Wachtel Tree Science new owners

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New owners of Wachtel Tree Science rebuild firm’s stature
Back in the 1940s and 1950s, having a Wachtel Tree Science and Service truck in your driveway was seen as a status symbol.
The firm’s neatly uniformed arborists took a scientific approach to their work – an approach that garnered them respect in the industry. At a time when their competitors were just topping trees, Larry Wachtel was more interested in what was going on inside the tree. Wachtel was more interested in establishing a business based on tree maintenance rather than simply reacting to tree damage.
But it often seemed that clients were just as happy to pay to have a Wachtel truck parked on their lots as they were to pay for tree care.
While the business founded in 1935 lived on, some of the luster wore off through the years. After Larry Wachtel’s departure many lucrative accounts were lost.
Today, two new owners are working hard to rebuild the firm’s reputation and client base.
“We bought a challenge,” admits Paul Markworth, president and co-owner of the Menomonee Falls firm.
Markworth and Dave Scharfenberger, his business partner, had worked together at Associated American Landscape Services and witnessed the situation at Wachtel.
Wachtel had gone through some ownership changes; the most recent owner was working to rebuild the firm. But Markworth and Scharfenberger saw greater opportunity.
“I told them that if they ever wanted to sell, come talk to me,” Markworth recalls. Six months later, in March of 1994, the duo bought the firm.
“We knew it still had good name recognition,” Scharfenberger says. By applying some business practices and improving marketing, the new owners felt they could build on that recognition to restore Wachtel’s position.
“A large part of the turnaround would be business organization and the focusing of employees,” Scharfenberger added, noting that not long after they had purchased the firm, they learned that a number of ex-employees came back upon learning of the business sale.
Their five-year plan for the business included goals of increased sales and replacement of all equipment. “We weren’t used to hearing comments such as ‘I just broke the last rake,'” Markworth added.
The employees wouldn’t have to worry about such situations for long. Markworth and Scharfenberger hit their five-year goal in 3-1/2 years.
The firm’s 1997 revenues were twice what they were when Markworth and Scharfenberger bought Wachtel – even though the staff size is virtually the same. And the company is on track for this year’s revenues to be 65% greater than 1993’s.
How’d they do it? Using the experience they gained at previous jobs, the duo engaged in a multi-front approach.
They garnered respect and enthusiasm from employees by giving them the tools they needed to do their jobs.
They instituted more organized and computerized business practices.
They committed the firm to a regular marketing campaign that would keep its name in front of regular clients and put it in front of potential clients.
And they personally visited clients.
But Scharfenberger believes empowering the staff has been the primary key to success. “We knew there was a capable staff, they just needed to be given the tools to allow them to do their jobs,” he says. “It’s really about working with and for your people.”
Along with the focus on the staff, the firm computerized its operations, including records of past and present clients. It is now easily able to regularly mail out marketing pieces, including its newsletter: “The Plant Doctor’s Seasonal Report.” That four-page newsletter goes to about 5,000 people three times a year, offering advice on seasonal tree care.
“It’s obviously a marketing tool, but it’s also an educational tool,” Scharfenberger says. “We knew if we had a clientele educated about trees, they’d be more apt to use our services.”
The firm’s staff of 13 includes 10 arborists – eight of whom are certified and seven of whom have degrees. No other firm in the state has as many certified arborists on staff, Scharfenberger says – a position that speaks to the company’s scientific focus on tree care. Along with its residential client base, which is concentrated in the Milwaukee suburbs of Wauwatosa and Whitefish Bay, Wachtel has business and municipal clients.
While the Yellow Pages listing for “tree service” is rather extensive, Markworth and Scharfenberger see their main competitor as Buckley Tree Service, a Waukesha-based firm which they admit lured away a number of Wachtel clients prior to the Markworth/Scharfenberger ownership.
Wachtel sets itself apart from its competitors on its approach to its work, just like the golden days of yesteryear.
“We’re more interested in finding out what the problem might be with a tree rather than just going ahead and spraying trees on a property four to five times a year,” Scharfenberger says. “It’s a little more work, but it’s worth it to work with nature in dealing with tree problems.”
C.L. “Larry” Wachtel died in 1996. But he left a legacy that Markworth and Scharfenberger hope to carry on. The company has an extensive history collection, consisting of stacks of articles written by Larry Wachtel, insect samples, slide/talk shows, and photographs. “What becomes overwhelmingly obvious in reviewing these is Mr. Wachtel’s attention to detail, desire to educate, and his love of trees,” Scharfenberger wrote in the company newsletter after Wachtel’s death. “Larry Wachtel set the standard in the tree-care industry as a gentleman and a professional that we are all still working hard to sustain.”
July 1998 Small Business Times Milwaukee

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