Richard Tolbert began his career 39 years ago as a part-time rod man. Over the years, he has held various titles including instrument man, party chief, project manager, survey department manager, vice president, president, Mississippi Department of Transportation state surveyor and state society president. Today, he is president of his own company, Tolbert Surveying, LLC, in Madison, Miss. He says “most of the above titles still apply, plus bookkeeper, mechanic, draftsman, janitor, cook and medic.” He performs a range of surveys, from small-lot surveys to 1,000-acre tracts and construction staking. He recently completed a 10-mile route survey for a pipeline.


POB: What aspects of the business do you enjoy most and why?

Tolbert: Property surveying, because each time you leave the office you are embarking on a unique adventure to solve a puzzle using your knowledge and experience. No two are alike and each has its own peculiar characteristics, thus ensuring you never get bored.


POB: Do you have any memorable stories from field work and/or a favorite project you worked on?

Tolbert: Misadventures mostly: a snakebite, accidents, animal contacts of the not-so-friendly kind and, of course, there are the occasional insane landowners, which are the most dangerous. My favorite project so far has been the 10-mile route survey for which I was given free rein to perform correctly according to state standards and without strict budgetary restrictions.


POB: What has been your biggest challenge so far?

Tolbert: The hardest thing to me personally would be to abate my inner procrastinator. To survive, you must have cash flow, which does not come unless you finish the job — and the job is not finished till the check is in the bank! To be successful, you must consistently complete jobs quickly to build your reputation as an efficient provider of services in order to build repeat business.


POB: Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the surveying business today?

Tolbert: Go solo if possible, work from a home office, don’t shortchange yourself by not charging a fair fee, and become familiar with your local lawyers and bankers and engineering companies.

Go solo because employees are the biggest expense, both in money and time. They cost to train, and require employment taxes, insurance and paperwork; plus, they like to get off at a certain time. How often could just an extra hour complete the job and save another trip to the site?

The home office cuts commute time and saves money tax-wise. Your real office is your truck, your handshake and the way you carry yourself in public, so dress nicely and shave. You will also find yourself working until midnight, so it’s best not to be too far from your bed!

Charge a comparable fee. If you are the cheapest on the block, you are going to get the jobs that older, wiser surveyors shy away from because they know the effort would not be worth the fee. I’ve learned to send some work to my competition to… help them along.

Lawyers and bankers are a great source of client referrals, and engineering companies will sometimes refer to you smaller jobs they cannot efficiently perform or subcontract with you when they are overbooked.


POB: How do you stay on top of the latest trends and technologies?

Tolbert: Technical knowledge is best gained working for larger companies that can afford the latest technology. Find out what works best for you before you venture out. Accumulate smaller software items along the way and, when you are ready, pull the trigger on the higher-cost software. For field equipment, I rely on my local equipment sales and service company representative. Become familiar with him/her and you can form a mutually beneficial relationship. He/she can keep you up to date and running smooth, and they can keep selling you supplies and an occasional instrument.


POB: How has the surveying profession changed since you started and where do you see it heading in the future?

Tolbert: I started out holding a wooden range pole and learning how to maintain the proper tension on a steel tape while steadying a plum bob over a tack in a hub.  Today, I GIS a job, collect deeds online and preload search coordinates into a GPS while drinking my morning coffee. When I arrive on site, I connect to the state RTK network, and go into search and destroy mode. Yes, I enjoy looking for corners of long ago and getting my knees dirty digging them up.

As for the future of the profession/industry, I believe technology is proving a benefit and a disaster. We’ve reduced a field crew from four or five to one. But we’ve created a button-pusher class with no underlying understanding of what they are doing and no idea of the legal aspect of surveying.

The licensed professional will become rarer because the requirements are increasing at a time when the pipeline for candidates shrinks. My goal is to enjoy my work for the next 20 years (yes, I’ll be about 80 years old) before I hang my hat (or drone, as the case may be by then).
 

Richard Tolbert is a go-it-alone Mississippi-based surveyor who has done it all. He can be reached at richard.tolbert@live.com and followed on Twitter @richardtolbert


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 mehtab@bnpmedia.com.