Christopher Brooke Asplundh Sr., 77, of Huntingdon Valley, the last of the second-generation executives of the family-owned Asplundh Tree Expert Co. who led the firm through exponential growth and changes in the utility tree-trimming business, died Thursday, Aug. 10, at home.
He had battled cancer for the last six years, his family said.
"The energy and leadership that Chris put into this company was tremendous. The way he shared his knowledge and experience was always appreciated and will be greatly missed," said CEO Scott M. Asplundh.
Mr. Asplundh started in 1957 as a ground man on a climbing crew that trimmed trees during the summer. "I did two summers as a grunt," he said in a company bulletin in 2013.
In the 1950s, Asplundh had just begun to manufacture bucket trucks from which arborists cleared the branches near Philadelphia Electric Co. lines in the city and suburbs.
"We actually rented some of our buckets to Peco line crews, and I showed the linemen how to start and run the truck, and they showed me how to climb poles!" Mr. Asplundh said. "When I started out, we had almost all climbing crews, and a one-man chain saw that was heavy. Those rascals weighed 50 pounds.
"You had to tie them in when you were up in the tree. On the ground, we used a two-man Disston saw. And not every truck had a dump mechanism, so we had to drag the chips out."
As the industry grew, so did the quality of the equipment. "Today," he said in 2013, "we have one-man saws that are much lighter — just eight or nine pounds. We have bucket trucks that will go up 70 feet in the air; chippers that will chip up whole logs."
Mr. Asplundh ran a trimming crew in the Philadelphia area and then was transferred to New Jersey to become a general foreperson (GF). Amiable, energetic, and aggressive, he thrived on the role.
"As a GF, you had a tremendous sense of accomplishment," he said in the publication. "Your crews produced according to how well you motivated them, how you trained them for safety.
"I enjoyed being a manager because it was the first time of having day-to-day contact with the customer. You saw the problems they faced and you were there to help solve them. You also went up against the competition, and I always liked that. It's a motivating factor."
In 1963, Mr. Asplundh expanded his oversight of line-clearing operations to Illinois and New England. Five years later, he was elected vice president, and moved back to the company's headquarters in Jenkintown. The firm later relocated to Willow Grove.
Over the next two decades, his executive responsibilities continued to grow. Before his election as company president in 1992, he was overseeing the operations of 12 national field divisions, as well as the national safety department. His cousins and brothers Carl Jr. and Edward shared in the growth of the company as executives.
In 2001, Mr. Asplundh was named chief executive officer and chairman of the board. Nine years later, he retained his position as board chairman while third-generation family member Scott M. Asplundh, his nephew, became the elected CEO.
During his tenure, the company, the largest of its kind in North America, grew to employ 35,000 people in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It expanded its services beyond tree trimming and its customer base to include municipalities, departments of transportation, railroads, pipelines, and telecommunications companies.
Born in Bryn Athyn, Montgomery County, Mr. Asplundh was the son of Emilie and Carl Hjalmar Asplundh. The latter was one of three brothers who in 1928 founded the company with a $2,500 loan.
Mr. Asplundh attended the Academy of the New Church in Bryn Athyn and worked for the family business while attending college. In 1962, he earned a bachelor's degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and then served in the Marine Corps.
Mr. Asplundh was always very civic-minded. He was a champion of the "Reimagine Cancer Care" capital campaign of the Abington Health Foundation. He and his extended family gave $10 million to help underwrite the cost of the Asplundh Cancer Pavilion. The facility is expected to open next summer with a full range of cancer services at Abington Health Center-Willow Grove.
In June, Mr. Asplundh and his siblings toured the construction site. "We are so happy that Chris had the chance to see the construction progress for a building bearing his family's name, which will provide state-of-the-art care for a disease to which he had a personal connection," said Jill Kyle, senior vice president, regional advancement, Abington Health Foundation. "Our patients and our community will continue to benefit from his generosity and support."
"When the new building opens next summer, the absence of Chris will be difficult for many of us," said Kyle. "Chris was very interested in and excited about this important project."
Mr. Asplundh served on various charitable and non-profit boards, and was an avid sportsman and outdoorsman who was passionate about wildlife and its preservation. He was a past president of the Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust, which tends the Pennypack Creek Watershed.
Christopher B. Asplundh Jr., the company's executive vice president and Mr. Asplundh's son, said his father was a larger-than-life figure who filled a room with his energy and never wasted a moment. Whatever he did, he did with great enthusiasm, his son said.
The younger Asplundh said he and his father shared many interests: "He and I became very good friends. I got to work with him, also, so I experienced my father in all his aspects of his life," his son said.
Mr. Asplundh loved playing games and played to win, even in such a minute contest as pitching pennies. His competitive spirit lasted to the very end. When forced by illness to ride a moving platform up and down the stairs, he told his family, "I'll race you down," his son said.
Besides his son and brothers, he is survived by his wife of 50 years, Ellen Barrow Asplundh; daughter Meredith Asplundh; two grandchildren; and a sister.
A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday, August 13, at Bryn Athyn Cathedral, 900 Cathedral Rd., Bryn Athyn. Burial is private.