Asplundh Tree Expert Co. History

708 Blair Mill Road
Willow Grove, Pennsylvania 19090-1701

Telephone: (215) 784-4200
Toll Free: 800-248-
Fax: (215) 784-4493

Private Company
Founded: 1928
Employees: 28,000
Sales: $1.65 billion (2002 est.)
NAIC: 561730 Landscaping Services; 235310 Electrical Contractors; 422910 Farm Supplies Wholesalers; 441110 New Car Dealers; 532412 Construction, Mining, and Forestry Machinery and Equipment Rental and Leasing; 541990 All Other Professional, Scientific, and Technical Services; 561990 All Other Support Services

Company Perspectives:

At Asplundh, our mission is to be the recognized world leader in providing professional, safe and cost-effective vegetation management and other utility-related services. With this goal in mind, each person on our team is challenged to consistently exceed the expectations of the customers for whom we work, and the people they serve.

Key Dates:

Three brothers, Griffith, Lester, and Carl Asplundh, form Asplundh Tree Expert Co., based in Glenside, Pennsylvania, to offer tree-trimming services to utility companies.
First branch office opens in Columbus, Ohio.
Headquarters are relocated to Jenkintown, Pennsylvania.
Company is operating throughout the Mid-Atlantic Region and in the Carolinas, Georgia, the Midwest, Texas, and New Mexico.
Using newly developed herbicides, Asplundh begins offering brush control services for utility rights-of-way.
Field-testing begins on the first wood chipper, invented by Lester Asplundh.
Asplundh Brush Control Co. is created as a subsidiary to handle the right-of-way clearing work.
Second generation of Asplundhs begin to lead the company with the election of Barr Asplundh, son of Griff, to the presidency; subsidiary is created to begin expansion into Canada.
Asplundh moves to larger quarters in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania.
American Lighting & Signalization, Inc., which constructs and maintains traffic signal and highway lighting systems, is acquired.
Utility line construction firm B & J Maintenance Co., Inc. is acquired and later renamed Asplundh Construction Corp.; operations in New Zealand commence through a joint venture.
Canadian operations are consolidated under Asplundh Canada, Inc.; company sells its manufacturing division to Altec Industries, Inc.; expansion into meter reading services begins; subsidiary is established in Australia.
Utility Meter Services, Inc. is established as the firm's meter reading services subsidiary.
Central Locating Service Limited is acquired and becomes the center of the firm's utility line marking services; revenues surpass $1 billion for the first time.
Third Asplundh generation is at the management controls with the election of Scott M. Asplundh to the presidency.
Asplundh Environmental Services, Inc. is formed as a disaster recovery subsidiary to help cities, states, and other government entities clean up after storms.

Company History:

Asplundh Tree Expert Co. is the world's leading line clearance and tree-trimming company. While most of the company's business is in the United States and Canada, Asplundh (pronounced "AH-splund") also has operations in Australia and New Zealand. Asplundh's primary business, and the one on which it was founded more than 75 years ago, is trimming trees for telephone and electric utility companies and municipalities. The company has diversified its operations over the years, however, and by the early 2000s was also involved in keeping railroad rights-of-way clear, removing storm debris and providing other emergency services for government agencies, inspecting and maintaining telephone poles, installing overhead and underground lines and cables, reading meters, locating and marking underground utility lines, constructing and maintaining traffic signals and highway lighting, leasing utility equipment, and operating a truck dealership. Still owned by the Asplundh family, the company is managed by the third generation of Asplundhs and all board members are family members.

The Early Years: 1928-45

Griffith (Griff) Asplundh was seven years old when his Swedish immigrant father died in 1903. His brother Lester was two, his brother Carl an infant. "Asplundh" in Swedish refers to a grove of aspen trees, so perhaps it is not surprising that, 25 years later, the boys decided to make trees the family business. They got their training working for their big brother Oswald E. (O.E.), who started a nursery and tree-trimming company to help support his widowed mother and his seven siblings. Griff, Lester, and Carl trimmed trees to pay for college, with Griff majoring in forestry at Penn State, Lester in electrical engineering at Swarthmore, and Carl in finance at the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1928 they decided to combine their talents and go into business for themselves, using $2,500 in borrowed capital to set up shop in Glenside, Pennsylvania. Not wanting to compete with O.E.'s residential business, the Asplundh Tree Expert Co. focused on commercial customers--the fast-growing telephone and electric companies whose overhead lines needed to be kept clear of tree branches. The first customers were Philadelphia Electric Co., Public Service Electric & Gas, Co., Jersey Central Power & Light Co., Pennsylvania Power & Light Co., and American Telephone and Telegraph.

