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The advice that many surveyors hear when they are looking for ways to expand their business is to add specialized services to their portfolio, services like scanning, construction staking, monitoring, soil testing, etc. This is often good advice, as far as it goes, but it is more than a little ironic because most of these services are, arguably … not surveying. After all, in most states, the only exclusive privilege held by licensed land surveyors is to divide land, sign maps and reset property corners. In other words, surveyors do boundary work, yet they are often told that thriving businesses can’t be built on boundary alone.
So it’s refreshing when a survey business not only survives but thrives with a practice built primarily on boundary work. And it’s especially impressive when a boundary-based business does well in a tough economic climate, such as the development-unfriendly recession of recent years.
Frank Surveying Co. Inc. (FSCI), based in Columbus, Texas, is one such firm. “We’ve managed quite well,” says Matthew W. Loessin, RPLS, president and owner of Frank Surveying. “We’re diverse, we have a solid reputation for taking on projects that others don’t have the time and patience for, and sometimes we take on projects that other surveyors have given up on. We’re specialists in big, complex boundaries, and I think that’s why we’re doing well in difficult times. We’re even hiring.”
Frank Surveying was started in 1970 by Loessin’s grandfather, Leonard Frank, who left the Texas Department of Transportation to start his own business. Loessin started working for his grandfather while still in high school and then obtained a degree in geographic information science from Texas A&M University. In 2006, he became president and principal surveyor of Frank Surveying.
Leonard Frank operated his firm along traditional lines with a focus on private boundary work. It was Loessin who expanded the business. “I moved us toward bigger surveys because there was more money in larger projects,” he says frankly. “Early in my career, I worked on a 4,000-acre survey with multiple creeks to contend with, and I also divided a parcel of about 2,000-acres into 10-acre tracts. I realized that I liked working on that scale.” As a result, Frank Surveying is now a 15-employee concern that takes on large projects throughout Texas.
Working on tracts this size is not just a matter of doing more field work and drawing bigger maps. Loessin uses some of the most sophisticated survey equipment available, maintains a geolocated GIS of all Frank Surveying projects, calls on other experts--like environmental engineers and wetlands experts--as needed, and has added negotiation to his suite of survey skills. True, he’s still doing boundary work, but he’s taking it to a level not reached by many survey practices.
An Integrated Survey SystemLoessin saw the utility of GPS surveying early on and was one of the first Texas surveyors to use receivers with cell phones to do RTK work. “They were Leica 500s,” he says appreciatively, “and sometimes I wish I still had them. They were better than anything on the market when we bought them. They gave us 10 years of good performance, and when we traded them in on our new Viva system, they were still working better than some receivers we’ve seen.”
Though other equipment and processing software has been used in the past, Frank Surveying is now an all-Leica business, “From height hooks to data collectors, all we use is Leica,” according to Loessin. “We’ve gone to Viva GNSS receivers, plus a few Leica 1200s that we still use as base stations when we need to. We use exclusively Viva data collection for GPS work and total station work. We added Leica robotic total stations this year, and we use Leica Geo Office (LGO) for data processing. Plus, the Texas base station network we use and are part of (operated by Geomatics Resources LLC and Leica Geosystems) is controlled by Leica SmartNet.”
Loessin says that there are many advantages to using an integrated survey system from one manufacturer. Batteries and chargers, for example, are interchangeable between data collectors, receivers and total stations. “So if a battery runs down in the field, we’re able to pop one out of something else and get back to work,” he says. He also likes the consistent data collector interface, which makes the most of crew training time. “We think of our crews as consisting of two ‘party chiefs,’ and we like both employees to be working independently. With the Viva system, I can have one guy doing GNSS work and one guy doing robotic work, and that doubles our productivity. I think we’re set for equipment for a while--unless a robotic station that clears line comes out!”
The investment in Viva was not a light decision. “I’m hard on equipment evaluations, and we did our best to crash it,” Loessin says, “but frankly, it’s performed better than our expectations and keeps getting better.” He was also rigorous when testing the SmartNet GNSS base station network. For example, using a single receiver linked to the network, Frank Surveying crews have reshot many control points previously established by multiple static sessions and have recorded differences averaging less than three hundredths of a foot--horizontal and vertical. “We were the fifth or sixth company to sign up with the SmartNet network, and it’s been a tremendous help,” Loessin says. “Coverage is good, and there’s very little downtime. It’s made a huge difference in our productivity--we get more work done, and we can take on rush jobs confidently.”
