Episode 47: The Evolution of UVM & Industry Standards w/ Dennis Holewinski

Episode 47: The Evolution of UVM & Industry Standards w/ Dennis Holewinski

Welcome to the 47th Episode of Trees & Lines: Fresh Perspectives on Utility Vegetation Management

Trees and Lines Podcast – Episode 47

Join Iapetus Infrastructure Services (IIS) COO Tejpal Singh and Principal Advisor Dr. Phil Charlton for a conversation with legendary vegetation management industry leader Dennis Holewinski.

Episode 47 Transcript

Philip Charlton: Dennis Holewinski, legendary vegetation management industry leader, joins us to talk about how he got his start in the industry. He talks about its challenges with liability and insurance in California, how he helped hundreds of utilities build their first veg management program, and more. Have a listen. Hope you enjoy.


Welcome, Dennis. I really appreciate having you with us. I’m looking forward to talking to you. So many out there listening today have at one time worked with you, worked for you, or whatever. So, I think our audience is going to be really excited to hear what you have to say.

Dennis Holewinski: Well, I’m glad to be here. Thanks for inviting me. I’m sitting here in sunny Florida, just looking out at the beautiful weather. So, I’m good.

Philip Charlton: For those who don’t know the name, I’ll just say that almost everything we take for granted in the utility vegetation management industry, we can trace back to you, making it a mainstay of the industry. You got it started. You laid the foundation in it. It’s really a pretty cool story, so I hope you share that with us today. Tell us a little bit about your background and how you got started.

Dennis Holewinski: My background is, I’m a graduate of landscape architecture from the University of Wisconsin. We studied landscape architecture, regional planning, that kind of thing. I then went to work for the highway department in Dixon, Illinois, for two years. After designing everything that needed to be designed, I was getting bored. I even designed a scenic overlook at the Quad Cities. So, after I got that done, they didn’t have anything for me to do.

I looked for a job and then I went out east. My brother was working for a company called Asplundh Tree Company, so I went out east. They hired me, and they wanted me to run their environmental department. They had no idea what that was. Their idea was, oh, we wanted to landscape substations. I said, okay. Well, we never did much of that, but it was a great experience. So, I worked for them for, oh, maybe 15 years. I then bought the company and started Environmental Consultants, Inc., and all the rest is history.

Philip Charlton: So, you started off landscaping substations and I remember designing parks in Philly. How did you transition to the utility side?

Dennis Holewinski: Well, let’s start from the beginning. First, I went to the highway department. They had me mowing grass. I knew nothing about mowing grass or buying tractors or any of that stuff. Then, of course, we got to doing a lot of design work for the city of Philadelphia. We did a lot of work for the Bicentennial. We did parks, and we did the major parkways and all the squares and that kind of stuff. One of them, I don’t know if you people know Bramble and Byrnes. They were really involved in a Penn State study, which was still ongoing for many, many years. The person I reported to, Hyland Johns, was in charge of that.

ESEERCO, which was the Empire State Electric Energy Research Corp., they came out with a research study to look at the effectiveness of all their management techniques. And obviously, we had a relationship with Bramble and Byrnes. Hyland wanted me to get involved, and I was happy to do it. So, I put a team together, and we put a proposal together, and we got the study. So, we studied it. We were involved in that for six to eight years, until we finished the project, because it kept on going. It was a very successful project. And so, that’s what got me into the utility business and then it built from there.

Tej Singh: Dennis, I’ve heard a lot of the stories through Phil’s lens in terms of where it started, just like you said, and then how you were able to build an incredible market position. What I’m fascinated by is, at that time, given your background, you had some entrepreneurial juices to say, “Hey, I’m going to buy this company from this large elephant, build something, and then sell it back to them,” which I thought was pretty cool.

So, were you this organically developed entrepreneur, or did you always have this personality and skill set, or did you kind of learn on the fly?

Dennis Holewinski: I have five brothers and a sister, and I was in the middle. Everything was pretty competitive there on the farm, let’s say, even in high school. All my brothers sort of toed the line. They worked on the farm. They didn’t do any type of athletics or anything like that, but I was always the black sheep in the family. I was always doing something they didn’t want me to do.

