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"The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer…. Commonly, if men want anything of me, it is only to know how many acres I make of their land,–since I am a surveyor,–or, at most, what trivial news I have burdened myself with. They never will go to law for my meat; they prefer the shell."
— Henry David Thoreau, 1854
That famous surveyor from Walden Pond said it well. We allow little time in our day-to-day schedules to get to know people much beyond their shells. It was therefore a pleasant change of pace when I received a phone call awhile back from West Virginia surveyor Marshall Robinson, owner of Allegheny Surveys. He was calling to order a map from our website (shown above), and as we talked, one subject led to another. What really caught my ear was Marshall’s mention of a recent 25,000-acre boundary survey that his company had done, and I was eager to learn more.
Subsequent to our phone conversation I had the pleasure of meeting Marshall in person at the next couple of Surveyors Rendezvous. After getting to know him I was certain that our readers would like to hear his story, so I scheduled a visit to his home and office.
It was a pleasant 4-hour drive across western Maryland and down along the western side of the rolling Allegheny Mountain range to Marshall’s home and office in Birch River, West Virginia. Marshall introduced me to his wife, DeVona, and we enjoyed a delicious dinner at the Café Acropolis where I began to learn more about his life. The Café Acropolis happens to be the place where Marshall and DeVona first met.
Born in the capital city of Charleston, West Virginia in 1961, Marshall is a 6th generation Robinson to have been born in the state. His forbears moved to the Charleston area around 1818 and were primarily dirt farmers, scratching their living out of the hillsides, and selling any excess produce on the streets of Charleston. In June of 1864, just one year after West Virginia was declared a state separate from Virginia, Marshall’s great-great-grandfather fought for the Union in the Civil War Battle of Lynchburg. As was often the case, his brother sided with the Confederates, and they fought each other in many of the same battles. After the war, both moved to the same "holler" outside Charleston, but never spoke to each other again. The feuding brothers may have found it hard to imagine that a descendant of theirs would one day hold licenses to survey in both Union and Confederate states. Mindful of this heritage, and determined to keep continuity among the branches of the Robinson family tree, Marshall and DeVona named the latest of their three sons "Abraham Grant Robinson" after his great-grandfather, who was the first son of his great-great grandfather and who was named after Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant. That tree has some deep roots!
Marshall received his West Virginia license in 1988. He gained his Virginia license in 2004 and his Kentucky and Ohio licenses in 2005. Over his career he has worked for five different firms. The early years were difficult, and making money was tough. At that time Marshall lived in a trailer and had one main client. He smiled as he recalled the days of an HP 41CV and thermal printer. His first instrument was a Lietz SDM-3F and he had to punch in the vertical angle to reduce the slope distances. Work consisted almost entirely of boundaries, mine surveys and a small amount of construction layout. In time his reputation spread, and his workload increased enough to hire eight or nine employees.
Marshall has always been a Carlson Software user (currently Carlson 2008), and at the Carlson User Conference, Bruce Carlson agreed that he had spent time years ago helping Marshall get up to speed. Marshall recalled a life lesson he learned from Bruce: it’s not how smart you are, it’s not how savvy you are, it’s not how hard you work, it’s how persistent you are. Marshall says he’s always loved survey technology but is ever mindful of the need to do the right thing and not allow technology to become a crutch.
He jumped into GPS in 1994, and diligently applied himself by attending Trimble training in Sunnyvale, going to seminars and reading books on geodesy. He credits regional Trimble legend Alan Dragoo with helping him get up to speed. For the next six years, Marshall did all of the GPS computations, mostly doing static observations for photo control and large boundaries.
In 1997 he decided to get out of the coal surveying business, as the coal companies had a tendency to steal his employees. The company’s workload dropped 40 percent overnight, but because he had so much boundary survey backlog, he wasn’t concerned. From 1997 to 2002, 90 percent of the work was for timber companies, who pay well. While the United States has some of the finest hardwood forests in the world, West Virginia’s are the finest in the United States, therefore hardwood lumber exports are big business.
Marshall mentioned that when doing forest boundaries, in addition to brushing the lines, trees within an arm’s reach of the line are hacked and painted. This method of marking the lines will last 20 or more years. He finds his own marking evidence on 95 percent of his lines he comes across.
As has often been the case in our country, the quality of the surveying was in proportion to the value of the land. Marshall lamented the poor quality of surveying that was done from the late 1700s into the mid- to late-1800s, but said that the caliber of surveying in the 1890s and early 1900s statewide, especially in the coal fields, was very good. "King Coal" paid for it all. Even so, old evidence is often hard to find. They still find an occasional grant corner, the most recent being a 36-inch white oak snag from an 1849 land grant. Marshall is on a mission to recover old evidence to preserve the legacy.
In 2000, Marshall partnered with another surveyor and a mining engineer and purchased four Trimble 4000 SSIs, which they all still use in their three firms. Now he’s upgraded to Trimble R8 RTK units, even though the terrain and foliage in West Virginia keeps RTK from being practical in many settings, especially boundaries. Equipment-wise, his is an "equal-opportunity" shop, with 13 instruments consisting of Leica and Topcon total stations, enough to field eight or nine crews. At the time of this writing, the company still hasn’t been able to justify the purchase of a robotic total station.
In 2000 Marshall was appointed to the West Virginia Board of Professional Surveyors, a position he held for two three-year terms. Additionally, he has served on the NCEES Principles & Practice exam committee, and deeply respects the intelligence and professionalism of the people on that committee.
In 1998 he had created a partnership–Augusta Land Consultants–with another surveyor, Bruce Hager, to perform a 25,000 acre boundary survey in Southern West Virginia. Marshall’s growing family, the growth of Allegheny Surveys, and his service on the Board of Professional Surveyors kept him from dedicating the time he needed to the partnership, leading to his partner’s buying out his interest in 2002, just as the 25,000 acre survey was nearly finished.
