[Podcast] 'Grow For Good™' S02 E10: Letting Go of the Trapeze with Leaf & Limb's Basil Camu
On this episode of the Grow For Good™ podcast, Jed sits down with Leaf & Limb's Chief Vision Officer, Basil Camu.
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Read the episode transcript below.
Basil Camu [Snippet]: I think we’re sitting on a goldmine, which is why aren’t we the “Lorax” of the planet? Why aren’t we the caretakers of the planet?
Intro [Voiceover]: It's an age-old question. Can you do well by doing good? Welcome to the Grow For Good™ podcast, where we speak with leaders who strive to make a positive impact on the world. Here's the host of the Grow For Good™ podcast, Jed Morey.
Jed Morey [Intro]: Imagine coming into a business, learning the ropes, fighting through challenges to establish a solid business model only to decide at the moment pretty much everything is clicking, that your number one revenue driver no longer fits your moral compass.
That’s what Basil Camu was faced with when he rose through the ranks of his family business Leaf & Limb. Basil’s father founded the company in the late ‘90s as a tree trimming and maintenance service in North Carolina. Father and son joined forces in 2010 and started a remarkable journey together that would transform the company and just might transform the industry.
I learned so much in this episode it’s incredible. Basil is a wealth of knowledge and information, so much so that you can hear him trying to contain himself at times to keep it on a level that I could keep up with. There are sustainability journeys and then there is the family and team at Leaf & Limb, who are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in the landscape industry.
JM: Hey, It’s Jed Morey from Morey Creative and today on Grow For Good™ we’re speaking with Basil Camu, from Leaf & Limb, a tree service based in Raleigh, North Carolina. Which might be the most reductive introduction that I’ve ever given, considering what you’re about to hear and how this tree care company thinks about their role in preserving the planet. Basil, welcome to Grow For Good™.
BC: Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.
JM: So, before we get into some of the big stuff, as we typically do, I was just wondering if you could just briefly describe the company’s founding and some of the core services that you provide.
BC: Sure thing. So originally, we started off as a traditional tree service doing mostly removals and some pruning back then, but over the years, we’ve evolved a lot. Now at this point all we do is care for trees, preserve trees and plant new trees.
So, we’ve actually gotten completely out of the removal side of the industry, which is a whole little story in and of itself, and at this point it’s preservation, it’s care, it’s planting, but I also want to add, we do a lot of work with spreading awareness and educating folks, garden centers, communities, you know, regional conferences, arboretums, whatever, we just like to get the word out. Trees are really important.
JM: Basil, this is a family business, right?
BC: Correct. Yeah. My dad started it back in 1997 and I got involved back in 2010 when he and I became business partners, and yeah, the rest is history.
JM: 2010 is quite a time to jump into any business, let alone a family business, which usually has its own dynamics. Can you talk about that inflection point? I read a little bit about how that really was a kind of a turning point, that era—we’re talking about post financial collapse right now—
JM: Kind of a turning point in not just the sensibilities of the company and obviously the economic conditions where you are, but what was that inflection point that really helped kind of inspire you on this path?
BC: Okay. So, there’s a lot on this journey. It’s a pretty long journey, but I’ll try to break it down into sort of the main gist. I think so originally, I got involved because the business was suffering, but also, he and I had been working together on another venture. So, we enjoyed working together. I had some skills that I thought could help, particularly with marketing and some of the work—you know back then SEO was really critical and it still is, but it’s changed a lot over the years now.
And that was when Google AdWords was just getting going, and I was really good at Google AdWords back then. As a matter of fact, I remember when I kind of—he didn’t have a website at the time. So, we became business partners. One of the first things we did was build a website and I was able to get us top three rankings in Google for like 150 primary keywords and the only company doing AdWords. It was pretty exciting. Obviously all of that is gone now.
JM: [Laughing] I’m very grateful for that or else we wouldn’t have a business on the other side of this podcast, but go ahead.
BC: [Laughing] Yeah. So, my journey, you know, it’s sort of like the big inflection points as I remember, it was one, when we started hiring staff, we kind of had to make a big decision. “Are we going to do this the legal way or the illegal way?”
Just to give you some background about my industry, I’m in the tree service industry, and according to statistics from TCIA—which is one of our representative bodies—90 percent of companies in my industry pay folks under the table, or they do 1099 contracting; all ways to avoid paying workers’ compensation insurance, because we pay really steep rates because we’re in trees and climbing trees there’s a massive risk factor.
So, when you get one of these policies, you start off paying 40 cents on the dollar, which is just a lot, but we decided to do the right thing. It’s a part of who we are as a company, and that meant that from then on, every time we entered a bid, we’re 30 percent more expensive than most other companies were bidding against. The only exception might be the national brands, maybe we’re the same price as them, but they’re national brands, right? We’re nobody. That was tough to work through.
