Solo Notes: How Love Led to Surveying
Randy Hepworth, PS, describes his company as general practice business; “whatever comes in the door,” he says. He has a passion for boundary surveys, which take up the majority of his time, but he also takes on topographical surveys, land development surveys, construction surveys, mapping and expert testimony in court. His business, Hepworth Land Surveying LLC, is located halfway between Grand Rapids, Mich., and Traverse City, Mich., near the Lake Michigan shoreline. He services four counties in the area: Oceana, Mason, Muskegon and Newaygo. Hepworth has served western Michigan with his surveying expertise since 1979 and is the elected county surveyor for Oceana County.
Hepworth graduated from Ferris State University with an associate of applied science in building construction in 1973 and a bachelor’s degree in land surveying in 1975. As for how he ended up choosing the career path he did, Hepworth says, “There is quite a story involved here.” Like many land surveyors, he did grow up exposed to surveying related settings; he was raised in a rural environment where he and his brothers spent many hours roaming through the woods. His father was a residential home builder and Hepworth says his earliest memories include being on one of those job sites. But that isn’t what made him decide to study surveying; he knew very little about the profession after obtaining his AAS in building construction.
He says that around May 1, 1973, he realized something very important. “I met this girl,” he explains. Unfortunately, she had yet to notice him, but he was determined to change that. Since returning home after graduating offered him no chance of gaining her attention, he sought an excuse to stay in college, “just a little longer.” So, he turned to the college catalogue of class offerings and stumbled upon the land surveying bachelor’s degree program.
“One thing’s for sure: I did not know what this surveying stuff was about, but, hey, this will keep me here long enough that Linda should certainly notice me by then. It worked! Linda and I were married August 1974 and have celebrated 42 years together. Along the way of falling in love with Linda, in quite a different manner, I fell in love with land surveying.”
POB: What aspect of the business do you enjoy most and why?
HEPWORTH: My business has done quite well over the years. The projects have been varied and, for the most part, fun. I enjoy being my own boss, although my wife may argue with me as to who is actually “the boss” since she does much in our operation that allows me to keep my sanity.
The variety of projects that come our way are very satisfying; there is no opportunity to be bored with the work varying widely in type, scale and locale. I have always enjoyed the outdoors ever since I was a kid; the difference now is I get paid for it. While I enjoy the outdoors and the field work, I also enjoy the office work. I believe that every survey map should be a work of art. There is no need for mediocrity. All of this allows a good balance for me between outdoor and indoor responsibilities and skills.
But probably I enjoy the most being a problem solver in boundary retracement projects. Each survey is a miniature detective adventure, fitting all of the pieces of the puzzle together, utilizing a combination of math skills, logic and intuition and practical sense. I love it. My wife tells me I will probably die with my boots on, a shovel in one hand and a fistful of research material in the other. As long as she will be by my side, that would be alright.
POB: Do you have any memorable stories from field work and/or a favorite project you worked on?
HEPWORTH: It is difficult to come up with just one memorable or favorite project story. I very quickly thought of three recent ones. One of my memorable projects was a boundary project, of course, which actually consisted of analyzing and reviewing deeds, plats and a “boundary survey” by another surveyor rather than much actual field surveying.
The issue centered around a quit claim deed to a local municipality for land that was adjacent to my client, being a very narrow strip of land lying between a platted street and the water of a large, inland lake. The township had a survey done by a local surveyor who, according to his map, did a boundary survey of the land encompassed by the deed. My client asked that I review this survey since the township was in the act of greatly increasing the size of a public boat ramp on that strip, which was located directly in front of her cottage.
The survey map that I reviewed was interesting in that, while it purported to be a boundary survey, not one dimension was shown on that map. After an extensive review, which included two conversations with that surveyor, a number of issues appeared, but the most crucial being that the land described in that quit claim deed did not exist. The rationale given by that surveyor was that since a deed had been executed it was obvious that the land did exist; therefore, he had to find a place to put that deed description. Apparently, he did not believe that someone could, or would, execute a deed to land that they did not actually own. Ouch; talk about a deed staker.
At any rate, the Circuit Court made a favorable ruling to my client based in large part on my testimony, which decision was upheld at the Michigan Court of Appeals level. At trial, I found myself facing three other surveyors giving opposing testimony on the issues. It was a complicated boundary case involving riparian rights and adverse possession with defective title. But it was a very satisfying project because I was able to be of great assistance to my client with her boundary problem.
POB: What has been your biggest challenge so far?
HEPWORTH: Dealing with employees and employee issues. Other than an occasional assistant, I have not had any employees since 2008. But I can tell you that prior to 2008, employee issues were my single biggest headache. The recession brought the economic necessity for my operation to scale back to its basic size — me. Doing so showed me that I could very well continue operation as before in a smaller form and be just as profitable, but without the headache.
POB: How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?
HEPWORTH: I do a lot of reading. I have been a subscriber of POB magazine for well over 30 years for this very reason. There are so many cool devices out there and technology has, without a doubt, made my work easier. Whether or not the newest technology or newest device has any immediate benefit for me, I still want to learn about it because it very well may assist me at some point. Also, I attend seminars and conventions that help keep me apprised of the latest trends.
POB: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the surveying business today?
HEPWORTH: In order to be licensed in the state of Michigan, the requirement is a four-year degree in land surveying, along with four more years of work in the surveying industry with increasing responsibility. I would encourage anyone who desires to become a professional surveyor to pay special attention to the teaching of the boundary establishment principles both at the college and on the job. These are the essence of what is often referred to as the art of surveying. We have lost, in most part, the mentoring opportunities where one can learn these from an old-timer on the job, primarily because the technology allows the use of smaller field crews (one-man crews). Another suggestion is to challenge yourself to be knowledgeable of applicable court case law, which probably entails seminars involving boundary cases. I have actually come to the point where I enjoy reading those court decisions in order to learn from them.
We must see ourselves as something more than mathematical deed stakers, since anyone who knows how to utilize the current measurement technology can “slap the math on the ground.” If this trend continues, boundary surveyors will lose the niche that we have. Further, I see this niche going forward as best occupied by solo, or small land survey operations. For some reason, I have seen the larger engineering companies in my area as being particularly susceptible to the deed staker syndrome.
Randy Hepworth, PS, owns Hepworth Land Surveying LLC, located in Pentwaer, Mich. His surveying experience stretches back more than 40 years and he says he has loved the outdoors since childhood, only now he gets paid to spend time there. Hepworth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Solo Notes is a regular feature in POB magazine and highlights the experiences and strategies of solo surveyors and small business owners. To share your story in a future issue, please email Managing Editor Valerie King at email@example.com.