Point of Beginning

Success Stories

April 4, 2000
Surveyors who went out on their own and succeeded.

There is more than one road to success, as you can see from these profiles. Each of these people started out with an idea and the desire to own his or her own business. They took that idea and then made it happen. Perhaps their stories will inspire your own entrepreneurial spirit.

Specialty Surveying
Mike Falk, PLS
P.L.I. Engineering & Surveying Inc.
Portage, Ind.

Mike Falk, PE, LS, learned his trade in the south, working on the Super Collider project and other government projects in Texas. Wanting a more secure future, he quit his job and moved to northwest Indiana in 1993 to buy an engineering and surveying firm. Northwest Indiana is peppered with steel mills in need of industrial alignment and construction surveys-Falk's area of expertise. "There were only two surveying companies providing that service in northwest Indiana," Falk says. "And I was going to buy one of them."

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) for Falk, the deal fell through. The two companies decided to merge. "I knew there was $4 to $5 million in business out there," he says. "And I didn't want them to have a monopoly."

He and his wife looked at SBA loans, maxed out their credit cards, took out personal loans, tapped their retirement funds and set out to write a business plan. Using a $150 piece of software and his own experience, Falk, age 34, drafted a business plan he could take to local banks. They agreed to provide the rest of the funding necessary to get P.L.I. Engineering & Surveying Inc. off the ground in 1995.

"My biggest challenge was finding qualified personnel," he says. He solved that problem by paying handsome wages, offering incentive packages and quality, company-paid training. "My employees feel more secure working for me than for my competitors," he says. "They know they have a career at P.L.I." Falk says the secret to keeping employees happy is to promote their creativity and give them some decision-making power. "But also make sure they know when they should call in for help."

He credits some of his success to the one piece of equipment he can't live without. "I almost don't want to say what it is so my competitors won't find out," he says. It's a laser tracker-essentially a more precise, more accurate and much more expensive total station. "It surveys industrial equipment more quickly and more accurately than anything else."

He found out about the equipment while working on the Super Collider project and knew it would be worth the investment.

Now nearly five years old, P.L.I. has 20 employees, runs between five and eight field crews and pulls in sales of over $1.5 million a year. Falk has this advice for people contemplating going out on their own. "You have to understand what it takes to run a business," he says. "Sit down with a legal pad and fill every line for two pages with different items that go into calculating the cost of overhead. If you can't fill in two pages, you're not ready."

$1,000 into a Million in Sales
Deborah Naybor, PLS
Deborah A. Naybor, PLS, P.C.
Alden, N.Y.

Twelve years ago, Deborah Naybor was working as a licensed surveyor for a small firm. "I found I was always arguing with the boss. I knew I had better ideas," she says. She struck out on her own with $1,000 in savings, an old pickup truck and some used survey equipment. She trained her friend (a dairy farmer) to help her and ran her business out of her home. Today, Naybor boasts annual sales of $1.1 million. She employs 19 people.

"I was given a lot of encouragement from potential clients who needed to be able to do work with a woman-owned business," Naybor says. At that time, the government mandated that a certain percentage of its contracts go to minority-owned or woman-owned firms. Naybor soon learned that she couldn't apply for "women's business enterprise" status until she had been in operation for a year. She stuck it out and within a few years, much of her business came from Uncle Sam.

"I'm beginning to faze out of government work," she says. "The government is often difficult to work with and slow to pay-it's almost like having a boss." The bulk of her work now comes from construction layout and topo for design.

As a woman, she faced discrimination at first. "When I started, it was hard to find a banker willing to give me a chance. Thankfully, it's gotten easier for women who are starting out today." Naybor says a lot of her clients said they were just "curious to see what a woman could do." She lost out on some projects, and on the projects she did get, her clients thought there had to be a man back at the office. "They assumed I was not doing it myself," she says. Her reputation for doing good work carried her through, she says, and today she competes on a fair playing ground.

Her biggest mistake? Underestimating the importance of business skills, she says. "I was a technically-oriented person-not a business person. And I made the mistake of relying on other people to take care of the business side of things." Once she relied on a colleague to take care of her workers' compensation insurance. "I hired 10 people and assumed that workers' comp would be taken care of," she says. "I was wrong." Her colleague had never notified the government of the new employees, and that year Naybor was faced with a hefty bill of $18,000 in back taxes.

She's learned along the way. She went to workshops and worked with the Service Corps of Retired Executives at the Small Business Administration (SBA). She joined professional societies and got involved. "I was able to find a mentor through the national societies with whom I didn't feel uncomfortable discussing my business," she says. "When I was talking with someone from across the country, I didn't feel as if I were handing out my business secrets to the competition."

Her advice to new business owners is to start out small and grow slowly. "Don't burden yourself with huge loans-you don't need top-of-the-line equipment to get started." As Naybor has proven, you can turn $1,000 into a million-dollar company.

