Josh Pritchard has built Hampshire-based tree surgeons GroundLord from a one-man-band to a 10-strong team and he puts it all down to taking a hard look at every aspect of the business and making it the best it can be.

HOW does anybody progress from being a run-of-the-mill, one-man-band tree surgeon to having a well-run, profitable company with multiple teams out working each day?

For Josh Pritchard, then in his twenties, the answer was simple – take a hard look at every aspect of what you do and make sure each of them are the best they can be, including what work you do, how you do it and what you charge.

Forestry Journal: Josh Pritchard.Josh Pritchard.

Initially, Josh set up as a tree surgeon with a friend, a truck and a chipper advertising locally in magazines and using social media to source work, usually domestic. One of his first large-scale domestic jobs came via a local landowner whose estate needed a substantial amount of work. He recalled: “It was a month’s work taking out 500 trees using two huge excavators that we hired in.”

Then came the day when the firm needed a name.

Josh said: “It took a while – several Fridays in the pub brainstorming – until we came up with GroundLord, hoping it would sound good and help us get the jobs we wanted. It was hard work – but I’m sure it was worth it. It just made us stand out a bit.”

From thereon, through generating a good reputation for carrying out quality work, the business grew organically, gaining more and more high-end domestic clients and also some commercial projects. What also helped was the use of Instagram to get jobs.

Forestry Journal: Initially, Josh set up as a tree surgeon with a friend, a truck and a chipper.Initially, Josh set up as a tree surgeon with a friend, a truck and a chipper.

He explained: “People could see by the photos and videos we were posting here that we could tackle big jobs and that brought in others like it.”

What Josh really wanted to do, in addition to the domestic work, was get into large-scale site clearance work, forestry contracting and utility arb work. To do so would be quite a jump for the business, administratively and procedurally, and would involve the company running multiple teams each day.

Josh got the advice of an expert, Paul Elcoat of Elcoat Ltd, on how to take the company to the next level. He recalled: “It meant a massive change for us. At the time, it was expensive – investing thousands, rather than hundreds – but spread that over the life of the firm and it’s peanuts per year. And in that time you’ll end up earning thousands more each year. It was the best investment we ever made. We certainly got our money back.”

Forestry Journal: One of the GroundLord team hard at work.One of the GroundLord team hard at work.

Among other changes, he recalled, was learning how to take on larger and larger projects and dealing with the Health and Safety and procedural requirements, making sure the back office was as slick as the guys on the ground. He even altered the way the yard was laid out.

Nowadays the firm has a staff of ten, including two apprentices, and works in teams of either two or three. Clients include local estates, developers and builders, councils, property management companies and insurance companies. In addition, the company carries out work clearing around power lines for Josh’s previous employers – a local electricity firm.

Josh said: “That work’s as varied as could be. You could be cutting on a farm or in a town centre or right around a power station that’s on the national grid.”

He added: “The best job for us is a large-scale site and vegetation clearance. I love it when we have to clear vast numbers of trees and vegetation from a site using our machinery.”

But the favourite job by a long way is a complicated takedown of a huge tree – like a recent one involving a tree with a river on one side and a canal on the other. Josh said: “It had to be done really safely due to the surroundings of the tree and I love problems like that, figuring out how we are going to get it right and get it done safely and what machinery the job needs – for this one we used a crane. On one job recently we used an adapted Unimog and it’s exciting trying to work out a solution and seeing it finishing the job quicker than you ever thought possible, even when there are 10 tonnes of trees involved. We also used a mini skid steer, which works brilliantly.”

Forestry Journal: Josh’s favourite jobs are large-scale take downs of huge trees.Josh’s favourite jobs are large-scale take downs of huge trees.

He explained: “We got that because it allows us to be very efficient on jobs where there’s a load of timber, which, if we tried to load up any other way to remove it from site, it would take us all day.”

He added: “As we’ve grown we’ve increased manpower but it’s really been the investment in our machinery that’s allowed us to grow as much as we have and tackle the large jobs we’ve been able to.”

The idea for using the skid-steer came via social media, which demonstrated how useful the device was and it was particularly recommended by users in America and Sweden.

Josh said: “I studied it really hard and realised how useful it could be. Until then I’d never even heard of it and it certainly wasn’t used by anyone round here, but looking at social media you could see it in action and get to know just how to make the best of it. We wouldn’t be without it now.”

Another example of this is the recent addition to the company’s machinery fleet of the LV800 robotic mulcher, which is the first in the UK. “Again, this was something I saw in action on social media and then demoed a few,” Josh said. “This is something that’s going to allow us to grow the business even more because the amount of vegetation it can clear in a short space of time is amazing.”

Forestry Journal: Josh uses a digger to assist in dismantling a tree.Josh uses a digger to assist in dismantling a tree.

Aside from machinery, with the current concerns for ecology, the firm always has an ecologist on site when needed, such as in respect of nesting birds or newts. It’s another addition to the firm’s concern for the environment which includes using bio oil and what Josh calls “nappies”, strips of porous material that suck up any spilled oil and stop any spillage leaking into a river. He said: “It’s mostly on commercial sites but it quite often gets us the job even though it makes it more expensive for the client, but they seem happy to pay another thousand in order to work round their own ecological concerns.”

But life’s not all success. Josh’s pet hate is people who plead sickness just to get a day off.

He explained: “I don’t have sick days – I just want to get on with it, but we had one chap who was sick every Monday and I just couldn’t stand that. Then again we’ve got someone who’s buying into the firm and he’s worked with us for four years and been with us from the beginning and only once in that time has he been sick and then I just told him to go home.

“Luckily we’ve now got a good set of guys so hopefully we might have seen the last of that problem, because that’s what it is if someone is off sick unnecessarily and you have to reorganise a team and their job.”

Meanwhile, there’s the perennial problem of what to charge.

Josh said: “I know a lot of tree surgeons are always trying to cut their prices to get more work, but we actually took the opposite tack. When we had a hard look at our costs in comparison to what we were charging, we found that we weren’t earning enough to keep our kit and the wages up. So we increased our prices – it was daunting at first, but our levels of work actually increased.

“It’s really simple – we have to charge to cover our costs but also allow us to grow and get new kit as it’s important to keep our kit up-to-date to provide the service we do. It makes business sense and from now on we’re sticking to it.”