Starting a business is risky. For Chris O’Bryan and Cory Petry, both 37, owners of Limbwalker Tree Service, it was riskier. “Tree work is one of the most dangerous professions,” O’Bryan says. “If you don’t know someone who’s died, you know someone who knows someone who’s died doing this work.” According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the farming, fishing and forestry occupation group (which includes the guys at Limbwalker) had the highest fatal work injury rate, 23.3 per 100,000 full-time workers, in 2012.
O’Bryan’s interest in trees was sparked while taking Forestry 101 at the University of Kentucky. “I loved working with trees and wanted to learn everything about them,” he says. “I happened to be good at climbing, so I put more energy into that. Petry, O’Bryan’s college roommate, majored in sociology but later became a certified arborist. In 2004, after working for other tree-care companies, they set out on their own.
As the name Limbwalker suggests, the arborists take pride in their tree-climbing skills. (Petry has won the last three Kentucky Tree Climbing Championships.) They actually climb into the branches during pruning and removal. Tree health is the most important thing for O’Bryan and Petry. Cabling and bracing, which involve installing support hardware, ensure that trees with weak spots don’t split apart. They also take measures to protect trees from threats like lightning and construction projects. To avoid spreading diseases like Dutch Elm, they disinfect saws between pruning different trees.
“The first year was rough,” says Petry of getting the business off the ground, so to speak. “It was just the two of us. We had an old truck and a beat-up chipper.” O’Bryan says about workdays during the early years, “A typical day for me, I would wake up at 7 in the morning. We both lived in Germantown, and I would walk over to Cory’s house. The office was his kitchen. We would eat breakfast and have coffee together and go through the jobs for the day. Then we’d get in the truck, go to work, come home at probably like 5 or 6; then we’d go back to the kitchen and check the answering machine, call those people back, go out and run estimates until about 9 at night.”
What started with two guys, one pickup truck, one chipper truck and about 200 clients has grown to 23 employees, more than 20 vehicles and some 2,000 clients. Limbwalkers’ operations have moved from Petry’s kitchen to a warehouse and office space west of downtown. O’Bryan and Petry say they work about 40 to 50 hours a week now, but most of that is on the ground managing the business instead of up in trees. They both practice yoga to manage the stress of running a company.
Petry says that the most rewarding part for him is having a “calling” and not just a job. “The fact that not many people have the nerve to work at height in trees accentuates the feeling of tree care being a calling that only a few people can answer,” he says.
Photo Courtesy Mickie Winters