Welcome to the 30th Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management
Trees and Lines Podcast – Episode 30
Join Iapetus Infrastructure Services (IIS) COO Tejpal Singh and Principal Advisor Dr. Phil Charlton for a conversation with Hal Acree, National Sales Manager of Utility Vegetation Equipment at Progress Rail.
This episode is part of a special series of episodes recorded from the floor of the 2023 Trees & Utilities conference in Pittsburgh, PA.
Episode 30 Transcript
Philip Charlton: Good afternoon. We’re again broadcasting or recording this podcast from the floor of the exhibit hall at Trees and Utilities. We’re really pleased to have with us Hal Acree. Welcome, Hal.
Hal Acree: Well thank you, Phil. It’s great to be here.
Philip Charlton: Well, good.
Tej Singh: It’s great to have you.
Philip Charlton: Introduce yourself. Tell us about you and a little bit about your background.
Hal Acree: Well, how far back do you want me to go? I got a ways. I’m just teasing. Well, actually, I spent the biggest part of my professional career in commercial truck equipment. I’ve been around equipment a lot, like we see around the hall here, pretty much all of my career. It’s just been on a completely different side of the commercial fence, if you will.
It’s funny. I’ve built and sold thousands of trucks probably in my career to utility companies and had no idea that any of this even existed. I spent a lot of time building all the different kinds of trucks, service bodies, dump bodies, cranes, buckets, that kind of thing and did so for a couple of different companies. I’ve been with mainly national fleet-focused commercial truck upfitters. A couple of years ago, I had an opportunity to join Progress Rail on the utility vegetation management side. We built some trimmers and mowers, and like I said, it’s kind of like an old dog and new tricks. I’m really enjoying it.
Philip Charlton: Well, good. It’s a little bit of a career change, but not completely.
Tej Singh: Hal, just for the audience and even for my sake, when you say you build, are you designing, like you guys are in-house manufacturing? Explain to us the extent of your involvement in that process.
Hal Acree: It’s unique too because commercial trucks are built in more than one stage. For instance, an OEM, original equipment manufacturer, would build a chassis like say, a Ford would build a super duty cabin chassis without a bed on the back. Then we could take that chassis and we could mount a flatbed with the liftgate. We could mount a service body with a crane. We could mount the bucket truck with this service. We were what’s called a final stage manufacturer where we take an incomplete vehicle and turn it into what it was meant to be.
Tej Singh: I see, so modulizing what’s there. I’ve got some pieces. I’m going to turn it into something functional for those guys.
Hal Acree: Yeah, exactly. I used to say we’d do anything for a buck as long as it was safe and legal. We could do just about anything with the truck.
Philip Charlton: Good. Hal is unusual, I should say that.
Hal Acree: Thank you.
Tej Singh: Great segue, Phil.
Philip Charlton: Every year, the UAA has the System Utility Veg Managers Summit. They’ve been doing it for many years—I don’t know, 15 or 20 years—and they never allow anybody that’s not employed by the utility. Hal is the rare—I shouldn’t have said unusual—individual that doesn’t work for a utility but was invited to the summit, and that’s pretty impressive.
Hal Acree: Well thanks, I think. I’m unusual and rare.
Philip Charlton: I took back the unusual. I was there ten years, and I can’t remember ever inviting somebody from outside.
Hal Acree: Wow. Well, that is special then.
Philip Charlton: I think it is.
Tej Singh: Hal, where are you based?
Hal Acree: I live in Lafayette, Indiana. I work out of an office in my home remotely. My title at Progress Rail is National Sales Manager of Utility/Vegetation Equipment. I work on a team with two other guys. We basically cover the country from different locations. Our plant is in Montgomery, Alabama. That’s where we manufacture the trimmers and the mowers and such.
Tej Singh: What have you seen industry wise in terms of filling orders? Are you super busy? Have you seen an uptick over the last three or four years? What kind of trends are you seeing in terms of the requests coming out of the utilities?
Hal Acree: I’ve only been in the industry for two years. But in that time, I think we’ve seen some movement toward or what I’m learning as I’m going here is that it’s such a hard balance to strike. I mean, these utility veg managers, to try to weigh the care of the tree, the care of the forest, the care of the right of way, maintain reliability, these are all very difficult things. Then you throw in endangered species, different habitats, soil degradation, all of these issues, and at the same time, control a budget and get things done on time and in time.