So, I went out for sports and I played all these things. My dad wasn’t happy with me. Actually, I would go to school, do sports, come home at 8:00, and all the chores I had were left for me. So, I guess it started there. Almost every night, I wouldn’t get done until, like, 10:00 at night.

So, I guess somehow that built my idea that I wasn’t going to toe the line, and I was sort of taking my own course. So, I think probably that’s the way it started.

Philip Charlton: A rebellious farm kid.

Dennis Holewinski: Yes, I guess you could say that. I think that’s how it started.

Tej Singh: That’s interesting. Okay. And at the time when you said you bought the company, what were you buying at that point? The naming rights, a little bit of reputation, a handful of clients? What was actually purchased?

Dennis Holewinski: Let’s back up a little bit. I hope we get into our line clearance programs, but that’s already happening in the background. The reason I bought the company was because we were doing these vegetation management programs for utilities. When we started, we relied a lot on contractors, Asplundh and other contractors, to give us information so we could be effective.

By the time I bought the company, we were all pretty smart. We knew all these things, and we were questioning what the contractor said. We weren’t following them anymore; we were doing our own thing. We were going through utilities doing vegetation management programs. As a result of that, you have to present it to the brass. Most of those programs were presented to presidents, vice presidents of the companies because maintenance was the biggest budget item in their budget. That’s where they spent most of their money.

We had a program that could justify what they did and how much they spent. In Connecticut, we did a study for one of the Connecticut utilities, and we had some people who were not too happy with that because they were starting to trim trees another way, which was the right way. He wrote this article, actually put a full page ad in the Audubon Society book that said, Asplundh is scooping all the utilities and they sent all these guys to do their study, and then they get all this additional work, and it’s just a scam.

That was just a ticket for me because I was ready to get out then. So I told them I can’t work under this situation and my consultants don’t want to work, and I’m just not going to do it. So eventually they sold me the company. That’s how I bought the company.

Philip Charlton: Dennis, you talked about the research in New York. That would eventually be some of the most significant research behind integrated vegetation management that everybody strives to do. That’s a transmission. But you got involved in the distribution side, if I recall, when you got a call from Minnesota. How did you get into those programs?

Dennis Holewinski: One of the vice presidents of Asplundh was trying to get to work at Minnesota Power and Light. In order to do that, one day, he went in and said, “I’ll tell you what your workload is.” They said, “Great.” So, he went out there and did this survey of some kind. I don’t know how much, but he came to me with all these numbers that he had and he said, “Dennis, I got to put this in some kind of report. Will you help me?” Well, I did. We put together what we knew, what we didn’t know. We made some things up. And we submitted the report. It was probably about ten pages, maybe 12.

That was in the early ‘70s or late ‘70s or early ‘80s and they loved it. And I think I told you this before, Phil, not long after that, I was up north doing some work on ESEERCO, probably going back with my wife, and I said to her, “This is a gold mine. Hell, this is worth millions of dollars because nobody has these kinds of programs.” So, that’s how it all started.

Philip Charlton: When I left in 2006, we had done 160 programs. It was basically you came up with the idea of workload-based budgeting, which nobody had at that time.

Dennis Holewinski: In that time period, there were very few foresters in the industry, a handful maybe, and they were doing fairly good jobs. But most of the utilities put retired linemen, or how shall I say it, linemen who couldn’t work on lines anymore, in charge of the line clearance programs. Every time it came to budgeting, they’d go to the contractors and say, “What do we need? What do we need? Come on.” The contractors would tell them what the system was like, and that’s where they would turn in. Or they would say, “Oh, we just need 5% more.” They had no clue. They really didn’t know what was out there.

I realized that this could really turn out to be great. The whole process started with the fact he did a survey, and when they did a survey, they looked at trims and looked at removals and what types of trims and that was it. And that’s how we started. That’s where you came in, Phil. We started, we weren’t very good at it, and you came in and brought in statistics, which is what we really need. And then everything started to happen.

Now, we didn’t just look at whether it’s trims or removals or what type of trims, we also decided that we needed to figure out species. We needed to know what was out there. We did that. We knew the species. Then we figured out, well, we need to haul fast; they’re growing. We developed a system to determine. We went out and actually took cuttings all over the place to see how fast the major trees, or should I say the trees that grew the fastest, how long would it take for them to get into the lines given a certain clearance.