Their decision proved a wise one, as the telephone and electric companies continued to expand, despite the Great Depression. The company in fact opened its first branch office in Columbus, Ohio, in 1931. Three years later, the company moved to larger quarters in nearby Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, and in 1936 O.E. left his nursery business and joined his brothers, helping them move into new territory in the Midwest. While Griff oversaw the trimming and Carl kept the books, Lester concentrated on research and development to bring the latest technology to the company and its customers. Able to offer the first power saws (operated by two men) and hand-cranked aerial platforms, Asplundh attracted more customers. Mother Nature also aided the company's growth via several major storms that hit the East Coast in the late 1930s, creating storm emergency work for Asplundh. By the end of the decade, the company had employees working throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, in the Carolinas and Georgia, in the Midwest, and as far west as Texas and New Mexico. To keep in touch with their far-flung workforce, the company introduced The Asplundh TREE, a quarterly magazine, in 1940. Business slowed significantly during World War II as workers left to join the military and rationing made it difficult to buy fuel, tools, and supplies.

New Services, New Technology in the Postwar Era

The Asplundh brothers thought the "chemical brush killers" developed during the war might prove useful for clearing rights-of-way and, in conjunction with American Chemical and Paint Co., tested these new herbicides. Liking what they found, Asplundh developed special formulae and, in 1946, began offering brush control services for utility rights-of-way, the company's first step in diversification. To make it easier and faster to clear and dispose of brush, Lester invented the first wood chipper, which was field-tested in 1949; the company began assembling these for commercial sale in 1952 through a subsidiary called Asplundh Chipper Co. The demand for electricity mushroomed to supply the housing developments and apartment complexes being built for veterans and their families. To meet that need, utility companies had to expand their rights-of-way networks in order to erect new transmission towers. This meant clearing and cutting lots of brush, bushes, and trees. In 1956 the brothers created another subsidiary, the Asplundh Brush Control Co., to handle the right-of-way clearing work.

Lester was elected president in January 1949, following Griff's death, but stepped down from that position in 1952 because of a health problem. Carl became president and Lester continued to use his engineering skills to expand Asplundh's capabilities. His next project dealt with the company's core business, tree trimming.

By the early 1950s, the technology of tree-trimming had progressed from ladders and ropes to a vehicle called a turret or ladder truck. A tree worker still climbed a ladder, but that was attached to the back of the truck, making it easier to reach branch ends. Then came the introduction of the hydraulic aerial lift, called a "Skyworker." Asplundh started leasing the lifts in 1953, but found their insulation poor. Lester used a new material called fiberglass in designing a stronger and better insulated lift which the company began producing in 1958 at a plant in Chalfont, Pennsylvania; three years later, this plant was merged with the operations of Asplundh Chipper Co. to form the Asplundh Manufacturing Division. Meantime, also in 1958, the company established its Pole Maintenance Division for treating and reinforcing utility poles.

In 1954 Asplundh sent crews to help restore service in Mid-Atlantic states following Hurricanes Carol and Hazel. As a result of those experiences, the company produced a formalized storm emergency procedure for its crews and customers. Seven members of the second generation, sons of the founders, completed college and began training in the field and home office. The company began participating in a research project to study the safe use of herbicides along utility rights-of-way and initiated its supervisory training program for general foremen. Company operations spread throughout New England.

The early 1960s saw Asplundh continue to extend its operations--into Florida and the Pacific Northwest--and to expand its services as it offered underground utility construction. In 1967 the company pioneered commercial thermographic/infrared inspections to detect "hot spots"--short circuits, overheating, and equipment failures--in a power distribution system and prevent power outages. In 1968 Barr Asplundh, Griff's son, was elected president; by this time, all second generation family members working for the company had become board members. That same year, the company established the Asplundh Utility Services Ltd. subsidiary for the start-up of its Canadian operations and formed Asplundh GMC, its own commercial truck dealership.

