By Ryan Davies
The stage was set in February 1976 in Freehold, N.J., a central Jersey town just west of the popular Jersey shore beaches. The man behind the dream was Stephen Chisholm Sr., accompanied by his wife and wing-lady Laura backing him 100 percent. The company is Aspen Tree Expert Co., Inc., and they have since set their roots in Jackson, N.J., where they have been serving the tree care industry for 40 years through four generations. The Chisholm name is a familiar one to many arborists — not just across New Jersey or even the country but around the world for many reasons.
Steve Chisholm Sr. is much more than president and owner of Aspen. Outside of work he is a dedicated husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle and active member of Jackson Baptist Church. As a boss, he is a leader and a provider, but most of all he is a friend and father figure to each of his employees. Steve followed in his the footsteps of his father, Larry Chisholm, and began climbing trees while in his teens and took a job with a line clearance company upon graduation from Monmouth Regional High School. He started in tree work as a young teen with his father, as well as his friend who both worked as foreman for Asplundh and also had a small local tree company. Steve started working at Asplundh right out of high school and also worked at several other local tree care companies until Aspen Tree was founded. After moving to Jackson in 1978, Steve was hired as supervisor for Freehold Township Shade Tree Commission, where he worked from 1979 to 1986, while also working long hours to build his business.
Steve has served, or is still serving with just about every tree care-related organization, both in New Jersey and nationally. He has served as president of the Board of Certified Tree Experts from 1986 – present, vice president Board of Certified Tree Experts 1984 – 1986, past president of N.J. Chapter of International Society of Arboriculture, among countless more. In February 1976, Aspen was three men and maybe a couple of additional hands for bigger jobs in the busy season. With the successful run Aspen has had, Steve has too many memories to single out one to be the fondest. He is proud of his contributions to safety in the industry, serving with the TCIA Safety Committee that established the CTSP program, and has served for many years on the ANSI Z133 helping to set the standards for tree care operations.
“I am truly grateful for any success we have had, and I know that this success has been due in a large part to the many wonderful employees that have worked here in the past and present, many which became friends not just employees,” he said. “Our success is not just ours, but theirs also. We have employees that have our same mindset, and want Aspen Tree to be successful and be the best we can be at what we do.”
Steve offered up some advice to any young arborist thinking of starting his or her own business. “Be prepared to work long hours, and know that it will require dedication, hard work and sacrifice. I would encourage them to get involved in the industry, join the TCIA and ISA, and they will be able to learn from others and make wonderful lifelong friends who they will also learn from. Always strive to do your best and everyone around you will also benefit from your success.”
As you would suspect, Laura Chisholm is the woman behind the scenes that holds it all together. Laura sees all her employees as her sons, worries just like any good mom but is strong and always there for her guys. Laura has been involved in the business from the very beginning. Being a supportive and loving wife she thought it would be a good idea for her to handle the secretarial and bookkeeping duties for the business, praying for the phone to ring and answering it when it did, scheduling estimates and paying the bills. Laura certainly isn’t afraid to get dirty herself. In the early years she had been known to work in the field when needed, dragging and chipping brush, running ropes and raking up. She even drove the bucket truck back then but never operated it or had the desire to climb. Her involvement with Aspen as the company grew led her to be interested in the knowledge of trees and the actual work, not just paperwork. Her husband encouraged her to take classes at Rutgers University and pushed her to take the CTE exam. She is very proud that the Chisholm family was the first family with all four members to become N.J. Certified Tree Experts and all four named “N.J. Arborist of the Year.” She is also an ISA Certified Arborist, and has served on the Board of the N.J. Shade Tree Federation.
“Steve’s involvement became my involvement also,” she said. “For example, when he volunteered to chair the New Jersey Tree Climbing Competition, then called the Arborist Jamboree, I became his assistant, and I have been helping with the New Jersey competition ever since.”
Steve’s involvement with the ISA and the Board of Certified Tree Experts led to Laura’s involvement with the N.J. Society of Certified Tree Experts, where she has served as president of the Society for the past few years.
