If there’s just one lesson you take away from Phil Lopez’s story, it’s this: Hard work works.
Hard work is what’s allowed his company, Arboles Tree Trimming Inc., to win over marquee clients like the U.S. Postal Service, the Kansas City Chiefs and others across a six-state region. Hard work also helped Lopez and his team overcome a series of challenges that almost closed the company.
Over the past two years, Arboles—the KC Hispanic Chamber’s 2015 Hispanic Business of the Year—has experienced a surge in growth. Whether the work involves routine trimming, clearing large stretches of land or responding after a severe storm levels the massive oak in your back yard,
clients trust Arboles to do the tough jobs right.
“I like it,” Lopez said. “I’ve always liked doing hard work.”
Case in point, Arboles was competing for a massive project a few years ago: A client needed to have 4,000 trees removed.
Most of the other tree companies submitted their bids after making a quick survey of the property with Google Earth. Lopez was the only one to actually walk the property.
And so he was the only one to notice that many of the trees were walnut, which he could salvage and sell for a very nice return.
The other guys asked for upwards of $100,000 for their services. Lopez bid about $5,000, got the job—and earned exponentially more selling the wood.
Arboles’ crews roam all over, but home base is a lot in the Turner area of Kansas City, Kansas, just south of Kansas Avenue. Lopez modified an old shipping container that he uses as an office.
The company got its start back in 2006, when Lopez was working as an electrical lineman, picking up tree-trimming jobs in his spare time.
Like a lot of entrepreneurs, Lopez had always wanted to own his own business—but he wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to do.
Growing up, he was close friends with the Nigro family, the operators of the long-running Nigro’s Western Store.
“Grandpa Nigro always told me if you want to go into business, get into something that’s in demand—that’s always in demand,” Lopez said.
“So I started doing a little tree trimming at a time.”
He didn’t have a ton of resources back then—just his F-350 pickup and a 20-foot trailer, which he borrowed until he could put together the $700
to buy it outright.
Lopez ordered some plain-Jane business cards and left them at a neighborhood café, in the Argentine library, at a friend’s gym in Parkville. He placed an ad in the Star, followed by some Craigslist posts that generated a lot of business.
Lopez’s first client was a woman going to school to become a massage therapist. He removed a big tree from her property for $600, but because she was a student, she only had enough cash to make installment payments—$250 at first, then $100 the next week, and so on.
“Every week, she’d call me and say, ‘OK, I’ve got a check for you,’” he said.
But more customers came calling because Lopez made a point of delivering superb service. Arboles’ cleanup is always top-notch, and if Lopez notices a client needs a little extra beyond the original scope of work, he won’t charge them. His team will just do it. His chipper can eat a 20-inch log—throwing a pile of brush into it isn’t a huge ask.
“I don’t like nickel-and-diming people,” he said. “And I don’t like being nickel-and-dimed.”
It isn’t only a question of being a good guy.
“It’s the work that we do, that’s what sells the next job,” Lopez said. “Anytime you do a phenomenal job for anybody, they’re going
to tell five people. You do a horrible job, and they’re going to tell 200 people.”
Through it all, though, Lopez has never wanted for work, not even during the financial crisis.
“That didn’t faze me. At all,” he said. “Because I’m in demand. There’s always storms. There’s always trees that need to be trimmed.”
A few years ago, Arboles started picking up more commercial and government business from clients like Roeland Park and the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas.
The railroads are a strong source of work. So are local utilities—Lopez and his team recently wrapped up a job where they removed several trees to make way for a big new sewer line.
Today, commercial and government projects account for about 80 percent of Arboles’ business.
Arboles still serves residential customers, including those who need help after bad weather, but Lopez likes the commercial and government jobs because they’re a little more predictable.
But the growth presented a problem, too. To keep up with demand, Lopez decided to make a major investment in equipment a few years ago.
“Things got tight for me where I made some mistakes by jumping the gun and spending a lot of capital for equipment,” he said.
And naturally, that’s when one client declared bankruptcy—without paying $50,000 owed to Arboles.
That was a tough time. Lopez fell six to seven months behind on his mortgage and nearly lost his house.
“A lot of guys probably would’ve just turned up and said, ‘I’m out,’” he recalled. “But I stuck it out, stuck it out, stuck it out. Shoot, I worked—I did some serious long, long days.”
When his equipment broke, he didn’t have the money to pay for repairs. So he’d go to the junkyard to find replacement parts and make the fixes himself.
He drew inspiration from his grandfather, a Mexican immigrant who served in World War II, and his dad, a Navy veteran who became a KCK police officer. They never gave up, so neither would he.
It took time, but eventually, Lopez’s hard work put Arboles back onto solid ground.
“I got back on top and overcame it and learned—you can do it,” he said.
The experience also taught him the importance of stockpiling cash for tough times.
“All my deposits that go in every day, every other day, whatever, 15 percent off the top goes into a savings account,” he said. “And that’s my line of credit.”
He knows there’ll be other rough spots—they’re inevitable. But he’s got justified reason for optimism.
“I’m on the other side of the worst part of the growing pains,” Lopez said. “I know there’s more growing pains ahead of me. But I think I’m past a lot of the real hard stuff.”
In the past year and a half, Arboles has gone on a hiring spree, increasing from five or six employees to 22—enough for four teams that can tackle projects across a larger area.
Not all of the new help is in the field.
“I’ve got a really, really good guy running the show for me,” Lopez said. “And I have two admins, and then I also have an accounting service working for me now, too. So I can kind of just relax a little bit.”
That gives him a little more time for the things he enjoys, like hunting and fishing. He used to do rodeo when he was younger, and he’d like to get back into that.
“But there are still times, I mean, I’ll work all through the night—36 hours, 48 hours straight—because something’s broke,” Lopez said.
Arboles has the money now to pay for repair work. When Lopez gets pressed into duty as a mechanic these days, it’s because his team needs a broken piece of machinery back into the field ASAP.
Typically, he spends more of time in meeting with clients, pursuing new business, but he also keeps his climbing gear in his truck in case he’s ever needed on a jobsite.
“Every now and then, if I have to, I’ll just throw it on and run up a tree real fast, get things moving,” he said.
As a result, he has walked into more than a few meetings with a little sawdust on his shoulders. “Sorry,” he’ll tell people, “I just got out of a tree.”
So where does Lopez want to take Arboles next?
He tells a story about how, last year, the Powerball jackpot climbed to $1.6 billion.
“I said if I won that, I would buy every major tree service I could. I’d buy them all,” he said.
His friends and family didn’t believe him. “And everybody was like, why, when you could just go retire?”
He enjoys the work too much to just give it up. And in a few years, he can picture a larger Arboles, one with a team of regional managers covering a much larger geography.
“And one day,” Lopez said, “if I can get there, I will.”
ENTREPRENEUR // Phil Lopez
COMPANY INFORMATION // Arboles Tree Trimming
5530 Inland Drive, Kansas City, KS 66106 | (913) 207-9303 | www.arbolestt.com
TYPE OF BUSINESS // Full-service tree trimming and removal
YEAR FOUNDED // 2006
EMPLOYEES // 22
KEYS TO SUCCESS // “I’ve always liked doing hard work.”