The Davey Tree Expert Company History
Kent, Ohio 44240-5193
Telephone: (216) 673-9511
Fax: (216) 673-5408
Sales: $200 million
SICs: 0782 Lawn & Garden Services; 0783 Ornamental Shrub and Tree Services
The Davey Tree Expert Company pioneered the commercialized care of large trees through company founder John Davey's invention of tree surgery. The company's philosophy--"Do it right or not at all"--has fueled its research and development division's continued scientific advancements toward the improved care of plants for over a century. Operating in the United States and Canada, the company provides tree, shrub, lawn, and groundskeeper care services, interior plant care, and utility line clearing. It also runs a tree farm. Family-owned until 1979, the company has become one of the nation's largest and most successful employee-owned firms.
The Davey Tree Expert Company traces its history to John Davey's creation of the new science of tree surgery (now known as arboriculture). John Davey migrated from England to the United States in 1873, and, after working in a variety of jobs, he moved to Kent, Ohio, to become caretaker of the Standing Rock Cemetery. Davey thought of the cemetery as a laboratory where he could experiment with his notions about the care and conservation of trees. Through trial and error, he found scientific ways to heal sick, infected trees. One of his methods included carving decay out of a tree's cavity, disinfecting and waterproofing it, and supporting the hollow space with an intricate combination of concrete sections, three-ply tarpaper, and steel bracing, a practice that continued into the 1990s with a few modifications, including the use of plastic foam filling. Convinced of the importance of his discovery, Davey left his job at the cemetery to pursue work as a tree surgeon. Evidence of the quality of Davey's work proliferated around Kent and Warren, Ohio, and in 1904 there was enough work to keep Davey and two of his sons, Jim and Wellington, busy.
While his tree care and landscaping business grew, Davey lectured and wrote about the proper care of trees. In 1901, in order to publish his book, The Tree Doctor, he went $7,000 in debt. Although a risky venture, the book expanded demand for Davey's expertise throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Washington, D.C., as well as in Toronto and Ottawa, Canada. The book sold particularly well in the Hudson Valley region and Boston, where there were many large estates. Moreover, Martin, John Davey's son, sold the book to about 25 percent of Warren's residents. The demand for tree surgery services was growing so quickly that Davey and his sons could not possibly service all their requests. As a result, John and Wellington organized the Davey School of Practical Forestry to train others in the science of tree surgery.
As the business expanded, Davey called upon his son Martin to organize work in the East. Martin's flair for sales and organization made him ultimately responsible for the company's commercial viability. In 1907, Martin left college at the age of 23 to become a full partner in his father's business, which was then $25,000 in debt. After solving many of the management problems in the New York office, Martin began taking over responsibility for the entire company, as his father devoted more time to lecturing and writing. In 1909, the company was incorporated as The Davey Tree Expert Company.
The biggest challenge facing the company when Martin assumed the reigns was the seasonality of its work. Martin took two steps to combat this problem: he expanded business into the southern states, and he opened the Davey Institute of Tree Surgery in 1909. Although the company's southern operations would not be profitable for many years, the institute helped the company build a pool of workers to serve as foremen, supervisors, and salesmen and also kept the company from having to retrain crews at the beginning of each season.
Run much like a college, the institute proved intimidating to some. A rigorous academic curriculum that included botany, entomology, and plant pathology was taught by educators recruited from leading colleges and universities, and a vigorous athletic program kept the students in shape throughout the winter. To persuade workers to attend the institute, Martin offered them a raise, effective the following season, of a dollar a day. Twenty men accepted the offer and entered the first three-month course of study.
To further the commercial success of the firm, Martin employed the power of advertising. As cited in Robert E. Pfleger's Green Leaves: A History of The Davey Tree Expert Company, Martin maintained that "in spite of the tremendous value of the service that we render the public in saving trees and in the improvements we made in the training and techniques of our men, our business could not have reached sizeable proportions without the powerful and constructive influence of advertising." The magazine American Forester carried the first Davey advertisement in its fall issue of 1910.
The company was also one of the first to use radio for advertising. In 1929, the company initiated the "Davey Hour," which reached 24 stations from Boston to Kansas City. The program featured popular music of the past. Martin reasoned, according to Pfleger, that by using older music "he could tap people's memories and associate the company with pleasant past experiences, enjoyed by listeners." The radio program was continued until it fell victim to the Great Depression in 1932.
