Business Person of the Year 2011 – Runner Up
Energetic, behind-the-scenes professional surveyor helps a wide variety of clients shape raw land into avenues for growth.
Photo: Kris Kathmann
Imagine 63-year-old Warren P. Smith right now as a household appliance plugged into a home electrical outlet. His talkative mouth whirrs like a Sunbeam Blender set on “puree” and his leg and arm appendages gyrate with nervous energy not unlike a Maytag clothes washer on spin cycle. Which makes the casual observer wonder how Smith of Survey Services Inc. in Mankato can keep quiet and physically stand still long enough to be one of Minnesota’s best surveyors—a methodical and highly exacting profession.
The answer? He measures and cuts property accurate and fast as if he were an Oster Electric Knife.
Warren Smith, who prefers “Warren P. Smith” to differentiate himself from another Warren Smith in Mankato, was born in Mankato and lived there until the third week of October 1960, when his 13-year-old existence changed considerably. On Saturday October 15, Smith and his siblings “woke up in the morning to hear mom inform dad that he better take her to the hospital,” said Smith in a Connect Business Magazine interview from his Front Street offices in downtown Mankato. “So they went to the hospital for my sister’s birth and all my mom’s brothers and sisters moved us to Owatonna.” His father had just accepted a position as a printer at Jostens, and the birth complicated an already complicated move involving a family of nine.
Two days later on Monday, Smith and his five school-aged siblings tried enrolling in Owatonna Catholic schools. The younger three were readily accepted into grade school, no problem, but eighth-grader Smith and his older sisters were on the outside looking in. Marian High School was plum full. It was a traumatic week, said Smith, in part because he and his sisters had been in a small Catholic school and suddenly and unexpectedly had to attend Owatonna High School, which had graduating classes of 250 and class sizes of more than 30 students.
“However, it turned out to be an incredible opportunity, a blessing in disguise,” said Smith. “They had wood shop, metal shop, and drafting, and I never would have had that opportunity in Catholic schools. I loved those classes—couldn’t get enough of it. The following year, Marian High School said they had room for us, but my sister and I said no. We had gone through six months in public school, made friends, and we did not want to be uprooted again. We resisted.” At Owatonna High, Smith became involved in wrestling and football, although his frame didn’t lend itself to the latter. He wrestled at 103 pounds as a senior.
His passion, however, was drafting. He said, “I liked the precision, the lettering, the three-dimensional objects. I loved drawing house plans. I learned to be exact from my father, who had to be exact as a printer. While going to high school, I did house plan alterations for lumber companies. I would go home from school at night, draw the plans, and take them to the lumber company before school the next day. I could make up to $30 per plan. As I went through all the technical drafting classes in high school, I was bound and determined that my career would be in architecture.”
He graduated from high school in 1965 at age 17. Within a year, he was back in Mankato attending vocational college in a two-year architectural drafting program and drawing up house plan alterations at night for Lloyd Lumber, among other companies. After he was in school only five months, Smith’s instructor, Henry Persson, recommended Smith for a drafting position with Bolton & Menk, which had only recently opened a Mankato office. Incredibly, Smith turned down Martin Menk’s generous job offer because the drafting involved engineering and surveying—and wasn’t purely architectural. Two weeks later, Menk called Henry Persson back still looking for a qualified draftsman and Persson, perplexed, strongly urged Smith to return for a second interview.
“But this time around, Henry told me to apologize and practically beg for the job,” said Smith. “So I went back and Martin had me talk with engineer Pell Johnson, who had been doing all the drafting. It was Pell’s job to show me what I would be doing on the job. I came highly recommended from Henry after only five months of school. I had very good lettering and my drafting was excellent. You had to have legible writing in drafting because if you made a 75.8 look like a 73.8, you could end up having water on a site running away from a catch basin instead of into it. That could be a big, big money expense to correct.”
Pell valiantly tried selling Smith on the job. He showed Smith a project to build Val Imm Drive near Minnesota State, and showed engineering plans, elevation maps, plan/profiles, surveys, site plans for architects—and by the end of the meeting Smith’s head was spinning like an eggbeater thick in batter. He turned down the job, again.
