Hoppe Tree Service and the Urban Wood Lab


An interview with August Hoppe


How did your business get started?

Hoppe Tree Service is a third generation full-service tree care company. We specialize in everything from planting, pruning, taking care of sick trees, and eventual removal. For the longest time, we were just cutting our removed trees into firewood and not thinking anything of it. A couple of years ago, we had a surplus of trees to cut into firewood and felt we had the ability to do more. We could see the trends of people becoming more interested in urban wood lumber and milling, plus the emerald ash borer was spreading, so we launched The Urban Wood Lab to control waste streams while putting urban wood to its highest and best use. We had all of the pieces in place and launched in 2014.

What percentage of your business is represented by urban wood?

Right now it is still low, 3 to 5 percent of our business, but the company is growing at a fast rate. Within five years, I predict it will become between 5 and 10 percent of our revenue. Our goal would be to get to a place where we both remove trees and take on logs from other sources, becoming more of an aggregate of urban logs.

How do you present the concept of urban wood to your customers?

Sustainability and uniqueness. We promote the fact that this is a better use of the wood, and encourage customers not to let it go to waste — these are trees that have a second value and purpose when they come down. A percentage of our customer base comes into The Urban Wood Lab to buy finished products such as boards or furniture. We also do a lot of contract milling and drying where the customer has a large log they want us to cut and dry properly for them to use the wood. Another large percentage of customers are tree clients who when they realize they have to remove their tree, we take it down, mill it, dry it, and they either get the wood back or we create a piece of furniture for them. That is part of the uniqueness of our company: we can plant your tree and eventually, we can make a table out of it. All the while caring for it at every point in between.

What incentives encourage you to divert your logs from a waste stream?

For us, it is twofold — economic and emotional. Economically, if we do it right, and efficiently, we can make money. Investing in different equipment to remove logs in larger pieces, creating systems to sort wood based on value, and creating different yards around Milwaukee so we have different places we can take logs are all ways we can protect the higher value for the larger logs, reduce transportation and handling costs, and diversify services to clients. This all contributes to the growth of our business and presents new opportunities to our employees.

The emotional side is that we can feel good about transforming our industry. Urban wood is something we feel strongly about and it is a lot more exciting, rewarding, and satisfying than simply turning logs into mulch or firewood.

How would you describe the process you went through to enter the urban wood market?

We made subtle changes. Nothing drastic. The urban wood market dovetails nicely with that we do. There is no one better at harvesting trees than the arborist, so it is certainly fitting.  We invested in bigger trucks, which cost more money, but they also allow us to be more efficient on the job site, and the new equipment is shared between the urban wood and the tree services divisions. Our biggest challenge was to convince our employees to handle logs a little differently as we changed how crews collected and removed trees from the job site.

Name the best resources you encountered that you’d like to share with others.

There were quite a few people who were instrumental in helping us along the way. Our original partner came from a logging background and helped us get started. Craftsmen helped us understand how woodworkers like to have the wood processed. The Department of Natural Resources Forest and utilization team provided logistical support and resources for kiln drying.

How do you promote or market your urban wood business?

We cross-brand to our existing client base. Telling the story of urban wood and providing the uniqueness of natural edge wood slabs are both working very well for us right now. We also participate in local networking and exhibiting events, such as home and garden shows. We market to anyone who has an appreciation for the uniqueness of wood. This is a diverse audience but many of them are hobbyists, woodworkers, and craftsmen. We are not on a scale yet to sell commercially at large volumes but that is one of our goals.

Name your top three overall challenges working with urban wood.

  1. Creating consistent inventory. There is a demand for urban wood and we have a hard time keeping up with inventory to meet these needs as we build clientele and look to attract more commercial customers.
  2. Streamlining processes to become more efficient. We are working hard to increase production, which means more milling, drying, creating different systems to move wood faster, optimizing the process of transporting and handling of the logs.
  3. The uniqueness of the trees. Logistically, the wood is heavy, labor intensive, and machinery intensive. It can be difficult to do anything on a large scale, but we are looking into mechanisms to make that more uniform.

Name your top three reasons to work with urban wood.

  1. Being able to expand our services to our existing clientele.
  2. To be able to do something that benefits society.
  3. Increasing opportunities for employees.

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The Urban Wood Network is funded in part by the USDA Forest Service, State & Private Forestry, Cooperative Forestry, and the USDA Forest Service Forest Products Laboratory.  The Urban Wood Network provides equal employment opportunities (EEO) to all employees and applicants for employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or genetics.