KENT -- Karl Warnke joined the Kent-based Davey Tree Expert Co. 37 years ago as a spray/feed technician. On July 21, the Aurora resident will retire as CEO.

Warnke, 65, started out in the West Cleveland residential/commercial office in 1980. He became president in 1999 and stepped into his current role as CEO in 2007. Born in Willoughby, he has 44 years in the green industry.

"My biggest influence I think was my father," Warnke said. "He enjoyed the outdoors and we hiked, camped and took trips to Canada [from the time] I was a very young age."

Warnke obtained a bachelor of science degree in agriculture from Ohio State University School of Horticulture in 1973.

He took a job out of college near Sandusky before looking for another opportunity, taking a pay cut and joining Davey Tree in 1980.

The company, specializing in providing professional care for trees, landscapes and green space, is growing at a rapid rate. Since Warnke became president, Davey Tree has grown by upward of 3,200 employees.

It is the largest employee-owned company in Ohio and the 13th largest in the country. A total of $900 million is expected in revenue for 2017 and its total employee count now stands near 9,000. In northeast Ohio, there are currently 650 employees, up by 49 percent since Warnke became president.

Warnke credited a variety of factors for the company's growth, but he started with the employees.

"I have to give all the credit in the world to the employees," Warnke said. "From the ground men, to the executive levels and everyone in between, that's what really makes this company successful. We have a lot of over-achievers and [everyone] wants to be part of a culture and successful company. They're our greatest assets. Everything begins and ends with people."

Another key factor Warnke mentioned in terms of Davey Tree's rapid growth is the fact it is employee-owned. Founded in 1880, the company was family-owned until 1979 when the employees bought it from the Davey family.

"I think it's a competitive advantage to be employee-owned," Warnke said. "It's not perfect, but it's a business model that has worked for us. Our employees have stock. When you actually have someone with physical financial equity in a company, I think they are more conscientious about the decisions they make because what they are doing is affecting their peers and their peers are shareholders, too."

Warnke also touched on the company's "strategic plan" as another contributor to Davey Tree's success. The plan focuses on growth, branding, engaged employees, customers and finance. He also stated that leadership from within the managing departments of the company play a huge role, because the transition is easier.

One of Warnke's fondest memories dealt with making two his the company's largest acquisitions; tree care service companies, The Care of Trees and Wolf Trees, during the recession back around 2008.

Warnke is looking forward to retirement. He will stay on as chairman of the company board after retirement, but he says he can't wait to spend more time with his six grandchildren, being outdoors, vacationing and taking out his boat. When reflecting on his career, he says work ethic needs to be a top priority.

"You just do the best job that you can at whatever you're doing and somebody will recognize you," Warnke said. "But you have to love it and act like that is the last job you will ever have."

Effective July 21, current president and Chief Operation Officer Pat Covey will succeed Warnke as CEO.

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