“Like Steve, one of my greatest priorities is to see the implementation of the Tree Expert and Tree Care Operators Licensing Act that we all worked so hard to get passed,” she added. “The betterment of the industry I love would be a great reward.” 40 years of helping Aspen grow has been Laura’s life’s work. “I have been blessed, and I feel that the same God that gave me the love I have for my husband also gave me the love of his life’s work. We have worked together in all things, and our strengths have complimented each other to help our company become what we have tried hard to make it be. We have our sons’ help and involvement, and we have had a lot of great employees through the years that have contributed to our success. Hopefully it will be a legacy for our sons and their families for many future years.”
Stephen Chisholm Jr. is Aspen’s general manager, and handles the residential portion of the company, as well as numerous administrative duties. His involvement in a number of arboricultural organizations keeps him very busy and constantly giving back to the industry. His ridiculous wealth of tree knowledge has been passed on to many arborists through his teachings. The man is like a walking tree dictionary, and if you happen to get him started on certain topics, grab a coffee and get comfortable. Stephen holds many certifications that include New Jersey Approved Arborist, Committee for the Advancement of Arboriculture (CAA) First-Class Tree Climber, CAA Master Arborist, New Jersey Board Certified Tree Expert, and International Society of Arboriculture Certified Arborist amongst others. He has held numerous positions in tree care organizations. He is former president of the Arborist Association of New Jersey, former president of the N.J. ISA and Society of Commercial Arboriculture. He is currently the vice president of the N.J. Society of Certified Tree Experts, vice chair of TREE Fund Liaison, vice chair ISA COR, and member of the ISA student committee.
Stephen had his first few experiences on an Aspen job raking up job sites at age 10. It started to become routine at age 12, and then became almost every Saturday and most of the summer by age 13. The Chisholm family had a lawn service at the time as well, and Stephen was with that crew most of the summer from 14 to 18 years old. He started climbing at age 15 and his younger brother Mark right after that at age 12. As Stephen approached college, he decided to stay local and attend Ocean County Community College in Toms River New Jersey as he weighed his options between working for the family business or exploring other career opportunities. Shortly after attending OCC and getting married, Stephen decided to pursue the tree care industry more as a career and not just as the family business or a job.
“I had a lot of influences locally that raised the bar here in New Jersey like Dave Shaw, Bill Porter, Harry Barker, Ken Gregory and my father. When I was exposed to some of the other icons of the industry outside of New Jersey and got the chance to work with or study under some of them like Dr. Shigo, that helped me strive for more,” said Stephen said.
When asked what is the key to running a respectable and successful business, Stephen replied, “I think the key for me is to always expect the best from yourself and your people, and to never compromise on quality. I look back over all the customers that have asked us to do work that was not up to industry standards and I told them no. I eventually got good at persuading them to actually do the right thing. That for me has been very satisfying.”
Stephen Jr.’s wife, Connie, is also a full time Aspen employee and has been for the past 19 years. She works in the office helping with administrative duties alongside her mother-in-law Laura.
And then there’s the youngest of the Chisholm owners, Mark. Mark Chisholm is the operations manager, the face of the company, and go-to guy on most of the highly skilled, more challenging projects. He spends the majority of his time running the transmission line clearance division for First Energy, when he’s not traveling the world speaking or teaching at events and conferences. His awards and accolades speak for themselves, and have allowed him great success and opportunity in the tree care industry, for which he is forever grateful. He’s a special talent, and remains the most humble and professional person you’ll ever come across. He’s laid back and not easily excitable, and always willing to share his knowledge and passion for tree climbing.
Mark is one of the most decorated and dedicated arborists in the business. He is a New Jersey Board Certified Tree Expert, ISA Certified Arborist, and ISA Certified Tree Worker to name a few. He was named the Arborist Association of New Jersey Arborist of the Year in 2000, the recipient of the Green Community Achievement Award by the N.J. Forest Service in 2001, one of Green Media’s “Most Influential People in the Green Industry” in 2010, the 2013 Millard F Blair “Exceptional Contribution to Practical Arboriculture” winner, a 21 time ISA New Jersey Chapter Tree Climbing Champion and a three-time International Tree Climbing Competition Champion. Mark has served as president of the NJAISA from 2012 to 2014, and holds a seat on the ISA ITCC Steering Committee.