Buying an Existing Firm
Charles Weakley, PLS
Mountain Pacific Surveys
Fairfield, Calif.

In 1992, Charles Weakley, PLS, was a project manager in the survey division of Creegan & D'Angelo, an engineering firm with five locations throughout the San Francisco Bay area. The company was downsizing and laying off employees. Instead of meekly looking for employment elsewhere, Weakley and three other project managers in the survey department offered to buy the survey division of the company; Mountain Pacific Surveys was born.

In a joint agreement with Creegan & D'Angelo, Mountain Pacific retained all the survey records as well as the equipment and clientele. The bulk of their work, Weakley says, still comes from servicing engineer firms as well as construction staking and local governmental agencies, although services are expanding.

"Good employees-that's key," Weakley says. "Attracting and keeping good employees is the secret to providing great service. It's not necessarily the principals who make the difference; it's those who are there working in the office and the field." The two original party chiefs who joined the firm are still with it today. Mountain Pacific enjoys a 90 percent repeat client rate.

The company reorganized four years ago. Weakley and Peter Lynch are the two remaining principals of the original four who started the company. Three years ago they invested in robotic equipment, virtually cutting crew costs in half, Weakley says. Mountain Pacific runs four crews during the winter months and six during the summer. The firm employs 12 people. More changes are on the horizon as Mountain Pacific continues to expand its scope of services. They recently acquired an aerial mapping firm and plan to increase their sales by offering photogrammetry and GIS services.

Because the survey arm of Creegan and D'Angelo was run as a separate firm before the purchase, the challenges of running the firm were more internal than external, Weakley says. Since the firm's reorganization, sales have more than doubled. Mountain Pacific achieved sales of $1.2 million in 1999 and projects sales will nearly double again due to the acquisition to $2.1 million in 2000.

"Buying an existing firm is the way to go if you have the financial resources," he says. "The clientele and the existing business structure enabled us to be up and running from day one." He adds that if your goal is a sole proprietorship, buying a firm is probably not worth the expense involved.

Steady Growth
Paul Kwan
Landtech
Consultants Inc. Houston, Texas

Paul Kwan began his surveying career in 1972 and spent 13 years working for a family-owned surveying and engineering firm. "Being young and foolish," he says, he and partner Thomas Staudt, who also worked at that firm, decided to go out on their own in June 1985. Their venture, Landtech Consultants Inc., achieved sales of $50,000 its first year. Today, their firm employs 50 people and has projects statewide with annual sales many times over the original amount.

Kwan and Staudt were fortunate to have substantial savings from which they launched their company. "We started on a strictly cash basis," Kwan says. A friend referred them to their first project. After that, they hit the road. "Since we were both familiar with engineering, we mostly marketed ourselves to engineering firms without survey capabilities." Kwan says he also had friends in the banking business to which he marketed, resulting in a lot of work in foreclosures during the mid-1980s economic downturn.

"It's important not to focus on just one market," he says. "You need to diversify. The public sector is usually steady, but the private sector is economy-driven. When the interest rates go up, the work slows down."

Landtech understands the importance of working within different sectors. They do boundary, design, engineering, as-built, topographic, route and right of way surveying, as well as civil engineering. "We do very little construction surveying," Kwan says. "We've found that it's a lot of hassle with very little money."

He says he is continually reinvesting money in equipment. "We have the latest and the greatest." He has owned robotic Geodimeters (Spectra Precision, Itasca, Ill.) for the past six years, and was, in fact, the first survey firm to purchase the equipment in Houston. "I was featured in Spectra Precision's advertising," he says. He also owns Leica Geosystems (Norcross, Ga.) GPS/RTK receivers, reflectorless total stations and digital levels, as well as Topcon (Paramus, N.J.) total stations.

"Hiring and keeping good employees is the toughest part," Kwan says. "Having long-term employees is what works best in turning out a good-quality product." A few of Landtech's employees have been with them since the beginning. "We pay our employees fair and treat them as friends-not just as a disposable workforce," he says.

Kwan suggests that survey firm owners stay active in their professional societies. "It's a good way to be well-known plus develop a solid reputation and network." He also emphasizes the need for companies to grow. "But not too fast," he says. "We've never had to lay off any employees. But we are always moving forward."

Sweat Equity
Kim Buchheit
Buchheit Associates Inc.,
Surveyors and Mappers Altamonte Springs, Fla.

In November 1991, the economy was slow in Florida and Kim Buchheit, PSM, felt the pinch. She was laid off from her management position in the survey department of an engineering firm. "That was the kick in the butt I needed to go out on my own," she says.

Buchheit says she was fortunate in that she had good mentors and picked up a lot of business sense during the years after she started surveying in 1984. "The survey department where I worked was run as a separate profit center for the engineering company," she says. "I was familiar with payroll, accounting, marketing and projections."