We really had to do a lot of innovation, a lot of creative thinking, a lot of bootstrapping, sort of work through that and convince folks that, “Hey, we provide value at this higher price point.” So that was a big inflection, and I think that sort of set us off on this journey of doing the right thing really matters.
JM: Was that when you came in or was that part of your dad’s founding ethos?
BC: That was 2011, 2012. Before I got involved, it was just, you know, it was him and maybe a seasonal work or two. Very small. But another inflection point for me was just learning about trees. It’s been a very deep and amazing journey. This one of our core values: thirst for knowledge. So, over the last decade plus getting to learn about trees and really getting into the details has just opened my mind.
I’ve begun to really see ecosystems as something that is so vastly complicated. It outshines the best technology we have today, and I love this idea that nature has been doing research and development for 450 million years. Since lichen started dissolving rock. So, who are we to think that any of our systems could even possibly compare to the R&D that this planet has created. It’s unbelievable. The more I learn, the more I realize how little we actually know.
JM: I can remember the president of our company coming into a meeting—and this a couple of years ago—he had just listened to a podcast about biodiversity for some reason, and he could not stop talking about how trees communicate with one another, how a tree in one system can send healing messages and strength to another tree in a system that they know what’s happening, they’re all interconnected.
But not just the trees, obviously everything within that ecosystem, and that the system itself should be looked at as like a living thing where one piece matters to the other. It really is kind of a daunting and fascinating thing. When you think about, if I plucked this one thing out of the system, they all feel it. That starts to mess with your head a little.
BC: Right. Yeah. I mean, think about this. There’s a whole underground economy happening. So, for example, you talk about that tree communicating with another tree, and it does this through this fungal network under the soil, and not only do they communicate with each other, but they’re also communicating with all the other members of the ecosystem. So, you might have trees, smaller trees, ground cover, flowers, all these parts of the ecosystem, and they’re actually communicating threats with each other, Hey, we’ve got these insects attacking. Hey, other trees release some pheromones so they don’t attack you.”
Or it might be something like this. Like, “Hey daffodil, I’ve got a couple of extra phosphorus you want to trade me for some boron? They’re like, yeah, let me..” So the idea of this diverse ecosystem—you could think about it as underground communication, underground medical aid, underground stock markets. There’s just this really vast, amazing thing that’s happening below our feet.
JM: You did something really powerful in one of the videos I watched prepping for this, where you counted to two and said in that time a football field of trees was just lost.
JM: I mean, we know a lot of this kind of intellectually, or we see this through the news. We spend a lot of emotional time on what’s happening, maybe in other countries with the deforestation in the rainforest and things like that. But here in, let’s say North America, is that still the case? Are we reforesting as we go along? Or are we in danger of losing these really complex and diverse systems?
BC: You know, what’s always interesting is how issues are so much more complex than we think they are, especially because when we get the news soundbites, it seems like just a simple issue of deforestation. But really if we dwell on deforestation just for a second, there’s a really big difference between say something that’s been cleared and replanted, perhaps with a monocrop like pine trees versus an old growth forest that has lots of diversity of large and old species, big and small, understory, vines, flowers. The systems are so vast and different. So, it’s hard to really just talk about deforestation in terms of trees or not trees. It’s also quality of the ecosystem. It’s soil as well.
So, let me pivot for just a second back to what we were talking about. This is sort of that third inflection point for me. As I started learning about these issues—learning about trees and learning about these things that are well outside of the normal news media soundbites—I began to recognize we have really big issues, things that have to do with our soil and with our trees with our ecosystems, and that’s when I began to realize that our tree care company could be a force for positive change for ecosystems and for the health of the planet. That was also where we had to make a really tough decision regarding tree removals. We used to cut trees down.
It was a big part of our revenue, two thirds of our annual revenue, actually. [Note: Basil states two thirds here, but later clarifies that it was two fifths.] And in 2019, we made a really big decision that we’re getting out and we shed all that revenue and entered into really uncertain times, and this was like, this is predating COVID. We were walking into 2020 with COVID ahead of us, had no idea this was coming. So, you know, I’m happy to say, not only have we been able to navigate COVID, but we were able to navigate getting out of removal as well, and so far the response has been incredible.
JM: If we can just hang on the business case, you know, usually I like to land on the business side of things, but that is—what you just said is such a massive change to a business model to go into it, knowing that you’re about to gut two thirds of your top line revenue. Before we get back into deforestation, regenerative agriculture, and those types of ideas, just from a business standpoint, how did you prepare the company? How did you undergird the company, I guess, financially, but also structurally with your people to prepare for that moment that you were going to shed two thirds of your revenue?