“Then Pell got mad at me,” said Smith, smiling, “and he said, ‘Get out of the office. Just get out. Don’t you ever let me hear you tell anyone you want to be a draftsman because I am telling you right now we are offering you board time as a draftsman. We are giving you the hours you want. You can come in at seven in the morning, work until one in the afternoon, go to school at two, and draft in school until nine at night. I don’t care what you call it, this is drafting. You will learn how to draw and do construction plans.” Yet Smith walked away.
That night, he called his soon-to-be wife, who persuaded him to reconsider. The next day, a bit sheepishly, Smith asked Menk if the job was still available, to which Menk said, “When can you start?” Only five weeks later, Menk, who became like a father figure, gave Smith an entire week off work for him to have his wedding and honeymoon.
Smith grew along with the company, greatly enjoyed his work, and was seriously considering staying with Bolton & Menk through to retirement. But then in 1977, Jostens announced it was moving its Owatonna printing facility to the Sun Belt and they offered Smith’s father an early retirement with benefits at age 58. The emotional stress of early retirement nearly destroyed his father, who didn’t have any hobbies or interests outside work. He ended up taking a job as a custodian at an Owatonna elementary school.
At the same time, Smith looked around Bolton & Menk and saw several top-level employees approaching retirement age. He wondered what would become of his own retirement. Would he be forced out like his father? At age 30, in March 1978, Smith realized he wanted more control over his future and so left Bolton & Menk along with fellow employee Brad Evans to form Survey Services Inc. Martin Menk took the news hard, but suggested Smith could return if the start-up didn’t work out.
Was their new business an immediate success? “We were so naïve, so naïve,” said Smith of that first year with Evans. “I tell you, we underestimated the expenses of starting up by half and over-estimated the income by two times. Yet it never crossed our minds the business would fail. I called Brad the ‘minister of finance’ because he was so very good at bookkeeping.”
While at Bolton & Menk, Smith had been doing work for many of the larger developers in town, including “the Chuck LaGows, the Norland family, Lloyd Lumber, the Thros, Midwest Realty—they and some others were the established people,” he said. Many of these developers followed Smith and Evans to Survey Services.
At first, they thought their niche would be doing residential lot surveys, but soon were knee-deep in a massive project with Merle Schindle and sons helping plat the 250-acre North Ridge subdivision in North Mankato. Smith had completed phase one of the project with Bolton & Menk and went on to do the next thirteen phases over many years while Bolton & Menk handled the engineering work. Besides surveying, Smith added value to his surveying by site planning, determining grading, and trying to take best advantage of the high ground and wooded areas, for example. One thing Smith over the years has freely offered new developers: his expertise.
Developer Mick Montag worked with Smith on all four phases of the fashionable Mayan Way subdivision. Smith said, “Mick and I both had a vision for exclusive, upscale ravine lots, and yet we underestimated the market. When doing phase two, we actually took out lots to expand the lot size from 100- to 140-foot. Many people on Mayan Way wanted side-mounted garages and we needed the extra 40-foot for the driveway. The people were willing to pay for it.” Usually, buyers ask for smaller lots to help reduce costs associated with utilities, water, street, storm, sewer, curb, and gutter.
By the early 1980s, he was doing all of Hiniker Homes’ subdivision projects. Said Smith of owner Gary Hiniker, “He is unique in that he is old school—his word is his bond. Gary is excellent at offering entry-level, mid-sized homes, and ranch estates. When the telephone rings, he wants to be able to offer everything to a potential customer.”
Smith also worked with Mike Drummer and Bob Tonneson to develop Rolling Acres off Pohl Road in Mankato. “At the time,” began Smith, “I was taking classes and had heard a teacher talk about ‘coving’ and streetscaping, which involves setting houses back different distances from the road and having the road curve. There wouldn’t be any corner lots. We laid out that concept for Mike and Bob and they went for the streetscaping over the traditional rectangular concept. They were supposed to do the project in four phases over five years, but were built out in two phases after only a couple years.”
The company’s most challenging moment came around 1990 when Smith was acting as a consultant for Paul Radichel’s project with General Growth to develop River Hills Mall. With the help of Radichel, who owned the land, Survey Services was awarded the construction staking contract for 700,000 sq. ft., 80-acre River Hills Mall and for the individual Target, Herberger’s, and J.C. Penney stores inside. It involved thousands of parking spots. The feat was remarkable because General Growth had thought six survey crews were necessary and Survey Services had only two. But they finished the job on time.
