Professional Land Surveyor Journal March 20, 2009

Welcome to the first Professional Land Surveyor Journal. In these posts I'll write about the events, happenings, and trials and tribulations, in my world as a professional land surveyor. Not so much diary as more general discussion.

A New Approach

Recently I've been finalizing an over a year long reorganization of my professional land surveying company, Foster Survey Company. In general, I've taken a new business approach that incorporates technology, reduced labor costs, lower overhead costs and a better life-balance. It's not that this transformation wasn't planned out or relied solely upon happenstance (although it somewhat did), but external forces played a significant role in delaying my plan. To explain, here's a little background.

A Little History

Sixteen years ago I started Foster Survey Company with my partner, Kurt, and the support of our wives. In Rhode Island the economic climate was similar to today's, bad. The State was working its way out of a banking crisis, unemployment was at record levels, and the housing industry was in a slump. Not the best timing, but when is it? When you get the entrepreneurial bug you have to jump in feet first.

We started, at first working out of each other's homes, and eventually converted a wood/garden shed next to my house into our office. While the office was small it suited our needs and allowed me to remain close to home and my growing family. It gave me great flexibility and life balance, allowing me to be there when my children got on and off their school bus and have lunch with them during school vacations when I was not surveying in the field.

Eventually, as was the plan, my partner moved to build a new house on a mountain in Virginia, selling me his part of the business. As he did all of the drafting, by hand back then, and two people were generally required for land surveying in the field, I bought and learned to use AutoCAD and hired help. Over time, the economy has risen and fallen and my professional land surveying business grew and prospered. Or did it?

Is Growth Always Good?

Well it definitely grew. But I found profit to be a harder and harder to obtain. More employees, computers, field equipment, taxes, paperwork.....headaches. Over four years ago we had to move our office to accommodate the people, files and equipment. Because we did not have access to broadband internet, which was becoming more and more important to efficiently running a business, we moved to a more urban setting, leasing an office. Our town was the only town in the state that did not, at the time, have any access to broadband internet and even with a wireless card, access to the internet was just about useless. We did keep our first office, to meet local clients, occasional to work close to home, and as a fallback plan, should the economy turn bad, again.

Having used one-person field crews for GPS and any and all fieldwork where only one person could do the job, early in 2007 I began looking at robotic total station systems. My plan was not, so much, to eliminate personnel as it was to possibly double our capacity: The economy at the time was booming our backlog of work kept increasing, and quality employees where impossible to find. In October 2007 we purchased a robotic system.

As it turned out, we were already entering the third month of a recession but not suffering much because of our backlog. We could see the writing on the wall that the real estate bubble was bursting and we began thinking about moving back to our first office (possibly expanding the facilities) and we where heartened to learn that Verizon was getting state approvals to provide a fiber optic broadband internet (FIOS) service in our area. Times got tough, one employee quit (decided that land surveying wasn't his path in life) and we eventually had to layoff everyone.

My Renaissance

I began doing all of the research, fieldwork and office work, taking projects from cradle to grave, alone, largely thanks to two technologies -AutoCAD and Robotics. And I fell in love with surveying, again. Doing it all, from soup to nuts, with more personalized service to my clients, has really given me a new outlook on professional land surveying. I started this blog writing about being a professional land surveyor, steadily lowered my overhead (with the help of my wife-lots of help) and waited for broadband internet to come. Well, as often happens in life, there were a few bumps in the road, as it took longer than anticipated for Verizon to get their state approvals and build out their fiber optic network.

After several promised and passing deadlines, we finally pulled the plug and moved back to our first office the first of January, 2009. Happily, a few weeks later we finally received Verizon FIOS broadband internet access. Now we have it all; first class modern access to the internet, low overhead, close to home and life balance. By eliminating driving to work, for example, I now have an extra 5.5 hours a week (at least), 275 hours a year, or put another way, I now have an additional 34 days a year to do whatever I want (assuming only working 50 weeks a year at 8 hours per day and 5 days per week, which is a light schedule for me) . Now, do I spend the extra time to work, exercise or play?

When I started working as a land surveyor, nearly 26 years ago, it wouldn't have entered our minds that one person could, efficiently and with high quality, complete a land survey. At that time, three-person field crews were becoming common, four or more people on a crew were not at all uncommon, and a slew of office workers supported us, doing the back office work, research, computations and drafting. But know, with the equipment and tools at our disposal, it's possible to have one person efficiently complete a land survey, and with high quality.

With that said, I want to emphasis that I am not doing this completely alone or on my own. I'm very lucky that my wife handles the financial functions and we worked together on building and growing our business together. Secondly, it is not likely that I, or you, can do 100% of the surveying alone 100% of the time. Occasionally you will need an extra hand, or strong back, to help you out. In over a year's time, though, I've only required additional help a few times.

As time has gone by, the economy has faltered and collapsed in Rhode Island. Unemployment is one of the third highest in the country at over 10.4% and rising. As I've been warning others for too long now, the hallmark of this recession is the sudden and nearly complete stoppage of consumer spending. So, work has been very slow with precious new jobs coming in.

A positive thing to come out of this is that with more time on my hands, in addition to working on this blog, I've been able to be more active in the New England Section (NES) of ACSM, which I recently became president. I am really enjoying working as president of NES and have been working on raising awareness of NES and growing our membership. If you're not already a member of NES I invite you to join and participate. It's a great group of professionals.

I was not able to post as often as I would have liked because we were moving our office and without internet access. I think you have seen a change in this lately, with more posts and sharing of interesting professional land surveying related content. I'm the type of guy who, when I'm reading the paper, points out every article I find interesting to you. This drives my wife crazy and hopefully blogging is a good outlet for this affliction.

Recent Accomplishments

Here's a short list of recent accomplishments.

Professional Land Surveyor Journal Wrap Up

To wrap things up:

  • I've changed my business plan, using technology to reduce overhead and increase efficiency.
  • Taken control of my work and life balance.
  • Learned to love being a professional land surveyor again.
  • I've enhanced the core business and professional land surveying values that I learned to love many years ago.

With all that said, I want to thank my lovely and supportive wife, Jo-Ann. I could not do what I do without her help and patience.

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Eric D. Colburn, PLS, "The Geo-Business Innovator", helps geo-professionals improve through innovative solutions, mastery of marketing and business growth strategies, and coaching/training. Eric is a successful, serial entrepreneur, podcaster, industry writer, product development consultant, and RI licensed professional land surveyor.

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