New Age Tree Service performs work in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin. “Most of my employees live near me in Minnesota,” Olerud says. “When we travel to a job, we’ll pile in vans. If the job is going to take several months, as most do, we try to find a house to rent. Employees are each granted a per diem for food and other expenses. We’ll then work Monday through Thursday, driving back home on Friday for a long weekend.”
3 keys to success
Employees. Olerud says employees are the biggest key to success in the right-of-way maintenance business. “They’re the ones out there doing the work,” Olerud reminds. “I can bid all day long and make all kinds of promises, but if my employees don’t do the work right, none of it means anything.”
That hasn’t been much of a problem for Olerud in quite a while. Many of his 24 full-time employees have been with him since 1996. Why do they continue working for him? “I think it helps that I’m on the jobsite with them,” Olerud says. “I go through what they’re going through. A lot of company owners hang back at the office. But I like being in the field with my team.”
The rural utility co-ops which New Age works for seem to appreciate that, too. “One advantage of hiring our company is that you’ll be dealing with the very people who helped build our company,” Olerud says. “Our company has grown, but is still ‘small’ in this sense. Our employees take great pride in what they do because they feel like this is their company, too.”
Safety is another key to success. In fact, in this line of work, it’s a necessity. After all, employees are operating aggressive machinery around potentially dangerous power lines and pipelines.
“We need EHAP (electrical hazards awareness program) training every year,” Olerud points out. “We also need CPR and First Aid training. We’re also accredited through the Tree Care Industry Association (TCIA).
“It seems like we’re always having safety meetings or sending employees to safety training,” Olerud continues. “Some co-ops don’t realize how much this costs companies like ours. But it’s getting better. Back in the 1990s, there wasn’t a lot of pride in this business. A guy with a pickup and a chainsaw was in business. There’s more of an expectation today. Safety and training are not just something good companies do for their employees—they’re becoming a requirement and something the co-ops look for.”
Dealer support is a third key to success for Olerud. He was one of the first contractors to begin using ASV track loaders back in 1995. When ASV was acquired by Terex in 2008, Olerud stuck with them.
“You need strong dealer support to make it in this business,” Olerud says. “You simply cannot afford more than a few days of downtime all year. The (Terex) dealer in Grand Rapids, MN, goes way above and beyond. It seems like so many suppliers are just looking at the bottom line anymore. They don’t seem interested in the end-user. But both our Terex and Vermeer dealers understand that their success is based on our success. They’ll even come in after hours to help us out.”
Growth must be controlled
This kind of vendor support has helped New Age Tree Service grow over the years. But Olerud isn’t anxious to grow too quickly.
“Someone once told me: ‘Anybody can create the monster but very few can feed it every day,’” Olerud shares. “I think that’s great advice. We grew like crazy in our first few years. Then, in 1998, we had the rug pulled out from under us on a few big contracts. It sent us into a tailspin. I learned a lot from that.
“If you’re going to grow, grow slowly,” Olerud continues. “The hardest part is that you’re only dealing with a handful of clients at a time. This year we have four. Some are longer-term contracts, but many are one job and done. We always have others asking for bids, but it gets a little stressful because you’re not sure where the next job is going to be.”