BC: Well, one of the things we did that I’m really proud of is we actually, we held meetings and discussions with every single layer of the company. We wanted to make sure we got lots of discussion and buy in and input, because this is not the kind of decision that I was going to just be able to hand down. I’ve seen in the past how badly that can go on small things. So, I needed to make sure we had agreement and consensus, and the really cool thing is that everybody at Leaf & Limb was on board. Everybody thought it was the right thing to do. Everybody thought it was a good idea, knowing there might be sacrifices, and there was some sacrifice. We did end up having to let go of 10 people. There were definitely a lot of setbacks.
JM: Had to be pretty emotional for you as a family business owner. I mean, even looking at the website, how your people talk about the company, how you talk about your people, the range of experience and the diversity that you have in your company. It looks very family.
BC: Yeah, we have a really tight group of folks. I think we have just an awesome place. I love everybody here. We work hard on building vulnerable high trust culture, and that’s probably what allowed us to be able to make a move like this. The discussions, the buy-in, also a lot of analysis on what could go right, what could go wrong and frankly, just a little bit of hope...a lot of hope, and it all worked out really well.
You know, what’s one of the coolest things about this, and this is one of the things I would say to anybody who’s thinking about something like this. We were able to get a news story with our local ABC affiliate when this happened and word got out about what we were doing, and I got to say, it was amazing. The local community rallied around us.
We had a segment of our clients who said we were crazy. Got some emails from folks who were really upset, some really judgy, nasty emails about all the things you can imagine, but then we picked up a whole bunch of new folks who maybe use us for services, or just simply wanted to advocate, and so what’s really cool about this—and I can say this now two years later, because it’s all past us—but in the end we’ve lost clients and we’ve lost accounts, but we picked up a hardcore fan club and we’ve never had a fan club before, and I got to tell you what, having a fan club is just the best.
These are people who, these are the ones who go out of their way to tell their friends about this awesome company or post on Nextdoor or post on Facebook, and we’re living proof that if you let go of the trapeze, there is another trapeze waiting for you. You have to lean into purpose and doing the right thing and knowing who you are and what you want to accomplish, and there is going to be a group out there who resonates with that, and they’re going to help buoy you, and they’re going to help turn you into something new and even better than you were before. And I’ve got to say, we’re on an incredible journey right now, where looking back it is the best decision we ever made. It was the hardest decision we ever made, but our future is so bright right now.
JM: You keep saying things that are going to keep me from asking all the other questions, because they’re really powerful moments, and I don’t want to gloss over them. You mentioned something about vulnerable leadership. What does that mean to you? Because that’s not something–we hear leading with empathy, we hear, you know, obviously leaning into justice issues. Vulnerability is a really interesting one, especially when you think about—listen, we’re two men of a particular age with children that, you know, have a place in this world that does not necessarily lend itself, the male archetype to that type of vulnerability in leadership. What does it mean to you in practical terms?
BC: Well, I learned this, I was very fortunate to get introduced to the idea of leadership maybe four or five years ago, and since then I’ve been just on fire. Like it’s what it’s all about, but I say it kind of boils down to one simple thing, and that is, you know, I’m probably not going to differentiate myself on business. I doubt I’ll ever be like some of the greats out there, but I do hope to differentiate myself on my ability to lead and how I treat others. So, for me, vulnerability is about being a real human that cares about other people, that listens, that leads with questions, that does the hard work every single day, meditation acts of gratitude, random acts of kindness. You know, the things that, you know—self-awareness, others' awareness.
That is an essential part of this mix is I think everybody needs to be working on leadership, especially if you own a company, because you’re not going to attain your dreams by powering your way through it, and that was my gut instinct for a lot of years is power my way through it, and I’m going to, you know, control, charge, command, and I’ve just come to find out that just doesn’t work. It’s a team effort.
JM: Okay, but you did the thing that “letting go of the trapeze,” as you say, you did the thing that many of us, in the position of running a company—
JM: When you have other people looking to you for guidance and support and you have bills to pay and payroll and all of those things that impact us in the real world outside of our mission, you did that hard work and you let go and you found the other trapeze. What was the most surprising thing about when you finally latched on besides that fan base? What was the most surprising business event that occurred to you when you grabbed the new trapeze and you started swinging?
BC: Man, it’s been next level. So, let me tell you what. We are essentially finding ourselves in this new business model that I don’t think I’ve seen done before. So, what we found is that, turns out this removal thing was really a major complicating factor in our business model. Once we let go of that piece, our training platform shored up, became way better. We’re able to attract much better talent, and because we stand for something that really matters, we’re able to attract more talent. Turns out that our software platform, there were so many new changes we were able to make.
