Business Strategies for Surveyors / BIM (Building Information Modeling) / Boundary & Topo / Surveying Basics / People / Construction / Energy & Surveying

Conquering the Divide

Southern Survey's Aaron Bussey (right) checks for error with Ted Rankin Jr. (left).

Closing the gap between technology and tradition requires an open mind and an unwavering commitment to quality.

Surveying is increasingly a divided profession. Arguments about what surveying is and how to best go about doing it draws battle lines and creates separate camps of like-minded people--one solidly rooted in history and experience, and the other riding the waves of rapidly advancing technology. While both sides have merit, the best solution likely falls somewhere in the middle, respecting both the need to adapt to progress and the importance of keeping the traditions of quality and consistency well established in a profession as old as civilization itself. This is where Casey Cockrell, owner of Southern Survey, solidly stands today.

Cockrell is a self-made surveyor who followed an unusual path into the profession. After graduating from Texas A&M with a liberal arts degree, he found himself working entry-level jobs in construction. “All I could keep thinking was ‘would you like fries with that?’” he says. “I felt like I hadn’t gotten anything from my degree.”

Having taken a few geography courses in college, Cockrell parlayed his education and some previous construction surveying experience into a job working for a large engineering company out of east Texas. He took the licensing track offered by the firm and began doing field equations by hand without a calculator, later programming his own TI-33 to include what he had learned. He passed his SIT exam on the first try, and took to reading “Brown’s Boundary Principles” and studying land law cases in preparation for his PLS exam, which he also passed easily. Cockrell credits Texas’ surveyor programs for providing him with the material and study guides that allowed him to become a licensed surveyor at the age of 28.

Southern Survey relies on solid business practices and savvy marketing strategies to attract new clients.

From there, Cockrell’s story becomes more familiar. The drive that made him Texas’ youngest licensed surveyor also led him to take on extra work. Since the firm he worked for was intricately tied to the oil industry, there was plenty of work for an ambitious surveyor to find. As the side jobs came more often, Cockrell decided to branch off and form Southern Survey Co. in 2009.

Equipped with Traverse PC software and some of the latest Topcon Positioning GNSS and robotic surveying tools, Southern Survey was both highly efficient and extremely capable. Initially, Cockrell used this mix to undercut his competitors on pricing. It took only a few jobs for him to realize that wasn’t the game he wanted to play. He began talking to local surveyors and doing his own research to determine how much certain surveys typically cost, and then set his price far above his competitors to what he thought was fair compensation on each project. Southern Survey soon had a steady increase in clients who valued quality work and depended on a constant stream of good spatial data.

Cockrell doesn’t waste time trying to battle “low-ballers”; he believes trust beats price. “One-third of our business is just from being a survey firm--people calling for an elevation certificate or needing an expert witness for a boundary dispute. Another third comes from loyalty and trust based on our past work. What everyone is competing for is that middle third of potential clients who fall in-between.”

To attract those clients and stay profitable, Southern Survey relies on solid business practices and savvy marketing strategies. “There’s an old joke about a surveyor who wins the lottery,” he says. “When asked what he’ll do now, the surveyor replies, ‘Probably just keep surveying until the money runs out.’ While many people think that’s funny, I don’t see it that way. I spend a lot of time and effort in putting my name out there and keeping up my reputation. Clean, nice trucks with the company logo on them, uniformed and capable field crews and marketing material in front of my potential clients gets me work all the time. My field crews are my greatest marketing advantage, but a lot of what I do is planning for work months in advance. For example, the money I spend on a keyword optimization now is going to pay off in six months. I’ve always received a great ROI on my smart marketing, both physical and digital.”

The small firm’s dedication to quality at an honest price combined with its marketing efforts sometimes leads to more work than it can handle. To meet this challenge, Cockrell teams with some of the other surveyors in the area, specifically seeking out more experienced professionals such as David Watson of Longview Surveying.

Casey Cockrell (left) reviews previous survey work with a technician.

An old-school surveyor, Watson focuses more on manpower and reputation than on technology and marketing. Cockrell and Watson often bounce jobs to each other, trusting the other’s ability and quality. When submitting proposals for larger projects, they often work together to try to secure different segments of the work. Cockrell doesn’t have to hire extra hands for one job, and Watson can rely on Cockrell’s technology to get the work done quicker. Watson is also a mentor of sorts; rarely does Cockrell have a problem that Watson has not dealt with before. While they are technically still competitors, Cockrell and Watson have learned to work together to create a better work environment.

Although Cockrell appreciates the benefits of technology, he also values the wisdom of experience. “I love to talk with the older PLSs,” he says. “These guys put all kinds of money into creating CAD programs and learning how to deal with the changes in their days before individual computers and the Internet. Their stories are incredible.” The most important lesson he has learned is that every surveying professional should strive for one thing: quality.

Cockrell is a new-age surveyor, driven by the need to acquire and use the best tools and systems available. Even as a six-day work-week small business owner, he made the time to visit SPAR 2012 to get a better understanding of the trends and technologies involved in laser scanning. From his adoption of GNSS, GIS and robotics to his ability to work with point clouds to create 3D building information models, Cockrell is focused on what works the best for his clients.

These evolving technologies are changing workflows and the skills needed to do the work. Cockrell notes that simply having a high school degree and a strong back is no longer enough in this increasingly complex profession. “I don’t hire employees, I hire supervisors,” he says. “I need people who understand the project and can work on their own. The field crew needs to know things like programming and the logical steps to finishing a project.”

Ultimately, however, surveying is not about technology or tradition, but about trust. “We work more like a paralegal firm with a high-tech surveying outfit,” Cockrell says. “Easily 40 percent of the cost of using us is the labor and liability.” The rest is the cost of keeping the quality of their work top notch.

“I had a realtor ask me the other day what my ‘reject rate’ from the title company was,” he says. “I was amazed at the question--it’s 0 percent. We work with the title examiners to produce the highest quality survey you can get. We work hard after the checks clear to set and monument property corners for the sake of the next surveyor behind us and for the benefit of the community.”

Cockrell uses his respect for both the future and the past to create a great present. He has found a happy middle ground balanced between tradition and technology, utilizing the strengths of both to keep his company on top. His results speak for themselves, and his work practices are a great example on how to succeed at surveying.

 

For more information about Southern Survey Co., visit www.southernsurvey.com.

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