EMPLOYEE STORIES – JIM ROBERTS
Reflecting back on a 16-year career with Active Tree Services, Chief Executive Officer Jim Roberts says he’s a prime example of how “anyone can achieve anything at Active”.
“To be honest, I’m a bit surprised to have ended up where I am, but it goes to show you can start at any level and go on to run the company.”
In Jim’s case he started as a supervisor in 2002 as Active embarked on its first ever contract in South Australia. At the time he was running his own tree business, had worked in lawn maintenance, and had previous experience contracting in the agriculture industry in England and Europe. The job with Active was something a friend suggested he should look at.
“My first role was supervising crews in the Barossa,” Jim explains. “As it was our first contract, we had to make sure we delivered what we said we would.”
It was a far different ethos to how the South Australian Active contracts run today. His crews comprised a diverse array of characters, many with little interest or experience in the industry, while the culture of the industry at large was about people doing what they always had.
Back then, South Australia featured 16 or 17 different yet entrenched tree contracting companies, all competing for work. Obtaining contracts involved hopping on a mini-bus with 12 members of the competition, looking at the site together and then bidding on the job. Generally, the company offering the cheapest quote got the green light.
“We were always two weeks away from running out of work,” Jim reflects. “But, bit by bit we grew our presence. We came in challenging the norm. We improved with systems and equipment, and delivered to the client.”
As the contracts grew, so did Jim’s responsibility. He became general manager of South Australia, then Tasmania was added to his portfolio as well. The Northern Territory and Western Australia followed.
“We split the country in two,” he says. “I looked after one half while Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland were managed from Sydney.”
Eventually, Jim took over the general operations of all of Australia, and his experience in different states gave him a valuable perspective of the unique criteria each contract offered and the various challenges involved.
There was one challenge, however, that was universal, and solving it remains a highlight of Jim’s career.
“Our big problem was that often we couldn’t find where the work was. In South Australia none of the electricity poles were numbered, so we had to physically count the poles from a place that we could identify.”
It was time-consuming, inefficient, and frustrating. It also meant on occasion crews cut the wrong span. Jim decided to tackle the issue as part of a project for a frontline management course and called in the help of Active field worker Kim Gicasvili to assist. Kim also happened to be a bit of an IT guru in his spare time. That project would go on to become the groundbreaking in-field technology that is Active Mobile and Kim has gone on to work in our IT Department, further developing and refining Active Mobile.
“We burnt a lot of midnight oil to ensure the system worked and was more effective than using a piece of paper.”
Active Mobile may be one of Jim’s highlights, but he also notes he’s made some “monumental mistakes” in a career often marked by a steep learning curve. Perhaps the most memorable was the day he accidentally cut power to the Arnott’s biscuit factory, shutting down the production of TimTams.
“They were without power for three hours, and yes that cost us some money,” he recalls.
Despite some errors along the way, Jim has always appreciated the support of Active owner and founder Mark Willcocks.
“Never once has Mark held mistakes against me, it’s always a case of ‘let’s move on’. There’s a never-ending urge to be better.”
He appreciates the further trust the Willcocks family now afford him in his appointment as CEO, noting the family ethos is a feature that carries through the company. As for Jim, his family have also been instrumental in his success.
“Sarah, my wonderful wife, has supported and encouraged me for all of our 26 years of marriage, along with our kids, Hunter and Layla,” he notes, further explaining he will remain based in South Australia as he takes on his new role.
Jim brings this support, stability and a drive for improvement into the position CEO, noting his most important responsibility is the crews in the field and finding the most effective, efficient and safe way for them to do their job.
“I spend a lot of time looking at how we can improve what we do. It’s about removing distraction and frustration, about providing a clear path for our people in the field.”
And he loves every day of that challenge.
“You never know what phone call you’re going to get. Last week I travelled to seven different places. I go and meet different characters scattered around Australia and see the individual challenges they face – from the snow of Tasmania to the tropics of the Northern Territory.
“One day I’m out seeing our people on the ground, the next meeting CEOs of significant power companies. I get to be in the field with our teams and chainsaws or in the boardroom with executives and suits.”
And does he miss being on the tools? “Immensely,” he reflects.
“Whenever I’m talking to the guys I note this. The fact is when you’re on the tools you get to complete a job. You get to see that span signed off. When you’re in management it’s very difficult to see when you’ve accomplished something. Instead, it has an accumulative effect, and that’s one of the biggest changes people experience when they move from the tools to management.”
As for the future of Active, Jim says he has big shoes to fill as former CEO John Tolmie steps away from the helm and into the role of chairman.
“John Tolmie has had one of the most challenging jobs within Active. He’s led us to a fantastic position that’s focused on the culture and the business. John has brought us together as One Team and he has set us up for the future. It was a particularly tough gig to come from the outside and achieve all these aims.”
Jim moves into the position of CEO during a time of change within the company as Mark Willcocks also officially steps back from his family-owned business. But there have been a few years to get used to the idea.
“At my first conference at Active in Crescent Head 16 years ago, Mark announced his retirement,” he laughs.
A lot has transpired in between, but Jim says the future of Active Tree Services continues to be expansion and improvement.
“We will continue to grow Active as a company. We will continue to be well-known for doing the right thing by our customers and our people. We want to be the number one choice for people who seek to work in the industry. And we will continue to look after the people who work for us in the knowledge with growth comes opportunity.”
And if anyone’s proof of the opportunity within Active, it’s Jim Roberts – the former South Australian supervisor who has now become CEO.