A New Frontier

After raking up after tree climbers as a teenager to running his own arboriculture businesses, Simon Lonsdale gives a unique perspective on the industry in both Northern and Southern Hemispheres.

The secret to a happy working life? Enthusiasm. If you love what you do and retain the enthusiasm for what brought you to that career in the first place, chances are good work days far outweigh the bad. “You just absorb knowledge, want to learn more and get better and more efficient if you’re genuinely interested in what you do,” says Simon Lonsdale, director of Frontier Tree Services on Queensland’s Gold Coast.

Some 25 years after his arboriculture career started, Simon says he’s lost none of the boyhood passion for trees and the forest he’s had since growing up in a small town in the North of England. “I’m a tree geek, still a tree spotter and every day is a learning day,” he explains. “Understanding tree mechanics, why they do what they do and why we prune like we do. I’m really grateful to have a job where I work outside. It’s the best in the world on a day like today (May in Queensland) when days are crisp, there’s a perfect blue sky and you can see for miles from the trees. It’s not so good in January when it’s 36°C and 90 per cent humidity though!”

His quarter-century in the game – both in Northern and Southern Hemispheres – has given him a wealth of experience to draw upon. Yes, there are the years on the tools, but also learning from mistakes. Eight years ago he broke both his legs and was off work for a year after “I cut myself out of a palm tree,” he says. “I’d had 19 years of full-time climbing and had only minor incidents up until then. Mine was a major accident from such an insignificant mistake. It was driven by my own inefficiency – not poor training, management, equipment or bad practice.”

It was a bad decision that cost him heavily, but if any positive can come from it, Simon says it focused his mentality that a specific issue can have catastrophic consequences. “On a tree site, that can mean serious injury or death. As a business owner now, I have to be aware that multiple things can go wrong.”

Now 42, Simon owns Frontier Tree Services, the same company that sponsored him when he arrived in Australia in 2005. “I now run multiple successful businesses, and I’m so grateful I dropped into an industry I really liked,” he says. “I’ll be an arborist until the day I retire. We’re looking after the land and I’m a custodian for the urban forest here on the Gold Coast. I hope my kids will one day take over the business and carry it on.”

As a schoolboy he was working weekends and holidays at his father’s landscaping company in England when he had the epiphany. “I was in castle grounds somewhere and these guys turned up and I was amazed how they climbed trees. It looked a high-adrenaline job, climbing, swinging around and cutting branches. It looked the rock star part of working on the land.”

Simon says the English arboriculture industry is better regulated than Australia’s, and his four years of study and training meant he was equivalent to an AQF Level 5 qualified arborist by the age of 20. Since moving Down Under he’s worked for the Gold Coast City Council as an arboriculture planning officer; tree assessor for the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal and is former President of the Queensland Arboriculture Association (QAA), still remaining on its executive committee today.

“I got involved with them (QAA) over ten years ago when I was an employee,” he says. “I was dragged in to bring my point of view as a European climber coming down here. In England we were licensed and regulated, and when I came to Australia it was nothing like that, especially in Queensland. It was kind of like the Wild West.”

Simon says things have improved on a number of fronts, including training packages, the timelines it takes to become an arborist and codes of practice books. “It’s more stringent and it’s harder to be signed off so quickly. The quality of students coming out is better than in previous years. But our industry needs to work more on education, being respectable and responsible, and in educating the customer.”

This final point is key. Simon considers 90 per cent of tree work is customer driven, and arborists tend to give them what they want, “whether that’s good practice or bad practice,” he says. “People can be blasé about trees in their yard and it’s up to the integrity of whoever turns up to give the right advice for what’s needed. Sometimes it seems more about the dollar value rather than the outcome.”

Simon’s tactic is different. He says he uses his years of experience to empower clients with the right information so they can make an informed decision about requirements and outcomes. “I share my experience; we don’t scaremonger people and tell them their trees are dangerous. I never tell them what they need to do unless it’s blatantly obvious and it’s an issue they’re completely blind to.”

As a business owner, Simon says while it’s good news there’s plenty of work out there, his biggest issue is finding staff. He employs 14 people across his businesses, all full-time – the climbers, groundies, machine operators and administration. “I’d love more Arborists seeking full time employment. Once qualified, most become contractors, rather than taking permanent roles. Good culture and a good working environment is so important to me. You can’t build this without permanent employees.”

At the end of the day, it’s about trust and experience. In arboriculture every day is different: trees, weather, scenarios, risks, everything. “I’m always learning,” Simon says, “but it helps when you’ve been doing this a long time to get a broad understanding of what’s going to happen at each job. More experience and skill levels are what I think we’d all like to see in our industry.” That, and the people working in it holding on to the enthusiasm Simon has managed after all these years.

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