Surveyor & Survivor—Economic Climate, New Technology, Fuels Carolina Firm’s Shift in Focus

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When the economic downturn hit in earnest in 2008, it came as no surprise to James "Jay" Langford. The owner of Langford Land Surveying (LLS) had seen the warning signs–phones that fell silent, pending projects canceled, etc.–appearing for about a year in advance. By the time the tailspin hit its stride, he had closed up shop, laid off his crews and bid farewell to a company he had founded a decade earlier. Fortunately for him, he was able to land a position with one of the largest engineering firms in South Carolina, a stint during which not only was he able to pay the bills, he also acquired some valuable expertise with GNSS technology. That knowledge would pay huge dividends, both in how he approached his profession and what solutions he could bring to the job site when he restarted his company several years later.

Back to School
As has been the case with so many in the surveying profession, Langford’s career choice evolved in a roundabout way. After years of schooling and obtaining his teaching credentials, the South Carolinian taught junior high for a year when he was approached by a colleague who had worked helping land surveyors over past summers.

"He knew of my love of history and math–both important elements of surveying–and suggested it to me as a supplemental summer income," he said. "I tried it that first summer, and enjoyed it so much that I knew my short teaching career was over. That fall I enrolled in surveying classes, took some CAD courses and landed a job with a local firm where I worked in the field for two years learning basic surveying. Then, out of necessity, I was moved into the office and, although I gained a lot of valuable experience in that position, I wanted to advance and lead a crew. So, in 1996, I went to work at another local firm and after getting my license in 1999, I started LLS."

Langford’s work at the outset of establishing his business was heavily slanted toward boundary surveys, topo work and surveying for residential construction–a by-product of the staggering number of subdivisions popping up in the GreenvilleSpartanburg area.

"I also did a bit of ALTA work and construction staking at the time, but tried to avoid it ," he said. "I found that I could make more money going out and doing four quick lot surveys than I could staking all of it–and I didn’t have to contend with the noise and dust. I did that all the way up to about 2008 when the recession hit. Suddenly, projects were non-existent and I had no choice but to lay off all my workers and look for work with another company."

Rebuilding Effort
With the economy in freefall, Langford was fortunate to sign on with an engineering firm, which, in contrast to most everyone around them, was banking on the downturn being a short one.

"They knew that there were a lot of good people out of work and felt that hiring all that out-of-work talent would put the company in a great position once things rebounded," he said. "I worked with them for two years and, considering the economy, we actually did quite well with a focus on municipal projects. Working for them also exposed me to a good deal more commercial work, more construction, road projects and so on–things I hadn’t had much experience with when I was on my own."

Langford’s time with the firm also opened his eyes to some of the changes that had been taking place in the survey realm with regard to geopositioning equipment.

"This company was very progressive and that approach was evident in their choice of equipment," he said. At the time, they owned a Topcon GR-3 receiver and they had me get familiar with it. I was blown away–I had no idea how easy to use and accurate GPS units had gotten since the last time I used one in the early `90s. I saw them take it out, and using a four-wheeler, do a topographic survey on a 100-acre plot of land in a single day. Granted, it was a long day, but just to get that kind of production, to me, was amazing."

While that stint with the engineers allowed Langford to develop as a surveyor, his tenure there was relatively short-lived. The numbers eventually caught up with them, projects dwindled, and in 2010 the firm’s entire local surveying department– Langford included–was laid off.

LSS Redux
Once again out of work, and with prospects for re-employment looking grim, Langford literally had no choice but to revive LSS. He scraped by at the outset, picking up survey projects as best he could and slowly building the business back up.

"At that point, I was working mostly alone, though I did occasionally hire a couple guys on a part-time basis," said Langford. "Eventually, the phone started ringing again and things started to turn around. Seeing that I was going to be doing a lot of the work myself, I decided to upgrade the older equipment I had to the faster technology that was available to make the most of my efforts. Because I had worked with Hayes Instrument Co., the area Topcon dealer, when I purchased a total station early on, I contacted them, discussed my needs and soon bought a GNSS rover/receiver."

Langford’s rationale for choosing a GNSS receiver was sound. The bulk of the business he had landed since re-launching LSS was in topographic surveying. He said the receiver, being a fully integrated dual-constellation, network-enabled RTK rover system, served him well.

"When I first started up my business again, it was definitely a struggle since the bulk of my work involved doing larger topo projects," he said. "The GRS-1 fit the bill perfectly because of the amount of ground I could cover by myself. It allowed me to keep up with a quickly increasing pace and grow the business without actually staffing up. That was key to the survival of LSS during this time frame."

New Directions
Though thrilled with the performance he was getting out of the receiver, Langford’s needs were changing along with the new work he was now landing.

"Around 2015, I landed a number of projects–mostly topo work but also some construction staking–that were located in areas with little or no cellular coverage," he said. "Because the GRS-1 is heavily geared toward use of a cell network, for such projects I was forced to either go back to doing things the manual, labor-intensive way, or find another solution."

As is always the case, Langford called Hayes Instruments and sales rep Eddie Clark brought out a Topcon GR-5 receiver for him to try. Langford says that, for a number of reasons, he liked it immediately.

"The accuracy is far better than I ever imagined it could be," he said. "On a good day, even without setting up the base, I can get things to within .03"–set up the base and I’m to within .01". Even more surprising to me was its effectiveness in areas with heavy foliage. I’ve used it near huge pine trees and found that it still manages to find satellites, allowing me to get the shots–and the accuracies–I need."

On a recent job in North Carolina, to survey a wide-open area that would be home to a school, Langford mounted the GR-5 to his four-wheeler ATV, and, using a Tesla tablet, gathered the data he needed in just a few hours. He says that same project, done traditionally would easily taken a day and a half.

"But one of the biggest advantages I’ve seen is that I’m doing the data collecting, I’m doing the shots–there is no risk of communication error, there’s no "what did you say?" I don’t have to worry about radios breaking down and communication with my guy being lost. It’s simply: ground point, ground point, ground point, top of bank, etc., and I’m shooting it as quick as I can get there. Being able to do what I can with the GR-5 by myself is impressive–to me, it’s almost like having another crew."

Staying Power
The reference to another crew is not coincidental. Langford’s business over the last year or so has grown to such a degree that he recently decided he’s at a point where he can add manpower. To outfit that crew, he envisioned picking up an inexpensive, second-hand instrument– that was the idea.

"Of course, Eddie had other plans for me," laughed Langford. "When I called him, he told me about one of Topcon’s latest total stations, an ES-105, I demoed it and found it to be amazing. It’s extremely fast and accurate and can be used either with a prism or as a reflectorless instrument. So now I have two very nicely equipped crews. I have also started using the MAGNET Field solution to more of its full potential, particularly as it apples to data transfer."

To illustrate, he offers a scenario in which he has a crew working two hours away. If that crew is at an impasse or confused about something, they can simply upload points to the cloud and, back in the office, Langford can immediately see what they have and offer his input.

"That’s a measurable time savings that just makes us more efficient and more competitive," he said. "We’ve come a long way and dealt with a lot of adversity over the years. But having the right frame of mind–and the right equipment–helped us make the comeback we have. LSS may have been down at times, but we were never really out."

Larry Trojak of Minnesota-based Trojak Communications, is a freelance marketing content specialist. He writes extensively for the geopositioning, utility, aggregate processing, recycling, construction, and demolition markets.

A 1.291Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE