You may have seen the Chris Francis Tree Care bucket trucks, debris trucks, spider lifts, or other equipment in a neighborhood near you. Whether it’s trimming limbs, total tree removal, installing tree canopy lighting, providing supplemental support, or taking care of your plants’ health every month, as they do for us, you know the job will be done professionally, and the result will be exactly as they promised. It’s a reputation that has been earned since Chris was 12 years old.
Chris is cut from a different cloth. He carved his path and built his business on best practices and tried to do a better job for his clients each step of the way. He was born in Pascagoula, where his dad, Mike Francis, worked at Ingalls Shipyard. Both parents (Mike and Mary) are originally from Daphne. The family moved to South Carolina, Tennessee, Montrose, Fairhope, then Daphne, where they still live. Chris graduated from Fairhope High School in 1996.
Chris didn’t receive an allowance as a young boy, so he began mowing lawns. He would push a lawnmower down Captain O’Neal and Beall Lane, where neighbors would hire him to do their yards. By the time he graduated high school, he had a real business and hired his friends to help. He saw the potential of a lawn care business and wanted to learn more about plants, so he enrolled in landscape classes at Faulkner (now Coastal Alabama).
A couple of years after graduating from high school, Chris was getting a little burned out running the landscape and lawn care business. At about this time, his parents took a vacation to Hawaii. When they returned and told Chris all about Hawaii, he called the hotel where his parents stayed to learn more about island life from the front desk clerk, Nana. Soon after, he booked a flight and was met at the airport by Nana and her friend. Hawaii was beautiful and fun for Chris, but after a period of homelessness followed by having to work multiple jobs just to make ends meet, he headed back to the mainland.
He enrolled at the University of Alabama to study business. Chris hitched a ride to Tuscaloosa with Jason Williams, who after about an hour into the drive said, “I think it would be cool to build a raft and float down the river to Fairhope.” Chris agreed, and they got to work.
Joined by another friend, Clint Harper, they built a 10’X20’ wooden raft, named it ‘Huck’s Revenge’, and stocked it with everything they would need for the journey. It got off to a rough start when they nearly went over the first waterfall at Oliver Lock and Dam. They would stay overnight on the banks of the river and the people that lived or vacationed on the river would invite them in for a real meal. Life was good, and 28 days later they arrived at the Fairhope Municipal Pier.
Chris discovered a college exchange program that offered reciprocal in-state tuition, so he headed to California State University (Dominguez Hills) to continue studying business. “I picked it because it was the nearest campus to the ocean and Los Angeles,” says Chris. “I figured if I was going to be in school, I may as well make an adventure out of it. But it took getting away to appreciate home, not just the comfort of being home, but realizing how awesome of a place it was… compared to other places.”
Chris returned home, and he earned his BS Degree in Business Administration with a concentration in Economics and Finance from the University of South Alabama. While in school, he worked with a finance company and realized he didn’t want to be inside working a desk job. He wanted to be outside, so he went back to what he knew, the landscape business.
On January 1, 2001, he started anew with Chris Francis Landscapes. In addition to lawn maintenance, he began doing plant installations and everything that came along with landscaping. “When a job required tree work, I recommended a tree service to trim and remove trees. They would come in and trash the lawn and landscape, and I would have to fix it. I thought it made me look bad, and I wasn’t getting anything for the referral. But I couldn’t leave their yard a mess from someone I referred” He began telling tree services, “You cut the trees, and I’ll do the cleanup (for a fee).” That led to them doing more and more of the work themselves.
In 2004, Hurricane Ivan hit, and by that time, Chris was well-positioned with people and equipment. By 2006, the tree service division had become a formidable competitor with other legitimate tree services in the area. He was invited by (then Daphne city arborist) Marshall Parsons to attend a conference for arborists and learned there was a professional side to arboriculture.
Chris attended classes from green industry professional Fred Kapp, who said,” If you become a professional, you will be seen as a professional, and won’t have to be a low bidder for projects. “He laid out a path to become an industry professional and I bought in,” says Chris. He began earning certifications and state licenses that built his credentials.
In 2008, Chris married Chelsea Hargett, and also earned his Arborist Certification. This enabled him to bid on certain projects, including a state-champion live oak. The owner of the property quickly shut down the construction project that was damaging the tree and brought Chris and his team in to protect it. “If I hadn’t been certified, I would not have had a chance to work on that project. The owner specifically requested a Certified Arborist.”
