Today I am announcing the transfer of ownership of Chippers, Inc. After 21 years, I’m handing the reins over to an employee-owned entity, The Davey Tree Expert Company. Headquartered in Kent, Ohio, Davey has green care operations all across the United States and Canada. Davey employees own 100% of the stock of the organization and it is the 9th largest employee-owned company in the USA.
Other well-known and well-respected companies with employee ownership in our area include Hypertherm (66th largest in the country), King Arthur Flour, and Gardener’s Supply Co. Though Chippers’ parent company will not be locally-based, all those on staff today and in the future will have the opportunity to become employee-owners.
Davey is an excellent company with a 140-year history in our business, a people-first culture, a reputation for high-quality work and exceptional leadership. This is an organization that has many important features in common with Chippers and is one that I truly admire.
I am confident that this is the best path forward for us, where Chippers will retain its employees and local identity. I’m delighted to know that the company and the people I’ve worked so hard for will be in good hands. Most importantly, our clients will work with the same Chippers team members they have come to know during our 35 years in business.
I’m excited to begin charting a course to pursue plans and dreams I have long postponed, and relieved to be letting go of so much responsibility for so many people. And while there’s sure to be some sadness in parting ways, opportunity and change usually arrive as a pair.
How We Got Here
Will Russell started Chippers in 1986, recognizing that Vermont’s changing patterns of land use and ownership, from farmers to an increasing number of rural homeowners, meant these new owners would need help maintaining their field and forest landscapes. With Jason Eaton coming aboard in 1996 and Bill Murphy in 1999, Chippers grew steadily and established a reputation not only as a top-tier provider of “green-care” services, but also as a good place to work, where people held one another to a higher standard and saw both their pride and prosperity grow as a result.
Not long after I came on staff in 2000, we began talking about how to make Chippers an employee-owned company. In the meantime we integrated Cal Felicetti’s Treescapes, of Lebanon, NH in 2002, acquired French’s Tree Service, of Meredith, NH in 2005 (where Tanner Violette now leads the team) and created our Turf division in 2008 with the hiring of Theron Peck. We added a Garden Division with Liz Krieg in 2011, developed a wholesale maple sugaring operation in 2013, merged with Bill Pedi’s Landscape Company in early 2020, and began irrigation services in the fall of 2020. Chippers truly is “All About Your Life Outside.”
Before Will died of cancer in 2010 he said, “I want you to take over because you always put other people first.” I promised to stay on for at least five years to be sure that the company and the jobs it provided were secure. Protecting Will’s legacy, and the people who’d been loyal to him and his vision, was easily the right thing to do. Well, not so easy, but so, so right!
As the economy recovered from the “Great Recession”, Chippers began to grow again. With my focus turned to making the company stronger, employee ownership went on the back burner. By 2015, I returned in earnest to realizing the dream. Employee ownership requires steady and consistent year-over-year growth to reach a certain “critical mass”; Chippers has nearly tripled in size since 2010. But the challenges of operating during a pandemic and the investment needs for employee ownership made it clear that setting up an internal ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan) would probably take another 5-10 years.
There are personal factors as well that made me rethink our approach and decide that the time is now right for a change of direction. I have stayed twice as long as I promised, and in doing so have accepted the relentless demands a company makes on an owner/CEO’s time and energy. I’m looking forward to spending more time with my husband Win and our children – two married, two engaged, two in relationships – they are spread out from Seattle to the southwest of Ireland, and there will be more time now to see them, including our two granddaughters. There are friends we would like to visit more often and community organizations I’d like to be more involved with. Once my time is freed up, Win and I will be two (mostly) retired people, and there are numerous plans, projects, and adventures we are excited to begin.
Davey Is the Right Company
Since 2015, I have served on the Board of Directors of the Tree Care Industry Association, a national industry group representing over 2300 tree care companies, in the US, Canada, Mexico, and even a few overseas members. I felt honored to be elected Board Chair for 2020, the fourth woman Chair in the organization’s 80-year history. It has been a privilege to work alongside many of the leaders of our industry and to have a close-up view of their companies and their leadership philosophies.
