Engineering success

By Posted on Feb 25 2015 | By

Carson Ashley embodies full service land use consulting  

Visit the Carson Ashley web site and a dizzying array of services is displayed under its “Services” banner; 37 to be precise.

If it has anything to do with civil engineering, land planning or land surveying the firm has it covered. And in the off chance a client need is not listed, don’t panic. The company would likely amend the list to 38 offerings.

Jim Carson

Jim Carson

“We provide a high degree of customer service. Our firm is not a ‘hired gun’ environment. Our clients trust us and we trust our clients. We work together and we fight for them,” said Jim Carson, managing partner of the firm.

The corporate philosophy is central to the reason the Warrenton firm has thrived for 40 years. Carson is the third owner of the company. He purchased it on Christmas Eve 1997 and joined forces with Rick Ashley to continue providing land use services to the Piedmont and Northern Virginia areas.

So how did an up and coming entrepreneur continue the legacy of an established firm? Rely on the forces that helped achieve its original success.

After he purchased the firm “I did not have a dime to my name. Everything was in the business. I thank Mr. Harris, the previous owner, and his employees who continued to work at the firm,” said Carson. Harris retired in 2002.

Today, the company has 16 employees dedicated to “helping property owners avail themselves of the maximum potential of their property within government regulations.”

The firm handles approximately 100 projects annually with 85 of them being relatively short-lived smaller jobs. The profile tracks closely to the “80-20 Rule” that 20 percent of a firm’s business contributes 80 percent of its revenue.

The company is focused on front-end development of land use but can span the entire gamut of “soup to nuts” property fulfillment. Clients range from individual families to holders of large subdivisions. Size doesn’t matter. Achieving landowner goals does.

Unraveling the land development process highlights how involved each stage can be—or not. A small project might simply require quickly dividing a family plot into two parcels. Larger commercial jobs spanning hundreds of building lots can evolve into a decade-long effort.

“We completed a rezoning last month for about 200 building lots. It involved taking a piece of ground without plans and figuring how to fit 200 lots on it and then carrying the project all the way through the public process to get it approved,” said Carson.

Large projects start off with an initial surveying of the land, then creating a plan as to how the subdivision will look. From there it proceeds to engineering the plan, preparing construction drawings and obtaining county approvals.

Those steps lead to securing work permits, platting the sites, obtaining bonds, construction stakeout and bond release work.

The required interface with county governments underscores the level of professionalism that is brought to bear in successfully bringing a major subdivision to fruition.

Perhaps the old colonial British saying of “slowly, slowly catchee monkey” might best describe the process.  Patience is victor in this industry.

The economy
Carson AshleyFew business stories can be told today without addressing the moribund economy of the last several years. If lost business produces heartaches, then its surprising local intensive care units haven’t seen long waiting lines.

It’s been a painful time for men and women who own their own businesses. Carson Ashley is no exception.

“The economy really crushed the real estate business. And we are very much vested in real estate,” said Carson. “The bulk of our work was impacted by the real estate and housing slow down.

“The housing slow down affected our residential business and the commercial segment was affected by the tightening of lending; in large part because of the uncertainty in the market. Even if somebody had a great idea, they wouldn’t pull the trigger because of the uncertainty of things,” opines Carson.

Reading the 2007 recession tea leaves, Carson assumed it would take two or three years for the economy to bottom out, recovering by 2011. That prognostication slipped by two years. “And I didn’t have plan for those two years,” said Carson.

He goes on to say his firm is still not fully out of the doldrums. “It has stabilized. As I look into the future I see people doing stuff. But I personally don’t see us going back to anything like 2006,” said Carson.

He goes on to explain the Northern Virginia economy is not going to be the huge engine driving the economy as in the past. “Federal Government spending and employment reductions are going to slow down things.”

Underscoring his typical optimistic life view, Carson thinks growth will occur but will not be robust.

He also notes an economic pattern based on long experience. “As things get hot, people get interested in doing projects and I get work in Northern Virginia, Winchester, Culpeper, Luray, Stephens City and all those places. When it contracts, I’m back to working jobs in Prince William and Fauquier.”

Today, he sees an expansion outward again and thinks more of his work will come from a widening geographic area.

Business acumen
“Carson learns the hard way. I don’t learn from books. OK, I do learn from books but I don’t take it home from books,” said Carson laughing.

Freely translated that means learn and absorb from multiple sources then execute based on both mind and heart. “As a business owner the hardest thing to do is be a business owner,” observes Carson.

He emphasizes that owners often get into a business they love, enjoy or one that inspires them. But the art of actually running a business is focused more on a global perspective and letting qualified employees perform the actual work.

The sooner one realizes employees can run the day-to-day operations “the better off you are. Running the business is your number one responsibility.”

It’s not easy to balance the two sides. Carson delegates but admits it’s hard to do. Letting others perform can result in possible mistakes or more often tasks getting done but perhaps not quite the way the boss would do it.

“But the result is the same. If you micromanage, you are not looking at the long term goals of the company. That’s why most businesses fail,” said Carson.

The most influential business book Carson read is The E Myth by Michael Gerber (an updated edition is titled The E Myth Revisted). The title refers to entrepreneurs who often are great idea people but poor business owners. Its theme is leaders need to free themselves from daily work tasks and focus on the long-term success of the companies they are piloting.

Easier said than done. “It’s hard, especially when it’s your business. You are passionate about it. You live it every minute of the day but you can’t work 90 hours a week,” said Carson.

From here to where
Looking back on 18 years as a business owner Carson characterizes his mind set today as “We are not done. We’ve achieved some great success then the recession sort of stripped it away. We are now rebuilding. It’s coming together.”

He humorously states his middle name is Perseverance and a biblical quote reflects his take on the recent past. “…but we glory in tribulations also; knowing tribulation worketh patience.” (Romans 5:3).

Moreover, he stresses customer service is paramount in today’s business environment, a concept seemingly lost on many firms. As the economy picks up steam he states, “We are getting more chances to exemplify customer service.”

“We have been successful because we got things done faster, better and smarter than many firms.

“We have very professional, qualified, capable, and experienced people. The work is coming back and we are able to put that talent to work for our clients. And that’s a good thing,” said Carson.

Published in the Winter 2015 edition of The Business Journal.


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