Solo Notes: Surveyor Talks Taking Over the Family Business
Like most young boys, Tad Abraham, RPLS, aspired to be like his father growing up. His father, Tom, is a surveyor who founded Newberry, S.C.-based Abraham Land Surveying LLC 37 years ago. When Abraham was in elementary school, the company office was a former bedroom across the hall from his room. “I was always looming around, entertained by something as simple as K&E pen sets getting cleaned,” he says. “And when I smelled the ammonia from the blueprint machine I always made my way to see the magic paper change colors. So yes, from a very early age I was drawn in to surveying.”
Abraham Land Surveying LLC serves clients across South Carolina, taking on projects involving boundary, topographic and ALTA surveys, in addition to GIS mapping and system design. Abraham says having his father as a business partner has been fun. He remembers taking himself too seriously and discounting his dad’s experience initially. But he learned that the “I told you so” moments were something to be grateful for. “It’s a good feeling for both of us,” he says. “I can only hope to find myself in his shoes if one of my children shares an interest in surveying.”
The business transition from father to son was a smooth one and Abraham, principal of the company, says that has a lot to do with the fact that it was not a prolonged process. He says that while transitioning he learned to listen to his father’s advice based on past mistakes and lessons learned; it ramped up his learning curve. While their approaches to business structure do vary, they acknowledge that there is more than one right answer for how to do things. “My thought is that the right answer on how to run a business is the one that motivates you on a personal level to be successful, respected and trusted. Dad has always succeeded at that and I fully intend to carry the torch forward,” Abraham says.
A 1999 graduate of Clemson University with a bachelor’s degree, Abraham says he is torn in some ways as to whether degree requirements for professional surveyors raise the bar or not. “My father is one of the best surveyors I’ve ever been around/followed behind,” he explains. “He’s not the product of a four-year degree. I know many great surveyors who have two-year degrees and are among the best in our profession. I also know surveyors with four-year degrees who could not run a traverse with their own equipment if their life depended on it.”
While he is thankful his father’s generation was not required to have a four-year degree, pointing out that he may have never been exposed to surveying if it were, he does feel that it is advantageous today. For one, he says technology requirements have changed dramatically. In addition, he recognizes a basic formal business education as very important for surveyors like himself and says that a two-year associates degree program doesn’t offer up enough time to cover business fundamentals to the necessary extent.
POB: What aspect of the business do you enjoy most and why?
ABRAHAM: Variety in what we do day to day. We go after anything from layout of power generation stations to boundary surveys of family tracts. I love learning how to leverage UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) one day and looking for cedar stakes in the ground the next. Few professions can rival the broad experiences surveying brings to the table.
POB: Do you have any memorable stories from field work and/or a favorite project you worked on?
ABRAHAM: I always look back to when PCs came on the scene for the small-time surveyor. Back in the late ’80s/ early ’90s, we were early adopters for a CAD package based out of Minnesota. I would come home from school and bang away at learning it, and find a bug here and there. I’d call Greg in Minnesota and he’d pick on me by calling me “Doogie Howser,” as I was the only 13-year-old customer he had. I had a blast working through those trials and am very fortunate to have gotten into surveying at a young enough age to start my days hand drafting, progressing through all of the stages to where we are now.
On the field side of things, Dad put me out in the field shortly after EDMs were available. I watched the mysterious box on top of the theodolite, but it wasn’t until total stations came around that I actually was turned loose as an instrument man. All of that occurred before I was at an age I could legally drive!
POB: What has been your biggest challenge so far?
ABRAHAM: Without hesitation, the economic downturn in 2007/2008. I’d personally never seen anything like that in our industry. I had always heard Dad speak of “the great surveying depression” of the early ’80s but my earliest recollections were the booming late ’80s/early ’90s, and things were pretty steady thereafter. Wow, did I get a rude awakening. I had just sold our small, cramped house we were working out of and upsized to an office twice as large, and had several crews running smoothly. I’d no sooner finished paying for an employee’s two-year degree when I had to start looking at downsizing.
By the end of 2008, I had a huge office and me — me in the field and me at the desk. It was depressing. After a while though, I realized that I could make a decent living that way even though I still had some longterm overhead like the office. I learned a great deal about efficiency and it has helped immensely as the economy turned and picked up steam. It also gave me confidence in myself that I could make it through a tough time. It’s not a matter of if, but when.
POB: How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?
ABRAHAM: I’m a geek and always have been. I follow all of the leading tech blogs and publications. If I go to a convention, it will be one that has emerging technology, not what everyone else is using. I’ve been fortunate to get in early with RTK tech and robotics. Both commanded a premium early on, but if you were smart and knew how to leverage them, you could recoup the premium pretty quickly and reap the rewards from then on.
POB: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the surveying business today?
ABRAHAM: Be ready to work! A surveying business is not something that is glamorous, but it is rewarding and can be as challenging or monotonous as you want it to be. Concentrate as much on business as boundary law. It’s easy to find yourself doing a good job surveying but not such a good job running your business. Answer the phone. If you aren’t there to answer the phone, return the calls as soon as you can. I know it sounds silly, but you’d be surprised the number of times you can get a job by just answering the phone.
POB: How has the surveying profession changed since you started and where do you see it heading in the future?
ABRAHAM: I’m young for a surveyor, but since I grew up in the business I’ve seen the changes basically from the mid ‘80’s forward. The direction of surveying is undoubtedly being driven by the huge thirst for data. Faster instruments, faster data collection devices, faster turnaround times. Unfortunately, we are also in the age of the button pusher. The tech has enabled someone who has no idea why they are doing something to do that something effectively until something goes wrong. In that scenario, when it goes wrong, it goes way wrong. Construction staking is a prime example of that and, as many readers are aware, an ongoing battle within many surveying chapters as to if it should even be allowed to be performed without the supervision of a land surveyor [is taking place]. What we’ve seen is that, sooner or later, these guys burn themselves and come back to the surveyor for their expertise and consistently better product.
Another point on the direction of surveying: When it appears one door is closing, another could be opening. Machine grade control is an example of that. You could lose out on some staking or you could learn how to build site models and make money off of that same site without pounding hubs for eight hours straight. If you embrace technology it’s a great time to be a surveyor.
Finally, we have data collectors with decent screens, robots that don’t require a ton of batteries to make it a whole day, UAVs buzzing around and point clouds that absolutely boggle the mind. This trend will continue and, I say bring it on; just make sure you still cover the basics like making sure the rod is plumb!
Tad Abraham, RPLS, is principal of Abraham Land Surveying LLC, a surveying firm located in Newberry, S.C. Abraham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.