Business Strategies for Surveyors

Surveyor Embraces Changes in Profession

November 25, 2013

While many of his fellow surveyors are wringing their hands and dreading the direction they see their profession taking, Lee Green sees no cause for alarm. Rather, the Syracuse, N.Y.-area layout and training specialist says they should be embracing the changes taking place, adapting them to their own business model and focusing on ways to make jobsite functions—particularly those areas in which GNSS is having the greatest impact—best benefit their clients. Only by doing so, he feels, will surveyors be able to reclaim their value in this increasingly technology-driven environment.

It’s what he calls “bridging the gap between engineering and surveying,” and it’s hard to argue with the success he’s enjoyed doing just that. Having provided everything from layouts for running tracks to prep work for the ongoing Panama Canal expansion, he tackles better than 100 projects a year and is in constant demand for his services.

A land surveyor by trade, Green graduated from Paul Smith College in upstate New York in 1991 and recognized immediately his innate skill for the programming side of the business.

Lee Green
Lee Green

“Right out of college I was hooked on CAD and what it could do, so I really honed those skills,” he says. “After jobbing around a bit, I moved to the Rochester area to join a friend who had landed a job there with a then-startup called Fisher Associates. They (needed) someone to develop their CAD capabilities with Bentley’s MicroStation software. For me, though, it was also an invaluable on-the-job training opportunity, allowing me to learn everything from programming data collectors and doing full topos for highway design, to right-of-way mapping for New York State DOT, to doing modeling cross sections and profiles. While there, I became a certified instructor for both MicroStation and InRoads, which I still do today.”

Green took that expertise and in 2000 set off on his own to start Lee Green Consulting, which focuses on model building for clients as well as training on InRoads, MicroStation, AutoCAD, Carlson products and the gamut of GPS equipment used on today’s jobsites. He has served a number of extended stints providing customer training for all the branches of Topcon dealer Admar Supply, and is co-owner (along with Utica, N.Y.-based Steve Roseen) of a more traditional surveying company, Cornerstone Land Surveyors.

 

Today, Green’s workload is weighted toward providing training to clients, a facet of the business he sees as only getting bigger as time goes on.

“NYSDOT has a requirement built in to its contracts that GPS is required on all major projects. As a result, DOT staff have to receive training on a yearly basis and that’s where I’m brought into the picture. The manufacturers of GPS equipment can help to a limited degree, but not when it comes to getting the data from a program like MicroStation or InRoads into the GPS equipment, I streamline that process for my clients. And I’m certain that more and more states will be following New York’s lead and mandating GPS, so the opportunities for others doing what I do will definitely be there.”

To many people it would appear that with every person or group he trains, Green is setting himself up to lose that client as they become more familiar with the equipment or system. While that is true to a certain extent, there is no shortage of clients in need of the services he offers.

“I’ve been told for 15 years now that I am training myself out of a position,” he says. “But it hasn’t happened yet and doesn’t appear it will be happening anytime soon. The scenario has generally been such that introducing a new client to technology and making them more efficient allows me to work with more clients and do so less frequently. But it also results in my getting called back by that client as new needs arise. It also allows me to focus on what I feel is the real role of the surveyor on today’s jobsite: calibrating the site, maintaining quality control, getting sufficient info into the machine systems via the model and performing as-builts. That’s where I feel this is all headed.”

Lee Green has consulted on projects such as this water main
  Lee Green has consulted on projects such as this water main (above) and lattice tower (below).
Lee Green has consulted on projects such as this lattice tower

 

Green says he has built an effective business because he is willing to accept the changing role of the surveyor on today’s jobsite—better, unfortunately, than most.

“As I see it, one of the biggest problems we have in the industry right now is surveyors refusing to change an outdated way of thinking—and often doing so to the detriment of their own business. On a recent chain restaurant construction job, for example, I was hired to build the model and set up GPS control. Another surveying firm was brought in to put in four stakes for the main building corners, double offset those stakes, then come back to do as-builts.”

