Originally published in Business Digest, April 1998

When the Bough Breaks

by Julia Lynam

Gary Barrett In 1981 Gary Barrett took over the reins of Barrett's Tree Service from his father, Ralph, who founded the South Burlington company in 1955. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

It’s an ill wind that blows no one any good, and January’s ice storm was no exception. For a tree service company like Barrett’s Tree Service of Burlington, the two-day storm might have created a madhouse, with phones ringing continually, all hands pressed into action, and 18-hour shifts in driving rain and freezing cold. But the long-term result will be more work, more jobs, expanded operations over the next 18 months, and a chance to upgrade heavy equipment.

Gary Barrett has been running the company since 1981. It’s a family firm, started in 1955 by his father, Ralph, a former security guard and factory worker who took a part-time job with a tree company and found it was a field that was under-served. Gary joined his father in the business in 1968. “We worked very well together,” Gary says. “We got along the whole time and never had a problem.”

Ralph Barrett and his wife, Jean, now both retired and living in Florida part of the year, are well remembered in Burlington. “We’ve still got customers they had,” says Gary’s wife, Karen. “People will call and ask how they’re doing. Sometimes it seems like we’ve been around forever!”

Barrett’s continues to be a family affair. Karen runs the office, while son Todd is foreman of one of the crews and vice president of the company; their younger children, Trisha, a medical technology student at UVM, and B.J., who’s still in high school, chip in during vacations.

The firm’s offices are on Patchen Road in South Burlington. Barrett’s moved there from Queen City Park Road 12 years ago when construction of the as yet unused “southern connector” displaced the tree service from its original home. Just one year ago the family moved from “round the corner” into the house next door to the Patchen Road facility. “With the children leaving home we needed a smaller house,” Gary says. “I already owned this one and although it needed some work before we moved in, it seemed like a good idea.”

Living next door makes things easier, Karen says, adding it’s not difficult to separate work and home. “We can just go across the driveway and shut the door. Most of this business is done over the phone — very few people actually come to the office, anyway.”

Since January Barrett’s total workforce has expanded to 30 people, well up from the usual winter complement of 15. The outdoor staff work in crews of three, each with a hydraulic bucket vehicle and wood chipper. Staff members are kept in the same crew as far as possible, Barrett says. “It makes good sense for the men to have their own assigned trucks and more or less take care of them.”

Over the years, Barrett has built up a core of skilled and experienced people. “There’s Bob Labelle,” he says, running through his mental list of senior staff. “He’s been here about 15 years. So has Marty Amour. And Jay Dade and Mark Pillsbury have been here a long time, too.”

Experience and teamwork paid off during the ice storm. “We heard that it was expected and Green Mountain Power asked us to put our crews on standby,” says Barrett. “After it hit we ran five crews on 18-hour shifts round the clock for almost two weeks.” Although he gave up the outdoor work some years ago, even Barrett took a couple of shifts during the storm. “It was wet and cold, but the men did a good job; they really held up fine.

“We have a good record for safety, but it was dangerous because so many things were falling while we were working. Nobody got hurt, thank God,” he says. Barrett did have a bad moment when a tree limb fell on his convertible as he drove along White Street in Burlington. He escaped unhurt, although the car was damaged. “It’s the first time something like that has happened to me!” he says.

As people woke to a world of shattered, ice-laden trees, Barrett’s office was inundated with phone calls. “It was unbelievable,” says Karen. “I was filling a phone call pad every day — it was constant!” Although they were without electricity for four days, they never lost their phone lines. Radio communication, a lifeline for a tree service company with crews out and about in different areas, survived in part. “Luckily it was only over the longer distances that it went down,” says Gary. “We were still able to stay in radio contact within most of our working area. And we got called out ourselves to clear the power line to the antenna in Monkton that had gone down!”

Some old friends were lost: The storm spelled the end of the line for a 70-year-old maple tree in Agnes Oldberg’s garden in the North End of Burlington. Barrett had been trying to save it. “Gary had nurtured the tree for years,” says Oldberg, an accountant with Land Air Express of Williston, “but in the ice storm I finally lost it.” Not, she emphasizes, due to any lack on Barrett’s part: “He is such a professional. I’ve dealt with Barrett’s for over 15 years and in today’s business world I can’t think of anyone I would rather deal with.”

