Solo Notes: Surveying in Disaster-Stricken Zones
Richmond Krebs Sr., PLS, considers his path to land surveying a pretty straightforward one. He followed the footsteps of his father and grandfather. They were part owners of J.J. Krebs and Sons Inc., a New Orleans land surveying and engineering firm founded by his grandfather in 1935. Krebs started working weekends, summers and holidays with them in 1968 while in high school. “As a high school student and later a college student, I was consistently challenged by my father to be the best I could be. Our schedules and field work were grueling and my role in the company was never of privilege. Until my training, knowledge and ability were proven, I was then only allowed to move up in the ranks of the field crew hierarchy,” Krebs says.
His grandfather passed away in 1970 and Krebs was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1972. During that time, he met his late wife of 34 years who had come to work for J.J. Krebs & Sons Inc. as an office clerk. “She caught my eye and I asked her to marry me near the end of my military service. In fact, Beth remained with J.J. Krebs & Sons Inc. for over 25 years,” he says.
When Krebs returned home from the military in October 1974, he resumed his role with J.J. Krebs & Sons Inc. In February 1977, his father passed away from cancer, so his uncle took on the role of president and CEO. Krebs went into business for himself in July of 1979. He provided sub-contracted survey crews to surveying companies throughout the greater New Orleans area, including J.J. Krebs & Sons Inc.
In 1995, with his uncle’s retirement pending, Krebs made the move to obtain his professional land surveying license in Louisiana. He received it in 1997. Two years later, he also became licensed to practice land surveying in Mississippi. He continued to primarily focus on contracting land surveying services while slowly building a book of land surveying clients of his own.
In 2002, Krebs started establishing himself exclusively as a land surveying firm, staying in the New Orleans area. Then came Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He says the catastrophic event was the catalyst for significant company growth. “We are still providing surveying work even today on homes which are being razed or rebuilt 11 years after the hurricane. Builders, developers and community organizations continue to buy vacant lots and blighted properties left in those conditions from Hurricane Katrina and are building beautiful new homes or remodeling old ones,” he says.
Krebs’ offices provide surveying services throughout Louisiana and Mississippi. He serves residential and commercial clients, with builders, architects, real estate agents, insurance agents and title attorneys making up the commercial category. Core services include flood elevation certificates; boundary surveys; ALTA/NSPS surveys; topographic surveys; subdivision and re-subdivision calculations and drafting of plats; layout of subdivisions for sewer, water, drainage and paving; as well as as-built plans.
In 2014, Krebs acquried the survey library of J.J. Krebs and Sons Inc., which was his grandfather’s original survey library. The acquisition of the files meant Krebs needed to move his office to the location where the survey library was being housed. “This vast library of filing cabinets, flat files and tracing cabinets consumed nearly 2,000 square feet at our current Metairie, La., office location. The simplest solution to marry my company and all our moving parts with the survey library was for us to move to it, the library,” Krebs explains.
The move took place in late 2015. His daughter, Stephanie, and middle son, J.W., who’d been working for the company, chose to move in other professional directions; specializing in civil engineering and commercial construction layout respectively. His oldest son, Nicholas, continued to play a key management role within the company.
After Krebs’ late wife passed way in early 2010 from a two-year battle with cancer, he married again in late 2012. His current wife came to work for for the business. “With the demands of the office, our new married life had become a routine of us both working very long hours, usually six days a week,” he says.
In early 2016, he started transitioning his managerial roles to Nicholas. He decided to move to Denham Springs, La., and commute throughout the week to the Metairie, La., office. “Because neither myself nor my wife really can see ourselves fully retiring, we opened a small, second office in Denham Springs late last summer, prior to the historic August 2016 flood, which devastated tens of thousands of homes and businesses in and around the greater Baton Rouge area. Part of our initial business plan for the Denham Springs location was that it would essentially be a second satellite office of the Metairie office; low key, a few jobs each week, just enough to keep us somewhat busy,” Krebs explains.
As it turned out, the flood sparked much more growth for the Denham Springs office than they anticipated. After the office flooded, ruining much of Krebs’ equipment and furniture, he relocated to a larger Denham Springs location and now runs more field crews. His wife is back to working 60-70 hours each week as the operations manager of the Denham Springs office, and is training support staff. “I believe that people who have worked for themselves their whole lives or worked on commission will always have that workaholic mindset. It is hard to ever shake,” Krebs says.
POB: What aspect of the business do you enjoy most and why?
