Recently, I was telling my wife about a job site where I will be working. The project involves surveys for areas of a retirement village. The engineers will use our topographic survey to design changes to correct drainage issues.
In the late ’80s, I surveyed that same 48-acre tract of land the village is constructed upon. It was a very large boundary survey, especially for an urban setting, and the land had been the home of a wealthy heiress.
I’ve always thought of the tract by her name but perhaps few remember her today, and at the time it was a privilege to survey her home and its beautiful grounds. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to work for ‘old money’ families with histories.
After my fieldwork was completed on the boundary and topo for the tract, I was moved inside to make the transition from party chief to become the assistant to the chief of surveys. The general manager made a point to tell me every workday prior to my indoor move, “Don’t be wearing those sneakers in here!” It was funny but direct. The promotion was sacrificing my casual attire.
Today, I shared a bit of the history of that project with my wife concerning the billing process. Once the designs were completed and approved by the township, my boss put together a bid for the layout of the improvements. I want to interject here that anyone working for someone should listen to what they say and remember the good stuff. I probably put together information for the field crews along with typical drafting and calculating of that project.
There was a day when the chief of surveys shared with me that the contractors for the project were not paying their survey invoices. I’m not sure why he was talking about this with me, but thinking back, he probably just needed someone to listen as he was really upset, or he wanted to teach me something about working with contractors and contracts. This contractor had not paid two months of our invoices for construction stakeout. So they were entering the third month with a crew or two every day and the bill was getting higher.
After they were told there would be no more survey work the contractor told them if they did not have the layout work, they would bill our company for the job losses due to delays we caused by refusing to work. The contract had no provision for our company not getting paid.
I don’t know how that was resolved but I believe we kept on working and they paid their bills, or at least some of their bills. As an employee, it’s easy to see all the times your work made money for your employer, but I don’t think its human nature to keep a running tab of the losses we make for our employers. Imagine two three-person crews working for two months and your employer not collecting any money from the contractor. At that time, my employer had to have sufficient funds to pay employees when due to bad clients. He was running at a loss.
This brings to mind another project at that firm where I also did the boundary and topography of a large urban tract. The survey went well and was a lot of fun. While in the office, the engineer in charge explained to me the billing process, and how it was going horribly. Now the survey portion was fine and without flaw.
The problem that arose was there was a contract for design for a certain price. The developer was constantly changing the design criteria, which in turn caused design costs to rise. There were no flaws or errors in the designs, it was just that the developers kept changing their minds. So, like the aforementioned project, there was an invoice for a month’s work. More changes, more design costs and a second invoice was added to the first and neither were paid.
Well into the third month, things came to a head when the engineer in charge pushed heavily for them to get paid up to date. What do you think was the problem with payment for the bills? The contract called for a certain design fee. They were shown that every charge was due to their orders for design change. The developer insisted they needed to stick to the original price. The engineer felt he was going to have to negotiate the bill and meet somewhere in between. I did not ask what the final outcome was, but I did learn that engineering losses can be great even when there is no error involved and I sure felt sorry for the engineer who let the billing get out of hand. Some developers routinely try to insist on lowering the bill for invented reasons.
Early on as a business owner, I was at the Pennsylvania Society of Land Surveyors owner’s dinner and a surveyor I highly respect asked the group if they had heard of a specific development company. When nobody had, he threw out a few names of the people who owned that company and again nobody knew them. So he told his tale of woe.
For one month, he sent three survey crews out to perform construction stakeout at the project. Then he sent an invoice for their work. Similarly, the second month passed, and another invoice was sent. There was no payment, and he was well into the third month and worried. So many survey crews, all having been paid along with the associated costs of having employees. Then the developer disappeared as the job site shut down. We were all horrified listening to his story. Everyone in the room could feel his loss both emotionally and financially. Poor business practices can put even very good surveyors out of business. Not for survey reasons but for business reasons.
I’ve heard it said engineers, architects and surveyors are poor businessmen/women. They all get into the business to do what they love to do and because they wanted to have their own business.
I’d like to share a story I heard firsthand when I was a transit man and we were working on subdivision staking in a single-home development. The owner of our company was having trouble getting his invoices paid and the developer always had a story of why he could not pay on any given day. So the survey bill was high and worrisome for the VP who would deal with the problem. Our survey crew was aware of the miserly developer.
Our party chief mentioned the survey bill issue to the owner of the masonry company who was subcontracting the block and brickwork. He told us his collection story. I will try to recall his exact words.
“So I went into his office and he was sitting at his desk. I put a revolver on the desk in front of him. I told him, I’ve worked on your houses, I’ve paid for the materials, I’ve paid my employees, I’ve sent your bills, and now I’m all out of money; all my money is in your development. Then he (the developer) pulled out his checkbook and wrote me a check for my invoices and I walked out the door and went back to work.”
We were shocked, but that man did what he felt he had to do and it worked.
The expression is “figures lie and liars figure.” As business owners, land surveyors must keep aware of who we are working for and don’t jump on opportunities when another surveyor has been fired from a project as if it was a golden opportunity. My Missouri boss impressed upon me that you never take over another surveyor’s project until you know they have been paid in full. After all, if they did not pay the other surveyor, why would you expect to be paid? What he taught me was good ethics, plain and simple.
Years ago, a friend rented an old farmhouse on a 20-acre tract. One day while driving past and seeing a sign about a new development going up on the property, I told my wife “I really want to survey that property.”
She said, “You really don’t want to work for that developer, do you?”
I admitted I did not, but I really did want to perform that survey. A few years later, some of the people in that family went to prison for various reasons and I already knew they were ‘bad pay.’ Moral of the story? Sometimes you need to listen to your wife.
I hope that my sharing these events will help employees to understand that their employer may take a real beating now and then, and it’s not all about making money and may be about staying in business. Some of your employers may have large deductibles, and insurance does not always pay out. Some developers know to aim for your deductible, and it’s easier to collect. Listening to what’s going on around you and what contractors and developers say can help keep you and your employer out of trouble.
There's an expression, keep your ear to the ground, which is explained in "Writing Explained" as follows:
Origin of Keep Your Ear to the Ground
This expression originated in the late-1800s. The idiom stems from the literal practice of placing one’s ear to the ground in order to hear far off hoof beats, footsteps, or other indicators of something or someone approaching. It is possible for vibrations to carry through the ground at great distances. For this reason, it is oftentimes possible to hear something coming (with an ear against the ground) before one can see it.
This expression was common in the American West. It is likely because cowboys and other people living on the frontier could hear herds of bison, cattle, horses, or even trains approaching in this manner.
When used in a metaphorical sense, this expression communicates a similar idea. Someone who keeps a close ear to those who are knowledgeable about certain topics, or someone who spends time in situations that pertain to those topics, will likely know about upcoming changes before they occur.
Consider that you may be working in this field past the age of 65 and in order for you to survive and your employer’s business to thrive, you need to be aware of how other businesses, contractors, and developers operate. Perhaps the movie “The Godfather” put it best: “It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.”
This current project brings me full circle and I like that very much. The residents are all in good financial shape, but not as wealthy as the previous owner. They are pleasant, courteous, and seem happy with their home and surroundings. As a surveyor, I feel a part of the fabric of the land and am glad for the history I share with the counties that surround me. I look forward to this week’s work and for me, what will be the equivalent of other men’s golf.