Formed in 1974 by two men and with taxi for their tools, Gristwood & Toms has quietly grown to become one of the largest specialist arboriculture companies in Europe. Now with a redesigned logo, livery and website, it aims to stand out above the canopy. "We have generally kept our heads down," admits director and co-founder Dave Gristwood.
For most companies specialising in public-sector work, these are anxious times. But with local authorities and other green space managers under a legal obligation to maintain safe and healthy tree populations, the two are not unduly worried.
"A lot of capital projects will stop," says fellow founder Andy Toms, who looks after winning new work and oversees existing contracts for the company. "But the tree budget with most local authorities is miniscule, so a 10 per cent cut will save them next to nothing compared to something like education."
Of greater concern to the two is the sheer palaver of bidding for public sector work. "There's no discrimination - even for a £60,000 contract, there's a huge amount of hoop-jumping in the procurement process," says Toms.
"In a way it's great for us - we have three people working on this full-time and send back huge documents. It makes it hard for smaller companies to get a foothold though. They ask ludicrous questions even with the PQQ (pre-qualification questions) that comes with the invitation to tender - it's very onerous."
Gristwood adds: "We had never heard of a procurement department until five years ago. There are questions on contingency plans and security policy that even we need outside help on. But once we win work, we tend to keep hold of it. We have looked after Hertsmere's trees for 30 years."
Indeed, the company is looking to expand in order to service future contract wins. It plans to open a regional base in Devon and is even eying up Ireland. "It wouldn't be worth it for an £80,000 contract," says Gristwood. "But we will put in a new base to cope with larger jobs."
However, the company is no shoo-in when tenders come up, he says. "We don't cut corners - health and safety is the top priority. But doing it all properly costs a fortune and we have lost out to others that put in the cheapest bid rather than the best. Bidders will price at 20 per cent under cost, hoping to make up the difference by picking up other public and domestic work in the same area."
Toms adds: "We don't shirk on training and systems." With a suite of certifications - 9001, 14001 and 18001 - as well as being Arboricultural Association-approved contractors, the company can get through most "hoops".
However, not all the £50m of work on the company's books consists of tree maintenance. It has also found a niche in helping local authorities plant the trees of tomorrow. With London mayor Boris Johnson providing around £1m to boost the capital's tree stock, the company has planted more than 1,000 of the intended 10,000 new street trees for 2012.
According to Toms: "We will put in the tree-planting application direct to the mayor's office on behalf of the London boroughs, we conduct the public consultation and will even find the sites." Planting work in three boroughs has already netted the company more than £250,000. "It's work we have chased," says Toms. "It has gone through the roof in the past couple of years and helps offset the loss of capital projects."
And such work can be quite routine, he adds. "A local authority that finds itself with surplus cash (at the end of the financial year) can't start putting in new street lights or playgrounds - it can't be done in time. But they can do some 'greening up' in spring. My job is to ensure they spend every penny."
Gristwood & Toms has a network of six depots established to service contracts locally. But two-fifths of the company's 170 staff are based at its purpose-built headquarters in leafy Hertfordshire, and it is here that the scale and diversity of the firm becomes apparent. A dedicated workshop looks after a fleet of 120 vehicles, including a traffic management lorry, as well as 150 pieces of equipment."We can do all our own MOTs," says Gristwood, who looks after logistics and equipment for the company.
An adjacent storeroom contains 700 items for any mechanical eventuality, managed along with the work schedule by a bespoke database. This allows the company to buy in bulk, after selecting the best bid from three, which brings economies of scale. "Equipment is a 10-15 per cent cost to the business, rather than 25-30 per cent," says Gristwood, adding: "We are keen to trim that down further."
Inside the main building, a room full of personal protective equipment (PPE) is managed separately. "We don't charge for PPE," says Gristwood. "But if you want a new one, you bring back the old one first."
The Hertfordshire site also processes around 15,000 tonnes of waste wood a year, most of which is chipped and sent to power stations for use as biofuel, while larger sections are put to use in playgrounds or turned into benches or signs.
"We recycle more than 95 per cent of what's brought in," says Gristwood. "It doesn't make you money, but it costs a lot less than putting it to landfill at £40 a tonne. And it's attractive to potential customers."
Thanks to a Government bio-energy infrastructure grant of nearly £160,000, the site will soon be upgraded to serve as a waste wood processing hub for north London, with a new 32-tonne "hook" lorry and machinery capable of producing higher-grade woodchip.
The company also aims to be environmentally friendly by using biodegradable chain saw oil and crushing and baling cardboard for recycling. It will shortly install an array of 20 solar panels, rated at 3.7kW, on the roof of its main office. "We will make more electricity than we need, so will sell the surplus back to the grid - which will take about 10 years to pay back the investment," Gristwood explains.
With a positive outlook, Gristwood & Toms is currently in the midst of recruitment. "Ten per cent of applications are from people who you could send out on day one and do 95 per cent of the work we have," says Toms. "But our training still matters. They may have experience, but not certification. We can offer them that, without them having to pay for it - it's an incentive."
However, there is still room to start at the bottom, he adds. "We took eight on straight from school two years ago, most of whom are still here," he points out. "Probably a couple will become lead climbers at some point. But some people just aren't cut out for it."
MAKING ROOM FOR WILDLIFE
Away from the clanking of the workshop and whirring of chippers in the wood lot, Gristwood & Toms' seven-hectare Hertfordshire site is surprisingly rich in wildlife. It includes a fish pond and is home to badgers, grass snakes and even a colony of bats in the roof of its main building.
Estate manager Rob Reynolds has chosen to specialise in bats and their care. "I've been in a local bat group for 14 months and have volunteered for everything," he says. As a result, he now holds bat-handler's licence and is on hand to look after bats within a ten-mile radius of the site.
This is for more than sentimental reasons. "I will also go on-site looking for bat activity around the trees," he says. Dave Gristwood adds: "It's something that local authorities are increasingly alert to."
Gristwood & Toms is also a corporate member of Hertfordshire Wildlife Trust, through which the company planted 5,000 trees last year in the Watling Chase Community Forest, as well as extending the wooded area of its own site by over a hectare. Through the St Albans & District Beekeepers' Association, the company has taken on two beehives, which this year yielded £45 worth of honey.