In 2015, he became a Board Certified Master Arborist, the highest level of certification offered by the International Society of Arboriculture. Speaking at conferences and surrounded by credentialed industry professionals, he felt he needed more education, so he returned to school from 2018 through 2021, earning a Master of Science in Arboriculture and Urban Forestry from the University of Central Lancashire in England. “That was tough, trying to run a business, spend time with my wife and kids (Noah & Heidi), coach soccer, course work, research, thesis… then there was COVID and Hurricane Sally. Plus, we moved twice. But now I’m one of the very few practicing arborists in the world with a master’s degree.”
At this point in our conversation, we talked about Low Impact Development (LID). LID is returning a developed property to how it existed before it was forested. We need to save our trees. Leaves intercept rainwater, leaf litter on the ground filters water, and roots absorb water. In this process, groundwater recharges slowly instead of massive runoff, which creates flooding and erosion downhill.
“When a property is clearcut, there is nothing there to slow the water down,” says Chris. “There are lots of ways to mitigate damage on the front end of development,” he says. “Tree protection is more than just tying a ribbon around the trunk; it’s about saving the root system, which is very near the surface and extends much farther than the canopy.”
Over the years, Chris has made a full transition from landscape services to trees, changing the name to reflect the company’s focus, caring for trees. “We strive to be the experts in our field.” As the company has grown, Chris has had to take on more of a leadership role, which he embraces.
Chris Francis Tree Care is constantly adding educational and training programs. They even have climbing competitions. They enable employees to succeed at their job and to learn from others through training and mentoring. They incorporate team-building events such as offshore fishing expeditions that help employees bond by getting them out of their comfort zones and far enough out that cell phones don’t work.
Chris Francis Tree Care offers benefits with paid holidays, vacation, and health care, plus an IRA with a company match to attract good team members. There is a career ladder that spells out exactly what a team member needs to do to earn pay raises and positional advancements. A few years ago, Chris added a safety director position because safety is priority number one in his book. “We pay well and want our people to know they are part of a team, but we also want them to come home with all their fingers and toes.”
As the business has grown, he continues to add new equipment and trucks. “Productivity has increased, and the new equipment allows for better service and fewer delays.” They have purchased spider lifts to access tight overhead spots, which take the strain off the climbers and keep climbers out of dangerous trees. “We don’t want to get in a rush, but we are efficient and safe. We also want to make sure we take care of clients’ properties.”
They have commercial and municipal contracts, but most of their work is for residential clients. In addition to general tree pruning or removal, they offer a monthly plant health care service to monitor and preventatively treat fungi, disease, soil issues, and insect pests. “People tend to oversimplify trees,” he says. “Trees are complex living organisms. Oftentimes clients are faced with decisions about structurally compromised trees, but it doesn’t have to be black or white, remove the tree or leave it alone. There are tons of things we can do to keep trees in place while still mitigating risk and addressing health concerns.”
They have added a dedicated team to design and install outdoor lighting systems with a focus on not damaging trees in the process. “Doing it the right way using air excavation and tree-friendly methods is important. We’ve installed projects all over Baldwin and Mobile County, but mostly in the Point Clear area. Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of damage caused by lighting installed incorrectly, sometimes even killing the trees they were intended to highlight. Most of the issues are from damage to roots. When done correctly, it’s beautiful and safe.” They also can install lightning protection as they have done for the beautiful live oaks at the Country Club of Mobile.
Chris likes to be engaged on the front end of a new development or project. “You are much better at preserving what you have as opposed to trying to repair damage after the fact. We are in the long game. If an arborist is involved before a project begins, then we can create a plan to avoid tree damage, which can become an expensive problem to fix, if even possible. A lot of what we do is education about where roots are and how to avoid damaging them in the process.”
It's refreshing to hear Chris discuss his profession. “Consulting with an arborist before you start construction will get you the best outcome and save you money down the road,” he says. Linda and I know first-hand. Chris Francis Tree Care helped save our live oak after construction damage. They provide monthly plant health care, and we are very pleased. After Hurricane Sally, they came to save and stake the trees that could be saved and cut and cleared the ones that were beyond saving.
They are good folks to know, and you can expect professional service with a light touch your landscape will appreciate!