“We’ve seen nothing this bad, ever,” Barrett says of the ice storm. He expects there will be a lot of natural regeneration of trees in the wooded areas, with young trees coming through where older ones have fallen or lost branches that will let in the light.

The defeat in March of the bond vote calling for $500,000 to be spent on trees in Burlington surprised him. “But I think they’ll do all right with donations” he adds. “Unfortunately there aren’t many big trees left in Burlington,” he continues, speaking with regret of the loss of Burlington’s great elms that fell victim to Dutch elm disease in the 1970s.

Barretts’ biggest customer is Green Mountain Power Corp. “For power trimming for GMP we’re running four crews, each equipped with a bucket vehicle and a chipper,” Barrett says. “There’s still a lot of clearance to do after the storm. At present we’re still working on clearing power lines; when that’s finished we’ll be doing more for the towns and the state. We’re also clearing lines for Bell Atlantic, and working on clearing roadways, sidewalks and parks for the towns of South Burlington and Colchester, as well as working for private customers.”

Frank Ignaszewski, former assistant superintendent of transmission and distribution for Green Mountain Power, worked closely with Barrett’s Tree Service until his retirement in 1991. “When I started with the electricity company in the 1940s, the utilities did their own tree-cutting,” he recalls. “But in about the mid ’50s we found it was cheaper to hire people rather than using our own crews.” Ralph Barrett was among the first tree-cutters to contract with GMP.

“They used to do lot then and they do a lot now,” says Ignaszewski, who found himself once again working with Barrett’s when he was called back to the front line by GMP in January’s storm. “They’re very skilled. They respond at any time day or night and they get our rights-of-way cleared in record time.” He predicts that they’ll be busy for a long time yet. “Property owners are usually reluctant to have anything done to their trees, but this storm caused so much damage, I hope people will realize how important tree maintenance is,” he says.

Working methods have changed over the years. “We got our first bucket in 1964,” Barrett says. “Before that a lot more was done by hand. I’m more into equipment than my father. You still have to be very careful, but the equipment is so much better.

“It was real hard for me when I stopped doing outside work and came into the office,” he continues. “It was a gradual change starting about 15 years ago. I’d still be working outside for a couple of hours here and there, then I just found I didn’t have the time. I wouldn’t want to be doing it every day now that I’m nearly 50, but I’ve always enjoyed the outdoor work.”

This has, of course, been an unusual winter for a tree service business. Work generally slows down after Christmas to a routine of power-line clearing with some “take-downs” — felling individual trees. “That’s easier to do when the ground is frozen,” Barrett points out, “especially if the person has a nice lawn, we can avoid damaging it.”

Summer is usually Barrett’s busy time, when in addition to power-line contracts, they have a lot of work for individual customers, trimming, landscaping and planting, generally within a 30-mile radius of Burlington. The aftermath of the ice storm will be felt in the business for some time, for two reasons, Barrett says. “A lot of the damage won’t show up until later. When the leaves come out the weight will bring down branches that are cracked. Also, people are more aware of taking care of their trees after a storm like this. There will be a lot of fertilizing to do, because trees have suffered stress and will be weakened. And people should be sure to keep their trees well-watered, too,” he advises.

All the local companies were busy during the storm, and big operations moved in from California and Tennessee to take advantage of the business generated. “Storm chasers,” Barrett calls them. “Some of them were good and some not so good. And most of them have gone now.” It’s not something he’d do himself — he’s well established in Burlington with loyal staff and customers and plenty of work to do, he’s not looking outside the immediate area. “Although we have sometimes gone to other areas to help out when we’ve been asked,” he says. “We were down in Boston a few years ago working for the telephone company.”

The sudden increase in work this winter has given the tree service quite a boost. It’s allowed Barrett to add a new log loader and three new bucket vehicles to his fleet. “We’ll sell an older one when things die down a bit,” he says. Barrett’s equipment also includes stump diggers and cranes, which are often in demand for construction — for things like putting roof trusses in place or lifting heavy air conditioning units to the tops of buildings.

Barrett’s crews received high praise in a letter from Jan Crowley, assistant operations manager, western division, Green Mountain Power Corp. “Words don’t seem enough to express our deep appreciation for the effort and dedication exhibited by your employees to restore power quickly and safely to our thousands of residential and commercial customers affected by this weather phenomenon. They helped us realize our goal in a time frame beyond our expectations.”