Arbor Age magazine recently asked Don Picker, Jon Picker and Jeff Legue of Asia Tree Preservation, Ltd. (ATP) to share their thoughts about doing business overseas.
AA: What factors led to you relocating to Asia?
Don Picker: My wife and I moved to Asia with our family in 1990 for the first time just after I completed my degree in Cross Cultural Communications with an emphasis in social research and linguistics. Although I had operated Picker Tree Experts already for more than 5 years, I sold the company, we ventured off to Hong Kong and south China, and spent more than 4-1/2 years studying languages and culture, and also doing relief and development among poor mountain minority groups.
AA: How long of a process was it from the time you decided to start a business in Asia until the time it became a reality? And what challenges/obstacles did you face?
Don: In 1999, after the first period in Asia, we returned to the United States and settled in the Chicago area until 2004. Almost immediately after returning to the Midwest, I decided to go back into the business of tree work. Fortunately, I had many contacts who liked my work, so I landed a good contract for more than $20,000 just as winter began, and decided to start Picker Tree Experts II. During the time back in the United States, our kids were reoriented to their own native culture and started off on their own. Jon had already completed a two-year Associate of Arts degree, then decided he would like to do tree work for a while just to have the experience. I used the next 4-1/2 years to catch up with all the new innovations and applications in arboriculture, and pursued the certifications that I previously did not have a chance to take advantage of because I was living in Asia.
In the summer of 2001, I met two Chinese managers from the China Light & Power Co. at the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) conference in Milwaukee. I immediately was interested to speak Cantonese with them and discovered that they had recently sought training for pruning trees with live wires for the first time. My original experience was with Asplundh and Wright Tree Service in the mid-1970s doing utility line clearance. So the fact that the Chinese were seeking help gave me the first real incentive to begin to think about doing this business in Asia. After another year passed, I was able to begin to make trips to train either the power company crews or other government bodies using Cantonese as the medium of instruction. In 2004, we decided to venture back to Asia and try to make a go of professional careers there — my wife in music teaching and me in arboriculture. In 2006, Jon decided to move back to Asia and become a Certified Arborist and also make this his career in Asia. He spent the first year and half studying Mandarin so that he could function well in the culture and eventually be able to train in China. We decided to settle in Kunming, Yunnan south China because it is one of the botanical centers of China and this city, known as “the city of eternal spring,” is similar to the environment of Denver with a very mild temperature year round.
In the latter part of 2007 we officially incorporated in Hong Kong when we secured good contracts that carried us into the middle of 2008 and provided the start that we needed.
AA: Is your relocation to Asia permanent?
Don: It has taken a great deal of time investment in language study and much more of life in general, so I think at present our plan would be to stay in Asia indefinitely. Jon is in many ways more comfortable in Asia than the United States — having grown up in Hong Kong, China, and Malaysia between the ages of 10 and 18 — so I know he is committed to Asia long-term.
In 2005 we were also joined by Jeff Legue, a longtime friend originally from northern Illinois. Jeff was one of the first few hundred Certified Arborists in 1992 as the program was started. He had also operated Picker Tree Experts I for the new owner who purchased it from us in 1989. Jeff has a long history in tree care with many companies and utility clearance outfits. He brings to ATP a special focus in tree diseases and pest problems, of which he has continued to expand his understanding in Asia. Jeff has also been able to experiment with tree propagation in Yunnan, which could open another entire opportunity with the need for landscaping in the growing cities of China.
AA: What are some of the challenges that you face on a day-to-day basis in terms of doing business in China?
Don: One of the biggest challenges is having to travel out of our home city in Kunming to multiple places in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore, and often just feel temporary. We presently do not yet see the real possibility to work in this industry in a real high level in China or to make the kind of money we need to live. However, we love to travel and experience new cultures and trees and all that Asia offers — and find ways to make it work with good planning and relationship building where ever we go.
AA: How would you describe the level of arboricultural expertise in Asia, and what areas do you feel are most lacking when it comes to proper tree care practices?
