To work in an environment home only to “birds and climbing creatures” and gain a new perspective on his world: that’s a big part of why Ian Flatters – a man who says he couldn’t imagine having an “office job” – chose tree care as his profession.
Flatters’ hometown of Norwich, Norfolk, United Kingdom, sits in a unique, mostly rural landscape encompassing “an array of ecosystems” including woodlands, coastline, dunes and wetlands. It’s also a destination for second homes among London’s elite. Professional tree management in the area typically involves a lot of residential work, commercial site clearances for developments and managing larger trees that regularly pose unique challenges. Oftentimes, jobs involve some heavy rigging and restricted access, preventing cranes and large lorries getting close enough to work safely.
Shortly after someone handed Flatters a chainsaw for the first time, he decided to “plow head-on” into the tree care industry. He enrolled in college, learning about arboriculture and a number of years later completed his technician’s certificate allowing him to carry out consultancy. His first business step was to develop a plan to enter the business in ways that would not only provide a vital service, but also leave a lasting mark on the area he’s called home his entire life.
“I reached the end of my rope being an employee when I saw the progression I wanted wasn’t there. My only option was to go off on my own, so I did,” Flatters said. “I knew exactly where I wanted to be in 10 years, and we’ve largely stuck to that plan. Everything we do is planned. If you fail to plan, plan to fail.”
Now almost a decade later, the tree and pole climber has created a name for himself and Target Trees International by following that plan, making key adjustments along the way. He continues to follow it closely as he evolves his business, devoting a lot of energy along the way to helping the region thrive, from educating youth to supporting the local economy. He’s even written articles for a large magazine on SRT, rigging and the use of mini skid steers to extract material from challenging sites.
Business evolution through education
Education is important to Flatters. He knew a key early step in the plan to build his tree care business – that today is a “four-man band” – was to observe and learn from others in the industry, especially when it came to equipment. It put him on even footing with his competitors early on and made it possible to quickly evolve in ways that would help his business grow.
“We knew every arborist in our area was chipping at roughly the same capacity, so we went for the best chipper in the field,” said Flatters, who operates a Vermeer BC1000XL brush chipper. “Very quickly after that, I realized we had put ourselves in a position ahead of the competition in terms of the work we could do and how we could reinvest in our business.”
Alongside his Vermeer BC1000XL brush chipper, Flatters also employs a S650TX mini skid steer, a tool he’s found invaluable, especially in navigating tight spaces that are frequent challenges in area residential work. Mini skid steers aren’t as common in the UK as they are in the U.S., and though he was greeted with an array of reactions when he began operating his S650TX, the machine has helped him create new efficiencies that have enabled him to take on work that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible.
“The S650TX allowed us to get an edge on our competition. It’s great for moving material quickly and feeding the chipper,” Flatters said. “But, it’s also the right equipment. We don’t have a lot of equipment just sitting.”
Beyond his own education on equipment – a continuous effort that today includes an assessment of his company’s lineup every six months – Flatters pushes his employees to achieve industry certifications for proficiency and safety. That includes certification from the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) and mandatory chainsaw certification under Lantra Awards or the N.P.T.C. City & Guilds.
“It’s a good thing,” Flatters said of the industry certifications. “Yes, it costs a lot of money, but it’s worth it over time. It’s part of operating any professional business, making sure everyone is trained and keeping that education up-to-date. Many mistakes can be avoided through courses where the focus is knowledge, not getting the job done quickly.”
Caring for customers and employees alike
Whether it’s his employees or the customers he serves, good people are important to Flatters. Building the right customer base was a major step early in his plan to build his business. Though he relies on residential customers for the vast majority of his work, securing a commercial customer early on helped him grow his business in ways he wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.
“We were very lucky to start managing a National Health Service (SERCO) contract that has grown bigger over time, giving us the ability to travel further if required,” he said. “That has opened us up to different, bigger and more challenging work, and we have developed the advantage of the knowledge of how to work with both the consumer, public and commercial clientele.”
Training and paying attention to his workers’ wellness are ongoing priorities for Flatters, for multiple reasons. He works with a fairly small crew – either four or five individuals, including himself – and that means any illness can quickly bring productivity to a halt. He takes this part of his job very seriously.
“We provide training to teach how to work ergonomically and correctly. We also pay for our people to have sports massages every month. Tree work can inflict a lot of damage on the human body, and recovering from illnesses can throw a huge wrench in our work, so we’re very proactive about managing our workforce,” Flatters said. “At the end of the day, you’re the boss and your workforce is helping your productivity. They have to expect you’re going to look after them, treat them right and not run them into the ground. Most people don’t leave a job because of the job. They leave because of the boss.”
He’s also closely attuned to his employees because of his own experiences. Flatters lives by the motto “Your beliefs don’t make you a better person, however your attitude does.” Today, he uses a combination of his own work experience and the right attitude to make those around him better, whether on or off the jobsite.
“I get a nice fulfillment out of trying to be a decent role model. I have had great guidance in my family life, but some of the worst guidance in my career. I never want to be like the bosses I had who wanted a three-day job done in one,” Flatters said. “I’m not saying people like that are terrible, they have different goals than me, but I have always wanted to be a better person treating people fairly.”
A local focus
For Flatters, part of being a role model has nothing to do with the specific work of the arborist. Supporting the local area, be it through buying locally or supporting the school system, is important to the young arborist, and it’s always been part of his plan. He recognizes the importance of a vibrant local community not just to his business, but the future for everyone who calls the Norfolk area home.
“I compete in pole climbing, but also go out and help youngsters learn how to climb trees. They are the future, after all. I’ve even visited the local college and demonstrated the more advanced climbing techniques that many of the students will progress into over the next few years. Yes, they’ll become my competition in the end, but it’s the right thing to do,” Flatters said. “It’s very easy to buy stuff from elsewhere, but that doesn’t benefit anyone here when you do. We have always thought if we can buy things like chainsaws, gloves and business cards locally, we are supporting the local economy. At the end of the day, the people working and living here are the ones that are most important. They could also be your future clients.”
This local emphasis has been part of Flatters’ plan since day one, and moving into the future, he will work to adapt that plan to both become a better tree care professional and continue to support his community and local economy.
“Normally, the simplest, most logical route to success is the right one,” Flatters said.
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