STAR-BULLETIN / JULY 2002
Abner Undan, a certified arborist with Trees of Hawaii, describes the condition of an earpod tree at the Honolulu Zoo. Undan runs the state's largest tree-trimming business. Among the 55 employees in the Oahu and Maui offices are his four brothers and his son, Alvin.
Cuts help business to grow
Abner Undan and his family run the state's largest tree-trimming company
If he had the time, which he doesn't, or was given to boasting, which he isn't, Abner Undan, 55, could look back over the last three decades and brag.
In a simple, paper-strewn office at Trees of Hawaii in Campbell Industrial Park, Undan runs the state's largest tree-trimming business. Among the 55 employees in the Oahu and Maui offices are his four brothers and his son, Alvin.
Work is something that Undan enjoys. Recalling that for 17 years he worked seven days a week, helping to clean land and do landscaping on the weekends, Undan looks down at his hands.
"I haven't used a chain saw in years, but I still have the calluses," he says.
Today, Undan is president of Trees of Hawaii and a director of the Outdoor Circle and has helped in several civic projects, including trimming historic trees at no charge.
Along the way, he guided his son's career. Alvin, 32, admits that having your father as the boss can be stressful.
"The expectations are much higher," Alvin says, as his father interrupts to add, "I expect him to set the pace."
"I do not just equip people with a chain saw and a set of spikes and say, 'Go cut down trees.' We are supposed to fix tree problems, not create new ones.
"So there is a need to learn to do the right thing," Undan said.
Born in the small town of Paniqui in the Philippines, Undan came to Hawaii at the urging of his wife, who had family here.
"The impression I had was that life would be easy and earning money would be no problem," Undan said.
"Then reality set in," he added.
The 24-year-old ex-college student, who had been studying agricultural engineering and was a student activist protesting the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, thought it better to leave the Philippines with his wife and newborn son.
"It was very difficult," Undan recalls. "We lived with others in Kalihi. I remember that where we slept at night was also filled with termite droppings, so we had to put a sheet above the bed."
His first job in 1975 was as a night janitor at a Waikiki restaurant.
"My father-in-law was working for a maintenance company, so I went to work there. We cleaned parking lots and trimmed hedges.
"But I was looking for a job that paid more money, and I was under a lot of pressure," Undan said.
An ad for a groundskeeper at Trees of Hawaii promised a raise in pay. Undan took the job.
FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
At Trees of Hawaii in Campbell Industrial Park, owner/operator Abner Undan poses with relatives, who all work together. Undan, center front, stands next to his daughter, Gail Undan, right. Behind them are son Alvin Undan, left, Abel Undan, Job Undan, Abner's wife Elsa Undan, Donnie Hilario, granddaughter Richelle Cabatic, Jonas Undan, Noe Undan and Christian Undan. CLICK FOR LARGE
"I was determined to find my niche. I didn't refuse any assignment," Undan said.
The adjustment, Undan recalls, was difficult. He did not know anything about trees or tree trimming and others at the company wouldn't help.
"I didn't even know how to start a chain saw," he said.
Undan borrowed a pair of climbing spikes and would practice at night climbing up the mango trees in his Kalihi backyard.
The whole thing clicked when he was in his boss' office and saw a set of books for a home-study course to become a certified arborist.
"I took the course, got promoted, became a climber, learned to work the lift truck, became a crew leader and eventually I was a supervisor," Undan says.
Along the way, Undan became passionate about trees and their proper care.
An arborist, skilled in the art and science of urban tree care, is much in demand, and not just in Hawaii. Undan has lectured on the proper care of trees in the Philippines and on the mainland.
"I have to keep learning because I do not want to stand in front of people with an empty head," Undan said.
"There is a bright future for the industry. More and more trees are being planted and more and more people recognize the benefits of trees.
"I look at trees as a panacea for many of our environmental problems," Undan added. "And there are many aspects to it. There is risk assessments, preparing action plans for tree management. It is not easy to become an arborist, but you will never run out of work."