So, we found these efficiencies in operations, efficiencies in training, added value in hiring and recruiting. Our sales close rates have skyrocketed because now we only get calls from the people who affiliate themselves with our purpose and beliefs. So, we’re not getting the price shoppers who are just calling 20 different companies. It’s more like people are honing in on Leaf & Limb like, “That’s the company, I know I want. “The culture here is really elevated even more than it was. There’s been 10 major benefits to this in terms of just a better business model.
JM: It’s a tremendous case study, I have to be honest. It’s just, from a pure business standpoint, even taking all of the other, the Grow For Good™ aspects away from it, it’s a really important lesson to learn, to just let go, and then trust that if you see it, others will as well.
BC: I’ve had to let go of the trapeze as a couple of times in my career, and I’ve always been pleased. It’s always terrifying, and it’s always amazing. Like going back to the original beginning of the story, where I was talking about SEO, I remember when we decided to start talking more authentically as a company with true voice and true belief. We had to make this decision to let go of what were like 150 geo-targeted pages, like crafted just perfectly to get that keyword for that city, and it was so scary. And sure enough, our SEO tanked for a while, but then when we started talking in this real voice, people shared that information with their friends. So, over the long run, it actually, we had more engagement from clients.
So, I suppose I had been sort of conditioned over some smaller trial and error over the years that just, maybe, I can let go of this trapeze and see what happens, and man, I have found so much life on the other side. I’ve never enjoyed this more than I do now. I don’t think we as a company have ever been as happy as we are now. It’s so funny that like, even removals was sort of this weight on our back, that we didn’t even really fully understand, and we’re free now to pursue what we believe, and we had a black eye for a while. We were talking about the importance of trees for many years, and yet we still cut them down. So, we don’t have that cognitive dissonance anymore. Now we live what we believe and it just feels really good.
JM: Okay. So maybe you can bridge two ideas for me. I want to talk about Pando land for a second and I’m not going to prime it. I’ll let you tell the story of what it is, but maybe you can bridge it to the idea of looking at this at a landscape that maybe has been gutted and regenerating that landscape.
JM: Tell us a little bit about Pando land and tell us a little bit about the dangers. I guess, the full ecological danger of taking out an ecosystem in the manner that we do that around the world.
BC: All right. So some years ago, this has been like back in 2016, we started doing, as a company, doing volunteer work every month together. And we would go out once a month, find a cool local organization, do volunteer, work for them, and we call that Project Pando because Pando is this group of quaking Aspen out in Utah, and it looks like a whole forest of trees, but they’re all growing from the same root system. And it’s the idea that we’re all connected, good for one is good for all, bad for one is bad for all. So, it’s just this interconnectedness, which is sort of a great meta for humans and for the planet, and then over the years that evolved into something, a little different.
Which is now we have this initiative whereby, we with volunteers all as well—and that’s been a little bit dicey during COVID—but we go out and collect seeds from the wild, from native trees that grow naturally in these ecosystems, and we raise these trees up and we do it all regeneratively. We don’t have any trees that have reached maturation yet. It takes about two to three years, but as soon as they become a size where we can start giving them away, we’re going to be giving these trees away for free. We want to get trees in people’s hands, but we also want to get people engaged in the process of finding seeds and growing trees and getting their hands dirty, and we make compost for the potting substrate.
You know, we don’t want to buy soil because that’s not regenerative. So, everything’s done in a sustainable, regenerative way with the idea of not only producing trees for giveaway, but also, they’re native trees. A native tree will support about 30 times more biodiversity than something that’s not native. So as much as I love a Japanese Maple, it might only feed 10 types of caterpillars. Whereas an Oak tree feeds 500 different types of caterpillars. There’s a huge difference in what those two trees provide for the ecosystem. So, these are all native. We’re getting genetic diversity back in the landscape because nurseries do a lot of propagation, so you might have the same maple grown a hundred thousand times.
I gotta be careful not to go into too many rabbit holes here, but nature is built on diversity. If you don’t have diversity, you can’t evolve. Because there’s no iterations to move back and forth between. That’s the basis for evolution is diversity. So, we’re bringing genetic diversity back into the landscape, and then the biggest piece of this is getting people involved, because as much as you can tell people about issues, it doesn’t mean a pile of beans until they get their hands dirty and start working with plants and realize how incredible plants and soil and ecosystems really are.
JM: I just want to set your mind at ease for a second. This is the rabbit hole show. This is why we do this because there’s what you see on somebody’s website. There’s what you see in the promotional materials. There’s the top layer of, “Oh, this is a tree service company that doesn’t take trees down anymore. They’d rather plant them,” and then there’s the rabbit hole that brought you to this point, that’s doing something that seems very, very off-kilter for what you would expect from a tree service company. So, by all means, continue down the rabbit hole, and I actually was hoping you could also take us down, I guess, the treatment and care rabbit hole.