He considers himself being a part of Aspen since birth, but officially started to learn how to climb at age 12. Always wanting to work in the business, he attended OCC after high school, and received an associate’s degree in liberal arts, and then was accepted to Rutgers University for a biology major, but didn’t finish. He started getting very active in the tree care industry at that time, and didn’t have his heart set on pursuing a degree. Some advice Mark would have for new climbers in the industry would be to mentally dedicate yourself to a career in arboriculture rather than a job, no matter how long you plan to do it. Strive to be a professional at all times, and never compromise your safety or integrity.
When asked what he considers his greatest accomplishment, Mark said, “I would have to say helping to share professionalism, and encouraging personal growth, and trying to instill a feeling of excitement about our industry in each and every person I’ve had the opportunity to meet. And I still try to shed a good light on who we are, what we do, and the importance of quality tree care, as well as trees in general, to the public through media outlets and with the help of my professional relationships with Stihl, Teufelberger and Kask.”
As a kid, he always hoped to be as good as his father. “He always says I have surpassed him in some ways, but I’m not too sure…” is Mark’s reply to that family debate. Mark’s fondest memories include competition and trade shows, climbing the world-famous treehouse redwood tree with friends like Gerald Beranek, teaching in Italy every year for the past dozen years, and working on historic properties like Augusta National Golf Course with friends from throughout the country.
I took time to speak to some of the men that have made careers here at Aspen. Kevin Kane, supervisor of sub transmission line clearance has been with Aspen for the past 30 years.
“Outside of friendship, I haven’t seen another company or family I’d rather work for, I just like it here,” said Kane. “I figured I started here I might as well finish here.” Residential supervisor and salesman Rob Constantino has been with the company for 27 years. He attributes the longevity of his career to steady work, consistent advancement, the opportunity to work outside, and continuing to learn new things even after 27 years.
Dave Ossowski has been employed by Aspen for the past 25 years and is one of Aspen’s three Certified Tree Safety Professionals. He has enjoyed seeing the company grow to where it is today as well as seeing Mark win three World Championships.
Joe Aufiero is one of the many N.J. Board Certified Tree Experts on staff at Aspen. He was a previous vice president of the N.J. Society of Certified Tree Experts for nine years, and has been employed by Aspen for the past 15 years. “Aspen is one of the rarest of personal relationships where you match social and business relations and it works,” he said.
Mike Villipart works for Aspen as a subcontractor on line clearance work for Jersey Central Power & Light and First Energy. He was employed by Aspen from 1991 to 1998 when he started Forever Green Tree Service in New Egypt New Jersey. I ask Mike what keeps him involved with Aspen and the Chisholm’s “They are my mentors,” he said. “I have climbed next to Mark for years. They’re epic in their work and are cut from the same cloth as myself. The fact that they were so involved in the industry and the things they have taught me gave me the confidence to spread my wings and go off on my own.”
In a company that has grown to about 40 employees it is commendable that a handful of them have been with Aspen and the Chisholm family between 20 and 30 years. In an industry that sometimes catches a bad rap and good help is hard to come by, I think that speaks volumes about the operation they are running. Production and money are not the most important factors on a daily basis. Working safe and returning home to your family takes precedent overall, followed by providing a quality job to the customer. The Chisholms all share a passion for tree work, and take pride in the education of their employees. They make sure everyone is properly trained and aware of the risks and hazards that accompany the occupation. No one is ever asked to perform tasks outside of their experience level or comfort zone. The Chisholms are motivated by their faith and love for the business.
On behalf of the tree care industry and arborists around the world, thank you for your contributions and dedication to the trade. Thank you for representing arboriculture with passion, pride, honesty and dignity. On behalf of your Aspen family, thank you for the dedication to your staff and their families. Thank you for the opportunity you provide in making tree work a real life career option. And thank you for sticking to your roots and creating a professional family. To any aspiring young arborist or business owners, I encourage you to make a visit to Jackson, N.J. and see how the Chisholm’s do business. You will leave with the recipe for success. Keep up the good work Chisholm family and Aspen Tree. Cheers to the next 40 years!
Ryan Davies is supervisor – bulk transmission at Aspen Tree Expert Co., Inc.