Indigenous Tree Care: Service with Meaning

Category: Indigenous business Success stories

Family Tree Services is a family owned and operated arborist service company out of Calgary, Alberta. Brothers James Brittain and Andrew Laird have been in business for five years working in an industry that they are truly passionate about. Family Tree Services offers all aspects of caring for, maintaining, and removing trees in and around the Calgary area.

Planting the Seeds of Business

James Brittain’s love for tree care began in 2008. He was 17 at the time and worked for a couple of large tree care companies. James learned extensive information and gained very valuable experience working alongside some really great people, but also learned a lot from a few not-so-great people. After two years of being an employee, James decided that he wanted to start his own company. He obtained his own equipment along the way and eventually secured his business license and a truck and trailer. He was ready to start his venture, but one piece was missing: his brother, Andrew. James asked Andrew if he would be a business partner and James was adamant that Andrew would not be working for him, but working with and alongside him—and there is a huge difference in being an employee versus a partner in a business. Now, Andrew is following in the footsteps of his brother, literally learning the ropes from James, including obtaining his own equipment, all in a combined effort to build a successful family-owned business.

“I wanted to give Andrew an opportunity because no one in our family has ever been in a position to give someone an opportunity, and I knew that Andrew would not take that lightly.”

Watering the Roots of Business

While working for larger companies, James experienced many hardships. He recalls climbing dangerous trees on a daily basis, risking and sometimes almost losing his life, all while doing an excellent job. He felt that his hard work was never recognized, and he believes he was regarded not as an individual, but rather an employee number.

James recounts two separate horrible realities while working, both resulting directly from racist and prejudicial beliefs of his employers and superiors. James was singled out, disrespected, and denied acknowledgement or praise for his hard work by a senior staff person at one of his positions. At another, the owner of the company was extremely uneducated in regards to First Nations peoples:

“He would swear at me when he was writing my paycheques, claiming that I was taking from the government, and I should be in school because it’s ‘free’ for me. I shouldn’t be out here working, I instead should be using all of the things that the government is offering me.”

It is frequently difficult for First Nations individuals working in any industry as an employee. First Nations peoples must battle a wide-spread, inaccurate belief held by many non-Indigenous Canadians: there is a huge misconception regarding supposed universal benefits offered to First Nations peoples.

Regardless of the difficult times James encountered as an employee, he turned all those negatives into positives. James consistently watched and absorbed all of the information and experience he was exposed to and applied all of it to his own business.

Windy Weather for Small Sprouts

One of the biggest challenges for James and Andrew during the early days of business was confidence in building customer relationships: they needed to grow the self-assurance to approach potential customers and let them know what care their trees needed. Because Family Tree Services is a service-based business, the relationship with the customer is the ultimate revenue generator. There can be thousands of trees that are in need of service, but without the establishment of trusted customer relationships, opportunities for new work will not present themselves easily. Family Tree Services now possesses the confidence to easily market themselves and secure contracts.

James recalls that despite being young and motivated and equipped with skills and a strong desire, building a successful business was challenging. He did not know anything about building or running a business; concepts such as legalities, licenses, regulations, insurance, etc. were components of the business that he learned along the way, and is continuing to learn as he goes. It was the determination to be his own boss and to work in an industry he loved that was the driving force of starting up.

Fertilizing the Sapling

James and Andrew praise Business Link’s Indigenous Services for the support and guidance they have received. The brothers insist that without Business Link, they would not have known where to turn for direction, and without the services, they would have had to look into registering in a business program or hiring a business development company, both of which they cannot afford to do. As Family Tree Services expanded their work and client base, they noticed how rapidly they were growing, and did get a little scared about not having business expertise. So, they sought out the services of Business Link. Alberta Indian Investment Corporation (AIIC) has also been a great resource for James. He attended the 2017 Indigenous Youth Entrepreneur Camp in Jasper, Alberta, which is a week-long camp focusing entirely on building entrepreneurs by providing small business resources, tools, experts, and workshops.

Encouraging Growth

James relates that if you are going to go into business, you have to be extremely driven; you have to care deeply about what you are doing because you are not going to be doing it for a short time. You have to be ready to do it for the rest of your life. You have to be the kind of person that gets up and makes their bed every day and be fully ready to take on the universe.

Maintaining Cultural Traditions

A First Nations elder approached James at the AIIC Entrepreneur camp, and gifted James with the proper protocol of prayer when cutting trees. James recounts that he always had said a prayer internally before he learned the proper way, but has now made the complete conscious effort to make this process a priority in his work and has taught Andrew how to do so as well.

“You will see us in the yards each pruning our own tree, but we will be talking to the tree, saying a prayer… We thank the tree for spending its life there and tell the tree that its life and journey doesn’t end there because everything we take from that tree, we bring to the compost yard where it’s mulched, and then spread into all of the other living, growing tree beds in the city. Their energy is sent and spread everywhere else, so the new generation of trees can grow. And it feels like the tree knows that.”

Pruning the Branches of Business

James is trying to change the way that homeowners view tree care. Large tree companies have many employees, expensive vehicles, and equipment, which results in costly arborist services. James and Andrew keep their overhead low; there are only two employees of the company, one truck, one trailer, and their own equipment in order to offer the most competitive prices for arborist services, while providing the best quality, a great customer relationship, and a meaningful experience, both culturally and economically. Because James and Andrew offer fair and honest prices, a homeowner can invest in tree care every few years, as is needed. Family Tree Services offers free assessments on your trees. Give them a call today and support Indigenous entrepreneurship.

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Ready to take your next step towards starting your business?

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About the Author

Holly Atjecoutay

Business Link

Holly is Cree and Saulteaux from Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan. She assists Indigenous entrepreneurs in central and southern Alberta regarding the startup and expansion of their small businesses. She connects them to helpful resources while also providing guidance. She also facilitates workshops and builds meaningful relationships in both rural and urban Indigenous communities. Holly holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English, so it is no surprise that in her spare time she enjoys reading, writing, and collecting books, and also authors a blog on the Indigenous Woman’s Identity. Holly believes the art of storytelling and communication is one of the key factors in building a strong business.

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