Even in favorable economic times, growing a small business into a larger organization is a formidable challenge. It requires in-depth knowledge of the markets, focus on the long-term plan, willingness to take chances and the ability to remain flexible throughout the process.
For a geospatial service provider, keeping up with new technology and recognizing and responding to the clients’ changing needs are crucial factors for business growth. The past few years have been marked with dwindling budgets and the need to do more with fewer resources. Clients have increasingly asked for solutions that provide greater efficiency, and less expensive processes, tools, and applications that provide better and faster results are in demand.
Magnolia River, an infrastructure and geospatial solutions firm founded in 2000, has evolved from a two-person company operating inside a living room to a 100-plus employee firm with expertise in pipeline services, energy solutions, GIS, software, and surveying and mapping. The driving force behind its growth has been a trend toward clients preferring to work with a single end-to-end contractor, rather than with multiple contractors for individual pieces of a large project. One-stop shopping helps the client minimize administrative costs and streamline the procurement process.
As Ronnie Hoff, Magnolia River’s executive vice president and chief operations officer, said: “If you are in the lawn business and you’re hired to mow the grass, you might as well trim the hedges to provide that extra level of service while you’re there. Our philosophy is to establish long-term relationships and make logical extensions of our services to meet each client’s needs.”
Originally, Magnolia River provided value-added mapping services only to the gas industry, but over the years it made sense to expand into other markets, as well as to broaden the range of services. As geographic information systems (GIS) became more commonly used, Magnolia River added database development services. To aid with compliance to regulations and increase efficiency, it developed specific infrastructure applications and produced a tailored suite of software for natural gas and other utilities (water/wastewater/electric).
“In 2005, we committed to entering the geographic information systems market and won our first project for GIS database development services,” Hoff said. “In 2008, we ventured into the software-development world, with the creation of the Esri-based tools that have become the backbone of our flowGIS product line. In 2011, we expanded our management team and our services to include surveying and mapping and acquired Aeroquest Optimal because of its complementary skill set and similar client list.”
One obstacle for small businesses to successfully grow is the fine line between being small enough to be immediately responsive and large enough to have the appropriate assets where and when they are needed. Partnering with others to provide specific services, such as aerial data acquisition, can help alleviate some of those challenges. As a “peak shaving provider,” Magnolia River provides infrastructure support in times of high demand, so adequate staffing is key. If a client suddenly needs to staff a new project, extra resources are hired temporarily from Magnolia River—for work in the client’s office, in the field or via the cloud.
“Over its 13 years of operations, Magnolia River has increased its breadth and depth of services across a variety of interconnected disciplines so the firm can react quickly to growth in one area over another,” said Jay Arnold, vice president of Business Development for Magnolia River. “We are responding to our clients’ needs to cut costs and increase efficiency to handle increasing regulations and a shortage of manpower.”
To help meet these needs, the software department is addressing the demand for mobile applications that reduce paperwork and increase productivity in the field. Magnolia River recently released a new software product for handheld devices that is an extension of its desktop offering. “The flowGIS Mobile tools are part of the revolution and the evolution of the infrastructure and geospatial markets,” said Kim Hoff, Magnolia River’s president and CEO. “This continued expansion of our software provides additional tools for our clients to get their work done.”
Another common issue for some small companies is rapid growth without the necessary business processes in place, which can result in disgruntled clients, overworked staff and financial failure. Magnolia River put in place a marketing and brand management framework that would feed the project pipeline while continuing to satisfy current clients.
“Prior to the significant increase in staff, the executive team identified the strategic steps that had to be taken for Magnolia River to be a 100-employee firm,” Arnold said. “This provided the foundation for expansion into new markets and growth of the client base without disrupting the existing business.”