What we’re trying to do is get a cycle of trimming. So once we figured out what types of trees they were, how fast they were growing, then we could say, “Okay, if we went every three years and we came back, we’d have X amount of trees in the lines.” Now we had some data. Then we had somehow sold it to utilities that how do you get your system into control.

We found out through a lot of process and ways that go with you guys, figuring all this out. But what we figured out is that if we spent X amount of dollars to get the system once over, totally trimmed, and then if we knew what the fastest trees were growing, we would put you on a cycle. We would go to the utility and say, “If you get over this system one time, it’ll cost you, let’s say $15 million. But if you come back three years later, you could do that whole system for $7 million.” And they’d say, “Why?” And we’d say, “Because the fastest trees are the only ones that are in the lines now. The other ones haven’t grown that much.”

It was a perfect philosophy and formula because the utility top brass bought it. We would go to the PUC, Public Service Commission, and we would give them that same type of concept. If you invest it now, then later it would be much cheaper and you could maintain it at that cheaper level. As we went along, it just was a perfect storm for us because it was really so easy to sell, and we were right. We were effective at it. Now we developed something that everybody wanted.

Philip Charlton: 40 or 50 years later, I think it’s over 95% of the utilities that are still on a cycle-based program that you recommended. They might finally be moving on, but that is the standard that was put out there.

Dennis Holewinski: Well, it was interesting, Phil. You know this – when we went to utilities in regions of the country, with the east, the south, the west, pretty soon we had a pretty good database of what trees were the major trees of concern and how fast they were growing. So, we had this all over the country. As we kept going, it was easier and easier to sell, and it was effective with less and less work on our part. It was a great program and I think $1 million wasn’t even close to what it was worth.

Philip Charlton: Tej’s company has several hundred contract utility arborists or line folks, different contract positions. You were the first one to sell that service. I told people the other day, and I hope I got the company right – Oklahoma Gas & Electric?

Dennis Holewinski: Oklahoma Gas & Electric. It was almost by default. At the same time we were doing these, shall I say, design studies in Philadelphia, Oklahoma Gas & Electric came to us and said, “We would like a forester, but there’s no way we can get it in our budget. Would you guys consider giving us one and we’ll contract you for it?” Well, that’s like money in the bank. So I said, “Oh, yes, we can find somebody, absolutely.” So we found somebody, went out and found somebody, and they loved him, and he worked there for like, I don’t know, five, six years, worked at Oklahoma Gas & Electric under their control, under their supervision, under their liability. It was just such a great situation.

Then, Detroit Edison was trying to get away from the contractors doing the notification of the property owners and we bid on the contract. I remember to this day, I bid on it a week before Christmas, and it came in the day before Christmas and they wanted the people out right after New Year’s. I spent all my Christmas trying to find foresters. I had to get 12 foresters out there in a week. But that was the start. In that situation, we were responsible for them, and we were getting the notification permissioning, and it was a contract.

But soon it was catching on that people just thought, “You guys can provide foresters for a lot less than we can provide them for,” so they started contracting us to put them on their system and they would again, supervise them, tell them what to do and how to do it. And it turned out at one time, I don’t know how many people we had out there. I know at one time we were 350, 400 foresters out in the industry. We were the largest employers in the country.

But here’s the exciting part, Tej. What happened was every time a utility had a guy and they loved them, they would say, “Dennis, we want to hire him.” And I’d say, “Oh yes, sure, you can have him. Yes, you can hire him. No problem. There’s no problem here.” How many people did we have working for utilities, Phil, that were now system foresters?

Philip Charlton: Yes, probably hundreds. It’s amazing that the industry grew off of those people.

Dennis Holewinski: Talk about a business model. It was actually fun because sometimes they would say, “Oh, we like this guy. Can you find us a few more?” And I’d send the guys that were really good, that did a good job for us and we didn’t mind parting with them because in the end, it was just so good for us. So anyway, that’s how we started, we call it Foresters Unlimited.

From a business perspective, this was really the key to our success, Tej, because doing the vegetation management programs, they were cyclical. We have them and we’d be selling them and they go up and down. But now we had these foresters, so this was our base. This was the base. Basically, it paid our expenses and then the vegetation management programs were, do I say gravy, Phil, is that what I could call it? But it was a place where we could do it quickly. I mean, I shouldn’t hit quick it, but we could do it and if we didn’t have any of that work, we had the foresters.

