Our Company's 12 Year History

From 2001-2005, Peter Viola, Kamal Abdulrazak, and Jay Bendler all worked as an apprentice to Dr. James S. Mellett, CPG of Subsurface Consulting, LTD, one of the pioneers in the geophysical surveying and mapping industry. Towards the end of this apprenticeship period Dr. Mellett was nearing retirement, so he suggested we start our own company to take on the smaller jobs he was no longer interested in working on. After thinking it over for a few months, Peter and Kamal took his advice and formed Underground Surveying, LLC, in the state of Connecticut on March 8, 2005.  When the company was founded, however, they were both working at Watson Laboratories as Microbiologists. Thus, between March 2005 and May 2006, the company was only capable of performing residential and small commercial utility mark outs during evenings and weekends. After about 6 months of doing these types of small jobs, Peter and Kamal did not make much progress at all, so they started to neglect the business and perform residential mark outs only occasionally.
 
In April 2006, Peter and Kamal performed one of these occasional homeowner mark outs for John Hardman of Southbury, CT. After marking out his gas line with yellow paint and flags and packing up their equipment, he asked for some business cards. He then proceeded to explain that his wife, Sheri Hardman, was the regional manager of Sovereign Consulting of Sandy Hook, CT, a local environmental consulting company that might have a need for our services. As it turned out, her company had recently been awarded a contract with a major nationwide petroleum company to perform remediation work at various gas stations throughout Connecticut, and a new policy had just been instituted mandating that a private utility mark out be conducted at their gas station properties anytime digging or drilling is going to be performed. Excited over the potential for additional work but not thinking it would lead to anything serious, Kamal handed John a bunch of business cards.
 
In June 2006, Peter and Kamal decided to leave Watson Laboratories to work for Mannkind Pharmaceutical, a high-tech pharmaceutical start-up company located in Danbury, CT. After one week on the new job, Peter was miserable and knew he had made a huge mistake. Quite surprisingly, this giant blunder turned out to be a blessing in disguise. For during his second week on the job, Sovereign Consulting employees started calling him to schedule utility mark outs at various gas station sites throughout Connecticut. He couldn't believe it. Handing out those business cards had actually worked! Now Peter had a difficult decision to make: keep the job with a steady paycheck or become an entrepreneur. After a couple of sleepless nights and much debate with himself and those close to him, he decided to quit his job and commit himself to the business full-time. The first thing he did was call Sovereign Consulting and schedule the mark outs they had requested. Fortunately, after marking out a few sites with his mentor Dr. Mellett, they were immediately impressed with the prompt customer service and the accuracy and comprehensiveness of the mark outs. This caused them to call us back again and again and to pass our name to other companies. In fact, for the next 6 months, we did about 2 gas station mark outs per week for them, just enough work to help stabilize our finances and catalyze some small growth.
 
By October 2006, job requests were coming in from Sovereign Consulting regularly, making it difficult for Peter to perform all the required fieldwork alone. Therefore, he reached out to Jay Bendler, a former colleague of his at Subsurface Consulting, and offered him a position with the company. Fortunately for us, Jay accepted the offer and became our first partner. Jay's strong organizational skills and project management abilities, something Peter was still lacking at the time, immediately helped us take on larger, more challenging projects and, by working with Jay on a daily basis, Peter learned how to improve his own organizational skills and project management abilities.
 
In January 2007, we secured a contract with Peter Zeiss of Skanska to provide concrete imaging services for a large project at 1351 Washington Blvd., Stamford, CT. This project helped us become profitable and cash flow positive--something we have been ever since. As a result, in March 2007 we purchased our first company vehicle. A few months later, in June 2007, we purchased our first set of GPR and Radiodetection equipment. This meant we no longer had to drive on site with a beat-up Buick Regal or Hyundai Sonata (which was quite embarrassing) and no longer had to rent equipment from Subsurface Consulting (which was quite expensive).  By June 2007, Kamal decided to sign over his interest in the business so he could focus on advancing his microbiology career in the pharmaceutical industry. Despite his departure, we left the door open should he ever decide to return.
 