Quality ControlWith so much riding on accurate, precise location, it makes sense that Frank Surveying works hard at quality control. For example, critical evidence and control points are collected multiple times. “We take a shot, then ‘unlock’ the receiver and take it again,” says Loessin. “One of the things we like about the Viva system is that we can assign multiple shots to one point number, and then use LGO to use, average, or reject coordinates in the office.” LGO is also used to post-process GNSS data, and for adjustments as needed. Loessin or another licensed surveyor reviews all work and calculations.
The firm has also begun developing a statewide GIS of all work done by Frank Surveying. “We’ve got 20 years of work in already, and we’re scanning in another 20,” Loessin says. Every point set, including control points, goes into the GIS. All work is geolocated, and the GIS includes useful layers like tax parcels and aerial photos. The intuitive interface lets even nontechnical people look up information easily. The system has repeatedly proven to be a valuable resource both internally and externally, and it continues to increase in value as new data are added.
Hiring is also viewed as a way to keep standards high. “We don’t hire too often, and we’re selective,” Loessin explains. “We need people that will fit into our culture, so a lot of our successful hires are recommended by existing employees--that way, there’s a better chance that we’re getting someone who will work out.” Loessin also looks for people who will learn quickly and be able to work independently soon. Such employees don’t come cheap, but their productivity over time makes up for higher wages. Company uniforms and trucks with logos are one way to maximize the investment in talented staff.
To develop employees, Frank Surveying has compiled a comprehensive training manual and uses rainy days and other downtimes to review past work, looking for ways to improve. The firm also takes advantage of dealership training and pays for any continuing education classes that employees are interested in attending. Overall, Frank Surveying spends more on quality control and training than most Texas firms, but Loessin believes that higher quality and productivity more than justify the increased expense.
Future DirectionsBusiness is good, but Loessin keeps his mind open regarding future directions for Frank Surveying. “A scanner is on our wish list because we’re seeing projects, like volume surveys, that it would work great for,” he says. “But right now I don’t think it would pay off for us. Maybe soon, though, when engineers start to routinely ask for point clouds. Surveyors will have to adapt.” And he’s already actively pursuing GIS projects. “We’re a little late to the game, but because of our own GIS experience, and because the Leica Zeno system will work with our receivers, it’s a natural for us.”
But he’s certainly not abandoning boundary. His grandfather, Leonard Frank, was a boundary surveyor and so is Loessin. By using progressive technology and techniques, and by paying attention to quality, Frank Surveying is proving that thriving, dynamic surveying businesses can prosper by doing … survey work.
Brad Longstreet is a freelance writer with 20 years of experience in construction, land surveying, and architecture. For more information about Frank Surveying, visit www.franksurveying.com. More details about Leica technology can be found at www.leica-geosystems.us.
Resolving the IrresolvableFrank Surveying has a reputation for taking on challenging surveys. “The parcels we work on can be several thousand acres, for one thing,” Loessin says, “and usually there’s very little evidence available--any corners we find may go all the way back to the original grants.”
As a result, Loessin has become an expert in the unique issues of Texas survey practice and case law, and he partners with other professionals as needed to settle boundaries. In one interesting case, several parcels bordered on the “center of a ravine” that was probably easy to find back in 1890, when the descriptions were created. In 2006, when Frank Surveying retraced the descriptions, the ravine was filled in with no visible clues to its historic location. Loessin called in environmental engineers and wetland experts to determine a probable location of the ravine and then worked with attorneys to craft a series of lot line agreements that worked for all the affected owners. “That’s in our contract,” he says. “We have a clause that explains our policy if we run into irresolvable issues. Basically, we start talking to people and work with the available evidence and a select group of attorneys to settle the issues.”
Loessin offers the following tips for establishing successful partnerships with professionals in other fields:
- Define and detail the scope of services in written agreements/contracts. (If this is your first time partnering with another company, have your attorney review the agreement.)
- Ask for references and follow through to check the professional’s/firm’s reputation and past performance.
- Look for professionals/firms with which you can build long-term working relationships.
- Make sure the professional/firm is capable of meeting the requirements of the project.
- Define and follow all schedules, including the project schedule, work-in-progress, payment, etc.
- Re-evaluate the partnership after the project to determine future relationships.