New Markets: 1970s and 1980s

The company continued to grow and diversify during the next two decades. Street lights seemed a logical place to use its lifts, and Asplundh began cleaning, inspecting, and repairing street lighting and traffic signals for utilities and municipalities in 1972 through the Asplundh Street Lighting Division. In need of larger quarters to manage its expanding operations, Asplundh relocated to Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, in 1974. The company opened its first One-Call Center in New Jersey the following year. Initially called the Underground Location Communications Division, the center served as a link between excavators and utilities with underground lines. Before beginning to dig, a contractor could call the center and describe where the work was to be done. Personnel at the center would notify member utilities with facilities in the work area so they could mark where their underground cables and pipes were. Within 20 years the company had eight such centers around the country using computers and specialized software.

Also in 1975, the company established its Railroad Division, turning its vegetation sprays on the weeds, brush, and trees along railroad tracks. Asplundh began working on large railroads east of the Mississippi, using three spray trucks equipped with Hy-rail wheels that could run on both highway and railroad tracks. To meet the special needs of its new clients, Asplundh designed new equipment, including a high-production spray train car that could operate while attached to a train. In the early 1980s, the division began offering rights-of-way clearing as well as vegetation management, putting Hy-rail wheels on aerial lifts and chippers to trim and remove trees. Soon the equipment shop facility was designing and building specialized equipment including brush cutters that ran on a railroad track and had arms spanning the line, clearing an area 56 feet wide along the track. Both services proved popular and the division was soon working on railroads of all sizes, from coast to coast, from Canada to Mexico. In 1982, meantime, Barr Asplundh was named chairman, and Edward Asplundh, son of Carl, was elected president.

During the 1980s, Asplundh expanded into western Canada through several acquisitions; bought a Buick franchise which it combined with its GMC truck operations; began its first "overseas" line clearance operations in the U.S. Virgin Islands; expanded line clearance operations to serve Hawaii (thus working in all 50 states); created the Municipal Tree Division for trimming trees for cities and towns; and established Asplundh Canada, Inc. to serve Quebec and eastern Canada. In 1989 Asplundh acquired American Lighting & Signalization, Inc., a Florida-based heavy equipment contractor that specialized in constructing and maintaining traffic signal and highway lighting systems. The decade also saw the introduction of a self-propelled, portable backyard chipper developed in the company's Alabama region.

One of the company's greatest strengths was evident following the disruption in telephone and electrical services caused along the East Coast by Hurricane Gloria in 1985 and in the Caribbean and North and South Carolina by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Asplundh could shift large numbers of employees (1,500 for Gloria and 1,600 for Hugo) to the damaged areas to repair lines and restore service, augmenting the crews of the local utility companies. These emergency storm services, providing quick mobilization of trained crews and specialized equipment, proved to be an important marketing tool for the company and led to the establishment of a weather center at Asplundh's headquarters that monitored every storm in the country. As President Chris Asplundh explained in a 1995 Forbes article, "Santa Ana winds in California, that's our problem. Nor'easter in Boston, that's our problem; ice storm in Minnesota, that's our problem."

In 1987 the first of 13 third-generation Asplundh family members completed the Family Management Development Program. An Asplundh must graduate from college, spend three years working outside the company, and then be recommended by three family members, including at least one board member, before being accepted for the eight-year training program. Once in the program, the young Asplundh works in the field as a crew foreman, general foreman, supervisor, and then manager, moving around the country with each promotion, before coming to work at headquarters. In 1989 members of the second generation began to retire.

Aggressively Expanding Its Portfolio of Services in the 1990s

Asplundh started the 1990s with a buying spree. In 1990 it acquired New York-based B & J Maintenance Co., Inc. to increase its utility line construction activities in the Northeast; L. Fulcher Electric, a traffic signal contractor, which became a subsidiary of American Lighting & Signalization; and five small line clearance firms in France. The French companies retained their names and management and operated as partners of Asplundh's French subsidiary, Robert S.A., named for Chairman of the Board Robert Asplundh, who helped negotiate the business arrangements. Located in different regions of the country, the firms' primary client was the government-owned power company, Electricité de France.