Don: Although the modern practice of arboriculture is very new in Asia — since about 2001 when Dr. Bill Fountain of the University of Kentucky had a sabbatical in Singapore and trained the first Certified Arborists — the total number of Certified Arborists has now exceed all the total number of Certified Arborists in Europe. With the heightened awareness of the environment, and the need to practice conservation, the modern societies of Asia are very interested in applying modern and appropriate arboriculture practices. Although the United States and European countries have a longer history of modern arboriculture applications, the Asians will do what they always do and catch up by leaps and bounds. The mere need for experience in practice in time is the only hindrance to their rapid advancement in modern practices that I see here. The governments will actually come in line with the applications of practitioners of modern arboriculture much more rapidly than the western countries in general. You will eventually see tree ordinances applied in many of the most advanced societies such as Singapore and Hong Kong. The most interesting thing that I notice is that those who are choosing to become Certified Arborists in Asia are people from all kinds of other spheres such as landscape architects, civil engineers, city planners and government overseers of the environment in general.
AA: How much of your work is education/training vs. actual hands-on tree care work?
Don: As you might imagine, the real earnings are in the training and conveying of our experience and skills in modern arboriculture. However, because of the interest in Hong Kong to practice serious tree preservation, we can find some good opportunities for real work that will also pay well. At ATP we have a slogan that says “training in real modern 21st century tree practices,” which means that we are always looking for the practical jobs and hands-on tree care in order to really teach those who want to learn. If we are hired to train for three days or a week, etc., the biggest issue usually to be given lower scores in an evaluation is “not enough practical examples.” This is usually when some other organization hires us and is limited in their ability to plan for real tree work illustrations. We often offer to prune trees and remove hazardous trees for private groups, such as camps and recreational sites, in exchange for a training site with the practical examples we feel will really allow us to convey the practice of real tree work.
AA: Have region-specific tree species, tree pests and/or even the regional climate presented any unique challenges for you? If so, how?
Jon Picker: Yes, for example, in Malaysia, there is a danger of encountering snakes in trees, as well as large nests of ants. While training at the Forestry Research Institute in Kuala Lumpur, ants were climbing down my rope while I was climbing up. Because of the high humidity and tropical climate, grass often grows on the tree limbs and can serve as a nest for animals and insects.
Don: It is always a challenge for us to continue to learn as we move about from tropical to more tropical areas. We have seen more new species in the last several years than we can sort out, and this keeps our work even more interesting and challenging. However, there is always a good local expert to help us as we try to sort it all out, and this is also one of the great aspects of the work in Asia. Working with Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, and Singaporeans is just a great experience and we have made many lifelong friends here.
AA: The upcoming Olympic Games have obviously been at the forefront of your thoughts, at least from a work perspective. The fact that the Olympics are being held in China has been controversial in the United States and abroad. From your perspective, what has been the feeling locally surrounding the games?
Don: Since the 2008 Olympics will take place in China it is generally a high level of excitement in the whole Asian region. Everyone, especially in Hong Kong, is looking forward to this historic opportunity to be a part of what so many other western societies may take for granted. I personally sense that China really does want to use this as a chance to come out, so to speak, and be a part of the rest of the world in a very normal and natural way. Of course, China still has many issues that challenge its entry into the world at large as an open and equal society, but they are on a course to change that cannot practically be reversed now.
Jon: In regards to any controversy about the Olympics and protests, it has been overshadowed by the devastating earthquake that recently hit Sichuan Province, China. Jeff Legue of ATP joined the earthquake recovery effort as a volunteer.
Jeff Legue: When the government invited volunteers, I felt compelled to go to Sichuan and help in any way that I could. My team and I joined the efforts by dressing the wounds of earthquake victims in two small villages near MianYang, Sichuan.
AA: What advice would you give to other professional arborists who are thinking about relocation or even doing business abroad?
Don: In the United States or other western settings, people can have contact with others from around the world to be exposed to the culture and languages in order to provide some experience. However, I suggest that people travel while they are single and young, and live for a short period in a few places in order to determine if they could potentially make a major transition. They should study language while in those areas and gain experience. Once a person has determined to relocate abroad, I would then suggest dedicating at least two years to language and culture acquisition. If you do not budget to do this purposefully, and with a school in mind, then it will be very hard to accomplish later after you have begun to become busy with life and work.