Over the course of my time at Chippers, there has been more than one exploratory conversation with possible business partners or acquiring companies, but none felt like the right fit for us. In 2020, based on what I’ve learned through my industry colleagues, I decided to reach out to initiate a conversation with The Davey Tree Expert Company. Theirs is a culture that puts people first, and their approaches to growth, serving clients and leadership are synonymous with ours at Chippers. And a key factor is that Davey has been an employee-owned company since 1979, making them one of the earliest and most successful pioneers in employee ownership.
What started as a series of casual conversations eventually led to extensive due diligence performed on both sides. We are now confident that Chippers and Davey are a very good match and that each company will benefit considerably by joining forces with employee ownership at the core.
This Will Benefit Both Companies
Knowing as I do that the alignment is good, I am overjoyed to see the little company that started out as Will’s entrepreneurial dream 35 years ago will now be part of one of the strongest and best tree and landscape service companies in the world. And just as importantly, my long-awaited dream to see the Chippers team become employee-owners is now being realized. Chippers will be backed up by extensive financial resources and employees now have access to advancement opportunities I could not have provided as an independent owner.
The unmatched expertise and technical support of the Davey Institute, industry-leading recruiting and training programs, plus marketing, safety, IT and other infrastructure already in place at Davey will confer significant advantages throughout the organization. Being part of a nationwide company means we can now leverage buying power for services and equipment needed to run efficiently, are now better equipped to continue growing and improving, and are strong enough to ride out any future downturns in the economy.
No Cookie Cutter Approach Here
I know some of you may be concerned, may be wondering, “Won’t Chippers’ identity be gobbled up body and soul by this great big company, anonymized, corporatized, never again to represent the kind of home-grown success we have all so admired, and have been so proud to be part of?”
In a word – No. That’s not the Davey model.
Davey recognizes that different approaches work best in different markets. In addition to the measurable results found in the accounting, outstanding companies usually have some unique qualities reflected in their approach to their employees, their clients, and their region’s markets. One of the factors that made Chippers a good fit for Davey is our company culture and the strength of the management, administrative and crew-level teamwork we have worked so hard to build. The ethic of hard work, excellence and integrity that Will lived and breathed, that I’ve built on, are part of Chippers’ company DNA; they’re not found in every company.
Chippers represents to Davey a model with features that can be applied in other Davey locations, as well as the vehicle to substantially grow business in Northern New England. If the in-migration to the more rural parts of New England that we’ve seen in this past year is any indication, our region offers great opportunity to grow a more resilient, wider-reaching green care services organization providing excellent career opportunities for our VT and NH neighbors. Chippers and Davey have the same objectives and commitment to employee ownership, and we will now have new advantages in reaching these goals.
What Will Be Different, Or Not, for Employees
Davey is committed to keeping every Chippers employee as part of the company at the same rates of pay and benefits, and our organizational structure will remain much the same as it is now. Jason Eaton in Sales, and Travis Vickerson in Operations will still have lead roles and there will be little substantive change in these two areas. Some administrative functions will move to Davey headquarters, including most financial and HR responsibilities, but there is still a need for substantial local administrative support. All our administrative staff members will have a position or other opportunities with the same level of compensation with Davey going forward. No one will have to re-apply for the job they now hold, and all of their seniority remains intact.
The Chippers brand will be maintained indefinitely. The trucks will still be white with our familiar green tree. Our uniforms won’t change in the short term. Over time, our Chippers logo will evolve to include the words “a Davey company”, showing our that local brand is now supported as part of a larger team.
Davey also has a culture that lifts up its teammates in time of need. Assistance programs include the Davey Tree Emergency Employee Assistance Program, a program by which Davey employees contribute to help other Davey employees through times of hardship; COVID Paid Administrative Leave, which provides the employee paid time to deal with COVID-19 challenges that they or a family member are facing; and the Employee Assistance Program, a program administered by Unum.
