Looking back, when I was first exposed to our industry as a climber and foreman in the late 1950s, it was an industry that had little or no training. The industry also lacked mechanization except the introduction of the one-man chain saw, which was so heavy that calling it one-man was a real stretch.
There was no question, we were tree trimmers — not line-clearance workers, not vegetation management specialists. The days of telephone trimming were just ending with the telephone companies going into a reactive-trimming mode, and the electric companies moving in a preventative mode.
I moved to New England where the first bucket trucks had been in use since the early 1950s. We used Sky-Worker lifts until we started to manufacture our own lifts, which revolutionized the work of roadside crews. The utility inspectors in charge of the crews generally were linemen who, for one reason or another, had moved into overseeing the tree crews. Town lines determined what was to be trimmed and almost all the work done in the United States, certainly in New England, was contracted by time and material, or hourly rate work.
Generally, most contractors were very small and most did some private work in one form or another. Large regional companies began to develop around the country. However, even with these larger companies, it seemed that every day we went out and trimmed trees based on bare-minimum specifications that varied from “whatever you could get” to “keep the lines cleared.”
Then a strange thing happened. In the 1960s, the environmental movement began and focused not only on hazardous material or clean water, but also on the visuals involved with plant growth and re-growth. There was a movement afoot that the utility companies needed to upgrade their tree-trimming practices. This was the beginning of professional foresters, not only foresters that were trained academically, but also foresters or utility managers who focused on vegetation management problems. We began to see widespread use of ground-applied herbicides, mostly 24D and 245T. Aerial applications were still in their infancy and results varied.
The 1970s and 1980s saw the growing sophistication of the small chain saw, hydraulic stick saws, bucket trucks and the chipper. With herbicides, new chemicals and driftless materials were introduced and there was pressure to move away from aerial application. Contractors also progressed by acquiring modern equipment and materials to adhere to the utilities' more centralized programs.
Utility forestry managers began to bring administration to the line-clearance industry. Standards were developed for circuit trimming, area trimming and grid trimming, and for the first time, productivity was evaluated. Ancillary businesses developed in the consulting arena and centralized forestry managers began to add district and division managers to their systems. They began to look for contractors who had never worked in their area before.
This progressed into the 1990s when the utilities began to manage their crews more judiciously, and specifications became very detailed and voluminous. Utility forestry departments became large and worked proactively to serve governmental agencies, the individual customer, the contractor and other employees within that utility.
Then came the threat of deregulation: Money was king. Cost per mile of maintaining a line became a driving force. Cost per tree became a standard, and lump-sum pricing was commonplace. Utility companies throughout the United States moved quickly towards a market price for their vegetation management programs. Although computer technology affected line-clearance management in subtle forms (including easier payroll, more effective cost evaluation and electronic billing), its net effect on the cost of trimming trees was minor.
As deregulation became a reality in some cases, and the threat of reality in others, the natural next steps were taken. Utilities knew they had to be “best in class” to be competitive in the market. They followed the lessons of the finest companies in the world. General Electric and many other great corporations were used as models. Utilities realized that the market price did not always mean the right price because market price did not always mean better reliability.
In the last five or six years, there has been a strong movement toward benchmarking and using only “world class” contractors who are willing to focus on the individual needs of the utility. Utilities sought out suppliers who would be willing to risk something along with their customers.
Today, many contractors now are required to take on the responsibility that the utility company traditionally had provided in terms of supervision through district and division forester support. Utilities now want their vegetation management departments to audit, evaluate and motivate their contractors to provide the level of reliability their customers demand.
For the first time, this did not necessarily mean throwing more money at the vegetation management budget. All contractors now have to look very carefully at the specifications to see if they can provide what is being asked of them, and whether the line-clearance market is one in which they can maintain profitability. As a result, there has been a shakeout in the number of contractors providing utility vegetation management in the United States.
Where does this all lead us, and where will the vegetation management industry be 10 years from now? I believe the events of the energy shortage in California and the Enron collapse have put deregulation on a serious hold. Regardless of this fact, I believe the vegetation management programs will continue to be a focal point of every utility company in the United States. Providing reliable service is a requirement, not an option, for utility companies in this country. I also believe most utility companies now find that just throwing money at the vegetation management program will not necessarily provide better reliability. Our industry is at a point where best practices are developed through the collaboration of contractors and clients, and they must reflect the most acceptable methods for providing this reliability within a region.
Because of the judicious practices utilities have used regarding herbicides, it is my belief that the use of herbicides will increase not decrease. Unfortunately, I feel vegetation management will remain a labor-intensive industry. I do not believe there is a magical method or piece of equipment that will dramatically change how this work is done in the next 10 years. The mechanical trimmers and large mowing machines available today will increase in use and better “backyard” equipment will become more readily available. However, I do not think that these innovations will have a major effect on the cost of managing vegetation along utility lines. Fortunately, I believe vegetation management will stay at a high professional level simply because it is such a large expense for the utility that they must interface with the best people available.
Our dependence on energy, and particularly on cheap energy, will not change. We soon may be at the point where automobiles will depend on the reliability of electricity. The humble tree trimmer may be the person we all depend on to make sure our car gets refueled/recharged when and where we want it to be.
The quality of vegetation management work will be maintained at a high level because of the public's awareness of tree value, and production will continue to be a major issue. I see production incentives as a common practice and not as an occasional use.
The focus will be more intense on finding “best in class” contractors, particularly in regards to safety, because the utility's reputation may be at stake depending on the quality of the contractor it uses. I see a very active and professional industry for the near future, particularly for those who can perform in a world of many demands.
Christopher B. Asplundh, CEO and chairman of the board of the Asplundh Tree Expert Co., has almost 40 years of field and management experience in the utility line-clearance industry. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps and earned a bachelor's degree in business from the University of Pennsylvania before joining the company full-time in 1963. Asplundh gained field experience with operations in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois and New England before being elected a vice president in 1967. From 1992 through 2000, he served as company president and sponsor for up to 12 field management regions, plus the safety department. Asplundh is a second-generation family member of the 74-year-old family-owned and managed company, which now has more than 26,000 employees in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and has diversified into 15 subsidiaries and special services divisions.