KREBS: I enjoy the daily, never-the-same challenges of building a successful surveying company. Also, after 49 years, I still enjoy working the field, following the footprints of the old surveyors. Even today, I still find the old property corners of the old surveyors, whether they be by an iron rod or old axles, and am amazed at how accurate they are with the equipment of their day.
Years ago, I had the opportunity to speak to a surveyor by the name of Mr. Woods, who was from LaPlace, La. He told me of how, back in the 1920s and 1930s, they would use mules to carry the surveying equipment, the axles, etc., to complete their work. I asked him, “What do you do at the end of each day?” because we got in our trucks and went home. His response was that they made camp, spent the night where they finished that day’s work and woke up to continue. This could mean spending days, weeks or even months without meeting other people or coming out of the woods/swamp.
When I started in 1968, all we had to worry about were snakes. Mr. Woods told me in his day, they also had to worry about bears and other creatures. I have sometimes wondered what made those old surveyors go into the surveying field given the hardships inherent to that work at that time, especially in southern Louisiana.
POB: Do you have any memorable stories from field work and/or a favorite project you worked on?
KREBS: Although it is difficult to pick one of the jobs which I have completed over the 49 years I have been in land surveying, one of them was surveying Reserve Plantation in Reserve, La. It was in the early 1980s and we had to survey a tract of land from the Mississippi River back to the 80 arpent line. The property was about 2 miles wide and had a levee surrounding the property, except for the back 10 percent. I found myself up to my waist in water traversing down a property line to come across a pipe at the end of our traverse, which was set by the previous land surveyor who had surveyed the property in the 1930s or 1940s. When I found the pipe, we located it and after running calculations, found the pipe to be within 3 inches of where it was supposed to be, which I found to be unbelievably accurate given the date it was done.
POB: What has been your biggest challenge so far?
KREBS: My biggest challenge has been to grow the business through the changing economic climates and remaining profitable. Also, to translate and imprint the concept of and objectives for the future of the company to the employees of the company. For the most part, I have been fortunate in our personnel. Most of my personnel have been with me for 12 or more years and have tremendous work ethics and are dedicated to their jobs and to the success of the company.
POB: How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?
KREBS: I try to stay abreast of recent technology through reading, Internet articles and the resources Haag and Trammell in Metairie, La.
POB: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the surveying business today?
KREBS: I have told my children and anyone else that whatever you do in life, you must love or at least enjoy your job. I have been fortunate in that I love the work I do, and it has provided for me and family for many years. For someone considering land surveying as a career path, in addition to the sage advice offered above, I would tell them to learn everything they can related to field work and all aspects of the office side of the business, especially the financial areas. Listen to those who have been in the business for years and learn from their advice. Become proficient in every aspect that you possibly can. I will be 65 years old in June and I am still learning and listening.
POB: How has the surveying profession changed since you started and where do you see it heading in the future?
KREBS: As for the future of land surveying, I often find myself wondering what my father would have thought about the changes that have taken place since he passed away in 1977. Since I started my career in 1968, the changes I have seen in the surveying industry are unbelievable. In 1968, we did not have one piece of electronic equipment. We needed a three- or four-man crew to complete jobs. Today, we can do what a three-man crew could do with one man using electronic equipment, computers, robotic total stations, GNSS and the use of satellites (the technology today uses American, Russian, European and Japanese satellites), LiDAR, laser levels, data collectors, navigational systems, drones, scanners and reflector-less total stations. In 1997, I bought my first GPS, which was Trimble, and only did fast-static and static readings. The data had to be processed through a program called Trimble Office.
The advancement in the GNSS field and other technologies are beyond our expectations. To stay on top of technology and the competition within the industry, my latest equipment acquisition was the purchase of a Topcon base station antenna, which is part of the Topcon TopNet Live Network, like that of the CG-4 Network that the State of Louisiana uses through Louisiana State University and other universities.
I foresee continued advancement in the technology available to land surveyors and the way that land surveying is done. As an example, who would have known that with the use of drones and the related software systems one would be able to fly over a site with targets in place and collect contour data to the nearest inch? Even so, I am very optimistic about the future of land surveying. No matter what technology becomes available, including the improvement and accuracy of GIS mapping, land surveying will continue to require the skills of a licensed land surveyor.
Richmond Krebs Sr., PLS, is owner and CEO of R.W. Krebs Professional Land Surveying LLC, in Metairie, La, and Richmond W. Krebs & Associates LLC in Denham Springs, La. Krebs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.