Alley, Sadler & Alley, Inc., Mechanicsville, Virginia

This is the first in a new series of articles profiling small and medium-sized surveying companies: our practitioners in the field.

Questions answered by Scott Alley of ASA Surveying & Mapping.

PSM:  What is the history of your firm?
Alley, Sadler & Alley, Inc. (also ASA Surveying & Mapping) is a full-service land surveying firm located in Mechanicsville, Virginia. We were established in 1996 on April Fool's Day, of all days, and have never looked back. Our founding and current officers consist of me, Jeff Sadler (my partner and friend for over 25 years), and my wife Angie (without whom we would be lost).
In 1995, a former employer asked me to take over his existing business because he was trying to retire after several years. After six months, we realized that a mutual agreement for the buyout could not be reached, so we decided to go out on our own. It was certainly a leap of faith at the time, but in the long run, it was the best decision we could have ever made.

PSM:  Does your firm specialize in certain types of surveying; what geographical area does your firm serve?
Our true specialty lies in the area of construction layout and, more particularly, commercial building layout. Through the years, we have developed strategies and procedures that allow us to maintain the highest level of control and accuracy on our projects.
We don't limit ourselves however; we also perform boundary and topographic surveys, subdivisions, physical surveys, and just about anything else that comes through the door.

PSM:  How many people are employed in your firm?
We are what many people refer to as a "mom and pop shop." Currently we have six employees total, which allows us to run two crews if we need to. I know that doesn't sound like much, but in today's economy, it's tough to have enough work for even one crew in a small firm such as ours.

PSM:  Does your firm have many competitors and, if so, how do you strive to remain a cut above them?
There are certainly many competitors in the central Virginia area, but truly, I don't know that I really consider them competitors at all. There are certainly areas of surveying that I don't feel we can compete in. Many firms rely on quantity of various jobs to get by, and we typically don'Õt market ourselves for those types of clients or projects.

PSM:  What technological advance has been the most significant to your firm in the past five years?
The best thing we have done in the past few years is to upgrade our office computer system. There was a time when I didn't think that we needed to upgrade our PCs, but boy once we did, I quickly realized we were only limiting ourselves to what we could accomplish. Change is not always easy, but in the long run it can be worth the effort.

PSM:  How do you decide when it's time to purchase new equipment?
Any equipment purchases are facilitated only by need. Supplies are purchased when stock begins to run low, and major purchases are made only out of necessity. I'm not one to go buy something just because it is the latest gadget on the market. You know the old saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!"

PSM:  There are countless products out there; how does your firm decide which manufacturer's products are the best fit?
I try to purchase our daily supplies from local vendors, though sometimes we make purchases from others. When we have to have our instruments calibrated or serviced we'll use a firm not in our market area. They have done a great job for us over the years and we feel we can trust them with our equipment.

PSM:  Let's move on to marketing. Do you have enough of an established practice that repeat business fills the bill, or do you have a specific business development program? Has the recession changed your marketing plans?
I am sorry to say that we really have no marketing plan in place at this time. We certainly did when we first ventured into the world of small business. The plan then was to simply knock on doors and talk to people, let them know what you could do, and build relationships. It also helped to talk to people we knew - not surveyors or others in the business, but friends, family, and others in different fields of service.
I am thankful that we have a diverse client base that has enabled us to sustain our business for many years now. We may be a bit too complacent, but it's tough to expand when you're busy every day just being a surveyor and business owner.

PSM:  To what do you attribute your firm's survival during these tough economic times?
I think it goes back to the fact we have a diverse client base and that we don't limit ourselves to what services we offer. Our commercial work has gotten us through this recent downfall in the housing industry, and there are still some land owners who need a division done for a family member. Sometimes it can be the small jobs that get you through, so don't discount any opportunity these days.

PSM:  Do you consider the "business" side of your operation an entity of its own; for example, is there a position for "business manager" or the like?
That's where Angie comes in. She is our business manager handling everything from writing up new jobs to entering time sheets and answering the phone. The most important aspect of her job though is the business accounting. Her role is essential in our firm and allows the rest of us to concentrate on the projects we have. I can't imagine having to fulfill her tasks as well as surveying.

PSM:  To many, accounting is a kind of necessary evil to fulfill IRS and other tax requirements; to others, accounting is a valuable source of operational information and a resource for decision making. How does business accounting fit into your firm?
The taxes we have to pay as business owners can certainly be considered evil, but I don't think that's what you're talking about here.
The accounting information is a valuable resource. We look at all aspects on a quarterly basis to make sure we know how the business is doing and how we can enhance its performance.

PSM:  How do you go about basic personnel decisions like hiring, firing, compensation, and human resources in general?
Any major decisions are made with the consent of all the officers of our business. We will always discuss the hiring or firing of employees and the general conduct and performance of each in a closed meeting. Ideas and recommendations can then be made using all of our views. It has seemed to work well over the years so those responsibilities don't fall on one person.

PSM:  How do you communicate with your field crews?
Being a small firm helps with communication with all our employees. The field crews generally will meet with office staff in the mornings to review jobs for the upcoming day and will also report the day's work when they get back in the afternoon. Any questions from job sites are simply a cell phone call away.

PSM:  What "blunder" have you made you wish you hadn't, and what did you learn from it?
We have all made mistakes at some point in our career, whether it be a surveying-related problem or something in business. I was always told that if you never made a mistake, you weren't working hard enough. That has been the case on occasion; you know when everything is happening at once, the phone is ringing off the hook with various clients wondering why the crew was ten minutes late, and you were just about to finish checking the dimensions on a house stake-out, but were totally distracted and forgot. The biggest thing is to try to minimize those mistakes by not repeating them.

PSM:  What specific project are you most proud of?
We have done so many different projects over the years, it is difficult to nail down one that we hang our hat on. The places that we go to, the things we see out on job sites, the way each job is different but also the same: that's what stands out in my mind.

PSM:  Any advice to someone considering starting his/her own business?
Stepping out on your own is no easy task and can be quite frightening if you think about it too long. Educate yourself as much as possible before venturing out. Talk to friends, family, and colleagues who have started a business themselves. They can share insight on getting started, and the more wisdom you can harness the easier it will be.
The key is to work at it because it's no bed of roses at first, but the ultimate result will give you the independence to run your business the way you would like and the confidence to grow it to whatever you want it to be.

» Back to our May 2009 Issue