Solo Notes: Surveyor Rolls With The Punches
Back in 1972, Scott Warnke’s parents, George and Patricia, started G.B. Warnke & Associates as a sole proprietorship. Around the age of 10, Warnke began helping his father with house stakings and small boundary surveys. He continued working while attending high school and college, eventually graduating with a bachelor’s degree in surveying and engineering from Michigan’s Ferris State University in 1991.
After working for several different engineering firms, he came back to Temperance, Mich., in 2005 to work with his parents, specializing in boundary surveys, topographical surveys, construction layout, ALTA surveys, mapping and elevation certificates. He started managing the business while his parents planned for retirement. At that time, G.B. Warnke & Associates employed eight to 10 employees, but work started declining at the end of 2006 and, due to the recession beginning in 2008, over time he ended up getting rid of all but one staff member.
Fast forward to today, when the business has more work than it does time. “I would like to hire a crew leader to help with the field work,” Warnke says, “but, with having recently been through the recession and the uncertainty of what the future holds, it is difficult to make a decision to hire someone back full time.” In the meantime, he and his partner have been putting in extra hours.
And, coming full circle, his mother has been helping a few hours every day with research and his father helps him with field work.
POB: What aspects of the business do you enjoy most and why?
WARNKE: I enjoy completing the boundary surveys and the field reconnaissance that is required to find property corners and determine whether there are encroachments along the property lines. I enjoy dividing the lands of old farms where I locate the farm buildings and create divisions that meet the municipality’s zoning requirements. Working on boundary surveys makes me feel like I am accomplishing something meaningful, such as allowing homeowners to maximize their property by selling the farm property to an interested farmer while retaining the house. I have recently helped a client divide and create a buildable lot, so that they could sell to help cover unexpected medical expenses.
POB: Do you have any memorable stories from field work and/or a favorite project you worked on?
WARNKE: Each job has its own unique story, so there are so many to pick from. But my favorite project would be teaming up with an underwater dive team to map the bottom of a half-mile-long canal. I devised a plan to simultaneously measure the location of the diver from two different instrument locations. Because of the time and effort that is involved for the dive team to set up their equipment, I needed to be sure that my measurements were correct and accurate immediately after the point was observed. The second instrument station with an instrument man allowed me to confirm that our coordinates and elevations were correct, and the diver could advance to the next cross-section location at the bottom of the 15-foot-deep canal. The diver’s job was to measure the amount of debris or mud at the bottom of the canal while he placed the 16-foot-tall rod, equipped with a prism, at the bottom of the canal so that we could take a measurement to said prism. Enough of the rod was exposed above the water, so that we could direct the diver which direction to plum the rod before making the measurement. With the diver’s equipment, we were able to cover approximately 600 feet with one dive station setup. As a result, the diver needed to move and set up four separate stations to cover the length of the canal. Each station setup took approximately one hour and their crew operation required five workers. Because of their time and expense, I needed to be sure each shot was accurate in real time.
POB: What has been your biggest challenge so far?
WARNKE: The biggest challenge has been working through the recession and trying to figure out what to do with the expanding workload. The question becomes, “Do I work more hours and try to complete the work and avoid having to hire a crew chief?” However, part of that dilemma is that there are not a lot of experienced crew chiefs looking for work in our area of southeast Michigan. And if I did decide to hire a crew chief, it will take time to learn his abilities and gain trust in his ability to do boundary surveys under my supervision.
POB: How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?
WARNKE: I try to stay up on the latest trends and technologies by attending yearly seminars or reading technical magazines. The price of surveying equipment has definitely increased, which makes it difficult for a small business owner to keep up with the latest equipment. Scanners seem to be a great new tool for surveying, but until the cost comes down on that particular piece of equipment, I don’t see myself getting one. However, GPS and robotic total stations are almost necessary, and a small business needs to find a way to have this equipment in their inventory.
POB: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the surveying business today?
WARNKE: Surveying is a great profession and very rewarding. Being a small business owner allows me to be responsible to my clients while giving me the flexibility of managing my own time and workload around family activities. However, one of my least favorite things of being a business owner is having to lay off employees, especially if those employees have been with us for a long time. I would say one of the misnomers of being a business owner is being “independently wealthy.” That can’t be further from the truth. It is a good way to make a living while enjoying what we do as surveyors.
POB: How has the surveying profession changed since you started and where do you see it heading in the future?
WARNKE: Surveying has changed exponentially from the days when I was 10 or 11 and pulling a 200-foot drag chain down the center of a road with my dad to measure a half-mile distance between section corners. I have seen the introduction of electronic distomats, to the real-time GPS units of today that make the measuring process so much quicker and easier. However, the one skill that should never be lost is the knowledge of finding existing monumentation, old or new, at property corners and/or section corners. I see surveyors and engineers sending young kids out in the field to perform surveys. These novices can run the equipment and make the measurements, but they do not know how to find the existing monumentation that may be next to an old wire fence or under a tree root. Probably one of the biggest advancements in helping surveyors in the field is cell phones or the smartphone. I have forgotten paper work in the office, and my survey tech has been able to scan the documents and email or text them to me. Probably most useful are GPS apps that allow the user to view aerial imagery of a project site while in the field.
Scott Warnke, PS, is the vice president of G.B. Warnke & Associates Inc., based in Temperance, Mich. He has been in the business of surveying since the age of 10 and can be reached at email@example.com.
Solo Notes is a regular feature in POB magazine and highlights the experiences and strategies of solo surveyors and small business owners. To share your story in a future issue, please email Associate Editor Valerie King at firstname.lastname@example.org.