Later that year, Asplundh formed a joint venture with a large electrical and engineering contractor in New Zealand called Electrix Limited. The new company, Electrix Asplundh, offered line clearance tree maintenance, right-of-way clearing, mowing, and spraying to municipal councils and electric supply authorities. Asplundh bought out its partner in 1995 and thereupon changed the venture into a subsidiary called Asplundh Tree Expert (N.Z.) Limited.

Training had long been a tradition at Asplundh, beginning with informal training schools for crews. The Supervisory Training Program for general foremen was initiated in 1953, and the Supervisory Skills Seminars started in 1986. As a regional manager stated in The Asplundh TREE, "Our people have become more professional. This is especially true of crew personnel. They used to be considered 'just tree trimmers.' Now they have Commercial Driver's Licenses, Pesticide Applicator's Licenses, better first aid training, arborist training. ..." In 1990, the company established Professional Line Clearance Training Crews who came in and provided two-weeks, hands-on training to crews working on utility properties. That training experience was in addition to the normal on-the-job training crews received.

Equipment development was another company tradition, and 1991 witnessed the unveiling of the manufacturing division's LRIII-55, an aerial lift with a reach of 55 feet, well beyond anything then available.

The year 1992 was busy as all Canadian operations came under the company's Asplundh Canada, Inc. subsidiary; the Asplundh Manufacturing Division was sold to Altec Industries, Inc.; B & J Maintenance was renamed Asplundh Construction Corp. and began to move beyond its Northeast base; Christopher Asplundh, the youngest member of the second generation, took over as president from his brother Edward; and some 3,000 workers from seven states helped clean up and restore service in Florida and Louisiana after Hurricane Andrew. During the year the company began a new service, reading meters on the property of Chattanooga Electric Power Board, and, in cooperation with the Philadelphia Electric Co., Asplundh promoted its Philly Foam, a low-volume foliage spraying system that made it easier for a sprayer to see what had been treated, thus reducing skips and misses. On the international scene, the company formed a wholly owned subsidiary in Australia and acquired Read & Co. Utility Services, Ltd., a long-established firm in England. Asplundh financed the firm's restructuring to help it expand in England and Wales and offer services to the newly privatized electric utilities in England. Late in the year Asplundh bought Ginnifer Tree Care Service in the Republic of Ireland. A commercial/residential tree service company, Ginnifer broadened its services by clearing lines for Ireland's Electric Supply Board around Dublin.

According to Randall Lane in his Forbes article, much of the company's growth and service expansion in the 1980s and early 1990s occurred to provide more opportunities for family members in the company. There were 65 members in the fourth generation, and the eldest ones were in college by the mid-1990s, creating a need for a larger company to hold those who complete the family training program.

Asplundh's 65th year of business began with the mobilizing of more than 1,300 crews to restore power all along the East Coast following the Blizzard of '93 in March. The company continued to expand, buying the assets of five subsidiaries of Southeastern Public Service Company, one of its line clearance competitors; among the acquired businesses were Blume Tree Services, Inc. and Farrens Tree Surgeons, Inc. By 1995, the company's revenues had grown from $100 million in 1984 to $850 million. Four of its original five customers were still doing business with the company and some 20 utilities had been using Asplundh crews for 40 or more years.

During 1996, Asplundh turned several of its divisions into wholly owned subsidiaries. The relatively new meter reading operations became Utility Meter Services, Inc.; the renting and leasing of equipment and vehicles was placed under Compass Equipment Leasing, Inc.; and the division handling pole maintenance became Utility Pole Technologies, Inc. Expanding beyond the middleman role of the One-Call operations, Asplundh moved into the actual marking of underground utility lines in 1996 through the acquisition of Underground Utility Locating, Inc. One year later, Central Locating Service Limited, a long established firm in Syracuse, New York, was acquired. Central Locating expanded into Arkansas, Illinois, and Texas through the 1998 purchase of certain assets of NORAM Damage Protection. Further diversification came in 1997 through the purchase of Southern Outdoor Maintenance, which was renamed Outdoor Maintenance Co., Inc. This subsidiary served the outdoor advertising (i.e., billboard) industry, offering vegetation maintenance and construction services. Also in 1997, revenues surpassed the $1 billion mark for the first time.

