As I look on, Graham Nickerson suffers a wicked sword blow to the neck from a pint-sized warrior. With a mighty roar, the pitiless swordsman strikes again. This time, Graham manages to raise an arm against his attacker. Alas, it is hacked off at the shoulder and, sitting right there at the kitchen table, in front of a laptop full of photos from the Mediterranean, he dies a melodramatic death. The warrior is Graham’s four-year-old son, Bailey. The sword is a cardboard tube that once held Christmas wrapping paper. Satisfied, Bailey sheaths his sword… for now.
Graham Nickerson is the founder and president of Highland Geo Solutions, a company that uses high tech survey equipment and custom-designed software to map the world’s oceans. When he’s not working in the field, this is where he can be found – at his home office in Taymouth, New Brunswick (not far from Fredericton). He says that working from home allows his company to be highly flexible while maintaining low overhead. From Taymouth, Nickerson finds work, manages projects and plans upcoming trips. More importantly, he does this while spending time with his family. As the geoscientist plays dead, Sandra (his wife and business partner) feeds Rhys, Bailey’s baby brother, at the far end of the table. As the Business Operations manager, Sandra keeps the accounts in order.
In 2008, Highland Geo Solutions employed 20 geologists, engineers, surveyors and software experts. “We incorporated in 2006, but the roots of the company stem from work I did as a private contractor starting in 2000,” explains Nickerson. Since incorporation, he and his crew have worked on-site at 21 projects in 13 countries around the world. They have been involved in mapping debris after Hurricane Katrina, the marine excavation of 2,400-year-old Greek shipwrecks off the Albanian coast, river channel mapping in the United States, oil and gas exploration off the Angolan coast, and undersea mapping for cable routes in the shadow of Japanese volcanoes.
“There really isn’t a secret recipe to (how we built) our client base,” says Nickerson. “A number of the clients I dealt with at my old job followed me to my new company.” Working through a hard won network of university departments, old classmates, former employers, independent contractors and even competitors he’s met at trade shows and in the field, he has managed to succeed not through cut throat competition, but by imagining how projects can be mutually beneficial.
Their success is also due to a bottom-line oriented flexible operations strategy. “We leaned heavily on contractors to keep overhead in line with business activity. When a contract came in, it was easy to make a phone call and get the right person on a plane headed to the project. The days of working with a company for life with numerous benefits are over. Sandra and I work to live. We have all the infrastructure to make us globally accessible. Namely, high speed internet, good road networks and a local airport. We also get to live the lifestyle we want in the country with lots of interesting travel. Most of our contractors have similar interests. They want to have a life and not be beholden to a corporation. The ocean mapping industry really fits well with that. You tend to work intensely for a month or two and then have periods of down time to do whatever you want.”
At four years of age, Highland Geo Solutions is like the Nickersons’ middle child. “We spend a large portion of the work day managing the managers,” Graham explains. “We use web based payroll when necessary, online calendars and Blackberrys for calls and emails.” At times, it’s about as challenging to manage as its siblings. This past year, Graham found himself awake at night, wondering if his company could survive the economic downturn. Within weeks of that low, he was working ‘til midnight, sorting out his visa for the latest project in Indonesia, buying airline tickets and wistfully remembering the down time. “It’s like having a small baby and wondering if you’ll ever sleep again. Then they grow up and don’t need you as much and you miss it.” ….
Like any proud parent, Nickerson is happy to share pictures of his sometimes problem child. One of them, taken at the site of his favourite project in the Mediterranean, shows him sitting at a bank of computers aboard the Hercules, a small survey vessel belonging to RPM Nautical Foundation of Key West, Florida. Dedicated to the preservation of marine archaeological heritage, the RPM Foundation’s mandate is to provide technical expertise to governments that otherwise do not have the resources.