Business Strategies for Surveyors / Columns / Solo Notes

Decades of Experience Helps Surveyor Dennis Smith

July 28, 2014
KEYWORDS surveying
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POB: How did you get your start?

Dennis Smith, PE, PLS: I began in the summer of 1968 working for a surveyor in Glasgow, Kentucky. I began ‘cutting line,’ carrying the water cooler and the backpack with the crew’s lunches. I stayed on with that surveyor working part time while in college, working my way up through rodman, instrument man and party chief. In 1974, I received one of the first Land Surveyor in Training Certificates issued in Kentucky. In 1977, I was licensed as a Land Surveyor in Kentucky and in 1984 became a ‘dual licensee’ as a Professional Engineer, and today am licensed in five states as a PLS and PE.


POB: How long have you owned your company and what was your motivation in starting it?

Smith: Upon graduation from college in 1973, I received my first Occupational License to open and operate a business in Bowling Green. I was providing drafting services for local contractors.  Upon being licensed as a Land Surveyor in 1977, I began offering boundary and topographic surveying services to some of the same contractors I had been providing drafting services for. So, I guess you could say I’ve been in business for 41 years and have been a practicing surveyor for 37 years.

My primary motivation for starting my own business was to achieve some level of independence. It has been rewarding to see our business grow but was disheartening to have to suffer through the economic downturn a few years ago.


POB: What kind of advice would you have for someone who wants to start a company?

Smith: First of all, the old adage, “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” does not always apply. Sure, it’s good to be able to say you own your own business but sometimes it might feel like the business owns you.

Second, some will tell you that it must be nice to be your own boss. However, the reality is that you’re never your own boss. For every project in which you engage as a result of the client that walked through the door or called you on the phone, you now just acquired another “boss” and you have a deep moral and professional obligation to treat them as your boss.

Third, weigh all your possibilities and evaluate if you are really ready to take on all responsibilities associated with owning your own business. Remember, you’re not only responsible for all your actions of acting in the “official” capacity as a surveyor, but now you will be responsible for the rent/mortgage, payroll, taxes, insurance, equipment, vehicles, fuel, maintenance, etc.

Fourth, you have an obligation to your fellow surveyors and to your profession to help keep this the honored and respected profession that it was and is. Too many times, I have seen young men or women begin in the field of surveying “on their own” with the attitude to just to make a quick buck.  That’s not what it’s all about. Sure, we all have to make a living and hopefully there will be some profit left over by which we can grow and expand our business and its scope. On the flip side, don’t go into business with desperation and begin under bidding your competition. I detest the fact that surveying has been forced into bidding and now as a rule, the public looks upon the surveying only as another commodity for which they should be doing price comparing. I’ve been in the business long enough to fully understand that probably 98% of the time, you still only get what you pay for–nothing more.


POB: Where do you see the future of surveying?

Smith: I think we have to spark more interest in surveying. Across the nation in general, we have seen a decline in the number of individuals taking the exams to become licensed surveyors. However, most states are implementing the requirement for a degree to become licensed and I believe this will create a trend to greatly improve the quality of the surveying profession as a whole. However, I must add, that all the “book knowledge” in the world cannot replace that actual on-the-job experience. Field experience with a surveyor cannot be replaced. The art of surveying: field identifying the faint plow ridgeline as evidence of the old fence line and, quite possibly, original boundary line, the telltale signs of almost grown-over tree hack marks, and the many other points that develop a surveyor’s true experience cannot be taught in an indoor classroom. I think the need for the surveying profession will still be around for a long time to come, but we must continue to strive to do a better job of adequately educating those that follow us in the profession. I also see all surveyors continuing to become more efficient with their resources in both manpower and equipment.


POB: How has your company adapted to changes in the profession?

Smith: Having been in the business for as long as we have, we’ve seen a lot of changes. From the days when I began back in 1968, we were using the transit and chain, then to the electronic distance meters mounted on transits, then the total station, and then to GPS and then the robotic total stations.  In the past decade, our company has increased equipment resources, both in the field and the office, trimmed manpower levels, and learned to operate more lean, partly due to the economic downturn of the past 6-7 years. Manpower went from three to four man crews depending on the type work, to two-man crews to, in some cases,  a one-man crew. We have also seen our clients more demanding with project timelines and with our advanced equipment, we have been able to meet those challenges.

We have also emphasized more education for our staff and new personnel applying for employment. We encourage all our staff to better themselves with continuing education, membership in professional organizations and always on the lookout for more experience opportunities.


POB: What has been your most memorable story “from the field”?

Smith: With the many years in business, it’s a little difficult to pick a most memorable story. There are many–from the capsized boat in 30-degree weather with our equipment to extensive underground cave surveys to large-scale cemetery surveys for historic preservation.

But probably the most notable is the National Corvette Museum underground collapse earlier this year when a sinkhole spanning about 40 feet opened inside the Skydome, the trademark of the facility’s façade. Within minutes of hearing of the disaster, DDS personnel responded to offer their assistance.

Within the first hours, various methods were utilized in order to gain as much knowledge of the severity of the collapse and stability of the structure as possible.  Options included utilizing GoPro cameras suspended by lines over the side of the hole and one mounted to a UAV (quad copter) developed by Western Kentucky University Engineering students to view areas within the collapse that were otherwise inaccessible or unsafe for personnel to access. This project offered the WKU Engineering students their first true test of the value of their efforts to develop a UAV.

Since the initial reconnaissance, DDS has been retained for the remediation and reconstruction of the Skydome.


POB: Projects you are particularly proud of?

Smith: A few years ago a major coal producer retained our firm to assist them with the route survey and design, on a fast track basis, of a major spur to a new tipple. We met the challenge and the company met their deadline for a coal delivery to a national power producer. This project was an excellent opportunity for all our resources to work together.

However, The National Corvette Museum (NCM) underground collapse and the NCM Motorsports Park Complex are both examples of which we are all extremely proud. We were pleased to be selected by Qualification Based Selection to assist the NCM in surveying, purchase, zoning map amendment, design and construction of this extremely notable and unique project.


Dennis Smith, PE, PLS, has been involved in the surveying profession for 46 years. He formed his company, DDS Engineering, in 1984. Recently, his company has been involved with the National Corvette Museum Motorsports Park project in Bowling Green, Kentucky, providing surveying, zoning, design and construction expertise. The grand opening is set for the end of August. DDS Engineering also assisted when a sinkhole opened up beneath the museum in February. He can be reached at ddsmith@ddsengineering.com.


Solo Notes is a regular feature in POB and highlights the experiences and strategies of solo surveyors and small business owners. To share your story for a future issue, email Managing Editor Benita Mehta at mehtab@bnpmedia.com.

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