JM: Talk a little bit about the chemical applications, because you do not use any chemical applications in your care process, correct?
BC: Correct. Except for one exception, we’ve been able to research and come up with solutions for every single product, with the exception of borer prevention. So, there are a class of insects out there, they’re beetles, essentially. Like the emerald ash borer, you might be familiar with. There’s some really invasive stuff, and there’s no substitute currently for the Bifenthrin that we use. So that’s our last one, but there are some really cool research projects going on right now about using fungi as a way to kill these intruding beetles. Or potentially, thrips, this type of insect. So, there’s some really good stuff on the horizon, but beyond that one product, we have been able to replace every single class of chemical that we used to use.
JM: So, we’re attuned to it, so we’re based on Long Island, our headquarters, we have a couple of different offices, but HQ is on Long Island and we have a sole source aquifer. So there has been a lot of education, but we haven’t really stepped up to the challenge sadly, but there’s been a lot of education around pesticides, chemicals, being used on lawns, even stormwater runoff, and where it ultimately goes: into drinking water.
JM: There’s just no two ways about it. We’re on an Island. It has nowhere else to go, and the long-term deleterious effects of chemicals, leaching into a sole source aquifer should be pretty apparent. You know, that’s a bad recipe.
JM: In a place like North Carolina. Is it a different concern? What ultimately is the issue with an abundance of chemicals you know, over and over?
BC: There’s a lot of ways I can answer the issue. I’ll break it down into maybe just sort of some basics the way I see it. Number one, it doesn’t typically get you what you want. We think chemicals are going to provide this solution. Maybe the chemical fertilizer is going to make my tree healthier, or the chemical that I spray on the plant is going to kill the bug that I don’t want, but it turns out what usually ends up happening with chemicals is short-term gain for long-term pain, and that long-term pain is worse than the short term gain. So, i.e., the cons outweigh the pros. So, there’s that piece of it. That’s usually where I try to convince clients is like, this is just not going to get you what you want.
JM: Does it kill off the species that are really necessary for the long-term health of the system?
BC: Yes, definitely. I’ll just touch on a few things.
BC: Most fertilizers are built out of what are called NPK, and essentially the reason we have nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium is because after World War II, we had a whole lot of chemicals and a whole lot of plants that were making those chemicals for bombs, and we didn’t really know what to do with it, and we didn’t want to just squelch an industry, and as fate would have it, somebody sprayed some of this on a field and was like, “Oh, wow, look at that it’s green. It’s beautiful. It’s bigger than it was.”
And sure enough that will stimulate growth short term, but it comes at a very steep price because what ends up happening is, you kill off the biology in the soil—and there are going to be people listening to this who know a lot, but I’m trying to avoid going into too much detail here‚ but essentially you kill off the biology in the soil. And that means—let’s use a tree for an example, that we could definitely talk about crops—but a tree all is good when weather conditions are fine and there’s plenty of rain, but as soon as you have a drought, those trees that have been relying on your chemical fertilizers are the first to go because they don’t have the soil biology to support them anymore, and then you have the issue of your nitrogens leaking into your water table.
So is your phosphorus, your nitrogen is handicapping the root growth. So, a root’s job is to go out and find nitrogen. Well, when you’re spoon-feeding nitrogen then it just sits and it’s lazy, so you have a less stable tree. There’s just a gazillion ways that the NPK fertilizers—which is pretty much anything you buy from your local hardware store—are going to actually cause more damage than good to the tree, to the ecosystem, to the water table, you name it. It goes a lot of ways. Oh, and this is one of my favorites. We talk about phosphorus. Did you know that to produce phosphorus, when we generate one ton of phosphorus, it comes at the expense of four tons of radioactive waste that we go and ship off and store in mountains and ice caps and things like that because we don’t know what to do with them? I mean, it’s just a really steep price to pay for these chemical fertilizers.
JM: Yeah. I saw you on a video also explain something that had not occurred to me because I actually, so I was thinking about your business model and thinking about the idea of care and how important pruning is, and then I was thinking about it. I was like, so if we’re looking to replicate what happens naturally pruning doesn’t feel like it’s something that occurs naturally, but you explained it really, really differently. You kind changed my head completely around and thinking about this. Can you explain the benefits of pruning and proper care for tree maintenance?
BC: Yeah. Specifically pruning you’re right. A lot of the pruning that’s done these days is a waste of time, but really, if you want to use pruning and you look to nature, the idea is that nature in a forest setting grows tall, upright trees, and these tall, upright trees have these well-spaced branches of a certain diameter relative to the trunk, but out in the urban landscape, our trees have access to a lot of light because they’re usually planted by or in small groves. So, they grow these huge branches and, you know, they grow in directions that shouldn’t grow. So really the best type of pruning is that we’re trying to encourage a tall, upright trunk with well-spaced branches, and we’re essentially just mimicking what happens in the forest. And why do we want to do that?
