Here at Cottage Life, we realize how hard the COVID-19 pandemic has hit local businesses. To do our part, we’ll be highlighting the stories of different businesses in cottage country. This week, we spoke with Michael Wilson who runs Tree Wise Guys out of Parry Sound, Ont.
What is Tree Wise Guys?
We provide tree maintenance solutions for the Parry Sound district, including tree removal, precision pruning, stump removal, hazard reduction, like damaged limbs, and beautification to help optimize your lake view. One of our other services that I haven’t seen any other tree company offer, is called “drop and go,” where we bring all the tree materials to the ground safely, and then whatever debris and mess is left, the client takes responsibility for it, which lets them save a lot financially as we save in labour costs.
How did the business get started?
After graduating high school, I was at a bit of a loss. I didn’t really know what I wanted to go into. So, I went to a job fair and there was a tree company hiring in town. It was a small company that’s actually grown into a large company these days. I was working for a man named Gavin Ward who was very good at his job. He showed me the ropes and got me climbing trees. I worked for him for two years, then a couple other tree companies after that, and I fell in love with the trade. I’ve been climbing professionally for seven years now.
In 2000, my uncle bought a cottage on Lake Manitouwabing and our family would go there every year for a vacation. As I started to get into the arborist trade, my uncle asked me to help him with one of his trees. I said sure, no problem. When I finished, he gave me $500. I wasn’t expecting that. And then he says he’s got some buddies around the lake that could use my services as well. So, one job led to another and I started printing off posters and getting involved with the local Facebook groups. Before I knew it, I was getting more phone calls for business than the company I was working for at the time.
So, in 2019, I took a leap and started doing solo jobs for cash. And in 2020, I made the decision to start the business and put everything on the books—I learned the hard way about putting all that cash I’d earned from the solo work in the bank and what happens with taxes.
What inspired the name?
In 2018, I was living in Toronto with two Newfoundlanders who had come fresh off the island to Toronto. We would do a couple tree maintenance side jobs here and there, and it was one day where me and the two roommates were doing a job, I was in a tree, they were on the ground, everyone of us was busy, and then my buddy Travis stops and says, ‘Hey, this is quite an operation we got going here. We need to think of a name.’ And with his Newfoundlander accent he goes, ‘Well, there’s tree of us, how about Tree Wise Men?’
But when I started searching for domains, Tree Wise Men was already taken, so we settled with Tree Wise Guys, which I thought was hilarious and had a great ring to it.
What is the most common service you perform?
To give you the short answer, it’s mostly tree removals. I try to stress my skill with precision pruning and being able to increase the longevity and health of the trees by removing specific limbs, like anything that’s rubbing or crossing or interfering, any deadwood, and allowing more air and sunlight to perforate through the trees. That’s definitely something that we try to do more of, but the unfortunate truth is that in Parry Sound, because the terrain is very rocky and the soil is dry, it doesn’t harbour the right conditions for trees and that’s why we get so many softwoods, like your white pines, your balsam firs, your spruces, your cedars, your birch, stuff like that.
There are some maples and oaks and hardwoods, but due to the terrain of the district, pretty well every cottage in the area has a problem tree or is going to eventually. So, more often than not we’re doing removals.
What kind of tree is most difficult to remove?
It’s hard to say which is more difficult because there’s so many things that go into it. Your hardwoods are more difficult for your saws because they’re heavier more dense wood, and it’s probably more difficult for the guy on the ground too because he’s moving heavier wood. But working with hemlock can be just as difficult, even though it’s a soft wood. Hemlock generally grows on hillsides and steep grades usually near the lake. That makes the footing very difficult, if you can get at it at all, because the lake basically cuts your drop zone in half.
You could also say that cedars are very, very difficult because while they’re generally pretty easy to manage, sometimes you get the odd cedar tree that shoots up like a rocket and is 50-feet tall with a six-inch diameter. That could be really difficult to climb. So, it’s hard to say which is the most difficult because they’re all different. But you really need to know why they’re all different to know what you’re dealing with and how to progress safely depending on the situation.
What’s one of the defining characteristics of your business?
Working in the area, I’ve heard a lot of horror stories from our clients about contractors and sole proprietors in the area where the client will pay guys to do a job, they’ll ask for half the money up front in cash or something suspicious like that, and then the client will never see them again. Or guys who say they’re coming to price a job and then never show up and never pick up the phone.
So, something I’ve come to learn that I think people value about me personally and the business is that I’m always there to pick up the phone. I’m all about communication. If I tell you I’m going to do something, then I’ll be there. And if I’m not, I’m going to call you and let you know. I’m all about having that open line of communication and building that relationship with our clients.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
We are one of the trades that are very, very grateful and fortunate to not have been very affected by the pandemic. Now, that being said, when it first hit—I think I legally opened the business in March 2020 and we were planning on starting on April 1, and I think I had 20 clients lined up for the start of April that cancelled because of the pandemic. People weren’t sure what was going to happen and they wanted to hold onto their money, and I can’t blame them. So, yeah, things were looking dicey. My stepbrother had just quit his job to come work with me and now there were almost no jobs to do.
But by the May long weekend, I think people had a better understanding of what COVID-19 was and where it was going, and it was also cottage season, so I think a lot of people ended up taking refuge and just wanted to get as far away from the city as possible. A lot of people spent their whole summer living there and I think that’s when the whole landscape industry exploded. Everyone was bored and what a better time to take advantage of doing some housework and landscaping and taking a good look at our properties.
It was a bit slow starting, and a bit scary at first, but things really turned around on a dime and started going really, really well for us. We’re very grateful to be one of the few businesses that’s kind of breezed through the pandemic.
What does the future look like for Tree Wise Guys?
Eventually I want to be a full-size tree maintenance company. I think Tree Wise with the logo and the name and the values that we have as a company, it could be really enormous one day, Ontario-wide. That’s the long term, big picture stuff. Within the next five to 10 years, I see us having a permanent location in Parry Sound, because right now I’m basically renting all summer, every summer.
Once that’s been acquired, I’d like to get a dedicated work vehicle so I can use my own personal vehicle to visit clients for pricing. Beyond that, I’d definitely like to get a wood chipper, a trailer, hopefully a couple crews of people that can continue to service the Parry Sound district.
In terms of expanding, I don’t see myself expanding further south, but rather further north because that’s where the service is needed. If we’re strictly talking terrain and landscape, like the old boreal forest and northern Ontario, that’s where people are really in need of this service.
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