Although the overseas operations in Australia and New Zealand were proving successful, Asplundh pulled back elsewhere. In 1996 the operations in France were closed down, and in 1999 the company sold Read & Co., its U.K. subsidiary, to Fountain Forestry for an interest in that company. Closer to home, Asplundh ended the decade with three of its largest disaster mobilizations ever. Following the massive ice storm that hit upstate New York, New England, and southern Quebec in January 1998, Asplundh sent more than 580 tree crews and 100 construction crews to help restore power. In September of the following year, 1,650 crews consisting of almost 5,000 employees mobilized on the East Coast in response to Hurricane Floyd. Just one month later, 600 Asplundh crews helped Florida Power & Light restore electrical service that had been interrupted by Hurricane Irene.

Third Generation Leading the Way in the New Millennium

By the early 2000s, all of the second-generation Asplundhs had retired from daily operations, except for Chris, who in January 2001 moved from president to chairman and CEO. Seven members of the third generation shared management responsibility, including the newly appointed president, Scott M. Asplundh. The new leaders had to contend with the challenging economic environment of the new decade, particularly the collapse of the telecommunications industry, which brought an end to the massive line building of the previous several years.

Asplundh nevertheless continued its program of expansion. Having responded to yet another major natural disaster--the back-to-back ice storms that hit the south-central United States in December 2000--Asplundh established a disaster recovery subsidiary to help cities, states, and other government entities clean up after storms. Called Asplundh Environmental Services, Inc. (AES), the new unit was formed in April 2002. Just six months later, AES had its first major test when Hurricane Lili knocked out power to 450,000 homes in southern Louisiana. Mobilizing more than 1,400 crews from 27 Asplundh management regions, AES helped restore power within 48 hours and then spent another three weeks clearing away storm debris. Asplundh also established a new line construction subsidiary called Utility Line Construction Service, Inc. during 2000.

On the acquisitions front, Asplundh acquired a utility line locating service called NOCUTS, a subsidiary of Sprint Corporation, in 2000. Asplundh's line marking operations, which were doubled through this latest purchase, were consolidated into Central Locating Service by the end of 2001. The company also acquired two more utility line clearing businesses: the line clearance operations of F.A. Bartlett Tree Expert Company of Stamford, Connecticut, bought in 2001; and the line clearing business of Trees Inc., a unit of the ServiceMaster Company, purchased in late 2003.

Asplundh Tree Expert's fastest growing businesses in the early 2000s were its utility construction and line locating operations. The company's decades-long diversification drive had greatly expanded its menu of services, but vegetation management continued to generate about 70 percent of the revenues. Perhaps Asplundh's most remarkable achievement was maintaining such a high degree of family control, both in terms of ownership and management, after more than 75 years in business. Asplundh was well-positioned to continue to capture a growing share of the outsourced business of public utilities and cost-conscious municipalities.

Principal Subsidiaries: ALS of North Carolina, Inc.; American Lighting & Signalization, Inc.; Arborchem Products Co.; Asplundh Brush Control Co.; Asplundh Buick/Pontiac-GMC Inc.; Asplundh Construction Company; Asplundh Environmental Services, Inc.; Blume Tree Services, Inc.; Central Locating Service Limited; Compass Equipment Leasing Inc.; Farrens Tree Surgeons, Inc.; Utility Line Construction Service, Inc.; Utility Meter Services, Inc.; Utility Pole Technologies, Inc.; Utility Tree Service, Inc.; Asplundh Tree Expert (Australia) Pty. Ltd.; Asplundh Canada Inc.; Asplundh Tree Expert (N.Z.) Limited (New Zealand).

Principal Competitors: The Davey Tree Expert Company; Wright Tree Service Inc.

Further Reading:

  • The Asplundh TREE, 75th Anniversary Edition, Willow Grove, Pa.: Asplundh Tree Expert Co., 2003.
  • Chung, Sharon, "Pa.-Based Firm Has Climbed to Industry Top," York (Pa.) Daily Record (from Associated Press), June 27, 1994.
  • Lane, Randall, "Let Asplundh Do It," Forbes, October 16, 1995, p. 56.
  • "Whacking Weeds with Water," Railway Age, July 1994, p. 57.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol.59. St. James Press, 2004.