In 1999 Allegheny Surveys began an 11,000-acre boundary in central West Virginia. Before the survey could be finished, the client bought a 16,000-acre adjoining tract and included it into the survey. And before that survey was finished, the same client purchased 45,000 acres in southern West Virginia and asked Allegheny to surv
ey it. That survey began in 2003 and is just now being completed in the field. In 2001 Marshall re-entered the coal surveying business and began surveying in a mine in central West Virginia. This has since led to two to three crews underground every night (they typically work on a non-production shift, for safety and efficiency reasons).
Always looking for ways to improve the business, he contracted with the George May Company–a business analysis and advice company–with the promise from May that if he followed their advice, May would find enough "fat" in the company to get back twice what they charged for the analysis. The trouble was, the study cost $30,000, but May couldn’t find much "fat"! May did detect that Marshall was too hands-on and convinced him of the need to delegate. Now he urges his employees to come to him with solutions, not problems.
May also advised to begin profit sharing if the company profits rose above 20 percent. Marshall proudly told me that in 2002, the company distributed $55,000 amongst 11 employees, and has continued distributing excess profits to this day. Today, the company is basically debt-free. Marshall and his wife own the building the company is in as an LLC and rent it back to the company. Currently, the company has 38 employees, and since 2002 gross revenues have increased 20-30 percent per year. Last year, with an average of 28 employees, the company grossed $2.2 million.
In the last quarter of 2002, one of our industry’s inevitable cycles struck and the work dried up. Another of George May’s recommendations had been to "look further into the future," so taking that advice, Marshall diversified into oil and gas and construction, and in 2003 opened an office in Weston by hiring a licensed surveyor and four party chiefs. The office struggled at first, but is now debt-free except for the vehicles. Subsequent to my visit, the Weston office was moved further north to Bridgeport. Today, the work is evenly split between boundaries, coal, oil and gas, and construction.
Marshall likes working in the rural Birch River area for several reasons: peace and quiet, freedom from tough competition, and the potential for work in undeveloped areas. The main office (in Birch River) is located not far from the high-tech I-79 corridor, which connects Charleston to Pittsburgh. Though rural, it’s within an hour’s drive of four county courthouses.
West Virginia has a separate license for surface and underground surveying. After the January 2006 Sago Mine Disaster that killed 12 miners, Marshall said that the Mining Safety and Health Administration–which regulates hundreds of underground mines across the country–began enforcing laws concerning anything in the mine that might cause an explosion, including digital displays in survey instruments. In some parts of the state all types of batteries were banned from the mines, even wristwatch batteries. Hammers and star drills replaced battery-powered drills to install the roof spads, and Marshall resorted to purchasing a couple of used T1s on eBay and 300-foot chains when battery-operated total stations were banned.
One of the things that Marshall is most proud of is the two-year surveying program at Glenville State College. Glenville has graduated nearly 250 students from its associates’ program. Over the years, 13 Glenville grads have worked for the company, both in the field and in the office. He said the program has always been excellent, and recalls Stanley Trent donating software for the HP48. Marshall likes the SMI software for construction work.
It’s always nice to talk to a surveyor that has a lot of work, and Marshall provided examples of recent projects, including:
• 330 gas wells, including 104 photo control points done in three days using single frequency kinematic GPS.
• A 27,000-acre lease boundary for a Chicago client for 122 windmills, including 15 miles of transmission lines, all done to ALTA standards.
• Work for various out-of-state companies on cell towers, well locations and conservation easements.
Over the years, he estimates he’s done hundreds of thousands of acres of surveying for timber and coal companies. Even so, on any given day, he might be doing a survey for Grandma and Grandpa on their 50 acres at the head of the holler.
Trend-wise, Marshall sees successful surveying firms being bought up by engineering companies, and dryly adds, this eliminates competition for the engineering firm’s own survey operation. He says he continues to have problems with competing with firms that grossly underprice their work and then cut corners, but smiles and says, "The caliber of surveying done today will create the lawsuits of tomorrow." He laments the fact that surveyors of today are not the mentors most of us had, who feel no obligation to younger surveyors. Marshall feels like he never really had a mentor and "wants to be what he never had."
Marshall says he encourages his employees and enjoys watching young surveyors learn and grow as professionals. One of the things he values most in an employee is education and character. Instead of training people only to have them leave, he has purposed to find ways to encourage them to stay.
For private boundary surveys Marshall always gets a contract, and never or rarely locks into a fixed price, but provides an estimate and gets half of it in advance with the balance due when the survey is provided. As a testament to the honesty of his clients, he says he can count on two hands the number of no-pays over the years. Marshall said the company does a Survey Report when the plat can’t explain everything. Sixty to seventy percent of the large boundaries require a Report, and the Report for a recent 11,000-acre survey ran to 60 pages.
Looking to the future, he envisions three to five regional offices. Subsequent to my visit, the company purchased Lincoln Land Consultants in southwestern West Virginia. Along with the acquisition came 11 employees, putting the total for all three offices at 38 employees, eight of which hold a license.
Notwithstanding the fact that West Virginia beat the socks off the Oklahoma Sooners in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, I personally have an affinity for West Virginians. Hard-working and proud, they share many of the characteristics of the Okies I grew up with. Marshall has built a very successful business outside of the usual land development surveying. As evidenced by the people he hires, he values education and employs technology wherever applicable. I’m glad he called me with that initial map order, and I’m proud to have gotten past the shell and to call him a friend.
Marc Cheves is Editor of the magazine.
A 1.748Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE