Solo Notes: Balancing Business with Surveying
Glen Tanner, PLS, never planned on becoming a professional land surveyor. His first job involved parts delivery and his second job was with a heating and air conditioning company. He didn’t see a future in it. “After about six months of coming home always covered in insulation, itching like I had hives, looking like the pink panther and having cut the end of one of my fingers off in hydraulic shears, I realized this wasn’t for me,” Tanner says.
A friend of his grandfather’s told him a friend was starting an engineering and land surveying company, so in 1977 he applied for a drafting job. He was hired as a draftsman and engineer assistant. He started volunteering to help whenever the survey crew was short staffed, which taught him a lot about land surveying. In 1985, Tanner moved on to a land surveying company that specialized in residential mortgage surveys. In 1993, he went to work with a different land surveying firm that encouraged him to take the exam to become licensed. He obtained his license to survey in 1995, but his company was moving and he didn’t want to move his family or travel.
So in 1996, with the help of his wife Jennie, Tanner founded Glen Tanner Land Surveying, located in Montgomery, Ala. The firm specializes in mortgage, boundary and lot surveys. He has accumulated 40 years of surveying experience and says aspiring entrepreneurs in the surveying profession should recognize that owning a business adds an entirely new set of challenges to the job.
POB: What aspect of the business do you enjoy most and why?
TANNER: The most enjoyable part of my work is going to different places to work and meeting new people. When the phone rings you never know who is calling, where the property is located or what service they may need. This is the most enjoyable part of surveying; every job is a new adventure, no two jobs are alike, never knowing what you may encounter or better yet, what you may learn.
POB: Do you have any memorable stories from field work and/or a favorite project you worked on?
TANNER: I don’t know if I have any favorite projects. Stories on the other hand — that is different. In surveying, there is no telling what you may come across; we all have heard it. A king snake eats other snakes. [I saw it] working on a boundary job in Ada, Ala., when I heard this low squeaking noise. It almost sounded like a mouse. I started looking around and about 15 feet away were two snakes. A spotted king snake had a copperhead by the back of its neck, entangling it, wrapping like a boa constrictor. Every time the king snake squeezed tighter, the copperhead would squeal like a mouse. After about five minutes, the king snake began to eat the copperhead. Didn’t hang around to see the outcome; had work to do. Would have been interesting considering the copperhead was almost as long as the king snake.
POB: What has been your biggest challenge so far?
TANNER: If all you had to worry about was land surveying, it would be easy. Running an office, billing and collecting, etc., has nothing to do with land surveying and our profession, but without it you have no business. It requires different thinking and takes a large portion of your time. The biggest aspect of being a solo surveyor is there is no one around to bounce ideas or scenarios off of in time of problems or trouble. On the other hand, doing all the field work, drawings, everything but research — my wife does that — I know what was done and how it was done.
POB: How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?
TANNER: As fast as the latest trends or technologies are changing, I don’t know if you can keep up with every change as fast as it comes out or even need to. It is important to keep up with technology. It doesn’t mean you have to run out and get it as soon as it comes out. When new products come out, I usually wait until the bugs are worked out before I look into purchasing any new products.
POB: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the surveying business today?
TANNER: Get some equipment. Now you’ve got a client or two, now you’re in business. Are you really? Business management is important. Learning it as you go isn’t the best way to approach it. Take some courses on business management, along with boundary law, to deal with the legal aspect of the land survey. It is important to get this education up front. If it was that easy, first-time business owners wouldn’t go out of business in large numbers. The surveyor of the future is going to need all of this if he or she is expected to compete. All new and upcoming land surveyors need to remember you can’t rely on finding a couple of property corners, put it in your data collector and rotate to match legal until the legal you use is brought to the 21st century. Be diligent, go to the courthouse, do your research to make sure that that 2017 deed isn’t actually a 1917 deed.
POB: How has the surveying profession changed since you started and where do you see it heading in the future?
TANNER: The land surveying industry has changed by leaps and bounds. Until you’ve chained with a plumb bob, worked with a theodolite and kept notes in a book, look for property corners without metal locator. All field work calculated by hand, plotted on a grid before you could even start to draw; don’t know what you missed. I still have an HP48 and my first computer; 8MB of memory for only $1,500. High-tech for its time. With an upgrade you could get 16MB. Now we have GPS, robotic instruments, data collectors with Internet and WiFi connection, data stored in the cloud, and cell phones with 4G LTE speed.
In the amount of time it takes someone to become a land surveyor, they could be an engineer, lawyer or doctor. The land surveyor of the future needs to take this into account. Before they get their first client or equipment, they have invested eight years or more to this point. We all know what a doctor charges, attorney makes $250 an hour, a realtor [gets] 6 percent for the sale of a house, 10 percent on undeveloped property. The surveyor of the future may need to take a few pointers from lawyers and doctors — “Get paid for your education” — and from Realtors, — “Get paid for your time and troubles.”
You never know which property owner will be calling about a boundary problem. We as land surveyors must learn we serve the public even though we have individual clients. Land surveyors need to learn to work together as a profession and not in competition with each other. The land surveying industry shouldn’t be treated like Walmart, where volume is more important than quality of service.
Before I go, one more thing. As land surveyors, we are often asked to mark property or boundary lines. We collect data, check our calculations, if needed reset iron pins as close as possible. We put in wooden stakes, flagging or what is needed to meet clients requirements to mark the property line, making sure every stake is in its proper position as we mark the location of the property line. My question to all of you is very simple: Just how wide is a property line?
Glen Tanner, PLS, is owner and operator of Tanner Land Surveying, located in Montgomery, Ala. Tanner 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 managing editor Valerie King at firstname.lastname@example.org.