The company started some of its most profitable ventures during the 1920s. With the acquisition of a power rig, it began spraying in 1921. In 1926, the company marketed its ability to transplant large trees; one of its most unusual orders for tree moving was from the Sterling and Welch Company, a department store in Cleveland, which displayed a four-story-high live Christmas tree each year from 1935 into the 1960s. But the company's decision to serve utilities became its most significant undertaking. While serving as Kent's Commissioner of Shade Trees in 1921, John Davey's youngest son Paul suggested that The Davey Tree Expert Company be employed to trim trees for the Northern Ohio Power and Light Company, which sought to cut trees to install new power lines. Although Martin and John initially did not want the company to be associated with utilities, because of the latter's historic disregard for the environment, clearing branches away from utility lines soon made up a large portion of the company's work. By 1960, utility work accounted for $7.05 million out of the company's $11.83 million total volume. By the 1990s, Davey cleared the lines of more than 200 utility companies in the United States and Canada.
In 1932, the company suffered a drop in volume from $3 million to $700,000, and, the following year, it faced some unlikely competition: President Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA program lured trained workers away from the company by offering tree surgeons a wage of $1.20 per hour, which was significantly higher than the Davey wage of $0.70 per hour. After Martin and his chief competitor, F. A. Bartlett, addressed Roosevelt about the wage imbalance, Roosevelt instructed WPA administrator Harry Hopkins to emend the situation. Hopkins arranged for the government to lower its wage to $0.80 per hour, and this solution allowed both Davey and Bartlett's companies to stay in business.
The company had to adjust to new laws and a shortage of workers during the 1940s. In 1940, a new federal wage and hour law established a 42-hour work week for line clearing crews and required time and a half pay for overtime. Davey struggled with this new law at a time when it needed to expand its work force but was offering lower wages than war related industries and was no longer running the institute to attract workers. During the war years, Davey's tree surgeons were generally either old or very young men, or women. As the war came to a close, the company constructed a plan for retraining veterans and expanding the company's services.
In 1946, shortly after Martin Davey, Jr. returned from war, Martin Sr. died of a heart attack. Not only had Martin Sr. made his family's company a success, but he had also served his community for several years as mayor, congressman, and governor of Ohio. At age 28, Martin Jr. became president of the company. A Yale University graduate with a major in botany and a minor in business administration, as well as an experienced tree surgeon, Martin came prepared for his position's responsibilities. He also had the unique insights left to him by his father, who had explained his business philosophy in a letter to his son. Some of Martin Sr.'s insights included: "Treat your employees as human beings. Good men are ambitious, frugal and trustworthy.... Watch your credit with a jealous eye.... Never do anything while you are angry.... Don't do something merely because a competitor does it."
Martin took his father's advice and lead the company to new levels of success. His first year of leadership ended with sales volume reaching a new high of $3.94 million, $800,000 more than the previous high in 1929. In addition to expanding company sales, Martin modified and reopened the Davey Institute of Tree Surgery. Because the company no longer needed to occupy its workers in the winter, since it had utilities work, the school term was shortened from three months to six weeks, the courses were limited to tree surgery, and the athletic program was eliminated.
Martin's first decade of management steadily increased company sales over 150 percent to $10 million. Under his leadership the company changed its main client base from large estate owners to utilities and commercial clients needing chemical brush control and mist spraying. Davey employees assessed their president in a 1956 report, saying, according to Pfleger, that "Our President, during these past ten years, has managed well by seeming to manage little and above all has been prudent and thrifty with human material." Martin remained president until his son-in-law, Alexander M. Smith, took over. Smith lead the company through another period of growth, raising sales from $25.79 million in 1970 to $38.13 million in 1974.
In 1979, however, five years after the Internal Revenue Service began recognizing employee-owned companies through the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, The Davey Tree Expert Company was purchased by its employees. Since the concept of employee ownership was still new, the family did not see the employees as purchasers when they put it up for sale. Nevertheless, when the employees offered to buy the company, they were regarded as the preferred buyers, who could maintain the family's old-fashioned business strategies. After just over 16 months of friendly negotiation, 113 employees bought stock directly and 400 participated in an Employee Stock Ownership Plan, which held company stock in a trust for employees as a retirement benefit. The pioneering efforts of the Davey employees made it one of the largest and most successful employee-owned companies in the United States, recording 15 years of growth since its transition of ownership. In 1992, the company had sales of $200 million, according to Crains Cleveland Business. Davey president R. Douglas Cowan credited the company's success to its employee ownership, telling the Record-Courier that "nothing motivates employees like having a little personal stake in every sale." In 1993, over 2,600 of its 5,000 employees were shareholders of the company.
