Professional Topography: Apathy and myopia in the surveying profession.

Over the past several months, I have been approached by friends as well as complete strangers for help selling their surveying businesses.

These people are owners (sole, partner, shareholder, etc.) who are approaching that time in their lives when they wish to retire. This can be a trying period for a business owner. When they contact me, it’s to seek help on how to find someone or some corporation to buy their business. My observation is that these owners--and their reaction to my efforts to help them--are representative of some larger, troubling trends within the surveying profession.

Mistaken Impressions

Some owners are under the impression that their businesses constitute almost all their assets for funding their retirement years. Others have invested in retirement accounts but are looking for a way to improve their financial resources through the sale of their businesses. Some look at me earnestly and say, in effect, “I’ve put practically my entire career into developing this business; it has got to pay me back now.” Alas, when I look into the assets of their businesses, I often find that they’re only worth what the furniture and equipment can be sold for at secondhand prices. If the owners are lucky, they own real estate for the office that has increased in value and is not mortgaged. “But look at all my records--they are valuable, too!” the owners say. Unfortunately, the value of such records to another surveyor or surveying business is often a tiny fraction of what the business owner thinks the value should be.

In extreme cases, I also find that their businesses are concentrated solely on property boundary surveys--sometimes just one or two types of property boundary surveys. When I ask about the business strategy, I get a blank look. I ask, “What have you done to strengthen the business that would increase its value to a third party?” Then I get similar blank looks, although sometimes they list that they bought GPS technology or a servo-driven total station or something like that.

After experiencing their reactions to my questions, I am forced to wonder if the status quo in the surveying profession is apathy or myopia. Are surveyors apathetic toward increasing the value of their assets? Or do they suffer from a myopic worldview and lack the foresight and discernment necessary to develop their business?

Making a business attractive for acquisition requires many steps. First, the business owners must put themselves in the shoes of the acquirer. Would they be willing to sink all their financial resources into this business? If someone were to “kick the tires,” what would they find? Businesses that have a diverse practice are more attractive because they have the potential to weather economic trends that might make one or more of their “product lines” nonviable for a period of time. Examples of diversification include engineering surveys, laser scanning capability, GIS data collection, GIS design and construction, maintenance of maps and mapping databases, nontraditional customer databases and other surveying specialties that are desired in your geographic area.

Another aspect of making a business attractive is using the right channels to market work products. A key indicator of this capability is how well the business is known in the communities it serves--not how well the principals are known. If a business is well known as an innovative or problem-solving company or as a professional company that offers advice and recommendations to clients rather than simply taking a work order, people are more likely to remember the value they have received and come back to that business. They are also more likely to recommend that business. These two aspects--repeat business and recommended business--are the two most important aspects for business development in the small business world in which most surveying firms operate.

Yet another aspect of making a business attractive is forging alliances and relationships with other professionals, such as engineers, architects, lawyers, title professionals, environmental scientists, geologists, etc., as well as the key players in government who review or approve work done by professional teams that may include a surveyor. There are many other considerations that make a surveying business attractive: the work-order backlog (not a backlog that is seriously behind on promises, by the way), the amount of cash generated, the qualifications of the personnel, the ability to function independently when the business owner is no longer on the scene and the ability to seamlessly transition from a business owned by the seller to a business owned by the buyer.

Beyond Ownership

The reason I ask whether some of the difficult situations I encounter are due to apathy or a myopic worldview is that I see the same question as relevant when trying to understand the status of the surveying profession. Even if you are not thinking about selling your business in the near future or you're not−and, perhaps, never will be−the owner of a surveying business, this column is still relevant.

It perplexes me that the surveying profession as a whole does not seem to buy into the concept of marketing the profession to invite people to join. At best, I think this is shortsighted; at worst, it is apathy. Not doing one’s part to develop the profession simply reduces its stature and, eventually, its viability. If there is anything to be learned from the events of the Internet-driven world, it is that one cannot take anything for granted. The profession of surveying could disappear if the “field” is not properly tilled, sowed and tended. The myopic among us consider this unthinkable; the apathetic among us simply don’t want to figure out what our part might be to grow and prosper, not just survive.

Ignoring Our Inheritance

This myopia and apathy extends beyond recruiting people to join the profession. I’m also perplexed when I see the response of the profession (though there are notable exceptions) to new entrants. Do we make sure they are properly educated and trained? Do we pay reasonably enough that they are motivated to stay and rise within our ranks? Another facet that perplexes me is the difficulty surveyors have with communicating formally, especially in writing.

Surveyors are reputed to have a capability to understand mathematical and scientific concepts, but when I teach seminars on the very basic physics of an EDM or a GPS receiver, I see many in the audience wishing they didn’t have to deal with these concepts. Where have the traits of our forefathers, such as Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and many others, gone? Where are the inquiring minds that are mathematical, scientific and capable of integrating disparate events and trends? Where are those same forefathers’ ideals that we theoretically buy into as U.S. citizens relating to democracy, participation and public discussion and discourse in your professional life?

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