March 25, 2023 Supporting Manhattan-area entrepreneurs, businesses, events

Out on a Limb

Paul and his brother, Elias Tolentino, own Manhattan’s Three Men Tree Service alongside their business partner, Mory Mort. The path to owning a business started after Paul earned his degree in public affairs and environmental sciences from Indiana University in 1991. Then, he moved to Boston.

“My goal was to help with the city’s water and pollution problems,” Paul says. “They were such big issues at the time that I thought it’d be easy to get a job in Boston, but it turned out to be much more difficult than I thought. When I was offered a job in the tree service business, I thought, ‘Well, this is close enough.’”

Once in it, though, Paul fell in love with the science needed to care for trees and found his background to be a perfect fit for the environmental knowledge necessary for the profession. When his aging parents became ill in 1999, Paul temporarily gave up his newfound passion to move back to Brazil for the better part of a decade. However, when Elias called Paul to invite him to Kansas to work for the tree business he’d begun with Mort, it felt like the right move. 

“I came to Kansas, and I’ve been here ever since,” says Paul. 

Elias came to Manhattan Christian College from Brazil, graduating with a ministry degree and also working in the physical therapy industry. Caring for the outside world may run in the Tolentino blood though, because Elias also found himself in the tree business after partnering with Mort in 2000. 

“I became interested in trees after my childhood experiences in tropical Brazil,” says Elias. “I grew up with six siblings and at least six different kinds of fruit trees in our yard. I became a self-appointed tree climber and taught my siblings. When I came to study in the U.S., a friend noticed my climbing skills and encouraged me to look into tree work.”

After learning the business from Charlie Porttoff, a local tree service business owner, Elias started his own business with Mort. Paul entered the business in 2009, officially creating the Three Men Tree Service. Today, Mort handles the project bidding while Elias and Paul handle the physical work. 

In their business, the physical work typically involves caring for existing trees or planting new ones for both commercial and residential clients. Both Elias and Paul are certified arborists—Elias with the Kansas Arborist Association and Paul with the National Society of Arborists. Paul says this certification filters out those with the knowledge to do this type of work, which can often be dangerous. 

“If you have someone working around your house or commercial establishment, you want to be sure they know what they’re doing,” says Paul. “Jobs can go bad very quickly. Our certification requires us to stay up to date with our education, industry research, equipment changes and safety updates. If there’s a new tree plague in town or any sort of invasive issue, certification means we’re up to date and will know what to do.”

Three Man Tree Services focuses on trees, meaning they rarely venture into any other aspect of landscaping. Paul says their tree services often include planting, cabling, removal and storm-related maintenance. They also work with a third-party for stump grinding. 

Photo by: Dave Mayes

“Our work environment is a well-maintained urban forest,” says Paul. “It’s hard work, but we get to be outside and control our own destinies. I always tell people that as long as I have a rope and a chainsaw, I can go anywhere in the world and make money. I love trees—they grow on you.” 

Paul laughs, insisting this is not an intentional pun but a factual statement. It’s this growth, he says, that tells the story of how a tree should be maintained. According to Paul, tree maintenance is important from its start to sustain a gorgeous piece of art on your property. 

“Trees can be trendy; people see something in other parts of the country or in a magazine and think it can grow here, but that can become a problem,” says Paul.

Some trees, he adds, have branches that are too heavy, or a root system that isn’t compatible. Instead, Kansas is a great home to plants like cedar trees.

“I know many people hate cedar trees, but they provide a good service, taking heat and abuse,” says Paul. “It’s a good tree in that it is always there and provides what it is supposed to.”

Hackberry trees also are popular in Kansas. In fact, Paul says that most Kansas homes have either a cedar or hackberry tree. The problem comes when these trees grow to a certain height and then break because of Kansas winds and a root system that can’t take such a heavy amount of weight. 

This is where a business like Three Men Tree Services comes in. Elias says his favorite aspects of the industry are the planning that goes into every job, as well as the diversity of worksites.

“I love being able to climb the trees and feel the fresh air and wind blowing,” he says. “The view from the tree tops is beautiful.”

While Paul and Elias love planting new trees, Paul says prevention is the most important service they offer. When trees get too full, he says, they act like a flag moving back and forth, often causing breakage. 

“In a forest, trees prune themselves because there are so many of them close together,” he says. “In a more urban setting, we open up the tree by pruning it from the inside. Then, the wind can go through. It keeps the heavy limbs in check so the tree stays firm during the wind.”

In a sense, this amounts to paying for tree services before or after, Paul says. While one can certainly wait until there’s a problem to hire a professional, he warns that it is much cheaper to pay for preventative services. 

“Just like any other part of your home, you have to maintain the trees,” Paul says. 

Photo by: Dave Mayes

Three Men Tree Service operates much the same as similar businesses did 100 years ago. Paul says they do every job by hand, using a rope and chainsaw to climb and bring a tree into submission when needed, rarely using a crane or other large piece of equipment. Working with his brother can be tense at times, Paul says, but that, in part, may be due to the type of work. They’re always on edge, Paul says, because even when you know what you’re doing, tree maintenance can still be dangerous work. 

“I always joke that a bird will land on the end of the limb I’m cutting and change the direction it will fall,” says Paul. “If you have a house or powerline nearby, you’re always aware of avoiding risk wherever possible. There’s a lot of mathematical computation you do in your head as far as weight and direction. It’s important to stay alert.”

Elias says he also enjoys working alongside his brother, adding they have a relationship of mutual respect. 

“I respect him for his well-rounded knowledge of tree work and care, as well as his progressive approach to tree work and all aspects of the business,” says Elias. “I feel privileged to have him as my colleague and partner because I know he won’t cut corners when it comes to the well-being and safety of myself and our clients.”

Elias attributes part of Three Men Tree Service’s success to the Manhattan community, saying the good working relationships with other local tree businesses and local forestry department have benefited their work. Paul agrees, adding that Manhattan is a trusting community that has given them many repeat clients for whom they enjoy returning favors. 

“You have to trust the person you’re working for as much as they have to trust you to get the job done,” Paul says. We don’t work on contracts or a signature, but a handshake. Regardless of their ability to pay, we get done what needs to get done. Working in Manhattan is amazing because of the trust we have in our community. It’s a great place to work and live.” 

Megan Saunders recently moved to Riley, Kansas, but still calls Manhattan home. Along with her husband, she lives with her 4-year-old and 8-month old human babies, two dog babies and a really old cat. She loves K-State, freelancing, all the food and most of the beer.

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