Surviving 2012: Six things every business can learn from the surveying industry

As a professional land surveyor for 40 years, I have a first-hand understanding of the housing downturn and subsequent economic recession we have been experiencing for the past six years.

At our firm, we began seeing the impact in early 2008, just one year after the peak in our business in 2007. Surveying is often viewed (at least by banks) as part of the construction industry and when construction loans dried-up, so did our business.

For surveyors, the hit was especially hard because our industry doesn’t just rely on the housing market, but also on commercial and retail expansion, which depends on the public sector to build infrastructure like new roads, sewer outfalls, parks, schools, airport expansions and industrial parks.

When things got bad, many surveyors began discounting their services in an attempt to hold onto their clients and market share. Over the past three years, for example, I have seen the fee and value of ALTA surveys – surveys required by banks before they will refinance a loan – sell for half of what they did before the fall.

The irony is that as the economy slowed, interest rates began to fall and investors, shopping centers and businesses began to refinance their properties. The need for ALTA surveys actually grew as a result! It was only a matter of months before attorneys representing banks began calling our firms asking for “ALTA updates,” implying something other than a new survey.

The firms of the future will be smaller with fewer permanent staff. Fees will change. It will no longer be just about how many crews you have, but how smart you are at collecting and selling 3D data. And those firms that can find ways to use existing sources of 3D data will be even better equipped to weather the storm.

For survey firms – as is true for all industries in this economy – the way to survive is to simply be a better businessperson. Here are six important things every business can learn from the surveying industry:

#1: Control your price. There are only two ways to control your prices: have a healthy backlog of profitable work and provide valuable services to your clients.

#2: Utilize subcontractors. Have a permanent staff large enough to process the workflow and provide quality control, but maintain relationships with good subcontractors and associate firms to expand your workforce when you have a wave a work that your permanent staff can’t handle.

#3: Make profit your goal – not billing. Just because you bill a crew out at $1,000 doesn’t mean you make $1,000. Your actual profits are typically closer to $150.

#4: Don’t buy – rent, swap and borrow. If you can rent a piece of equipment for $500 and make $150, you have greatly reduced your cash flow and improved your profit margin. Take a look at all of the expensive equipment you have purchased and must pay for every day. Unused equipment sitting on the shelf is not a good investment. Swap with other firms when you can, rent when you have to, and buy when the workload demands it.

#5: Always have a contract. Make the signing of a contract the starting point for every job. Even with an established client, having a signed contract can save a lot of scope creep and misunderstanding even on the simplest jobs.

#6: Don’t cut your price without changing the scope. Many lawyers have called to tell me that my price is too high. I remind them that it’s less than their price and they don’t even have to leave the office!

Lastly and most importantly, be realistic. If your workload goes down, you must cut your overhead immediately. For most of us, this means staff, which is always the hardest thing to do.

At one point, we had to reduce our employees from a high of 45 to just seven. We have since slowly built back up, but it was this reduction in staff, combined with tight cash management and a realistic outlook, that enabled us to survive.

The key to surviving this economy – for land surveying firms, as well as all business – is to be realistic, creative and adaptable. This is what it will take to survive and grow into better times.


Tate Jones has over 40 years of experience in land and aerial surveying and was one of the country’s earliest adopters of 3D laser scanning technology. A nationally recognized expert in the field of 3D data capture, he has worked with hundreds of clients in the engineering, architectural and construction industries. Contact him at