Inside Impact host Alisa Herr sits with CEO, Founder, and Wizard of Things Basil Camu as they discuss his work, “Project Pando,” and how his business uses education around trees to create a better and healthier world.
Basil discusses the early beginnings of Leaf and Limb and their journey to today, the inspirations he received when he was younger, and their journey to becoming a B Corp. Basil also discusses a critical pivot point in his professional journey and explains what’s meaningful for him:
Business or impact?
Basil Camu is the CEO, Founder, and Wizard of Things at Leaf and Limb, which has been a B Corp since 2019.
Alisa Herr: Welcome to Inside Impact, where we give you a behind-the-scenes peek at how organizations can create positive change in their communities. I’m Alisa Herr, founder of Unity Web Agency, and on the show today, Leaf and Limb Wizard of Things Basil Camu comes on to talk about how his tree service company – which you think would be harming the environment – is actually providing a positive impact on the world.
When I think of a tree service, the first thing that comes to my mind is when I have a tree that might be preventing my grass from growing, or I’m worried a tree is going to fall on my house, I call up a tree service. And for Leaf and Limb, that’s what the company used to be.
Basil Camu: It represented at one point 80% of our revenue I think for most companies it’s at least 60% So it’s a very big part of the industry. At Leaf and Limb we do things a little differently. We really just focused on caring for trees, planting trees, and educating folks about the importance of trees.
Alisa Herr: Leaf and Limb’s mission is now to preserve, plant, and promote trees in a manner that maximizes positive benefits for members of all ecosystems. This journey to do the right thing all started when Basil and his dad decided to truly take care of their team.
Basil Camu: One of the issues was we didn’t want to pay folks under the table, and Most of our industry pays either cash under the table or they do 10-99 contractors. And the reason they do this is because our workers’ comp is insane. For every dollar I pay a staff member, worker’s comp rate starts off at 40 cents per dollar. It’s a massive, massive number. You can easily get into 50 to a hundred thousand in workers’ comp costs, and and this is a very small company right. And that’s exactly what we’re up against, but I really didn’t want to be a part of a company that paid folks under the table.
So early on we made this decision we’re going to do it the right way. We’re part of only 10% of the industry that do this, but to do it the right way it means that every single bid you walk into you are going to be more expensive because you’ve got to pick up these huge workers’ comp costs, and then of course there’s the taxes that go with that because they’re on payroll. So that’s another 7%.
So we had to get really creative about how to overcome these price gaps. How do we walk into bids and consistently be at the time not the most expensive but just under the national brands? So with that came a lot of learning, and I love learning and reading, so that was that was fun, and I started learning about trees. And as we learned about trees we were able to offer more sophisticated care services, and that was that went on for a number of years. Just getting more knowledge about trees better services that sort of thing, but there also was this point at which I personally was really kind of questioning what I was doing.
I enjoyed working with my dad and being in the tree service industry, And I enjoyed, I enjoyed that, but it wasn’t you know in my late twenties early thirties, I was just questioning if that was really what I was like that was it with my life You know I’m going to work at a tree service and we’re going to build a big company and we’re going to make money, which you know we did. We grew up to 45 staff by around 2000 And I don’t know I can’t remember my years It was like 2015, 2016 something like that. So we were building a big company but as we’re doing this and I just it just wasn’t jiving with what I really wanted in life.
And that was sort of a turning point for me You know I realized what I really enjoyed was the care aspects of tree and I love ecology. I love soil and through these things I’ve also become an environmentalist. So I really care a lot about environmental issues particularly as it pertained to ecology, and that really I think, all of that became the impetus for why we gradually, well gradual at first. While we really wanted to become more than just a traditional tree service, we wanted to care for trees
Alisa: Yeah. Did you pitch this idea to your family? Like how did that how did that go?
Basil: Yeah my dad and I are 50/50 partners, we do have to agree on these things, and you know to his credit he has given me a lot of leeway to do these things. I’ve also built that trust; you know I’ve been a big part of building this company. So I think I’ve proven myself, but it also you know, when your business partner comes to you, fast forwarding the story a little bit, but like you know says things like hey we should stop doing tree removals and gut 40% of our annual revenue, that’s like not easy conversations, but in the end you know he agreed and we’ve made the decisions we made. And I can kind of fast forward one other piece of this story And I’m sorry if this is long-winded.
The really crux of the transformation happened in 2017 we rebranded, and we sort of had this weird situation where we were really putting ourselves forth as more of a tree care company tree planting but we’re still offering the removal services. And I had told my sales team you know Hey I’d like sales to steer us out of that revenue stream over the next three to five years. And I had set targets for where I wanted us to be. So we were at 60% of our revenue, I guess it’s about 2015 by 2017 It was about 40% removals, or 40% of our revenue, and I said Hey, 2017 to 2021 I’d like to get us down to 10% or less.
When 2019 rolled around, we really hadn’t moved the scale at all, and it was then that I realized we had some systemic issues that sort of prevented us from making this change through the sales team, and I kind of had to then consider the really hard route which is okay, I’m going to take this service off the table, we can’t even sell it. And we’re going to do this the hard way but I needed consensus. So we had a lot of internal meetings, so this is not the kind of thing you can say to your staff and it’s going to happen, it’s too radical. So we had a lot of internal meetings and discussions about cause you know we had all been on this journey for a number of years together.
So we had these discussions and by September of 2019 we said Hey we’ve got until January to clear our queue of all removal work because January 1st we’re announcing that we’re getting out of removal completely, just to focus on the care and the planting and education that we care about. And we went public with that statement so we couldn’t retract, that was January of 2020, and we’ve got a new story with ABC 11 that did really well. Thanks to Ed Crump, an awesome guy who cares a lot about things that matter. And then COVID hit but that was not to be known for another several months.
Alisa: Yeah I noticed on your website that the closest thing to tree removal is consultations. So that seems like a really valuable service to provide to people where they might not know other options there. They might have what they think is a problem tree.
Basil: We try to convince them to keep it, or if it really is a problem we’re going to tell folks, but the truth of the matter is 9 times out of 10 problem trees are really not problem trees. You know there’s so many things that people say to other people or that even tree services say to people, like but they’re just not true.
Alisa: Or maybe it’s unhealthy and there’s ways to fix it.
Basil: Exactly Yeah. You know it’s just it’s, so of what we do is on those consultations just educating folks about the trees and about the biology, how it works and why it’s probably, assuming it’s not a problem, and then 90% of cases you know why it’s not an issue.
Alisa: Yeah, and I noticed, so on that ABC 11 article, the headline was “Raleigh tree service owner willing to lose business to help save the planet” which is an awesome, I love that you got so far to that edge of like comfort you know but obviously you didn’t lose your business.