The UAA is proud to honor and congratulate Operations Manager Diona Neeser and Member Services Manager Renée Phillips as winners of the UAA President’s Award for 2023. How did UAA leadership effectively hide this news from both winners? Get to know these professionals and what working for UAA behind-the-scenes means to them.
We imagine you were knocked out of your chair when the announcement came at Trees & Utilities that you were the winners of the President’s Award.
Diona: “I was extremely surprised, considering I am the one that processes all of the awards and have done so for years. I am usually the one who springs the news on the winners. Tim Walsh got me good, that is for sure.”
Renée: “I was incredibly surprised. In fact, I still think it might be an elaborate prank.”
How were Tim Walsh, Dennis Fallon and others able to keep this a secret?
Diona: “I am not really sure to be honest. I thought Craig Kelly (Principal Land Consultant – Land Operations, Natural Resource Management, PG&E) was this year’s recipient and was so excited for him. I even arranged to have his wife come to the luncheon ceremony. I am still shocked! Tim, you did well, my friend.”
Renée: “From what I understand, Tim brought Craig in on the secret. Diona and I thought that Craig was getting the award, so we ordered a plaque for him. In the meantime, Tim had the two plaques for Diona and me made on his own. You know, I was a little annoyed before the luncheon and awards ceremony because Tim had not gotten his speech to me for the winner introduction. We were fooled.”
Share the story about what led you into the industry and to UAA?
Diona: “I started in the industry when my youngest started second grade. I was hired as director of Rainbow Tree Care’s lawncare division. That led to me eventually overseeing the tree care division, the holiday lighting and scientific client services as well.
“I was also on the original brainstorm creation committee for Saluting Branches. While on my way to our first-ever event at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, I was in a really bad car accident. My life changed in a blink of an eye. I was out of work and recovering for several months. During that time, our good friend Nelsen Money called me and encouraged me to apply for the Operations Manager position at UAA, where my husband, Jim Neeser, was treasurer. The rest, as they say, is history.”
Renée: “I was friends with a UAA member (Joe Marshall, now retired from ACRT) and he sent me the job posting. I was working for another membership association at the time and the jobs were similar. He encouraged me to apply for the job, even though I didn’t know anything about a utility arborist!”
During those early days working for the UAA, did you know this is where you wanted to be?
Diona: “To be honest the first few days (weeks and months) were tough for various reasons. There were a lot of changes happening. Former Executive Director Phil Charlton and I were re-creating so many things, and that is what I loved about the job. I was a part of something new. As my friend Will Nutter once said to me early on, “Here is your life preserver. Now let’s swim for shore!”
Renée: “We are a small team, and Diona was very helpful and thorough with the onboarding. Everyone I worked with on our committees was very welcoming and understood that I was coming from a different working environment and was patient with me.”
What do you love most about your career?
Diona: “It is cliché, but it’s the people. The people in this industry as a whole are just the greatest, salt of the earth, real people. There are so many in this industry that I have a high level of respect and admiration for.”
Renée: “I like that that the UAA is so member-driven and our members are generous with their own time to serve as volunteers. I enjoy working for the UAA. There are many different parts to this job, so there is always variety in what I do. The work with and for good people makes it all worthwhile.”
If there’s one piece of advice that you could give a young person thinking about entering the UA industry today, what would it be?
Diona: “Get Connected. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. And when one door closes, don’t just crack the next one open. Blast through it and jump in!”