In October 2007, we hired Dave Giro as our second partner, who still works for us today and is currently one of our Senior Project Managers. In addition, in October of 2007, we secured a contract with Don Gesick of Gesick & Associates to perform a utility mark out within the entire property at GE Headquarters, Fairfield, CT. This is where Dave received his trial by fire training. In December 2007, the profits from this job enabled us to purchase a second company vehicle. In February 2008, we purchased our second set of GPR and Radiodetection equipment, enabling us to handle the increasing demand for our services by doubling our work load. In 2008, we developed a close relationship with many Connecticut-based environmental consultants, such as ARCADIS, GZA GeoEnvironmental, and LBG, all of whom are still regular clients of ours today. In December 2009, we purchased leak detection equipment; however, despite this purchase, it would not be until a few years later that we really pushed this service.

Although growth was slow and steady heading into 2011, this is when our business started to grow rapidly--and without warning. Early in 2011, we quickly added a third company vehicle along with a third set of GPR and Radiodetection equipment to keep up with the demand for our services. Over the next 3 years, 2011-2013, this rapid growth forced us to double our staff from 4 to 8. Fortunately, during this time, we were able to hire some really good survey technicians (but some were not the right cultural fit, as will be explained later), thereby keeping our clients happy and generating even more repeat business and referrals. Three of these new hires--Mike Gulla, Matt Gantert, and Pete Giro--are still employed with us today. In 2012, we added a fourth vehicle along with a fourth set of GPR and Radiodetection equipment.  With the company making a good profit and the cash flow positive, everything appeared to be going great. Underground Surveying was a success. Behind the scenes, though, Peter began to notice the company culture was changing, and it wasn't for the better.

So, before explaining what this change was, it is first important to understand our company's philosophy. We don't use traditional business plans nor budgets, we have very few rules, we loathe policies, we don't track our partners' time nor their location, we only have meetings when absolutely necessary, we work from wherever we want, and we simply hate anything that obstructs our freedom. Do not think this means we are anarchists; we are not. We do have a Purpose, Philosophy, Strategy, and Vision. We also have procedures, with flexibility built into them, as any service company should. But the big difference between us and most other companies is our basic assumption about people. We believe that most believe people are hard working, trustworthy, creative, intelligent beings who, if trusted and given enough freedom, are fully capable of organizing themselves into small teams, choosing their own leaders, creating their own individual and team goals, and managing themselves as they work towards achieving them. Children must be organized, lead, and managed, but not adults; they are fully capable of doing it themselves. Unfortunately, as Peter started to notice, some employees had become so used to being commanded and controlled--perhaps, through their upbringing, school experience, or previous employment--that some of them could not handle being in such a liberating environment. Because of this fact, we had to let anyone go who was not the right cultural fit. This was painful for Peter, the business, and all of our partners; but we still pushed through with this reduction in staff over a 2 year span, from 2012-2013.

Some people would say to Peter, especially those from a traditional business management background, that this cultural change was simply the inevitable result of having more people in the company. And since most people are lazy, immoral, unintelligent beings, greater controls were needed to direct and control them, including creating a management structure, hiring managers, and instituting new rules and policies. Most of the business books he read stated the same thing. But this whole management orthodoxy seemed ridiculous to him, a flimsy work of fiction invented for the sole purpose of enhancing the income and social status of a management class. How could we have grown from a company of 2 people with revenues of less than 100 thousand per year to a company of nearly 10 people with revenue of almost 1 million, all without a management structure, managers, rules, or policies? During this rapid period of growth, we had never even set a financial target, nor did we spend much time at all on financial planning. We merely kept focusing on fulfilling our clients' needs and solving their problems, and the money simply followed as a natural result. How dumb would it be, Peter thought to himself, if the very beliefs and actions that made this company so successful had to be explain abandoned. If Peter, Jay, and Dave had been successful for so long with hardly any rules and policies, the last thing they wanted to do was encumber themselves and others with them.