Tej Singh: Dennis, I think you guys sold in’06, ’07, ’08, somewhere in there?

Dennis Holewinski: Yes, 2007.

Tej Singh: Over the last 15 to 17 years, I mean, obviously, you’re in Florida enjoying life, family time, but have you been tracking the industry? Have you ever looked back and said, “Hey, you know, I wish I would have kept it and maybe added different things to it, things I wanted to do,” or were you happy to get out and have you never looked back?

Dennis Holewinski: Well, I got sick, back, I don’t know, probably five years before I sold it. I said to Phil one day, “Phil, I can’t work for the next three months. I want you to take over the company. You’re going to be president and so forth.” And of course, he agreed. When I got better, I looked at everything and said, “Well, he’s doing as good or better job than me. Why should I get back into it?” So, I let him run the company with the people he had. He’s very successful.

Well, there are two reasons why I sold the company. One, I was already 55, but anyway. One was that we were doing work in the industry out in California, and fire suppression was a real issue. We were getting to the point where we couldn’t find insurance. The last of it was at Lloyd’s of London. They were questioning whether they wanted to insure us anymore. So, I either had to invest a lot of money and grow significantly or get out. Now, that in itself wasn’t the factor. The factor was there was so much liability in California that, sooner or later, something big was going to happen, would put us out of business. I mean, that’s the way I looked at it.

I can tell you that after I sold the company, there was a time when I said to my wife, “Can you live out of a trailer?” Because I got sued for $86 million after over a year or less than a year after I got out. It was a claim that wasn’t submitted till the day before the period for submitting it was up and it was a mess. The next year and a half, we fought it and fought it and fought it. Luckily we had $30 million worth of insurance. Here’s the key reason it was so high, Tej, was because during that six-year period, the state of California said the Forest Service could charge for environmental damages, and they said they could do triple environmental damages. So a claim that would have been $15 million now was 80 something. So literally, that’s how it happened.

When I got out, I said, “This is glad I got out,” because I said to my wife, “Dear, how much money can you spend?” And she says, “Oh, I can spend a lot. How much are you talking about?”

Philip Charlton: There’d be a fire and we’d sit around the TV just wondering if it was, “Are we in on this one?” You don’t miss those days, do you, Dennis?

Dennis Holewinski: No. We didn’t even have to be responsible. If we were anywhere near, if that was our lines, I mean, it could, I mean, the lines could have fallen down. It didn’t matter because we were sued anyway. So, we’re on every claim that the lines were involved with it, right, Phil?

Philip Charlton: Yes, it’s amazing. You get caught up, and we’d be the first one on the hook. Things haven’t changed in that regard.

Tej Singh: It’s definitely a complicated space. Liability insurance are still themes today that have—

Dennis Holewinski: You still have those issues, right?

Tej Singh: Yes, we do have some issues. However, there’s been a continued evolution in the utility space. The utilities themselves have done a really good job of adopting practices from the past and using technology. It’s nature, so we’re not always going to get it right. But for the most part, it’s been very interesting for me to learn the history through Phil and folks like yourself, and then see where the industry is and where it’s going. It’s fascinating and continues to evolve. That’s what I would say.

Dennis Holewinski: I understand you have some retired lineman contractor now.

Tej Singh: Yes.

Dennis Holewinski: It’s indeed interesting. Phil and I discussed that years ago, which is probably how you got into it. However, we could never really get that service going despite spending a couple of years trying. That’s what I recall.

Tej Singh: We have a great team. We don’t often talk about our people on this forum, but given that you brought it up, I’ll mention the fact that a lot of the people in our organization are so good. One of the things they’re so good at is their bedside manner with clients and people in the field. I think linemen are their own sort of breed and entity. They’re very different than, let’s say, your traditional vegetation management professional. Understanding those nuances and having people that can communicate with that group is a key part that has allowed us to slowly evolve in that space as well.

I give credit to our people, our leadership that’s on the ground, creating that stability because essentially our whole position is centered around quality. To simplify it, for us, it’s all about good work. If there’s no path to doing high-quality work, then we just don’t do it. We won’t pursue it. If we don’t see that we can actually execute something at a standard that is better than a previous standard that’s been set, and we can’t see a path to it, we generally won’t pursue that path.

