“Protect and Serve” Your Business and Your Future

When I lead seminars in various states, I encounter surveyors of all ages, backgrounds, sizes, shapes, and economic positions. I see two things that break my heart. The first is a surveyor in the 70-year-old age bracket who is still working full-time, not because of a love of surveying but out of the necessity to live.  

The other is the surveyor who is a sole proprietor and purports to be “hanging on” in the current economy. Upon further questioning, the surveyor will admit to not being able to earn enough to live on and can only keep the business open because the spouse is working and getting benefits through his or her job.

After 30 or 40 years as a licensed professional, why would a surveyor be in either predicament? Primarily, the answer is that we have no business training. But we can learn.

I offer these suggestions to help, as the police say, “protect and serve.” Some of the suggestions are directly from the school of hard knocks. Believe me, I did not do everything right; but in balance I was blessed to get most of the big things right.

Have a professional on your team for every business area in which you are unskilled:

  • an accountant is essential for taxes,
  • a lawyer for legal issues,
  • a banker for financing needs and to help solidify a business plan,
  • a collection agency if you don’t like to do the dirty work yourself (80% of something is better than 100% of nothing), and
  • a financial planner to help you chart the waters with a future plan.

I am not suggesting you spend a lot, just an hour or two with each to get a feel for each specialty. By far the most important concept is knowing what you don’t know.

Your most important team member is your spouse.

Keep this in mind throughout the life of your business.

The future is now.  You must start planning for retirement early and often.

(Ask your friends over 60 if they would like to go back 30 years and rethink their retirement planning.) If you are fortunate to work for a large firm, a pension plan or 401k program is most likely available, which will almost force you to start taking care of your future. Make sure to take advantage of any contribution matching plan the company provides.  

For those small-firm employees or owners, you are your retirement. If you started working 30 years ago at age 23 at $15,000 per year, with a 5% per year increase, and you saved just 2% per year with an average return of 6%, you would have $140,458 at age 66. As someone over 65, I can tell you factually that you cannot live on social security. If there is one thing I would like to do over it would be to have started a pension, ESOP, or 401k program in my company many years ago.

Have an exit strategy.

I discussed this at length in my column in the January 2012 issue. Plan ahead and make a fact-based program. If you delay, the decision will become emotion-based (it’s your baby!), which is not wise for you as an owner. If you do not have an exit or succession program, your estate may be devastated by decreased value or taxes.  

Price cutting is not a way to increase business.

I very much appreciate the need to feed your family and pay the bills, but price cutting is a short-term fix that’s a long-term death sentence. While you may lose some money short term, you lose something much more valuable in the long term: the respect of your peers and your clients.  And don’t think for a minute that the client you undercut everyone else to get is going to run to you with his next big project because of the great break you gave him. That project will go to the next surveyor who will undercut you by a nickel.

Ethically, you have a responsibility to your clients and the public. The part of ethics many forget is the responsibility to the profession. Surveyors fight a constant battle for recognition and respect as professionals. Letting the public think surveying is about nothing but price is why the profession faces some of its current problems.

I once saw a sign in a contractor’s office that said “Price – Quality – Time: pick any two.” If you think about the possible iterations, you’ll know you cannot provide all three. Protect your family, and protect this great profession.

If you are having business problems, do not be afraid to reach out to a successful surveyor you respect for a chat.

If you listen to teenagers when they have problems, they lead you to believe no one in the history of the Earth had a problem as big as the one facing them! See them as an example not to follow: Know that whatever business or technical issue you have, one of your peers has seen it and solved it.  

The roster of your local or state society, which I am sure is on your desk next to the state code book, has names of many people who can help you. It is incredible how much great information and guidance you can obtain for the price of a dinner and a libation.

You also have very successful clients. On many occasions I’ve approached clients who were honored that I confided in them for guidance on a business issue. Even now, six years after selling my business, I still speak with several clients and surveyors about life in general and personal issues. Those folks are a source that keeps on giving.

These items represent lessons I have learned, assistance I have received, and mistakes I have made. I hope they will help.

Whether you are a department head in a major firm or a two-person operation in a rural area, your future is in your hands, and you may get only one chance to start it on the right path. It’s never too late. Start today. 

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