She financed her firm, Buchheit Associates Inc., with cash advances from her credit cards. "But really it was financed with sweat," she says. She pulled together the essential equipment and set out to work-hard. "I would make calls in the morning, work in the field all day and do calcs and drafting at night." Each job financed the next. The firm ran on a cash-flow basis for about the first six months, until the company grew enough where she could add staff.

Buchheit enjoyed friendly, cooperative relationships with other professionals in her community. "I had a friend I would help out with his lay-out business, and he would help me on my jobs," she says. Buchheit still enjoys friendly relationships with other surveyors in her community, often teaming on projects requiring additional staff, expertise or equipment.

Her firm does engineering design surveys concentrated in the public sector: utilities, drainage and DOT work. The niche developed in part because of her status as a female business owner.

"State and local programs require various levels of participation from minority and woman-owned businesses," she says. "I knew this, and it was one of the reasons I was compelled to start my own firm."

Buchheit advises new business owners to expand with caution. "In the beginning, I often turned down jobs that were too big-and that was difficult. But it is expensive to take on big projects. You have to finance them for several months until you see a cash return." Currently, she has 17 employees on staff and would like to keep that number below 20. "I want to keep the company small enough where I can still give personal attention to my clients. I want them to be able to pick up a phone and call me directly. Personal attention is the key to good client service." Although she would like to spend more time in the field, these days her attention is mostly focused on bringing in new jobs and getting them started.

From her first year as a "one-woman show," Buchheit's sales have grown from approximately $60,000 to over $1 million. Her goals for the future include adding office space, upgrading her equipment and broadening her scope of services to include GIS work-an area she says in which surveyors should become more involved.

She advises new business owners to become involved in professional organizations in order to develop relationships and continue their educations. "Get ready to work real hard," she says. "Map out your goals, and then follow that map. Don't let yourself be pressured into changing course."

Support from Mentors
Anastatios "Taso" Costarides, RLS
C&C Land Surveyors Inc.
Acworth, Ga.

Taso Costarides, RLS, came to the United States in 1966 at age 8 from a small mountain village in southern Greece. While in college at Georgia State, a government-funded program placed him in a position with Dekalb Water and Sewer Department in Atlanta. Not pleased with "basically looking under manholes," he took a friend's advice and began doing pipeline surveying in 1977. "But in 1982, the oil boom came crashing down and I had to travel. When you live in a hotel, you start to think about where your future is going," Costarides says. He decided to go to Southern Polytechnic University to become a surveyor. "Surveying is like a bug that catches you."

In his senior year of college, he went in search of a part-time job, landing at Southern Surveying and Mapping in Marietta, Ga., where he worked for Tom Ginn. "Tom gave me the opportunity to stumble and learn," Costarides says. "These days, you don't have time to teach. Tom is a good man and a good teacher."

Costarides got a CET degree with a land surveying option from Southern Tech. and passed the Georgia State LSIT exam in 1986. He became a registered land surveyor in January 1989. He started up Costarides & Associates out of his basement one Friday after making a social visit to a contractor he knew. "He offered me a job only if I did it myself," Costarides says. "By Friday I was in business-with no money, no equipment, no help and no other clients." The second hurdle, he says, was financing field equipment. "It is hard to borrow money from a bank or lease equipment if you have not been in business for at least two years," he says.

P.V. Rice at Optical Engineering financed Costarides the equipment to get started, which he proudly says he was able to pay back in 10 months. Costarides says one of the most challenging parts of getting started was "for people to give us a chance. In the surveying profession, people go with name recognition or whoever their friends recommend." He says it was frustrating getting turned down, but he knocked on many doors of real estate attorneys until he had a good client base. Taso's wife, Cathy, also an RLS, joined him in 1991 and moved the business to its present location in Acworth, Ga., under the name C&C Land Surveyors Inc. Costarides said it can be difficult working with your spouse, but that he and Cathy are a good team. "My wife used to think I was married to the business," he says. "But, I have worked hard to find the right balance between home and work. Without Cathy's help, I'd be a one-man show."

Costarides cites his greatest lesson as having to manage people. "I'm not good at it," he says. "I used to have a hard time relating to the employees and being a motivating force. I've done a complete 180 in the past five years. You have to treat your employees like you treat your most important client." Costarides employs eight people at his Georgia office, and grosses a little more than half a million dollars annually.

His recommendation for new business owners is this: "Before they go out on their own, they should get the most experience they can in every facet of surveying. If you're a registered land surveyor, do everything yourself." He also said it is worth taking business, accounting, management or marketing classes. Once established, Costarides says to remember that "service is the whole thing. Treat each client as the only one. As long as you pride service, your clients will always come back."