Dennis Holewinski: Phil, we had some similar philosophy. What was that our saying used to be, do you remember?

Philip Charlton: Oh, you’ll have to remind me, Dennis. But I remember quality was always the emphasis.

Dennis Holewinski: Yes, if we did something wrong and the utility wasn’t happy, we went back and we did it. We didn’t fuss with it. We said we’re going to do it. Do what you say you’re going to do and do it right. And if not, let’s do it again.

Philip Charlton: Then, if you’re going to be late, they better know it ahead of time. There are all kinds of axioms you had.

Dennis Holewinski: Yes, we made up all kinds of things. Even in our studies, one of the things Phil and I are famous for is this. We don’t know how this really started, but it might have been over a cool beer somewhere. We were trying to decide what is an acceptable amount of tree-caused outages on the system. So, we knew a couple of foresters, a couple of companies that had fairly successful programs and management was happy. I think we sort of looked at those and we said, well, we think maybe 10% would be a good deal, 10% outages. I don’t know which company we used it at. I remember we were sweating it out because we said, “Oh yes, this will get you under 10% tree-caused outages,” and it worked. It worked. And I think that’s become a utility standard now, 10% of outages caused by trees. But it didn’t get developed from hard data. It was more of a gut feeling. Right, Phil?

Philip Charlton: Oh yes. And I do think there was a beer involved.

Dennis Holewinski: Tej, you know this because we were consultants. So, if people would come to us with a project and ask, “Can you do it?” Of course, Phil and I were always eager to say, “Oh, yes, we can do that. Sure. We can figure it out.” Then we’d get down to it and say, “Okay, how are we going to do this, Phil?”

Philip Charlton: You can do anything. You just have to figure out how.

Dennis Holewinski: Yes, Tej, because if there’s nobody else in the space, you’re creating it. It was challenging, but it was fun because there wasn’t anybody out there that said we were crazy. Not many anyway.

Tej Singh: Dennis, since you’ve been retired, do you have any interest in doing research or writing anything, or have you stayed at all kind of active with your former body of work, or have you picked up some more social hobbies?

Dennis Holewinski: I would say that I haven’t kept up with the industry very much. Most of it’s been through Phil. I’m in touch with people. They call me; we talk. On the social aspect, yes, but I’ve picked up other challenges, if you will. I’m a golfer, so I do a lot of golfing. But one of the things I do, and I’m very proud of that, is I run two tournaments every year for prostate cancer research and also for a vaccine for breast, ovarian, and pancreatic cancer. Over the years, we’ve raised probably three-quarters of a million dollars toward that research through my golf tournaments. And actually, I’m doing one next week. So they’re always fun. They’re always exciting. So, I’m doing that kind of work.

Tej Singh: Where do you host it?

Dennis Holewinski: I host one in Pennsylvania, near North Philadelphia, and I host the other one here in Naples, Florida. I get like 110 people, and they’re always very generous. What you find out is, I didn’t realize this. When I got prostate cancer, I thought I was the only guy in the world that had it. I bring it up here and can run these tournaments and, I mean, there’s so many people, so many guys that have had it or are struggling with it, and they just don’t know where to turn. That’s really been my life after I retired.

Let me put it this way. You got to ask yourself, “What do you want this world of yours to look like?” And then you got to ask yourself, “What are you willing to do to achieve it?” That’s my answer.

And of course, Phil’s under the same deal, you know. He’s running these charities educating kids in Belize. Can you tell him about your great program? Are you allowed to do that?

Philip Charlton: Well, he knows as well. Dennis will see we’re supporters and actually are the ones that helped me get it started. So, we do scholarships for kids in Belize. Right now, they get turned out when they’re in seventh grade if they can’t afford it, and a lot of them can’t afford to go on to high school. So, I think we’re at about 150 scholarships a year. We had a group from the industry go down, and we did some plantings at schools, to help cool them, help provide edibles and things like that. I have another group going in June from the industry. We build houses. We build churches. I think we have 35 people going in June, including seven or eight from–

Dennis Holewinski: Everybody could use a little Jesus.