Well, because we need as many old, mature trees as we can get, and we need to be able to live with those trees safely. So, doing this sort of pruning means that we’re maximizing the lifespan of that tree. We’re minimizing the chance that it splits. And we’re essentially just replicating what nature does. And I will add that nature does prune. It’s called cladoptosis. It just takes longer, but it sheds inefficient growth through this multi-year process of slowly sealing off a branch, and then the branch falls down to the ground and where it rots it feeds the soil, which then feeds the tree.
JM: Pretty efficient.
BC: [Laughing] Yeah.
JM: So, you have another interesting chapter, one that we talk about often on this show, and that is B Corp status. You obtained your B Corp certification. I believe it was last yea, right?
BC: Right. Yeah.
JM: So not only did you completely change your business model again and then grow and find some raving fans along the way in the middle of a pandemic, you achieved your B Corp certification. Tell me a little bit about that journey and the challenges you faced. But also why— why did you start that journey?
BC: Originally, w started back in 2017, we were invited to go participate—NC State has a B Lab clinic and students from the undergrad and graduate departments get involved, and you can apply as a company and we applied and we were accepted and we got to work with a student team. It was amazing. We submitted that year at like 86 points, and then they did the review and we went down to 76, which is disappointing. We’re like, “Okay, well, let’s go again!” So, we applied again, accepted again, tried again, failed again. At this point, just frustrated. So, we decided to go again internally without the help from the students. A third time, failed.
By now it’s like what? We’re in late 2019, and the team here at Leaf & Leaf, we had a conversation we decided, okay, we got to try one last time, and if we can’t get it this time, then, then that’s probably just it. So, we did it one last time and we were fortunate because they came to us and said, “Hey, you all have really been trying hard.” I can’t remember exactly how this conversation goes, but essentially, they said, “Look, we’re going to let you write something, a narrative, and we’re going to have a special committee that will review this narrative,” because I think our business model is a bit challenging. No other tree services ever become B Corp certified; we're the first ever.
JM: That’s amazing.
BC: Yeah. There’s a couple of other landscapers out there that are pretty small, and we’re not big, like, you know, Brightview does a billion a year, they’re a huge landscaping company. So, we’re obviously not that big, but we’re not small either. So, we’re sort of in this mid-tier and an industry that hasn’t really gone through before. So, I think there was maybe a little bit of complications with our business model, but this narrative was huge.
JM: I think they are going to change up some of the—Sage, our producer, very close to the process, and she’s our Director of Social Impact. So she’s running our effort with some committees on the team to take us hopefully across the finish line to B Corp certification, but it is somewhat of a rigid process that was meant, I think for a lot of companies that have a much larger impact on maybe society, but also the environment and what they could do. So, when companies that don’t necessarily fit that mold come into the process, it is a little bit of a workaround, and I think they’re starting to change some of that up to incorporate these narrative elements.
JM: You know, what I find is that it is inspiring not just for us as company leaders, but it’s inspiring for the people in the organization. Did you find this as a really positive rallying point for your team members?
BC: Somewhat yes, definitely excitement, but what I hope to do in the coming years is get more of the staff engaged. We’re putting together an internal B Corp team that’s just always working on B Corp because you have to keep your credentials up. You know, there’s re-certification here soon, and there’s a lot of stuff that happens. So, it has been somewhat of a rallying point, but I’d like to make it a lot more.
I think we can lean in a lot more and do a lot more as a team there. That’s one of the fun things about B Corp is there are so many areas where you can pick up points. It’s kind of a scavenger hunt almost, and in the process, make a better company doing better by people and the planet. So just using the handbook that they published, we have so much we can do over the next 10 years. I think it’ll be really fun, and I think it will become an awesome way to engage more folks at Leaf & Limb on a deeper level.
JM: So, let’s talk about you as a leader as well. It’s pretty apparent that you have a very deep and abiding love for the outdoors. Was that always the case growing up? I mean, is this just kind of who you are and do you think that that had an impact on your worldview as you came in to become a company leader or did it kind of happen in reverse, did coming into this type of company open your mind and your heart to the outdoors?
BC: It’s interesting. I reflect on this a lot and it took me 35 years to figure out what I wanted to do in life quite frankly, I, yes. Looking back, it becomes apparent now that I do love the outdoors. I’ve always enjoyed hiking and camping and traveling and just being outside for sure, but for much of my career at Leaf & Limb, I was here for family and then I was here because really, I couldn’t give up, I had things I wanted to finish, and then, you know, about year eight here at Leaf & Limb, the light just turned on I think, and I, and it all became very obvious to me.
