treemagineers – a selection of recollections and observations 2/3

The following article was first published in the Kletterblatt of the Munich tree climbing school in December 2022.

The search for manufacturers

What followed was a restless period of searching for suitable manufacturers who would be willing to work with us – a rather daunting task considering that we had little to no experience in this field. 

Moreover, there were few comparable reference points at that time. One of them was Arbor Master with Ken Palmer and Rip Tompkins in the US, or Treevolution with Liam McKeown in the UK. These two companies were founded and run by arborists. They had a number of strategic partnerships with manufacturers of hardware and textiles, as well as with manufacturers of power tools, such as chainsaws. So that was the direction in which we started looking. We found that manufacturers were generally very open to discussion so long as it was about being shown our ideas – but less willing to commit to specific things. In retrospect, we found that at this stage it is terribly easy to give away a lot of ideas and know-how without any return. This is difficult to avoid, as the problem is that you do not get closer to the goal if you are not willing to give anything away for fear that a concept or item might be copied. Interestingly, Petzl was the only manufacturer that communicated openly and honestly on this matter. They declared very clearly that they were open to discussion, but that they wanted us to register our designs first, because if they liked what they saw, they would adapt and use it. 

In fact, in the early days, Petzl was in many ways one of the reference points for us in terms of the thoroughness of the design and the documentation of their products. In 2005, we travelled to Petzl HQ in Crolles, France, to discuss a possible collaboration. We visited V-Access, Petzl’s impressive training centre, and spent a day surrounded by the iconic designs we had worked with for years – eventually, however, it became clear that the collaboration would involve exclusivity for Petzl, so we declined, preferring to remain on friendly terms. At this point we were already focusing on DMM as a strategic partner for hardware.

Liam McKeown from the Snowdonia-based training company Treevolution introduced us to DMM and in particular to Fred Hall, which was to have a lasting impact on treemagineers’ future path. Considering we had no established track record, we were naturally an unknown quantity to any potential partners. Looking back, I try to imagine how manufacturers must have perceived us back then. As people with interesting ideas? Ideas that might at best only appeal to a small niche – if any at all? Be that as it may, DMM decided to take the risk, even though the partnership only came about after a false start with a two-year delay. The association with DMM allowed us to move forward with two projects: the complex ring required to make treeMOTION and the pulley for the Hitch Climber. The Hitch Climber pulley went through a series of development steps before ending up in the form that many may still be familiar with today. Originally it was a pulley with two holes and a third small hole for a cord or bolt (to fix the side plates). Chris came up with the idea for a full third hole during a development session, this would allow for many additional configurations – actually in hindsight a logical thing to do, but something no one had thought of or seen the need for up to that point.

The decision to enter into a strategic partnership with Teufelberger for the production of textiles also fell into this period. After a long, unsuccessful search for a manufacturer in the field of textiles, we were slowly running out of ideas when Chris suggested that it might be worthwhile to get in touch with the manufacturer of FSE Sirius, during that time a widely used and highly valued friction hitch cordage.  It turned out that FSE is a brand owned by Teufelberger, an Austrian manufacturer which had been unknown to us until then. We contacted Teufelberger and arranged a meeting in Basel.

The day of the meeting was stormy and there had been heavy, wet snowfall. So when Markus Langanger, Teufelberger’s representative, showed up, we decided to move the meeting to the warmth of a café across the street from the yard of my former company. Every time I think about it, I have to smile when I imagine the meeting from Markus’ perspective: he must have arrived in Basel a bit frazzled, after just having driven seven hours from Wels in Austria, where he was promptly set upon by enthusiastic arborists he had never met before, to then be whisked off to a café. There, in a humid and damp atmosphere, surrounded by slightly perplexed elderly ladies drinking coffee, he was shown all sorts of tree care configurations in rapid succession – on a coat stand using a coat hanger as a makeshift anchor point. When Markus drove back to Austria at the end of the afternoon, in all likelihood more than slightly dazed and confused, Chris and I were really not sure what would happen next. To everyone’s great surprise, Markus got back in touch to us to let us know that Teufelberger was interested in moving forward with the climbing harness project, but that it was up to us to provide proof that the harness was indeed certifiable. Consequently, we contacted a certification body and had the harness certified according to EN358 and 813 (by then using more conventional aluminium hardware provided by DMM, not the wooden prototypes!).  The final hurdle was the other condition that Teufelberger had made, which was that we would have to organise the first 500 harness orders to justify them ramping up their production. 

