In 1980, Scott Geer had two job offers. One was to manage the seedling nursery for the state of Oklahoma, and the other was working in information technology at IBM.
Geer had graduated from Stephen F. Austin University with a bachelor’s in forestry and a master’s in forest entomology, but his first two jobs out of school had not panned out. He was fired after about six months at a saw mill in Woodville, and a temporary job for the government in Alexandria, La., had just ended.
The nursery offered him $13,000 a year and IBM offered him $15,000. Geer thought about it and while working at the nursery was related to his degree, he could see himself being stuck in the same job at the same salary for 20 years. But at IBM, there was potential to grow with the company. With a daughter at home not yet a year old, he took the job at IBM.
He stayed for 18 years, then continued on to two other tech companies, eventually getting laid off from each due to one acquisition and one going bankrupt. In his 50s, Geer decided to go back to what he knew and loved — nature. Eventually, though he said it was unintentional, he founded Tree Shepherds in 2009.
Based out of his Highland Village home, Geer turned occasional consultant work into a tree care and service business, consulting with customers about their trees’ problems, pruning trees, removing trees and helping educate clients about how to keep their trees healthy and growing.
“My dad, he absolutely loves this work,” said Caleb Geer, who has been working for his father for about a year now. “I love seeing him work in something that he loves. He’s just a much happier person.”
Once Geer left IT, an old friend from college told him about becoming an arborist. He began studying for the certification exam while he started flipping houses to keep a cash flow.
He began working as an arborist in 2008, and after working for two businesses in the area he decided to do things on his own terms. He already had a business name picked out, Tree Shepherds, and a logo that he had drawn on the back of a business card during a meeting at IBM. His friend Richard had a truck and a chipper, and the two started acquiring jobs.
It started as part-time for about a year, until another friend approached Geer, asking if he could design a website for a business. A few months after the site launched, they started getting more calls and showing up on Google.
“We started going out more and bidding, not really knowing what we were doing — giving a price and there were some jobs we worked for a buck and a quarter an hour,” he said. “You think a job might take a half day, but two days later you’re getting done with it ... but that’s how you learn.”
About a year later, Geer’s friend decided to leave the business, training Clayton Geer, one of Geer’s six children, to climb and work on the trees for about four months. Clayton ended up buying the equipment, and the two began pursuing the business full time.
How it works
Geer will get a call about a tree, go meet with the property owner and make a proposal for how to fix the situation.
Geer will work a whole property, learning where water comes from, what other plants are in the yard and sometimes taking tools from his truck to look at tree roots or investigate other problems. He always explains to the customer then that his approach is different from other tree services — he wants the tree to be healthy and survive, not just trim it to where it looks like a piece of broccoli and turn a quick dollar, Geer said.
“There are some jobs where others come in at half the price, but they’ll spend half the time and the trees look like it,” Geer said. “That’s the difference between a tree cutter and a tree shepherd — we really want that tree to be there for the customer.”
He’ll offer remedies to the problem — most commonly over watering — and come back to the property to prep before crews come. Using EverNote, he takes photos of the property and annotates the site so all of the guys on the job know exactly what to do and can pull up the application on their phones.
Keeping customers and employees happy
When Geer receives a handwritten note from a client thanking the crew for their work, everyone on the job gets $20. If it’s an e-mail, they get $10. He not only wants to make sure the customer is taken care of but also that his employees are rewarded for their work.
“He takes care of us as employees for sure, but with that comes a lot of expectations,” his son Caleb said. “He’s basically trained us to be able to completely take care of clients so that he doesn’t have to worry about the crew at all ... he’s made a strong team in order to make us fully responsible and self sufficient.”
He also tries to help his employees grow as people outside of the business, in a sense shepherding them. His first hire outside of the family was a convicted felon, who served nearly 20 years for aggravated robbery, and also invited him into his home. He stayed for about nine months and eventually moved on, and is still doing well, Geer said.
“When you start a business, you really are creating opportunities for other people,” Geer said. “We hire felons — I don’t care about their background, I care about who they are now and where they want to go. I have been the recipient of grace, and we should all be people of grace, so that’s how I look at hiring and developing employees.”
Kelly Hansen, a part-time administrator for the company, said that in the past year she has been with Tree Shepherds, she has noticed significant growth.
“It’s about doing right by the trees and doing right by the customer — you can see that in pretty much every aspect of what he does,” she said. “His customers can tell how much he cares.”
There is no formal business plan or defined path for the business, just a rough landscape for the next five years inside Geer’s head. The company also has no debt, Geer said. They could use a bigger truck, a new stump grinder but that will come when the money is saved.
“It is debt that kills every business,” he said. “That’s been my philosophy all through life, and that’s the reason we could do this. Raising six kids is tough, but you save and you try to do things without debt.”
The way he conducts the business has earned the company overwhelmingly popular feedback, Hansen said, with all positive reviews on the website Angie’s List and business coming in consistently. By continuing to offer quality services and education, Geer hopes to build a strong client base that will have healthy trees for their great grandchildren to enjoy, he said.
“We shepherd the trees, in effect. We don’t just come to do a pruning job,” he said. “I want to do the right pruning job, and I want to follow up and see you in three years. That was the idea — that the trees need caretakers as much as anything else does, and we see ourselves as the caretakers of the trees — the tree shepherds.”
JENNA DUNCAN can be reached at 940-566-6889 and via Twitter at @JennaFDuncan.