He says that the firm took five hours (at $150 an hour) to do the four stakes and then, when a separate problem was discovered, charged another five hours to re-do those same four stakes.

“It’s no secret that someone like me, who had the whole geometry for the site: a full surface model of the project, all the curb, all the sub-bases, the building, detention ponds, etc., could have done every corner on that job—and there were more than 40 of them—for less than that.”

Green says he didn’t do all the remaining corners on that particular job, but he was eventually asked for a price to do curbing, and other parts of the project—facets of the job that could just as easily have gone to the other survey firm.

“That was just a great example of how so many surveyors today are pricing themselves out of work,” he says. “While I understand the need to keep work coming in, I think they are missing the bigger picture, which is the need to make the contractor more productive. And by missing that point they are driving clients away from themselves. The reality is a contractor can no longer deal with the status quo. They see that approach as counter-productive; they know they can easily get a 25 percent increase in efficiency by buying a dozer, excavator or grader, automating it and not have to work around that stake at all.”

 

Because there is no putting this genie back in the bottle, a big part of the solution, Green feels, is to continue to show his colleagues that there is an alternative. Companies, he says, need to see that they can change the way they do business and be as profitable—or more profitable—than they are now.

“Most survey owners would rather put a man out there with a robot for eight  hours a day for the duration of the project, but that’s not what the client is looking for,” he says. “They want that surveyor to be out there the first three or four days, come back once a month for QC checks and then do the as-built—they can’t afford to bankroll that guy’s inefficiencies. Those survey firms need to see that the end product is no longer the stake, it’s setting up the GPS base, building the surface models, setting up and maintaining control, and providing overall qa/qc for the site on a weekly to monthly basis.”

Green is certainly no stranger to all things GPS. He’s been a proponent of the technology since his days with Fisher Associates and purchased his first Topcon HiPer Lite in 2000 when he started his business. His current equipment inventory includes two Topcon total stations, one robotic, one conventional total station, six Topcon HiPer GPS bases, a Topcon MillimeterGPS system, three Promark single frequency GPS units and a Topcon digital level.

“I use the gear on a regular basis and use MicroStation on a daily basis so I know I can provide my client with the right equipment and expertise to meet their needs. Some might know machine control but not the CAD side; some might know robots but not GPS. Again, it’s about bridging the engineering-surveying gap—that’s what we as an industry need to be focusing on.”

 

In addition to his training work, Green says he’s made a nice niche for himself providing support to contractors who specialize in construction of running tracks throughout the region. Doing that work is not just a perfect illustration of how change can be a good thing, it is a lesson in ways to grow one’s business.

“Running tracks are a challenging application because the level of accuracy demanded—0.5 percent with tolerances of ¼ inch—is essentially the same as that of an airport runway job,” he says. “When they lay down the synthetic surface and stripe it, if it is not completely to grade, you will see every little ripple in it. In the past, this was done using tapes, transits and three-man crews, and the process took a day and a half. Now, working alone, I can set up a project and have it ready for construction in less than eight hours. There is a huge demand for this type of work, there are four general contractors in the area that bid on them and I work for three of those. So the work is there. It’s simply a matter of tossing aside those old notions about what a surveyor’s role ‘really’ is and coming to grips with this new reality.

 

Green feels that many developers and owners have already begun to steer their projects in a direction that’s most efficient for them and that invariably involves GPS. To that end, he says, he encourages his clients to hire a surveyor who is technology savvy.

“I tell them it needs to be someone who can hand a digital file to an engineer, who can then use that same digital file and hand it back to the surveyor or contractor in another digital format that is dozer or grader system-ready. It needs to be a seamless, digital process all the way through.

 “Obviously we are not all mired in the past; many surveyors and survey firms either have gotten it already and made changes or are coming around. Those that don’t, however, those that are hopelessly in denial, will get left behind; it’s as simple as that.”  

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