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By Michael B. Weidner, CEO, ACRT Services
“Where did all the years go?” I ask myself this question all the time. The 25-year journey has gone by in the blink of an eye — where did it begin?
I was 36 years old and had a great career path as a horticulturist, a nurseryman, and an arborist with a large well-established tree care company. I had been working there full- and part-time for almost 18 years with lots of sales and management responsibilities and lots of potential for moving up in the company. My life was headed in a very precise and calculated direction until July 1998. My stepfather, Richard Abbott, and my mom, Sue Abbott, had started this little consulting firm in Kent, Ohio in 1985. They had continually asked me to come work for the company since I graduated from college that same year. I had always thought of myself as more of a “hands-on” sort of person and not someone who collected data or taught arborist skills. I liked getting dirty and working with my hands, so I went to work in my chosen field, horticulture. Time passed and Mom and Dick’s company grew to about 100 employees. We would talk about “their” business all the time and I was intrigued by the type of services they offered and the ideas they had for the future.
On a lazy Sunday afternoon in early May 1998, Mom and Dick (they did everything together) asked me again if I wanted to come to work for them, but this time it was a different ask. They said they wanted to retire and were looking to sell the company or make it an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP). They asked if I would help them retire, and after much consideration, I agreed. On Aug. 2, 1998, I took a huge chance on a small, marginally profitable, and stagnant sales company called ACRT, Inc. I was asked to come in as the director of project development (salesman) for the seven western states. This meant I would have to sell my home, take my family out of their comfort zone, and move to California. It was not easy; it meant that I would be on the road selling ACRT’s services 40-plus weeks a year. It was the most difficult time of my adult life; the learning curve was steep, and the company was cash-strapped which became worse as ACRT became a 30% ESOP in September 1998.
Over the next 24 months, I was continually requested to take on more responsibility and to get the company to grow revenue and improve margins. In 1999, I became vice president and general manager of ACRT (West). We had gained a new bid with Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) that doubled the size of the company in both employees and revenue. That same year, Mom and Dick asked me to move back to Ohio to assume the role of company president and chief operations officer. I was added to the ACRT Board of Directors that same year. Nothing was easy, the company needed to change in very real and substantive ways. In 2001, I closed several unprofitable departments including urban forestry and environmental services so we could focus on the two remaining departments that showed both revenue growth and reasonable profitability: arborist training and utility services. Because we could primarily focus on improving margin, we were able to pay off the first part of the five-year ESOP loan in 2003. Paying our ESOP debt was just the first step. We now had to secure a loan for the remaining 70% of the Abbott’s stock to become a 100% ESOP. Our bank did not want to take the risk of the second ESOP loan, so we spent months interviewing other banks to be our banking partner. Guarantees had to be given and ACRT became a heavily leveraged ESOP in late 2003.
Our new banking partners and I had many conditions before the final buyout loan could be completed. I needed a board of directors with nonemployee “independent” directors from other companies to help us grow, prosper, and meet all the challenges of becoming a larger corporation. The bank insisted that we rewrite our corporate governance documents and update our ESOP documents. The company was required to document our corporate structure and all our corporate policies. This took months of mind-numbing detailed work with lots of legal scrutiny. Finally, we were able to secure the bank loan and a personal note (loan) from the Abbotts for the last $1 million of the buyout. We wrote checks to the Abbotts for their shares and the transaction was complete. Dick was named to our board as chairman, as long as we owed the Abbotts money. I was elected president and chief executive officer by the newly elected board of directors. I was given the unenviable task of making “all of this ESOP stuff” work properly while making the company more profitable. I added team members in all facets of the company, took odious amounts of college courses to learn the diverse skills needed, and worked with lots of consultants to ensure we built the company correctly. Failures were often met with more or new team members, more classes, and different consultants. The company was always building on successes and learning from these failures. We have added companies to our family, with Bermex, StrategiTech, and EnviroScience being key parts of our growth. Our share value has seen an 18% compounded annual growth rate since 1998 and we have more than 1,500 team members nationwide.
I did not accomplish any of this on my own, it was truly a team effort. We have been continually blessed with very smart, dedicated, and conscientious team members at every level of the organization. Some of you have stayed and made this company your career. Others were asked to leave or made the tough choice to move to other careers. It was the dedication of so many to the idea of ACRT that lead us to where we are today. My tenure as a leader has seen many successes and many failures. I own every failure we have experienced; these failures created opportunities to learn and become better. Conversely, I give all credit for our success to each of you, for being part of our family of companies. For coming to your job with the best of intentions, with safety as your guardrail, and team success as your goal.
I am much closer to the end of my career than the beginning, Dick Abbott has passed, and Mom often talks about the early days and the adventures they had. She often says how proud she is of what “their” company has become, an employee-owned, respectable, growing, and profitable place that people can be part of and make their own. My life turned out to be very different than what I had planned those 25 years ago. My children are grown and have moved on; two work within our family of companies. I am recently remarried and am living my best life with my best friend, Diane. As I move through my final chapters with ACRT Services, I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of this team. I am especially blessed to have known so many wonderful people who made it their personal goal to build this great company.
My most heartfelt thanks to the memory of Dick Abbott for his vision and support in the early years of the company. I continually thank my mom for being the calming influence between the generations during the extremely stressful times of becoming an ESOP. I want to thank each of you for making this journey possible. May the next 25 years be a time of plenty for each of you professionally and personally. I hope that you seize each opportunity to learn so that you may find many successes you never envisioned.
ACRT Services family of companies — A Great Place to Be and The Greatest Time to Be Here!
ACRT Services offers expert independent consulting solutions to utilities and associated organizations throughout the United States, including vegetation management consulting, ecological consulting, arborist training, customized safety courses, technology solutions, utility metering services, and more to empower the best people in the industry.