Another project of theirs permanently altered the way Mankato businesses scheduled building projects. Walmart hired Survey Services one year to begin construction staking on January 2 in order for contractors to pour cement footings for Walmart’s Madison Avenue location. And on January 2, in 30-below weather, Survey Services began. Many area construction firms hadn’t even bid on the project because of inefficiencies in working in cold weather.
“But after that project, and then Sam’s Club, which we did, it got to where there wasn’t a building season anymore in Mankato,” said Smith. “They showed it could be done. Then companies had to begin bidding on these winter projects, because if they didn’t there wouldn’t be any work left come spring.”
What does a surveyor do? Smith said, “We do construction staking, site planning work for architects, topographical mapping, and conceptual plans for developers. Sometimes those conceptual plans mature; sometimes they don’t. For small upfront costs, a developer with us can look at a piece of property and we can help them determine the amount of acreage that can be developed. Instead of 40 acres, maybe only 25 can be developed, for example.” The company has done right-of-way acquisitions for counties, Minnesota River cross-sections, and city boundaries and right-of-ways for streets and alleys. Of course, Survey Services does residential and farm lot surveys that sometimes involve boundary disputes.
As of December 1, 2010, Smith said Mankato had about 350 lots platted and ready to go for construction once the economy improved. The company doesn’t do as much construction staking as in years past because some local contractors have purchased the necessary equipment and have been on their own staking out curbs and gutter. This sort of work doesn’t require a surveyor’s license, but these companies still need Survey Services for boundary staking.
Smith left Bolton & Menk in order to have more control over his retirement and now his decision seems a major success. Only last year, Smith bought out co-founder and partner Brad Evans after more than 30 years. One testimony to their friendship was that Evans faithfully covered for Smith on Monday nights from 1978-95 while Smith volunteered as Scoutmaster for Mankato Troop 76.
Smith’s son Bob and employee Mike Eichers are the next generation of owners. Bob has a natural ability for computers and Eichers is a licensed land surveyor who began his career on the survey crew for the River Hills Mall project 20 years ago.
Said Smith, “My mother painted me a sign that says, ‘If I ever retire, I’m not going to stop going to work. I’m going to stop calling it work.’” He looks at his work as play because he just has “too much fun doing it.” At age 63, he feels like he is only 40, he said, and still works many weekends and nights. He enjoys the feeling he gets when looking over new ground for development possibilities. That sort of energetic attitude, which doesn’t come across as well in print, certainly describes a person three different Connect Business Magazine readers nominated as our 2011 Business Person of the Year.
Warren and wife Beverly own and operate Dark Shadows Mansion, the haunted attraction at 295 St. Andrews Drive in Mankato. They redesign and rebuild the seven-building attraction each year and operate during the last three Friday and Saturday nights in October. The haunted house employs 45 haunted characters.
Getting to know you: Warren Smith
Company: Survey Services, Inc., Mankato
Occupation: Professional Land Surveyor
Professional organization involvement: Minnesota Society of Professional Surveyors (member 1978-present, chapter vice president 1986-87, chapter president 1988-89, chapter secretary 1992-99, and state board of directors 1990-94 and chairperson of the state manual committee 1990-2002); Civil Engineering Technology Advisory Committee member at South Central Technical college 1993-2000; and member of the Land Surveyors Act Committee (draft legislation) investigating self-rule 1997-98.
Community involvement: Scoutmaster Troop 76 from 1978-95, helping lead about 40 boys to Eagle Scout; and former Assistant Leader 4H.
Community Awards: Mankato Area Youth Leadership Award (1986); Minnesota Society of Professional Surveyors William S. Kelly Jr. Award for Community Service (1989); Boy Scouts of America Silver Beaver Award for distinguished service to youth (1991); Minnesota Society of Professional Surveyors, Surveyor of the Year Award (1994); Mankato Builder’s Exchange Industry Award for Construction Services (1998); Minnesota Society of Professional Surveyors E.A. “Bud” Rathbun Award for Advancement of the Profession of Land Surveying Education (2007).