The Davey Tree Institute became more prestigious under employee ownership. Instead of a lure to keep employees during the winter months, it became a selective four-week seminar that offered the top 50 Davey employees courses on subjects ranging from tree physiology to customer service. Company executive Roger C. Funk told Crains Cleveland Business that "upon completion of their course work, graduates should be climbing the corporate ladder as well as they climb trees."
Throughout its history, the company's structure has evolved to accommodate its growth. When the company was incorporated in 1909 its structure focused on function, dividing it into sales, finance, field personnel, technical development, and support services segments. As Davey expanded throughout the United States and its services diversified from tree surgery to utility line clearing, nursery, national landscaping, and lawn care services, it met the needs of customers on a geographic basis through regional management by 1974. In 1991, the company reorganized its regional structure to provide services to public utility, commercial, governmental, and residential customers through nationally coordinated efforts that were regionally arranged by customer or market group. The 1991 reorganization allowed the company to address the needs of each client base, while tailoring its marketing to the needs of different regions.
As The Davey Tree Expert Company expanded it carried on John Davey's commitment to the environment. By the early 1990s, the company's research and development team had patented nearly two dozen new products that helped the environment. Some of the products included No Leach/No Burn Fertilizer Arbor Green, a commercial fertilizer that would not damage plants and was easily used by plants so the fertilizer did not leach into the soil, and water-retaining soil additives, polymers that reduced the need for irrigation by up to 50 percent.
Though it has been quick to make use of new technologies, the company has watched the effects of those new technologies on the environment. In 1988, the company announced that it would reduce its usage of pesticides and herbicides by 75 percent, or by 30,470 gallons. To reduce the harmful effects of chemical overuse, the company created products that would control the amount of chemicals applied to plants and eliminate the use of large batches of pre-mixed pesticide solutions. Moreover, the company developed a "raindrop" nozzle, which allowed technicians to control the amount of pesticides and fertilizers being applied, and a proprietary "piggyback line" called the Davey Customizer, which eliminated the need for pre-mixing pesticide solutions in a large tank and allowed the company to more easily provide custom treatments. The Davey Plant Health Care program also helped reduce the use of chemicals by emphasizing the holistic care of plants. In 1993, the company had reached a 75 percent reduction in the use of traditional tree pesticides and a 50 percent reduction in traditional lawn care pesticides. Continually striving to improve its services, the company set another goal, to achieve a 95 percent reduction in traditional pesticide use by 1995.
Davey also affiliated itself with dozens of associations that promoted environmental concerns. One such affiliation started in 1989, when Davey started supporting the American Forestry Association's National Register of Big Trees Program and Global Releaf. Company president Cowan told American Forests that "we believe that our support of the Big Tree program will benefit forest conservation in a significant way. In addition, the Global Releaf message that individual action can make a difference is a premise our founder, John Davey, believed in, and it remains an important part of our company philosophy today." The company was also affiliated with the Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy, Sierra Club, Society of American Foresters, National Urban Forest Council, and Wilderness Society.
Principal Subsidiaries: Davey Tree Surgery Company; Davey Tree Expert Company of Canada, Ltd.; High Tree Services, Ltd.; Plantasia, Inc.; Canadian Shade Tree Service; Vancouver Tree People, Ltd.
- Gangloff, Deborah, "The Davey Connection," American Forests, July/August 1989.
- Geiger, Peter, "Davey Tree to Trim Pesticides' Use by 75 Percent," Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio), March 1, 1988.
- Gorisek, Sue, "A Man Ahead of His Moment," Ohio Magazine, October 1992.
- Harrison, Kimberly P., "Davey Staff Out on Limb on Climb Career Ladder," Crains Cleveland Business, March 8, 1993, p. 17.
- Pfleger, Robert E., Green Leaves: A History of The Davey Tree Expert Company, Chester, Conn.: Pequot Press, 1977.
- Urey, Craig, "Davey Owners Enjoy Fruits of Labor," Record-Courier, March 20, 1994, p. B1.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 11. St. James Press, 1995.