Solo Notes: Veteran Surveyor Appreciates Client Interaction
POB: What aspects of the business do you enjoy most and why?
Nyfeler: Interacting with people is the most rewarding part of my business. The technical aspects of surveying have always been enjoyable, but in the last half of my career, interacting with people — be they clients, government review people, other design professionals or employees — has been the most rewarding of all. The feedback we get from quickly rescuing a client from a crisis — especially when the accuracy required to do so is near impossible to achieve — is even more enjoyable than the technical job performed to make it happen.
Another great sense of accomplishment running my own business is the ability to be flexible with the needs of my employees. Sacrifices are occasionally necessary. We each are willing to make small sacrifices for someone else’s big gain. We avoid making big sacrifices for someone else’s small gain. The same holds true vice versa. Following that rule alone, makes for some high morale in an office.
POB: Do you have any memorable stories from field work and/or a favorite project you worked on?
Nyfeler: My company was subcontracted for survey work on the National Gallery of Art Stone Repairs Project in D.C. from 2011 to 2013, providing high-accuracy elevation work for tops of stones around the full perimeter of the East Wing. Our work was spread evenly from ground level up to 110-foot high, requiring special training to operate JLG aerial work platforms and swing stage scaffolding. At one point, we needed some top-of-stone shots at a location not reachable with a JLG that required one of us to hop over a glass handrail and onto a narrow ledge 80 feet above the ground, then kneel down for target placement for our robotic Trimble S6, which was tracking us from across the street on the National Mall. I felt that my employees would most likely be willing to do it, but I also felt that I should lead by example on this particular task. Stronger still than those feelings was my desire to get to do it myself — like a motocross rider wanting to try an aerial trick that is a little bigger than the last.
A year prior to that day, the Sunbelt Rentals safety instructor told us, “If you are afraid of heights now, don’t worry. After this job you won’t be.” He was sure right. After those shots were finished and I vaulted back to the safer side of the handrail, we noticed that a crowd of about 50 tourists had gathered on the sidewalk below to watch us.
POB: What has been your biggest challenge so far?
Nyfeler: Cash flow for a business start-up can be challenging — even for a successful one. When our firm opened the doors with five employees in March 2010, I thought a good firm would do OK financially, and a great firm would do great financially. While that probably holds true of established and well-branded firms, for a startup the saying should go a bit differently. If you’re great, you can survive the startup period. If you are only good, you probably won’t make it past the startup phase. Banks appear to know this. Convincing one to make a small business loan to a startup firm in 2010 was no small feat. After jumping through many hoops, I was approved for a business line of credit.
POB: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the surveying business today?
Nyfeler: Early, and before you get too far in your career, you need to have been a crew chief, with only a less experienced helper with you, to fully get a grasp of the decision-making needed to do a good job in the field. I spent 10 years on survey crews working everything from boundary surveys to hydro-dam layout (and on that hydro-dam project, I was the crew chief with the less experienced helper). That foundation of field time has served me well. Get field experience early, before you become a manager and it’s too late. That, and a good understanding of surveying errors and how to lessen them, will carry you far.
POB: How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?
Nyfeler: With limited exceptions for new types of work only allowable with the use of new technology, I don’t believe that you need the very latest technology to accomplish most traditional tasks in surveying. I keep up with new technology by reading about it, and occasionally going through a demo. If you can stay educated about what is out there, you have a better chance at recognizing potential opportunities when you see them that may warrant bringing new technology to bear where it is truly applicable. In our firm, we own some of the latest gear, rent some, and read about the rest. It helps that we have a superior and low-pressure sales contact in the business of selling the latest gear, as well as providing demos. He knows that if we want it one day, that we will go through him to get it, so he provides us an open avenue of hands-on exploration into new technology.
Not owning a laser scanner last year did not impede us in our creation of a five billion-node point cloud representing the steel beams and other crowded infrastructure just inside and holding up the all-iron dome of the U.S. Capitol. Yes, we needed fairly new technology to get compact and lightweight equipment into the small spaces, but we also needed superior technical competence in setting high-accuracy interior base control. Technology can be important, but when it is needed, technology alone is rarely enough.
POB: How has the surveying profession changed since you started and where do you see it heading in the future?
Nyfeler: We utilize a host of modern and expensive technology, with a dose of old-fashioned field techniques. The former is full of new technology, while the latter is the art of surveying. For a number of types of projects, firms need to employ those who can deliver both skills on-site with equal impact, or they need to have teams comprised of individuals whose sum of talent covers both skills on-site. Firms that can deliver that kind of service have a much better chance at being successful.
George Nyfeler III, LS LEED-AP, is president of Nyfeler Associates in Richmond, Va., but is proud of his boots-in-the-dirt background that he says is necessary to manage a successful surveying company. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Solo Notes is a regular feature in POB and highlights the experiences and strategies of solo surveyors and small business owners. To share your story for a future issue, email Managing Editor Benita Mehta at firstname.lastname@example.org.