At this point a big thank you is due to Tobe Sherrill, Robert Knot, Honey Brothers, Freeworker and Jelte Buddingh, because without their belief and commitment there would have never have been a treeMOTION – and treemagineers would have been nothing but a pipe dream.  

To this day, launching a product is always a nerve-wracking affair. Of course we believe in the concept, but the confirmation only comes when the dealers and end-users are equally convinced. What made the launch of the climbing harness even more nerve-wracking was the fact that the whole thing was financed by the three of us. We were clear from the beginning that we wanted to be independent and free of debt. This was a conscious decision so that we would retain the freedom to make decisions and pursue projects as we pleased, plus we wanted to make them free from any kind of outside financial pressure. The flip side of the coin was that we had to finance treemagineers privately for years and it would take quite some time before we could cover the costs – or better still, generate some income from it. 

A central premise of treemagineers has always been that we do this because we enjoy working together and enjoy the opportunities the project offers to give something back to the tree care industry. Conversely, we want to have the freedom to get out if we no longer enjoy it – therefore this meant that investors were never really an option. 

The launch of treeMOTION and Hitch Climber

The launch of treeMOTION and the Hitch Climber took place in 2006 at the International Society for Arboriculture’s International Tree Climbing Competition (ITCC) in Minneapolis, MN (USA), which Beddes and I took part in. Beddes used the pre-certified prototype harness, we both climbed with pre-production Hitch Climber. We showed up for the gear check with a binder full of documentation and test data. Needless to say, there ensued an interesting gear check. 

This first public presentation of the treeMOTION and the Hitch Climber, with which Beddes won the championship, caused quite a stir and was the starting point for something that has grown and grown over the years. Building on the Hitch Climber and treeMOTION, a more or less sustainable financial basis was created that enabled us to push ahead with the development of other equipment and projects. Over time, other products were developed with great attention to detail – and these in turn generated income that enabled us to pursue and fund further projects.

Chemistry matters

This is perhaps a good time to reflect upon why the chemistry within treemagineers worked or how we divided up who does what. Chris, Beddes and I share many similarities, most notably that all three of us are practicing arborists. Yet we each bring our own specific skills to the table: It goes without saying that Beddes is an exceptional climber. After all, it’s not by chance that one wins the ITCC nine times. In addition, he brings a unique perspective. Chris is meticulous and very structured in his approach. Without his technical skills and organised mindset, much of what we have achieved with treemagineers would simply not have been possible. I have always enjoyed communicating concepts and techniques in workshops and at events as well as explaining the thought process behind the products. Of course, this is a gross oversimplification of how treemagineers works, but it has proven helpful over the years that each of us has areas where we feel comfortable and can contribute to the project.

It’s not only about gear

The vision we had and have for treemagineers is that it should be more than just a commercial venture. We do not see ourselves as just developers of equipment, but rather that treemagineers offers the opportunity to learn more about topics that interest us, to dig deeper. With this in mind, we have been involved in a number of projects over the years, such as the HSE and Forestry Commission rigging research, as well as looking more closely at a variety of other topics through testing, such as the compatibility between ascenders and climbing ropes, testing rigging systems, the effects that abrasion has on hardware, the configuration of connectors or how stitched terminations behave under high cycles – to name but a few. We have always believed that a deeper understanding of the subject matter is essential for high-quality product development and leads to a safer, better-thought out product. But it takes time and effort to dig deeper, there is no doubt about that.

In addition to working with our strategic partners, we have also been involved in other areas. Over a long period of time, treemagineers was involved in the ISA Tree Climbing Championships, offering workshops around the event, contributing expertise, e.g. on the ITCC Technical Advisory Committee, or climbing as a participant or volunteering to help organise and run the individual disciplines. 

Another milestone in the calendar, in which we are still heavily invested, is the Climbers’ Forum at the German Tree Care Days in Augsburg. This annual gathering has developed into a premium event that is unique in the world, showcasing the culture of climbers in arboriculture. Not only has a lot of time and effort been invested, but also financial resources, for example, treemagineers invested in the development and manufacturer of the climbing tower, a tree stand and continue to provide the equipment needed to coordinate the Climbers’ Forum. From a purely business point of view, this kind of investment may seem questionable, but for us it was about giving something back to the industry as an appreciation for the trust people have placed in the products we were involved in. 

To be continued…