All of those issues, I think, are the mechanical type right of way equipment is expanding just because it tends to be—I would say this about mechanical right of way management—first and foremost, safe and productive. I think every manufacturer here would say, would lead with our machine, regardless of what it does—it could be a tree trimmer like we build. It could be a tree feller—safe and productive. We try to keep the employees out of harm’s way. If we can be safe and productive, and then tick all of those boxes, it’s more on the utilities radar these days. We hear the buzz words like total integrated vegetation management plans and things like that. That means there is a little piece for just about everything to play a bigger role, and I think our world is getting bigger in that way.
Philip Charlton: Yeah, definitely getting bigger.
Tej Singh: Interesting.
Philip Charlton: Can you tell us something about the presentation at the summit, what they asked you to do? Give us a rundown.
Hal Acree: Well, it’s starting to make sense to me now. They asked me to basically try to present the goods and bads of all the different types of vegetation management equipment that’s used on right of way maintenance. The caveat was, we don’t need a 35-minute sales pitch. They wanted me to leave my sales hat at the house and basically try to present all the different types of equipment. It was a great exercise for me because I’m not a 30-year veteran in it, so it provided me the conduit to really do a little research and get to know some stuff. That was fine because I just put a presentation together that included some of the stuff that we built, but also a lot of the equipment that is used that we don’t build but is still in the right of ways.
Tej Singh: What even got you in this broad space, not from just a utility vegetation management space but equipment manufacturing? What got you down that path?
Hal Acree: Coming from the truck world, I grew up in Detroit. My dad was an engineer with Ford. We settled in Louisville when I was in high school. The truth of the matter is I always wanted to be a baseball player than a baseball coach like most young guys. Then you’d think, well, I wasn’t good enough to do that, clearly. But what got me in it was I was a mechanic when I was about 17 years old. In Louisville where they built a lot of trucks, there were jobs there for guys. Back then, it was $3 an hour. That was high at the time. That got me into the equipment. It’s funny; one day you look up and 40 years is gone, and you’ve been doing the same thing over and over. But I really enjoyed it.
Philip Charlton: Innovation’s coming out. What are we looking for in the next few years?
Hal Acree: Well, I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.
Philip Charlton: But tell us the interactions.
Tej Singh: Don’t worry, nobody’s listening anyway.
Hal Acree: Some of the innovations coming out, a lot of it has to do with, at least in the circles that I’m playing in, I don’t pretend to speak for the entire industry or anybody that builds machinery, but it’s the same in everything. In my world, 75 foot is not high enough. The specs read ground to sky. How tall can we get a saw from the ground up to trim? Now, there’s aerial trimmers that come from the sky down, and they’re—yeah, exactly—right across the way here. There are answers to those, but trying to basically discover the most cost effective, safest way that doesn’t compact soil is bad, that doesn’t put the tree in any danger or adversely affect, so in other words, the innovation or how do we get higher from the ground? That way you keep climbers out of trees and things that are dangerous to do. We’re in a very dangerous industry and manage that safely.
Also, how to make a proper cut on a tree limb. Well, I said cut. One of the things I learned at the UVMA is there’s a difference between pruning and trimming and cutting, and again, this is fantastic stuff to learn. Trying to get mechanized pruning, I think, would be a huge innovation if we can figure out how to do that. We’re working on product development where if you can get equipment that is transportable, where it’s not so big that you’ve got to get permitted trailers and things like that to move it around that still can reach high, that can fit in people’s backyards, those are all the things that tick all the boxes.
Philip Charlton: In the industry everywhere, you can’t get workers. Do you see a shift towards mechanized approaches that rely more on equipment than people?
Hal Acree: Yeah, absolutely. I was just talking to somebody just down from our booth today who was describing the equipment that they used to do some trimming on right of ways, and it’s typically transmission lines because they were looking at some pretty big expensive equipment. But one of the biggest motivators were, if you use climbers, wood chippers, a bucket, all of that, you’ve got 12 people that are running on this one crew on two different sides of a road at one time. They’re doing it with three people. I think that we’ve heard that from a number of our customers on some of the trimmers that we got. We would argue that it’s safe and productive. But they all said they can find a guy that would sit in an air-conditioned cab and trim a tree. It’s hard to find one that’s going to stand in a bucket in a 95-degree heat and run the chainsaw. I mean, it’s hard to find those guys.
Tej Singh: Obviously, we’re in an inflationary environment. Everything’s expensive. I’m sure the inputs to make, the things that you guys need to make have gone up in costs, and you’re going to have to reflect that in your price. Talk a little bit about the economic side of equipment manufacturing and how that’s impacted decisions that you guys have had to make over the last couple of years.