Yes, I do love the outdoors. That’s definitely a part of why I love trees and soil, and I do love the planet. I have a weird twisted story, and I got to say, I guess that the blunt answer is none of this was apparent to me before the last several years, but it has all come together beautifully. I think the only reason I’m here is because A, I don’t know when to give up and, B I just have a lot of grit and tenacity and I wanted to see some things through, and I think that’s the tough part of being an entrepreneur is you just don’t know when to give up and don’t know when to move on and don’t know when to throw in the towel.
JM: I’m glad you haven’t.
BC: Yeah, me too.
JM: There’s a lot of people that are glad you haven’t.
BC: I don’t know why I didn’t quite frankly.
JM: Let’s talk about this point forward, because one of the things you said at the beginning was messaging and teaching and engagement, and sort of scaling this beyond the walls of Leaf & Limb and the region that you serve. What is your vision for that in terms of, you know, bringing others along in disparate regions, or maybe other parts of the world, what is your vision for communicating that message?
BC: A couple of things. We are a local business doing well. So, we certainly have a local footprint, but we want to be a thought leader well, beyond our geographical footprint. So, going all the way back to Pando, our plans on that is that we are building a blueprint that we’re going to give away to the world for free. So, anybody anywhere across the country can start the same project. We’re building two models: one for the person who has no money and the other for the person who has no time, because those are two interchangeable things. And the idea is that this blueprint will be sustainable and regenerative, and as long as you have a group of folks who are like-minded, you can do this, any city, any community, anywhere in the U.S. So that’s thought leadership, we want to give away. I’m writing a book right now on all of this.
JM: No kidding?
BC: Yeah. It’s so much fun. “How Trees Can Save the World and What We Can Do To Help.” I hope that’s a thought leadership piece. And then we put out a lot of videos, education, webinars, all kinds of stuff. This is a big part of what we want. We just want to get people excited about trees and about soil, because quite frankly, we need a hundred thousand solutions to heal the planet and trees and soil are absolutely on that list, and, you know, with my biased view of the world, I’d argue that trees and soil and ecosystems should be in the top 10 things we’re talking about.
I’m so happy to be in this forgotten backwater industry, because I think we’re just sitting on a freaking goldmine here of information that people have to hear, and I love all the discussion that’s happening. You know, Bill Gates’ new book that just came out, all of these are really amazing things, but I think we have something to contribute to that conversation. Which is, we’ve got to think about land development. We’ve got to think about how we treat our soils, how we treat our ecosystems, if we can do those things well, we stand a much better chance of keeping the planet in a hospitable state.
JM: Has anybody approached you within your industry from other parts of the country of the world saying, “I’d love to do this. I’m scared. How do I do this, what’s my first step?” Is there a blueprint for operational success for others in your industry?
BC: No, and not yet, but that is an area I want to get into eventually, because that’s the other thing we haven’t really gotten into much. But I’m in the tree service industry, which is couched in the green industry, nurseries, landscapers tree services, and honestly, we as an industry are dying. Nobody’s coming into these practices. Nobody graduates from college and wants to join the industry. It’s aging out, and it’s the biggest problem for everybody in the industry is what to do about labor. I think we’re sitting on a goldmine, which is why aren’t we the “Lorax” of the planet? Why aren’t we the caretakers of the planet?
I can imagine the amount of—if we could re-pivot our industry and do it without greenwashing, right, because greenwashing is going to ruin it for everybody who gives a damn, and we’re real in our approach, and we want to heal the planet. Like, for example, why does the landscaper have to care for grass? You could do the same maintenance models on the same revenue with meadow restoration and a meadow is going to provide so much more ecological benefit. It’s going to cost less money, no chemical input.
So, we have all these ways that we could really elevate these industries that we’re in and begin attracting young talent, who want to get their hands dirty caring for the planet. So, I do eventually want to get to that piece. I think that’s another way we can provide serious thought leadership, but that’s going to be a little way down the road.
JM: Would you be open to conversations with young entrepreneurs that might have started in it?
JM: If people reach out to you?
BC: A hundred percent.
JM: So, in thinking about the business of your business, then when you lopped off two thirds of your revenue—I have really a hard time getting over that, the amount of internal fortitude that it takes to do that. Even if the answer looks very obvious in front of you, it still takes a tremendous amount of strength to do that. So, I applaud that effort.
The replacement revenue that has allowed you to stabilize the company and now grow, remain profitable. One of the things we, again, we talk about on the show that was given to us in one of our very first episodes is “no mission without margin,” you’re running a company, you have to run a business. What area of the business took off right away when you replaced that revenue, how did you restructure your revenue to accommodate for the loss?
