Saved by the Bell
The year 2008 was one of new beginnings and necessities for Frank Jay Smith Jr. Surveyors (FJS), a small professional land surveying company located in Marshalls Creek, Pa. It was the first time in the company’s 35-year history that it printed its name on its field trucks. It was the year the company created its own website. And it was also the beginning of the company’s near-demise.
“We built a healthy business providing surveying services for residential and commercial construction developments--one client alone was building 400 new homes a year in the late 80s--and never had to venture more than 45 miles from the office for our work,” says Frank Smith, a 65-year-old professional land surveyor and president of FJS. “And then in the span of 18 months our client base disappeared, and we found ourselves on the verge of ‘disappearing’ as well.”
Then, just as swiftly as the company started to slip away, it was handed back to them with a single phone call. The call came from Hanover Engineering Associates Inc., a civil engineering design firm in Bethlehem, Pa., which was in need of additional surveying help for a large-scale pipeline project in the Marcellus Shale region in north-central Pennsylvania. Within three weeks of that business-altering call, FJS had two survey crews on site–including Smith–working six days a week, 12 hours a day. Two years later, FJS has seven survey crews, 32 employees, two satellite offices and a notably black balance sheet.
FJS has been contracted by some of the nation’s largest construction companies for lot surveys, topographical surveys, aerial control surveys, bathymetric surveys, GPS control surveys and boundary surveys for both residential and commercial construction layout and conservation projects. The company has also diversified to include septic testing and design for new construction and malfunctioning systems, expertise in preparing land planning modules and performing hydro conductivity testing.
“Since land surveying is our core business, clients expect that we are extremely well-versed in its principles and the myriad skills it requires to deliver precisely what they need,” says Smith. “That is why we have always hired notably talented people who set high expectations for themselves and are eager to learn. And we have those same high expectations for the advanced technology we select for each project. We have never been satisfied with the word ‘adequate’.”
Had it not been for that work ethic, FJS likely would not have received that auspicious call from Hanover Engineering–a query based on the recommendation of a wetlands biologist who worked with FJS on extensive survey projects.
As welcome as the Marcellus project offer was, it also meant that Smith would need to quickly hire more personnel to supplement the six professional land surveyors he had on staff and acquire additional instruments to provide his initial crews with the versatility and efficiency they needed to provide the required survey work.
Every day except Sunday, FJS survey crews and CAD operators live the tasks of properly positioning gas pipelines that range from 500 feet to 21 miles in length and from 6 inches to 36 inches in diameter. And there are thousands of miles of pipelines to place.
Although their primary focus initially was surveying and staking out centerlines for pipeline placement, the daily routines for FJS personnel have expanded to “mind-boggling proportions,” says Smith.
Today’s to-do list includes performing deed research and deed plotting; creating centerline GIS maps; surveying property lines for lease agreements; staking out centerline stations and points of intersection; locating underground utility assets; locating wetlands, wildlife habitats, delicate flora species and even deer stands; obtaining highway occupancy permits; creating and placing signage in advance of pipeline construction; and staking out the limits of disturbance clearance in order to place the pipeline.
And as those daily routines have expanded, Smith has been able to hire more people and acquire more enabling technology to ensure their success and secure continued work on the project.
“But as hard working as our staff is, we could not have accomplished these tasks without our survey technology,” he adds. “Our Trimble equipment is state-of-the-art, durable and reliable. We use it in rain, snow, dust and temperatures ranging from 100 degrees Fahrenheit to minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Being in such a remote location, we cannot afford equipment failures.”
Indeed, the Marcellus site is a three-hour drive from FJS’ Marshalls Creek office, requiring crews to spend four nights at a time in rented housing nearby. Though homesickness is prevalent, Smith says his staff is enjoying the challenges of the project, the opportunities to learn and the satisfaction in achieving a good day’s work.
“We have 31 families now who are being supported by this work, so we thank Hanover Engineering for this opportunity every day,” says Smith. “This project has not only saved our company, it has given us the chance to learn new skills, new technology and new markets that will help us to further grow our business. I thought I would have been retired years ago, but when you truly enjoy what you do, you don’t want to give it up.”
Since FJS’ contract runs indefinitely, Smith and his staff will have ample time to enjoy their multi-tasking as well as further augment their field and industry experience, giving them added expertise that perhaps can help them pursue new business development opportunities back in the company’s own backyard.
While some may attribute FJS’ fortunate turnaround to luck, what played a more significant role is the firm’s reputation for committed employees who deliver high-quality work, think creatively and possess diverse skill sets that make them assets both in the office and on multi-faceted job sites. It is what sets FJS apart from other firms; it is what keeps more than 20 professionals employed full-time on the Marcellus project; it is what helped to rebuild the company’s financial foundation; and it is what continues to propel the company forward in a challenging economy.
Tips from the TrenchesThe surveying profession has suffered significant losses during the recession, and many companies are still struggling. Frank Smith offers the following tips from his own experience:
• Don’t just work hard; work smartly, creatively and beyond expectations.
• Be frugal in recruiting both personnel and technology. At FJS, everyone’s job description is “multi-tasker.” They are cross trained to be proficient in field work, office calculations and even deed research.
• Be realistic in your timelines so you can deliver high-quality work on time.
• Be willing to not only diversify into new markets but also to adapt your business model to create new business opportunities.