Finally, after doing some research on other business people who had a similar experience to Peter's, he was excited to find out he was not alone.  There were indeed other companies out there who had decided to buck the traditional business management view and they, too, were experiencing the kind of success and growth that we were. A few people had even written about some of these unorthodox businesses. Ricardo Semler, in his book Maverick: The Success Story Behind the World's Most Unusual Workplace Fredrich Laloux, in his book Reinventing Organizations; and Ken Iverson, in his book Plain Talk: Lessons from a Business Maverick presented the following questions regarding organizations (and even answered some of them):
  • Why do we assume the worst in people rather than the best? and where does this assumption come from?
  • Why can't people lead and manage themselves? 
  • Why do workers, the ones who do the billable work and create profits, need to be overseen by managers, the ones who do the non-billable work and consume profits?
  • How much could a company's profit margin increase if the workers were also the managers?
  • Why do we need job titles?
  • Why do we need rules and regulations?
  • Why do we need to track our employees time and location?
  • Why can't employees be shareholders?
  • Do companies need budgets and business plans?
  • Are financial targets necessary?
  • Is management by objective (MBO) the best way to run a company?
  • Are individual plans and performance reviews even necessary?
  • Why can't employees have full access to financial data?
  • Why can't employees set their own salaries and know how much one another makes?
So from 2013-2016 we slowed down our growth and committed ourselves to developing a company culture we believe would be best for our long term survival and future development. Rather than submitting ourselves to the orthodox command and control management structure, which would have been the easiest and most expedient thing to do, we made a decision to use this company as an experiment for answering the foregoing questions.

One of the first things we did to commit ourselves to this alternative way of doing business was to follow our employees' passions rather than dictate from above which direction the company goes. For instance, Pete Giro wanted to use his 10 years of plumbing knowledge to help solve one of our clients' biggest problems--inspecting the insides of pipes and conduits. We therefore followed his passion and created a brand new service--sewer, drain, and conduit video inspection services. Over the past two years, we have invested in three different sized GatorCam4 Pushrod systems. After performing this service for about 1 year, it quickly became evident we needed more than these pieces of equipment to fulfill our clients' needs, because we often had difficulty inspecting deep, large diameter pipes. Therefore, he and Jay made a decision (just as a corporate management team would) to invest over $80,000 in a new P350 Flexitrax video crawler system. In addition to this investment, Pete has used his plumbing experience with help from Jay to finally begin pushing our leak detection services. We currently use ZCorr digital correlating loggers and Radiodetection MGD-2002 Multi-Gas Leak Detector as our primary tools for this service. As of April 2015, all the video inspection and leak detection equipment is now housed in our new Dodge Ram ProMaster cargo van, which is specifically fit up for these two services--another $30,000 (corporate) purchase decision made by both Jay and Pete. As a result of all of these purchasing decisions, over the next couple of years, they are going to be working together on building, improving, and growing our leak detection and video inspection services. Over most of 2015-2016, we prepared ourselves for the future by creating and improving the systems and processes required for delivering these two services and building this website so that we educate existing and potential clients about them.

In October 2016, Kamal finally left his corporate job and rejoined our team. He is going to help us develop a new hiring system, training program, performance development system, and eventually open up a new regional office location in the Boston, MA, area. Over the next 1-2 years, Dave, Mike, and Matt will be working on recruiting, hiring, and training people to help satisfy the increasing demand for our utility locating services (which accounts for the majority of our revenue), especially the larger projects lasting weeks or months, many of which we often have to turn down because we don't have enough manpower. 

If you or someone you know is interested in joining our team, please visit the careers page and leave us your resume. However, if you are simply looking for a job to pay the bills, please do not bother. We only want people who believe in our business philosophy and who are dedicated to being part of the experiment to prove that people can organize, direct, and manage themselves.

We now look forward to steering Underground Surveying in whichever direction our partners' passions decide to take it. Feel free to stop by periodically to check out how this sociological business experiment is progressing. It's certainly more fun, exciting, and rewarding than doing business the traditional way!