BC: Yeah, and I have to say something, when you repeated that back to me, I realized it’s two fifths not two thirds. I apologize, a little nervous here.
JM: That’s still huge.
BC: Yeah. Sorry about that. Two fifths, to be clear.
JM: Yeah. I can’t afford to give up two fifths of our revenue right now in my mind. So, you’ve got my wheels turning. [Laughing]
BC: The way we restructured is fortunately we were in a position where we knew all of the other services. So, for example when we had removals, we still had these other care services. So, we had already become proficient in these other things, and when we took the removal piece out, we amplified the marketing and the discussions for all these other services. Our marketing newsletters, our Instagram, social media interactions with our clients on a face-to-face basis, we just amplified everything, and we did not replace the loss immediately. And quite honestly, we still haven’t replaced the loss, but I am hopeful that this year we can reach the level we were at in 2019.
Maybe if not this year, definitely next year. So, we haven’t necessarily replaced it, but the one cool thing is it is actually more recurring revenue now than we used to have, because you can do pruning every so many years. Whereas had you cut the tree down, it’s gone completely.
JM: Right. You’ve changed the nature of the revenue stream as well. It might be better revenue and more compounding over time.
BC: Well, it is. Meaning it’s just better for the planet. It's better for everything. Yes. It’s better for the business and Yvon Chouinard said it best, “Doing good is good.” I know everybody mentions him on your podcast. So, I have to, he’s one of my heroes.
JM: How can you not?
BC: It’s just amazing, but doing good is good for business and it’s good for others and it’s good for the planet. You know, doing good is just, you often get these triple, quadruple wins that I just love.
JM: So, over the next year, putting your entrepreneur hat on, I imagine like most of us you’ve got kind of, not a checklist, but you have an order of priorities of the things that you would like to accomplish. Put the book aside for a second, because I know how that’s a personal thing and it’s a personal journey, and I feel like it’s one of those things that it’s never done, but you do hit publish at some point. For your business, what do you want to accomplish over the next year?
BC: Well, I want the Project Pando blueprint to gain serious traction. I think this is a solution we need. I follow closely along with the Trillion Tree Initiative and UN’s Billion Tree Initiative, and one of the biggest holes I see is how to operationalize those solutions. It’s really, you’ve got big money and big thoughts going into how to solve that, but I don’t know if that can be solved with money. I think it’s going to take a grassroots effort or maybe both. It doesn’t have to be an either or, it can be an and. And I think a grassroots effort with an open source blueprint that anybody can do anywhere and start creating your own pipeline of locally native species for your area is a really cool way to not only really open up the dial on a tree availability because we need about 40 billion trees in the ground quite frankly.
It’s also a way to get people engaged, which is the other piece of all of this. If we could get the U.S., particularly western culture, particularly the U.S. really engaged in this. Imagine how things change on planet earth with buy-in from the U.S.? So that, to me, I think Project Pando is a huge initiative.
Business-wise I do want to get us beyond where we were in 2019 in terms of revenue, and we’re still working on ironing out the kinks of our new business model there. It’s just going to take a while. So, I’d like to see sort of the business side really just humming along. And then up next in the coming year or two is we’re going to start expanding a little bit into ecological restoration, which is sort of getting out of the zone a little bit on trees, but they’re all related, right?
We started off this conversation by talking about how all these plants communicate with each other. So, we want to start reclaiming grass and turning that into native meadows. That’ll provide huge ecological benefits: beauty, health, less chemicals, less point source pollution from mowers. So, I think we’ll find ourselves getting into some new little fun avenues, like ecological restoration.
JM: So how can people get in touch with you if they have any questions about you know, along the way, how can they follow your journey with Pando?
BC: We have a couple of ways to get involved or follow along. There’s a newsletter sign up on the site and there’s also, on the website there’s a page just about Project Pando and there’s actually a different signup there. We have just that we have a special newsletter just for Project Pando, and of course we do Instagram, it’s our main social media at this point. Those are probably the best ways to follow along right there.
JM: Excellent. Is there anything else that we haven’t covered that you want to tell everybody before we go?
BC: I would just say, get out there and watch a tree or plant a tree, or find a plant that you like and get involved. It’s kind of crazy how they’ll transform your mind.
JM: Well, I love this. I love every aspect of the business model. I certainly admire your courage and your commitment to doing the right thing. I bet it is a great company to work for, and that you are just an absolute pleasure to be around, and I’m sure that that impacts everybody around you and your team. So, I wish you all the best and all the success, and hopefully we can check back in a little bit down the road to see how Pando is coming along.
BC: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate the opportunity.
JM: Basil, thanks for the time.
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