Chippers employees will also be eligible to participate in the Davey Matching Gift Program, which matches dollar-for-dollar donations made by employees to charitable causes, and the Davey Tree Family Scholarship, which assists qualified dependents of employees pursuing post high school education. Team members will continue to have access to Granite United Way’s Work United program that provides assistance to employees facing personal or family challenges beyond the usual scope of Human Resources.
What Will Be Different, Or Not, for Clients and Communities
We will continue to provide all the top-tier services for which we’ve become known, our local leadership will stay in place, and we will be the same company you’ve come to know. You will talk with the same people you talk with now, the new employee owners of Chippers, and inquiries, proposals and invoicing will still be handled as they are now, or better. Our website, if it changes, will only improve!
We will continue to support our communities through our Plant-A-Seed program, by sponsoring and providing advertising dollars for area arts and events, donating funds and gift certificates to local charitable organizations, and supporting organizations that make our green and growing world more accessible.
When I look back over the past 21 years, these are the things I am most proud of at Chippers:
The company has grown bigger and stronger over time, from 45 to nearly 100 employees (with seasonal staff) and prospered, becoming a “Best Places to Work” award winner in both VT and NH.
We have kept safety at the forefront, always cognizant of the potentially hazardous nature of our work, and have achieved a good record of staying safe every day.
We made “I WILL” our company mantra.
We have advanced Chippers’ reputation for quality, service and integrity in our delivery to our clients.
We have created robust teams at each level, working hard to foster a culture that exemplifies employee ownership thinking.
We have made available to every eligible employee additional training, skill-building and certification opportunities.
We’ve explicitly aligned hiring, promotion, and management practices with our core values.
We embraced the idea of continuous improvement, both in our business practices and in understanding how our personal strengths can be harnessed for better performance. We worked to learn how we can build up those strengths while addressing areas needing development. We’ve devoted an ongoing effort in this area, with training, business coaching and learning from experts in organizational and individual improvement, through Vistage International, Leading Challenges and EOS, to name a few.
We have worked continuously to improve the quality and range of services we provide to our clients. in the past 10 years we’ve added Turf, Garden, Maple, Irrigation, and in our in Plant Health Care, Turf and Garden Divisions, a strong emphasis on instituting holistic and organic methods.
We have invested most of our profits back into improving our facilities, buying new equipment and sharing gains in income with every Chippers employee at the end of good years.
We have worked hard to be good corporate citizens, contributing to our communities wherever we can; we stepped up in 2020 when COVID hit hard in many of our communities.
Will Russell used to say, “Graveyards are full of irreplaceable people.” None of us, individually speaking, is as irreplaceable as perhaps we think we are, or might wish to be. And so it is for me.
I’ll stay on as a consultant, for six months or so, to help the transition go smoothly. Together we’ve accomplished so much to build a strong organization and culture, and have accepted as a requirement that we always look for ways to improve. So I know that everyone, individually and as team members, and Chippers the company, will be just fine under new employee ownership. There’s no telling how far the team may go in the next 21 years, or the 21 years after that. Remember, Davey’s been doing this for 140 years, and now we can go forward together as employee-owners, knowing there’s a long, long history of success behind us.
It has always been my expectation for myself to leave something a little better than when I found it. It has always been my goal, and my fondest dream, to see all of my Chippers family, grow, thrive and prosper together in service to our clients and communities, and now there is the backing, more than I could ever have provided, to see it through. It has been an honor, as the leader of Chippers, to carry forth Will’s legacy and I will always remember, with profound gratitude and pride, all we’ve done together.
Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to all of our clients who have made our success possible, and to everyone who has worked for, worked with, or been otherwise associated with Chippers our 35 years in business; you all helped make my employee ownership dream come true. I will look forward to seeing you all grow and thrive together, and Win and I will celebrate your many successes, now as happy ‘Chippers: a Davey company’ clients!
~ Mundy Wilson Piper
And to all my Chippers’ team members, from 25 years to the newest hires, thank you and congratulations!
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