The scenario of Covid leaving the majority of businesses with a lot of catching up to do has a certain familiarity for Sarah Fenwick and Gareth Pennington.
The couple went through the care system together during their teens. As care leavers, with support suddenly less readily available, they overcame a new set of challenges, learning skills and holding down jobs while also growing as people and planning a future as parents to two little girls.
Their story caught the attention of regional and national media nearly two years ago after they launched their own business, The Tree Fellas Hull. Covid created a few scares as they had to come to terms with new ways of working, but they did it so successfully that the greater stresses came from business expansion as they dealt with managing the investment and recruitment demanded by bigger contracts.
“We’re getting more and more resilient,” said Sarah as she reviewed the mixed fortunes of the company’s first two years.
“We’re doing things our own way and understanding what business owners mean when they tell you not to waste your energy by stressing over things you can’t change. Things happen all the time and in business there’s always something new and something not quite going to plan, and you just get used to managing the stress.”
Tree Fellas first hit the headlines in summer 2019 when Sarah joined the distance learning courses with Golding Computer Services in Hull to pass Level 1 and Level 2 of the computerised accounting for business qualification awarded by the International Association of Bookkeepers (IAB). She followed that in February 2020 by winning the title of IAB Student of the Year, an international accolade identified as a significant milestone by Di Garbera, a director at Goldings and Sarah’s course tutor.
Di said: “Sarah’s story is amazing and she fully deserves the award. She told me that 10 years ago she probably used her care home history as an excuse because she didn’t think anybody with her background could do the things she dreamed of doing.”
A year on there is evidence aplenty that Sarah has developed into a stronger person, much more confident and less reliant on others but always desperate to learn and to share knowledge, although not to the point where she spends so much time helping others that it gets in the way of running Tree Fellas.
Sarah has taken a step back from a formal role advising other young people with business ambitions, but she still gets involved in initiatives to support care leavers. She was a key figure in Operation Santa’s Sleigh, the appeal launched by With Care Hull late in 2020 to provide a Christmas gift for young people who have left care and to put a smile on their faces.
Sarah said: “There are a lot of young care leavers living independently after coming out of children’s homes, where they were financially stable, into a world with very little support.”
She has also begun to outsource some of the tasks of running the business, which now employs a team of five and is investing sizeable amounts in equipment and health and safety essentials.
Gareth leads the Tree Fellas team in the field, delivering the company’s core services of taking trees down, maintaining, pruning and replanting trees, clearing development sites and grinding down stumps. Sarah’s role is to provide the back office infrastructure.
She said: “I wear a lot of different hats – accounts, sales, finance, marketing, management of diaries, quoting for jobs. But because I wasn’t skilled in all of those, everything has been a steep learning curve right down to the latest task of doing our SEO. We were paying someone to do it but I learned how to do it myself and it’s worked really well.
“It’s been great to do these things but I have now offloaded the accounts and bookkeeping because we were getting too busy. I did it for a year with help from Di and I’ve just completed the first 12 months of doing it by myself, but that initial support was massive for us.
“As a business owner you have to be willing to learn these things because however much you know about your own industry there isn’t anybody who can be savvy about every single aspect of running a business.”
A sign of Sarah’s enhanced maturity comes with her knowledge and opinions of the rest of the arboriculture market. Two years ago she was apprehensive and defensive as she surveyed the good and the bad, but all of that has changed as a result of building reputation and contacts.
She said: “Choose community over competition every time. You will get people who want to be in competition against you, but if you are confident in your own brand you don’t need to be in competition with everybody. I have managed to find a community of tree surgeons and we all fly each other’s flags and look out for each other, marketing each other.”
Tips offered by other business owners have become part of Sarah’s routine, such as keeping a notebook and pen next to her bed.
She said: “I never really knew what they meant by that until I had so much going through my head and I found I had to write it down to clear my mind and get a good night’s sleep ready for the morning. Because stress in business is just wasted energy.”
The experience of two festive periods has taught Tree Fellas that generally not many people require their services in December or January, and that even storm clouds have a silver lining.
She said: “The low levels of business in December 2019 and January 2020 were very worrying. The work we do wasn’t a high priority for people and the weather didn’t encourage them to think about getting work done on their gardens, but then the storms came.”
Storms Brendan, Ciara and Dennis swept across the country, bringing down trees that then needed to be cleared, and weakening others that had to be made safe. Covid then curtailed the company’s activities but they were able to resume once the Arboricultural Association had published its safe working practices, with particular attention paid to travelling separately to jobs, avoiding sharing equipment and limiting customer interaction to a minimum.
As the weather picked up, and people became resigned to spending long periods at home, more commissions came in from householders revamping often substantial gardens and from businesses working on their premises while staff were away.
Sarah said: “We are landing bigger contracts and regular work with some reputable companies. It makes us proud that these people are putting their trust in us. We are working with well-known local businesses and on high-profile local projects.”
Expansion has brought with it the need for yet more expertise: “We’re modernising the fleet and recruiting more people. Sorting out the pay and tax is the scariest part – along with passing the VAT threshold. The best advice I can give people is that it’s not your money and you should keep it separate. Our accountant is fantastic and we manage everything carefully to make sure it doesn’t get out of control.”
Again, Sarah credits key people in her network for providing the guidance that has helped her business set down roots, and instilled the confidence to grow.
She said: “I am like a sponge trying to soak up guidance and knowledge and the best kind of support and the advice I really cling to comes from other business people, including those who have failed in the past on the way to becoming successful.
“One of the things I really love about business is the problem solving. You have those days when your vans are off the road and you have all sorts of problems, and as a business owner you have to accept that nothing will ever be plain sailing.
“You meet people who have been where you are and have faced these hurdles and you learn that it’s OK to have problems and make mistakes. They have got used to dealing with the ups and downs because business really is a roller coaster.
“Every time something comes up that you have never been through you get an awkward feeling, a bit of anxiety, and you have to overcome that in order to meet the challenge, do it once and become more comfortable with it. I didn’t really understand that until I discussed it with another business person, and they told me it was perfectly normal and makes you a better business owner. “As your business gets more and more serious you really have to pull up your trousers and start being so much better in every way. It’s all been very scary, but I know I will keep overcoming the worries.”