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Surveyor Spotlight - Michael A. Clifford, PLS

Type:  Featured News  
An interview with Michael A. Clifford, Principal-in-Charge, DGT Survey Group.
MALSCE: Mike, thanks for taking the time to talk with us; it's great to have you as our latest interviewee. As many people know, you've been a supporter and board member of MALSCE for many years. What has kept you engaged for so long? When and why did you first become involved?
MAC: Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts with membership. I suppose I am now one of those "old-timers" that keeps showing up at seminars and conventions. Well, I've been a member of Eastern Mass. Chapter since the mid-80's, the very start of my career in surveying. The thought of not being involved in my profession's society never occurred to me. There are many benefits in active membership, but I'll admit that it is the camaraderie with colleagues (and competitors) that most engages me. As I like to say, MALSCE is my Knights of Columbus or Elks Lodge. Or maybe Order of Odd Fellows is more appropriate. Anyways, it is the best kind of social networking.
MALSCE: Similarly, what attracted you to a career in land surveying, and how did you grow that interest into creating your own successful firm?
MAC: My path to surveying was somewhat typical. I started out with an interest in the building industry that came from family background, briefly considered architecture as a direction, but decided that Civil Engineering offered better career options. So at Northeastern University I took the intro Land Survey and Route Surveying classes (I think these are now gone from the curriculum), and I did two co-op terms with a small surveying firm that specialized in construction layout. This planted the interest and within a year of graduation I got a job in surveying and that was that. The path to starting my own firm was a different matter. I did not start out with an entrepreneurial drive, and I'll admit to being talked into it by now business partners, in particular Bob Staples, PLS. The decision to go this route had less to do with dreams of future riches than with a mid-career, or mid-life, interest in having some measure of control over my situation. For me the key was having business partners with the energy and technical skills to start up a new venture. Of course it didn't hurt that the local construction scene was in high gear in 1997, with the Big Dig at its half-way point and the private sector heating up. Not to be political but I refer to those days as the "Clinton Era."
MALSCE: Over the years you've acquired some well-known firms. Tell us about those transitions and the challenges involved. What drove you to continue to grow?
MAC: The first acquisition was as smooth as could be: My career as a surveyor really began at Gunther Engineering so I was familiar with the older recurring projects, the archives, and their way of doing business. And as it happens DGT and Gunther had spent several years before the acquisition literally one floor away in the same building, at King Terminal in South Boston. 
      With Cullinan Engineering there was technically no business acquisition, we purchased their assets at bank auction. I would say it was a bargain except for the cost of warehousing, scanning, compiling and indexing 50 years of stuff, paper and digital. But as with Gunther it brought us new clients and good-sized projects. Cullinan had been doing fine work over many years on some prominent properties, particularly in Greater Boston, which continue to call us back for new development or for ALTA surveys. A lesson we learned early on is that old survey archives can be interesting to look at but it is the phone calls about the firms' past surveys that justifies the time and expense of expanded archives.
       Our acquisition of Schofield Brothers in 2015 is probably our most significant in terms of added service offerings and geographic reach. The operational transition has been quite smooth. I attribute this to the fact that we left the Schofield office intact, same location, same phone numbers, and same (highly talented) people. And I'll give a shout out here to MALSCE's own Dean Schofield for leaving behind a ship-shape operation. 
There were some other acquisitions I could discuss but that would look like boasting. To answer your question about what drives us to grow, the main reason is probably our aversion to stagnation. I think we owe it to our staff to keep interesting projects coming in the door. An acquisition has the benefit of plugging into relationships established by a retired or transitioning business owner and hopefully continuing them.
MALSCE: You've been vocal about the danger to the public when it comes to use of survey brokers. What concerns you the most?
MAC: This starts with the business issue: ALTA surveys are where a surveyor can be a true consultant, offering valuable knowledge and perspective on a piece of land that they have a history with over time, and bill his or her time accordingly. So the dumbing down of this work into a commodity product is disheartening. We all know that the "reverse auction" practice reduces the fees for this work to a level where no professional surveyor can realistically put the necessary time and effort into the site visits, field measurements and intelligent study of title information that the Lender depends on. This leads to a public danger, that decisions for investments of tens- to hundreds of millions of dollars are being made with surveys that, in the worst case, are little more than information compiled from the work of others. Now don't get me started on Mortgage Inspections!
MALSCE: Comparing our industry from your first few years to today. What's better....and what's worse? 
MAC: What's better of course is the technology. We can tell our war stories about the good old days of taping up stone walls in the woods, no cell phones for the office to call and annoy us and so on, but who would want to go back to that? The new technologies make measurement and data collection so much quicker and less painful, and more accurate. This increases, or should increase profit. That may mean fewer jobs at the technician level but, at least in theory, higher pay levels for skilled technicians and surveyors. Another upside is that all of this high-tech has the potential to attract young people to the business. The millennial generation has grown up with digital representation of the world around them, and geo-location and mapping are a big part of the technology they are walking around with.
MALSCE: The pace of business today seems to be getting only quicker. How do you maintain a healthy work/life balance for you and your team?
MAC: I'll be the first business owner to admit this: we don't expect our staff or ourselves to sacrifice all for the good of the company. An important part of our corporate culture is an appreciation that family comes first, which means realistic expectations on work hours and time off. Of course a key factor to a happy family is a steady paycheck, so we do expect everyone to respond to our clients' demands. 
MALSCE: Over the span of your career, what has been the biggest challenge you've faced and how have you overcome it?
MAC: I suppose the biggest challenge was getting through the first couple of years when the work started to explode (again, the Clinton Era economy, not our marketing magic). We overcame it by offering a job to every surveyor that walked in the door. Recruitment in those days was far easier then today. At the time there seemed to be a balance between boom-time work and reasonable cost of housing in Boston. I don't expect that to come back any time soon.
MALSCE: Finally...what advice do you offer the young surveyors who are starting out in their careers? What do you imagine the future will be for our profession? 
MAC: That is a very timely question because my son, a recent college graduate, is now working at DGT as a survey tech. So I have a lot of advice for him. I tell him to learn as much as he can about the technology we use and what we are doing with it. I tell him to appreciate the variety in surveying, land development, construction, historic building preservation and so on. One thing I don't have to tell him is to appreciate the idea of doing interesting, challenging things and be outdoors at the same time. Whether this is indeed his chosen profession remains to be seen, but for all the big money, Internet start-up dreams that young people have, Land Surveying still offers an extraordinary real world education.




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