren. But first, he’s going to get his hips replaced.
Which leads to the lament of many families of tree care company owners. “We hope he takes some time off ,” says Hargrave.
This article is an excerpt from TCI magazine.