Philip Charlton: There you go.

Dennis Holewinski: Do you know that’s a big deal now? In the high schools and all over here, you see these little Jesuses sitting around with a little note that says everybody needs a little Jesus.

Tej Singh: Wow. I didn’t know that.

Philip Charlton: I haven’t seen those.

Dennis Holewinski: Oh, yes. They’re all over.

Tej Singh: Phil and I share a love for whiskey. On many travels, Phil has shared a lot about you and the impact that you’ve had, not just in the industry, but on other parts of the world. Certainly, I’ve gotten very intimately familiar with Phil’s philanthropic impact as well, which has, of course, inspired me. We have our own education-focused commitment and things that we do for the local community here in Texas, so I love it. I love that even within business and post, we can do this kind of stuff.

Dennis Holewinski: Yes, doesn’t it just do wonders for your heart when you can do things for people? I know Phil had that bug. When he left, he wanted to become a minister. I said, “Oh, my God, Phil, are you going to be a minister?” I asked how long he would have to study for that. He said, “You can just go on the internet, and you can get a license in about three minutes.” However, Phil built a church.

Philip Charlton: I did put a few years into the education.

Dennis Holewinski: Well, he went to Cincinnati and built this huge church. I think it’s probably true, Tej. As you get older, the desire to give back increases. If you’re at all religious, you become more so. You’ve been working hard all your life and there are a lot of people who need your help.

Tej Singh: No doubt, at this stage of my life, I’m trying to integrate it as part of my life. Raising a young family and helping lead some of the things that we’re doing. I’m very fortunate to have Phil alongside me as we try to figure out how to continue to build on what you essentially started. And we’re having a lot of fun.

Dennis Holewinski: Congratulations to you for finding Phil because he’s one of the best guys in the industry. He’s a good reason why we were successful.

Philip Charlton: I appreciate that, Dennis.

Tej Singh: My biggest challenge is making sure Phil doesn’t divert towards any other hobby too much at this stage. I keep saying, “Phil, come on, hang out a little bit more.”

Dennis Holewinski: I give you credit for picking that up. Phil was telling me your stories and I was wondering, “How the heck is he doing that?” We couldn’t pull that off, and here he’s doing it. Phil said, “Don’t ask me, but he’s pretty good at it.”

Tej Singh: I have to tell you, Dennis, I will give all the credit to our team. I just love the people we work with. Obviously, Phil has been a key part in helping us architect and think about stuff because it’s very difficult. This is an industry. So you, at least, had some context when you started this entrepreneurial journey as a landscape architect. You saw something. If you’re coming in blind, you’re very reliant on the expertise. But being surrounded by the likes of Phil, Steve, Tom, Adam, and all the people, it helps.

Dennis Holewinski: How did you get locked in or keyed in to the utility industry? That’s what I want to know.

Tej Singh: Great question. I give so much credit to my business partner, our CEO, my dear friend Craig Taylor. Craig has this incredible knack for starting and building companies. I’ve never seen anything like it across industries, whether it’s a financial, energy type services business, or real estate. He’s very good at putting the pieces together, seeing the market opportunity, and laying a foundation.

This started way back when. It wasn’t vegetation management where we just kind of dropped in. Craig, formerly a naval officer, had a friend who saw a small opportunity. This gentleman was operating in the space. Craig can see something and then say, “I’m going to build something around that idea.” Like most of the companies we started, there was an organic starting point. We dipped the toe, the toe turned into a foot. We were diving in and then all of a sudden, once we’re in something, our heads are on swivels. Now we’re paying attention.

But we were very much like, hey, bite off something that you can manage, do it well, and keep building. That path eventually had us land on vegetation management as something. And then similarly, we are now able to do other things with the utility because we’ve been so committed to doing good work, working with the right people, emphasis on quality and so we kind of built on that. We’ve never been in a rush. We’re very patient. And again, I think that’s where Phil, yourself, me, Craig, we share that quality philosophy and we believe long term that tends to win out. So we don’t get distracted by the short-term waves of price and chasing things. We don’t get distracted on that.

Dennis Holewinski: You’re right, having the same philosophy with quality is very important. When you work for utilities, if you deliver what you promise and it’s a quality product, they stick with you. They don’t go somewhere else. They’re very loyal. And they pay their bills. Someone once asked me about my accounts receivable. I think there was once that we had an issue, but over all those years, we never had a problem.

