A Fundamental Approach to Building an Aerial Surveying Business
Launching or buying a business requires carefully evaluating the market to identify potential needs and developing a strategy for capturing market share. After all, vision is essential to success.
But beware of hyperopia. Overlooking crucial details within the firm can be costly later on.
When Christina and Robert (Bob) Louwers decided to buy Rocky Mountain Aerial Surveys in early 2011, they were determined not to make that mistake. Bob, who describes himself as having “an entrepreneurial passion and a drive to take on risk and innovation,” saw a tremendous amount of possibility in the 38-year-old Longmont, Colo.-based firm. His background in engineering, business development and sales gave him a sharp eye for opportunity, and his interest in aviation made the aerial surveying firm an ideal prospect. Christina, who had finance expertise, was ready for a new challenge.
“Christina and I were cautiously optimistic that the general economy would become more favorable in the company’s more vulnerable stage, which would be the first year under its new leadership,” Bob says. “We also saw untapped potential in RM Aerial Surveys. The employees had many years of experience in the industry and were very talented, but we perceived that their talents were not being used to the company’s best advantage.”
However, the couple understood the company would never reach its potential if it wasn’t built on solid ground. “We knew we had to focus first on laying a foundation for future success,” Christina says.
A close study of the firm’s operations and procedures revealed numerous opportunities for improvement. The couple began by revamping RM Aerial Surveys’ IT infrastructure and making investments in the firm’s three aircraft to meet the highest safety standards. They calibrated the company’s film cameras, upgraded the planning and processing software, and made other operational changes to ensure high quality.
They also decided to make a strategic move. Based at Centennial Airport, south of Denver, the company had little room to expand. The Louwers purchased a large hangar with adjoining office space in Longmont, north of Denver, and relocated RM Aerial Surveys to gain a roomier, cleaner, more efficient and more cost effective environment.
“We invested much more than we originally budgeted,” Bob says. “But when looking at the risk versus return, it’s really a matter of being all in. We’re very committed to this company.”
As the Louwers bolstered the firm’s infrastructure, they also took stock of its people. For example, they noted that pilot Steve Dreiling, a decorated Vietnam-era Naval aviator and commercial airline captain with more than 35 years of flight experience, possessed a significant amount of expertise in crew management, flight planning, and general aircraft maintenance and operation. Yet under the previous management, Dreiling was primarily flying small, prepared missions. The Louwers quickly promoted him to operations manager and chief pilot with responsibility for overseeing all in-house and contract pilots, all mission flight planning, aircraft maintenance and operations for the firm’s fleet of three aircraft.
Brett Taylor, a professional aerial photographer and sensor operator, was named lead photographer and given responsibility for the company’s camera and sensor operations as well as mission planning coordination.
“Each person brings unique skills, and when you give them the opportunity to apply those skills, they tend to take ownership of that role,” Bob says. “The delegation of authority and responsibility to the employees benefits not only the employee’s job satisfaction, but also the clients and the whole company.”
Bob points out that Dreiling’s expanded role proved invaluable when Rocky Mountain was recently contracted for a LiDAR mapping project in El Salvador. The project involved careful planning and coordination between companies, governments and non-U.S.-based maintenance operations as well as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, Transportation Safety Administration, Border Patrol and other agencies—tasks that were made easier with Dreiling’s expertise.
“Employees who have high potential need to be highly engaged,” Christina says. “They need an opportunity to shine and not be shielded.”
Now in their second year as business owners, the Louwers continue to make investments in technology and capabilities to enable RM Aerial Surveys to provide the best possible service. The firm offers a range of photogrammetry and mapping services through a growing number of strategic partners, but its primary focus is on airborne data acquisition and aircraft leasing for imagery acquisition—services the company intends to grow. The firm is also taking on larger-sized projects and expanding its geographic market. The Louwers' plan is to build the company into a strong family-owned business that their five young children will have the opportunity to participate in as they get older. With Christina as co-owner and CEO, the company is in the process of being certified as a woman-owned small business through the U.S. Small Business Administration, which will allow it to pursue federal set-aside contracts.
Bob, with his engineering background, says he’s excited about the rapid pace of technological change and the new opportunities that will bring. But he’s even more impressed with the people they’ve met in the geospatial profession. One example, he says, was meeting Ken and Mary Potter from Keystone Aerial Surveys (Philadelphia) at the 2012 MAPPS Winter Conference in Phoenix. “Upon learning about my entre into this profession, Ken was so supportive,” Bob says. “He offered insights into the business and invited me to call him for mentoring or other assistance. That was exciting. I didn’t anticipate that level of co-operation among competitors (‘co-opetition’), and it was refreshing.” The Louwers believe networking and teaming will be essential as they continue to build the firm.
Their vision for the future of the aerial surveying firm is broad. But their focus starts at the ground level. “I don’t believe in luck,” Bob says. “Luck is the residue of good planning. We’re trying to cultivate that good fortune; we have to work hard for ourselves. That requires first and foremost a focus on the foundation and then building on that foundation to do even more of what we do well.”