Henri Ghijben of Southampton-based HRG Tree Surgeons knows a thing or two about failure – and how to recover from it. Now he’s putting what he knows into a mentoring programme to help other business owners in the arb world learn from his mistakes.

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ELEVEN years after starting his own tree surgery business, Henri Ghijben lost everything. With no option but to declare insolvency, he was forced to lay off 30 people and sell his family home to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds of debt. Three years later he has built his business back up from scratch and is on a mission to share everything he has learned with other arborists – to help them avoid making the same mistakes.

In the UK, 20 per cent of all businesses fail in the first year, 60 per cent in the first three years, and 80 per cent in the first 10 years. This is a statistic many will hear from Henri at the start of one of his webinars or mentoring sessions, which he began offering earlier this year. The figures clearly trouble him, as he knows how devastating the loss of a business can be.

At 20 years old, Henri knew one of the goals he wanted to achieve in life was to run his own business. He didn’t know, at the time, what kind of business he wanted to create, but after a friend offered him the opportunity of a start in tree surgery, that soon became his focus. 

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He said: “Over the next four years I worked for various different companies, gaining a lot of experience, and told everyone I met I wanted to start a business of my own. Then in 2008, the arb firm I was working for went under and I was made redundant. I had a summer where I wasn’t getting much work and got a call from a former colleague who said he could offer me work as a subcontractor – but that would mean I’d have to start my own business.”

With the promise of work, he took out a £15,000 loan, bought a transit van and chipper and HRG Tree Surgeons was born. It grew quickly, going from one person to five to 10 to 20 to 25 to 30, securing a lucrative contract with SSE in addition to a range of utility, commercial and domestic work.

“Things were good,” he said. “I was making money and the business kept growing. Then, about five years ago, SSE changed our lovely day-rate contract and it immediately became a race to the bottom with other contractors, everyone undercutting everyone else – which happens a lot in this industry. My problem was I didn’t know my numbers, so I was pricing too cheap. 

“They then changed the contract again and put it out to tender with all these other companies – and we came fifth. At that point, what I should have done is lay off all my guys. But because I had a really close-knit team, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I thought no, we can make this work. So I made a really stupid decision and subcontracted it to the others, who obviously tended for a lot less than us. And then we stupidly started scaling up, which I thought I could do on a tighter margin.

“We had months where I didn’t know if we could pay the wages. It was so stressful. It got to a point where, in one month, we’d make 40 grand and lose 50. It was just a roller coaster of emotions. Then the factoring company sent an insolvency practitioner in who said the business was insolvent. My wife was due to give birth in two weeks and I couldn’t bring myself to tell her.”

At this time, still trying to keep his business afloat, Henri called on the services of a business coach. 

“He charged £2,000 a month, which was a lot for me at the time, but it was the best money I ever spent. He helped me a lot, showed me where I’d been going wrong and got me studying how to properly run a business – but by this point it was too far gone.”

Taking out another loan with personal guarantees to try and trade out of the slump, Henri managed to carry on a while longer, until May of 2019, when the business finally went under, leaving him with a mountain of personal debt.

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“I had to stand in front of my whole staff and lay off around 30 guys, which was heartbreaking,” he said. “We had to sell our family home to pay off £200,000 of debt. I never imagined I would ever have to do that, but we just grew too big.

“We went down to eight people and tried to make another go of it, which we were legally able to do by putting everything in my wife’s name, but it was tough. 

“My mental health suffered. I couldn’t really function for about two months. I was fortunate to hold on to a couple of good people who stuck by me and actually ran the business while I was practically non-existent. And we subcontracted to some other firms and managed to get by for a few months. Then, in January 2020, I got my head together and said ‘I need to build this business back up’.”

Over the last two and a half years, he’s done just that, taking HRG Tree Surgeons back up to a team of 14, getting a firm handle on his numbers, securing a wealth of new contracts through diligent sales and marketing, instilling a positive workplace culture and systemising everything so it functions perfectly well without his day-to-day involvement (leaving him able to focus on the four other businesses he’s started in the last 18 months).

Now, Henri has distilled the key lessons he has learned into four pillars for business success – numbers, sales and marketing, culture and systems and systemisations – which he explains in detail in the free webinars he has been offering to the arb community.

He has launched a podcast – Fail Forward – in which he interviews business leaders about their failures, aiming to change the stigma of failure from a negative into a positive.

And he has launched a ‘Mastermind’ programme, bringing small groups of arborists together in mentoring sessions to talk through their challenges, offer guidance and set goals.

“I want to try and help people not make the same mistakes as me,” he said. “And I think an industry where we’re all working together and trying to raise the bar will lead to a lot more successful tree surgery businesses and, hopefully, more money for everyone.

“There are a lot of people who become tree surgeons because it’s a passion, but they don’t know how to run a business. They might lack experience or be academically challenged, like I was, and end up going bust or stuck running a company where they’re constantly in the office, running 70-, 80- or 90-hour weeks. That’s not a business. That’s just another job.

“My mission is to try and help people create these businesses that work for them, so they can spend more time with their families and doing the things they really enjoy, with the peace of mind knowing the business is running well and bringing in sustainable income. But it’s also to change the way we look at failure.

“I believe the fear of failure will only hold us back from achieving our goals. We shouldn’t be afraid, because failure is only a negative if we do not learn from it. If I had have given up three years ago, then yes, I truly would have failed, but I didn’t. And that’s what I want to share with everybody else, so we can all fail forward.” 

To learn more about Henri’s free webinars or his new 12-month Mastermind mentoring programme, email henri@hrgtreesurgeons.co.uk.

The Fail Forward podcast can be found on most podcast platforms, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.