Hal Acree: Yeah, well, supply chain, supply chain, supply chain. I mean, that’s what we’ve all heard and I’m sick of hearing. But I would say that where we’re at today versus where we were even just six months ago is a lot better place. In 2022, just in-house, we saw and we had it rolled down. 2022 was a tough year from a price standpoint, but still a record year on sales in many ways. The need for the equipment was there, and I think it was maybe even accelerated by basically the lead times that were being quoted by folks. People were over ordering a little bit just to hopefully get what they could get.
What we saw last year where market surcharges based on steel prices because you couldn’t ship a machine in 30 days and the price was fluctuating every 30 days, that has played out. Again, I can only speak for us, but if you look at our pricing right now, that’s pulled back. Our price today is lower than it was this same time last year.
Tej Singh: Hal, I wanted to ask you a little bit about the competitive landscape in terms of other folks that are manufacturing equipment as well. Obviously, you don’t need to name them. Why give them the edge? No, I was just curious from a point of differentiation, what is the point of differentiation for you guys? Is it managing that supply chain a little bit better or innovating a little faster? How are you separating from the other guys out there building for the utilities?
Hal Acree: Well, that’s a good question. The value system of each customer that we have is a little bit different. For some accounts, price is important. For others, it’s perhaps service. I think a couple of things that we find that helps differentiate us is we try to maintain a reasonable lead time. We run a production schedule that we try to stay ahead of the curve. We’re necessarily building a backlog and then executing. We call it build to stock as opposed to build to order, and then we sell from stock.
Tej Singh: You’re essentially making sure that somebody’s bought it before you’ve produced it.
Hal Acree: We’re not doing that. What we’re saying is our product line is so fixed and mature that–
Tej Singh: You can have inventory.
Hal Acree: Right. In other words, there’s not a lot of option content. We’re able to keep things as modular enough on our equipment where if you wanted to add a front wench to a machine or another bell or whistle, we can do that pretty easily in a stock unit.
Tej Singh: Do you find that in the industry, there’s a lot of curation in the equipment, or is it pretty standardized in the things that you’re adding? For example, buying a car, and you’re adding air conditioning.
Hal Acree: In the stuff that we’ve got, there’s really not. I mean, in a trimmer, it’s all about trimming and doing it in a way that you can navigate whatever terrain you’re on without rolling over. It’s more about again, safe and productive. Then the creature comforts are like air conditioning, which is a standard these days on all the equipment and not just ours but through the whole thing, I’ll be shocked. For instance, our machines are 24 volt, so it’s not really easy to stick an AM/FM CD changer stereo in there, and most of the time, the managers don’t want their guys in there listening to it. They need to be paying attention to what they’re doing. Again, safe and productive, so the option content that we have typically allows for either a better or safer operation. Strobe lighting, if you’re going to be on road for instance, would be there.
Tej Singh: Is there a secondary market for your equipment? Do you guys also then create revenue from maintenance contracts as well to buy the equipment back? Do you repurpose it, refurbish it?
Hal Acree: Well, thank you for asking. Actually, that’s a big part of what we do is we have a remanufacturing program where we take a machine that could be as old as 15. We’ve done one 18 years now that if you look at our trimmer, it’s an articulating rubber tire trimmer. It’s a very heavy thick steel that we just built that way. What we’re able to do is completely disassemble it, strip it, blast the frame, make whatever repairs, and then we go back with an all-new or remanufactured component. So we do a complete rebuild of a sky trim machine. In fact, we market that. Last year, that was one of the things that helped us because a lot of the cost fluctuation and increases in 2022 were steel related. If you look at our rebuild program, the stuff that we reused was all the stuff that was made out of steel. We were actually able to hold that price them for the year.
Tej Singh: Oh, very good. Hal, I really appreciate you making time today. This is fascinating, very different perspective.
Philip Charlton: It really is. It shows you how big an industry this is. Sometimes we think it’s just in the tree. But now it takes a whole massive industry to support it.
Hal Acree: Yeah, it does. This is cool. I’m enjoying it. I appreciate you guys having me. It was a great experience.
Tej Singh: No, it was great. You were fantastic.
Hal Acree: Thank you, Tej.
Tej Singh: Thanks for joining us.
Outro: That’s it for this episode of Trees and Lines brought to you by Iapetus Holdings. If you like the show, please give us a five-star rating on Apple or Spotify. If you have any questions or comments on any of our episodes or ideas for topics or guests, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll chat with you soon.