Philip Charlton: One time, I think it was a $5,000 bill. The wrong person approved the contract and they went back.

Dennis Holewinski: That was the only time in all those years. I have a cool story to share. Do you remember when PG&E went bankrupt back in the ’80s or ’90s? That was the first time they went bankrupt. We were doing a lot of work for them. When they went bankrupt, we had, I think, $2.5 million of our work they didn’t pay. After a while, after a year, a company came that said, they’ll pay us 85% on the dollar. At that time, we said, let’s not do it. We didn’t really need to do it. We could get through this. Then it was 90%, and then it was something else. Finally, they got back on their feet and they paid us all our money back, plus 4.5% interest. It was the best deal we ever did. That was at the time when the market went crashing down, and we came out of that smelling like a rose.

Tej Singh: We went through a very similar thing with the PG&E bankruptcy that was most recent in 2018 or 2019. Similarly, there were those looking to buy at $0.70 or $0.75 on the dollar. Fortunately, Craig and I are surrounded by good mentors. We consulted a bunch of people on how to navigate that. But similarly, we patiently waited through it and were able to recoup the dollars.

You mentioned something I want to touch on. I think vernacular is important, and it helps people think about how they should view a utility or a client. We tend to think about the utility as a partner. Obviously, there’s a dominant relationship, like the utility is the one saying, I’m going to provide dollars, you’re going to provide service. But we’ve always tried to view the relationship with balance. I think that helps because instead of pedestaling the relationship, you’re in a position where you believe you have something to offer. If everyone’s operating with that mindset, you’re not afraid to deliver news that people don’t want to hear because you’re honestly approaching the work.

When I was thinking about quality, I wanted to give Dennis a little bit more of a glimpse into how we define that. I think so much of it is in the mindset of how even a supervisor interacts, at the executive level, how we interact at the accounting level, how we interact. So we’ve encouraged our people to view the relationship from the lens of partnership, not just, hey, we’ll do whatever you ask us to do. That’s just not a good business relationship, so we don’t operate that way.

Dennis Holewinski: I’m so glad to hear that because that’s the way we operated. That’s to thank the vegetation management programs. We did the study and they would say, okay, back it up. And we’d say, yes, we’ll back it up. We’re in this together. And they said, okay, we’ll spend the money and show us that we can do this, and then they did it. Or they’d say, put your reputation on the line and go testify at the Utility Commission and see if you can get the money. And we did that, and we got through the whole cycle. I mean, the people that use that, Phil, have you ever heard of any of our clients that were unhappy? We were so proud of our clients that when we would send out information, we would send them a list of all our clients and say, you call any of these people and get their opinion of how we did. It was so fun doing that.

Tej Singh: Oh, incredible. Dennis, I could do this with you all day because of the stories I’m sure I’m going to try to pull out of you. I definitely want to encourage you to do a part two with us where we can tell some more stories, but this was fantastic. I love golf. My game does not reflect my love, so maybe one day we can tee it up, or I can come attend one of your tournaments.

Dennis Holewinski: Maybe I can give you an advanced warning. You can come and play with our group. My charity, I’d love to have you come.

Tej Singh: There you go. I’d love to participate

Dennis Holewinski: Because you’re probably doing a lot of work here in Florida, right?

Tej Singh: Yes, I’m down there all the time. I go on both west and east coast. Let’s talk about that offline and let’s see if we can get another podcast scheduled with you where we can get some more stories because I love hearing the history of this business. You were obviously a very important part of the history, so thank you so much for putting this thing in motion.

Dennis Holewinski: Thank you. Phil and I have a lot of stories we’re sort of not telling you yet.

Philip Charlton: Some may not need telling.

Tej Singh: That’s part two.

Dennis Holewinski: Thank you for putting me on. I like talking about the past, and I really appreciate learning more about your company because I can see why Phil likes to work for you because you basically have the same philosophy we did. And at that, you’re going to continue to be very successful. Thank you.

Tej Singh: Thank you so much. Thank you for taking the time.

Philip Charlton: I appreciate it, Dennis. Thank you.


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 in the future, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us at We’ll chat with you soon.

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