On Awareness and Responsibility

The seriousness of the national security levels--green (low), blue (guarded), yellow (elevated), orange (high) and red (severe)--have been painfully brought into the consciousness of the nation. Yet I wonder, as I talk with self-storage owners and managers, if we have truly put ourselves on alert. Are we doing enough to reassure ourselves the people storing with us are who they say they are, that the things they are storing are materials we want in our stores? Spending an extra couple of minutes with each new customer asking and recording some basic information is not too much of a sacrifice on either side of the table.

If the person in front of you does not have a valid, government-issued photo ID (OK, so most of us simply say "driver's license"), but he drove to your store, should you rent to him? And what about the person who has an out-of-state license that has expired? What if he has a different address on his checks than the one he gives you on the rental agreement? What if he provides you a P.O. box as a mailing address?

I know occupancies are down. I know call volume is down. But is our goal to simply rent to anyone? I don't think so. Long before Americans discovered an ocean could not separate us from the terror of the rest of the world, I encouraged owners and managers to report unusual circumstances and activity to the local police. Our industry has a responsibility to the communities it serves--as well as our entire country--to be vigilant in conducting day-to-day business.

A New Association Is Born

In January, I had the honor of participating in a meeting in Durham, N.C., with more than 60 people representing self-storage stores from across the state. This special gathering marked the formal creation of the North Carolina Self Storage Association. Hosted by Bruce Stankavage, president of North State Storage, and chaired by Braxton Jones, also of North State Storage, the assembly was the culmination of a month's worth of small meetings and telephone discussions with N.C. owners and vendor/suppliers.

In opening the session, Braxton presented a special award of recognition to Sheryl Tart, widow of Donnie Tart. Donnie, whose spirit was clearly honored in the comments of many who spoke at the meeting, had been working unselfishly to assist in the creation of the association until his untimely passing in late November.

Having been involved in state-association work for many years, it was exciting for me to see owners gather together in pursuit of a common purpose. Everyone in the meeting understands that while our industry is under attack from coast to coast, there is always strength in numbers. Whether it be a debate at a city council meeting in California regarding a permanent building moratorium of future self-storage projects, or a dispute in the Ohio state legislature regarding sales-tax requirements on our rental transactions, there is no escaping the reality around us.

Michael Kidd, executive director of the Self Storage Association (SSA), discussed the ways the national association is working to support the activities of state associations across the country as well as various initiatives taking place at the national level. George McCord of Plantation Self Storage, past president of the SSA Southeast region, was also in attendance at the meeting. He has been assisting the North Carolina efforts by drawing on the experience he gathered from working with owners in creating the South Carolina Self Storage Association last year.

Only a handful of states have yet to set up their associations. But it takes more than good intentions and a willingness to pay the first year's dues to make an organization strong and healthy. A number of North Carolina owners stepped forward during the meeting to take on leadership roles, volunteering to serve on the initial governing board. Making a commitment of your resources--time and effort as well as money--is vital to every organization.

Equally important is that every participant recruit other owners as members. Only the Texas Mini Storage Association currently represents the majority of owners within its state. If every state and national member recruited just one new associate in 2003, we would not only double the strength of our organizations, we would increase their effectiveness and clout in the state capitals and council chambers. Make it your goal to enlist a new member for your state and the national association this year. By doing this, everyone wins.

Support Men and Women on Duty

I have written about the Soldiers' and Sailors' Civil Relief Act (SSCRA) before, but as thousands of our fellow citizens in military uniforms take up arms in the defense of our nation and freedom around the world, I feel it is necessary to restate my feelings. Originally enacted in 1918, the act was first amended in 1942. The most recent amendment came in 1991 as a result of Desert Shield/Storm.

Lawyers disagree about whether the self-storage industry is really bound by the strict interruption of this law, but we should be bound by its intention. In general, the act's purpose is to provide active military personnel the right to terminate a lease/rental agreement. It protects them from eviction and financial responsibilities such as credit cards, loans, mortgages, etc. The service member can even have his interest rate capped at 6 percent for the duration of his military obligation. This relief is based on the fact the service member's military requirement has affected his ability to fulfill his obligations. Reservists and members of the National Guard are also protected by SSCRA when in active federal service.

I would hate to hear or read about a self-storage owner who--although following all state lien-law guidelines--sold the belongings of a soldier, sailor, airman, marine or coastguardsman who was out of the country or on National Guard call because he failed to pay his rent on time. Every storage owner has his own policies and procedures regarding the auction process. I urge you to err on the side of good judgment in all of your lien sales during the next six months or so. Are you certain a delinquent tenant is not on active duty? Is there any indication the primary bread-winner has been placed on duty, putting his financial obligations in jeopardy?

We have all seen our vacancies increase as we battle with competition and the impact of the negative economy, so I know what I am suggesting may be difficult. But if you are not 100 percent certain a customer whose unit you are about to auction is nonmilitary, go that extra mile to find out before you bring down the gavel on the sale.

What Is Happening With Self-Storage in Europe?

I was asked this question many times during the Inside Self-Storage Expo in Las Vegas. Based on my two trips to London last year, I am excited about the future for the industry across the United Kingdom and all of Europe. I have spoken with several owners who are considering investing in projects with entrepreneurial partners overseas. The upcoming ISS International Expo in Amsterdam will be a great place to learn first-hand. You can get complete information at www.insideselfstorage.com/expo/amsterdam. I look forward to seeing you there.

Jim Chiswell is the owner of Chiswell & Associates LLC. Since 1990, his firm has provided feasibility studies, acquisition due diligence and customized manager training for the self-storage industry. In addition to contributing regularly to Inside Self-Storage, Mr. Chiswell is a frequent speaker at Inside Self-Storage Expos and various national and state association meetings. He has introduced the new LockCheckTM inventory data-collection system to the self-storage industry at www.lockcheck.com. He can be reached at 434.589.4446; visit www.selfstorageconsulting.com

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