Kevin Caldwell was 7 years old and a business owner.
It was the best way his father, a high-ranking civil servant, found to harness his son's nearly limitless energy. Kevin, his middle son, had a knack for getting into trouble. When most kids his age were inside watching TV or hanging out with friends, Kevin was climbing trees in the north Georgia mountains, the higher the better. Kevin, it seemed, couldn’t be contained.
So his dad turned him loose on the neighborhood. "My parents gave me a lawnmower and a gas can and said, 'go talk to people.'" Kevin did, and he hasn’t stopped since.
Nearly five decades later, Caldwell, the founder and owner of Caldwell Tree Care in Roswell, GA., said it was the best thing for him. That rambunctious youth matured into a successful salesman and business owner, who through hard work and a passion for trees, turned obstacles into opportunities.
Today, Caldwell Tree Care employs nearly 30 people, and Caldwell manages a crew of 26 tree care professionals and over $3 million of machinery, including Bandit hand-fed chippers and stump grinders. Every one of his employees looks to him for guidance and direction every morning. It's something he makes seem effortless, from the first cup of coffee in the morning at 6 a.m. until the last crew gets back to the yard that night.
He gives every customer his honest assessment, no matter if he's selling to a swanky country club or a residential pruning job. Listening to him speak is a master's course in arboriculture and tree health. He talks to customers about the reality of trees, confronting them with the reality of a tree's lifespan. He'll counsel them about their fears of waking up to a tree laying in their house, and he'll explain to them how the problems they think they had aren't as major as they had feared.
To him, it's not about making the sale. It's about making the right sale -- not only giving the customer what they asked for, but also what their landscape needs.
He's even been able to perform some miracles.
"There's a tree down the street that has been dying for about 15 years, but every Easter, a family picture is taken up under that tree," Caldwell said. "We've done everything and thrown everything we have in our toolbox at that tree to maintain it. We've been performing miracles on that tree, and absent critical care that we perform, that tree would have had to be removed."
Although, he admits, that even lovers of trees have to cut them down. Sometimes a tree has to come down to make a forest healthier or safer -- even the dense urban forest surrounding Atlanta.
That's where his fleet of Bandit chippers come in.
As long as Caldwell has been involved in the business of trees, he's run Bandit chippers, starting in 1993 with a 9-inch capacity disc-style Bandit chipper. That smaller capacity chipper worked fine when he was primarily focused on landscaping, but when he moved in a direction that focused more on tree care, he knew he was going to need larger capacity. In September of 1997, he bought two green trucks and two 12-inch Bandit disc-style chippers painted green to match.
"My business plan was very simple -- go out there and get a couple of crews going, and try to make an honest living," he said.
Work was good. Caldwell was selling mostly residential pruning and trimming jobs. Word was getting around that he was doing excellent work, and the green chippers were capturing a lot of attention.
Caldwell Tree Care was barely seven months old when three major storms converged in the Atlanta area and spawned several tornadoes. The first twister was spotted just after midnight on April 9, 1998. By the time the storm has moved on from the area, roofs had been ripped from homes and businesses, buildings were leveled, and thousands of trees were knocked down into roads and in houses. The storm received nationwide news coverage and caused an estimated $250 million in damage.
Caldwell’s phone rang at 2 a.m. They were one site by 4:30 a.m., and by 9, the crews at Caldwell Tree Care had cleared 2.5 miles of roadway. They kept going.
"The reason we were able to clear so much roadway, and it was a massive client, was we had big chippers, big Bobcats and big chainsaws," Caldwell said. "We were ready, willing and able, and we had dependable machines."
In fact, his crews were so productive, they were able to complete work faster than any other tree crew on that job, so the work was his. All the other tree care companies left. That one job kept Caldwell busy from April until September. It afforded them the ability to buy more equipment and add more employees, and keep growing.
"That's one of the things that has been tried and true, really since the beginning, is our productivity," Caldwell said. "Because of our machinery, and our mechanical advantages that we use, we typically have a higher level of productivity."
More jobs came after that – some smaller, some larger. Caldwell Tree Care kept growing, adding employees and equipment. The tree care crews even started traveling out of state to help clean up after larger events.
Those first two chippers remained a large part of Caldwell Tree Care for years. One of those 12-inch capacity, disc-style chippers was a Model 200XP. When that machine was more than a decade old, Caldwell sold it to a friend of his. The price? “I sold that machine for half of what I paid for it,” he said. “It’s still being used today.”
As his company grew, other chipper manufacturers learned who he was, and started calling him. In fact, one salesman wore him down to where he agreed to demo one of their chippers.
It didn’t go well.
That machine was down in Florida cleaning up after the hurricanes of 2004, and it broke down. Caldwell didn’t have time to mess with a brand new machine that couldn’t handle the rigors of the work, so he got ahold of his Bandit salesman.
“He brought us a beautiful 1890 drum chipper,” Caldwell said. The salesman drove through the night to make sure the Caldwell guys had a working chipper on hand. It showed up, and a crew who had only ever known Bandit’s disc-style chippers got their first taste of the crushing and pulling power Bandit’s drum-style chippers are known for.
“That thing could process phenomenal amounts of debris,” he said. It changed his perception that day. “We’ve never bought a disc chipper since. That was 14 years ago.”
And every chipper since then has been a Bandit.