Dean's List or Academic Probation?
By Cecile Blaine
If your facility was a student, what grade would it get on its end-of-the-year report card? Would it be an A+ or a C-? You be the judge. The end of the year serves as an excellent time for you, as a facility operator, to take a look at your business and assess how well it is doing in terms of maintenance and management issues.
Now is the time when the maintenance schedule you put together at the beginning of the year should be put to the test. Have the daily, weekly and monthly chores been done regularly and on schedule? If not, you'll want to make note of them and set some goals for next year. What are the priorities? What is being neglected? What projects need to be budgeted for? Answers to these and other questions will help you create not only a maintenance schedule for next year, but a budget, as well.
Typically, the manager is the person who is in charge of implementing the maintenance check list and the budget that fuels it. If that is not the case, however, it's time to stay after class, says Jim Chiswell, owner of Chiswell and Associates Ltd., a consulting firm out of Amherst, N.Y. "Don't let another year go by without (the manager) getting involved in the process," he stresses. "The manager is the front line. He is the greatest tool that any owner has--whether the facility is going to be successful or not.
"When filling out your facility's report card, look first at the key maintenance issues that directly affect your customer. Chiswell recommends keeping the customer in the forefront of your minds. "I want to make sure that my customers are happy," he says.
Where's the Water Fountain?
Leaky roofs and flooded units, for example, can spell disaster at any facility. "The whole issue of water for this industry can be a killer," Chiswell points out. As a result, maintaining the quality of a facility's roofs and gutters is essential.
Sigel Roush agrees. As vice president of Capacity Development, a facility management firm in Highland Park, Ill., Roush says you should start tallying your facility's report card from the top. "You should make sure that the integrity of the roof is in tact, especially the flat roofs," he says.
Roush's staff walks the roofs of his facilities once a month to clear them of garbage, because those items can eventually rust and create leaks and other internal problems. Some of the worst cases involve people throwing automobile batteries on roofs, with the battery acid burning holes in the roofs or even causing explosions, according to Roush. Because the roof is such an important and vulnerable area, it's a good idea to add it to the annual report card.
You can't have well-maintained roofs with stopped-up gutters. Sooner or later, gutters that aren't draining properly will back up and force water, snow or ice onto the roofs. Then, leaking can't be far off. By the same token, you need to keep nearby trees trimmed and keep leaves from building up in the gutters. So, that's another section of the report card that needs attention.
Lots of today's facilities are designed with storm water retention systems, creating yet another channel in which water can back up and flood a facility. As a result, operators need to maintain the drain and make sure it is free from garbage, leaves or anything else that could stop it up.
"You want to make sure your storm water receivers are clean--not just the top of the grate. Pop the grate right off and get down and really look. If you've got to get down in there with a shovel, you've got to do it," says Chiswell.
Another maintenance issue that can directly affect customers is the security gate. If the gate hasn't received proper attention throughout the year, such as a monthly oiling, it could break down unexpectedly--leaving customers locked out and angry. "When was the last time you spent a few dollars to have someone come in and make sure that the chains are properly oiled, that the motor is tuned up, or that the linkage is tight?" Chiswell asks. "Again, from the perspective of a northeast operator, you are going to have more harsh conditions," he adds, which make it advantageous to maintain it now.
Likewise, swing doors can rust if the hinges are not oiled regularly, preferably on a monthly basis. According to Roush, when a customer who hasn't visited his unit for a year tries to open the un-oiled door, he sometimes bends the hinges instead. "Then, you have to replace it," he says. "That is just way too much fun for one adult in the winter."
Winter's here, and part of your facility's report card should include a section on winterizing your business. Is your facility ready for the first snow? Do you have a company that will provide snowplow services? Do you have a current contract with the company, and how do you know they will come when you need them?
"I don't care what business you are in--you want to make sure that the person who is charged with the responsibility of plowing that lot is reputable, has insurance, and that means he probably isn't the lowest priced guy in town," Chiswell points out.
Problems with pavement and driveways need attention before winter hits, because chances are they will only get bigger. Cracks or potholes need to be patched before the freeze-and-thaw cycle makes a Grand Canyon out of your driveway.
Winter means shorter days and longer nights. How does your facility look at night? This may be more important than you'd like to think because, as Chiswell points out, "There are as many potential prospects driving by your facility at night when no one's there as there are during the day. And a properly lit facility can look very attractive and much safer."
Changing light bulbs in the late fall can prevent having to expose yourself to the elements in the coldest winter months. In fact, some facilities track when they change bulbs and do a mass bulb change in the fall. "We try to make sure that we change those in October or November...so that you don't have to go out in the dead of winter and change a halogen bulb," recalls Roush.
From Loafers to High Heels
The end-of-the-year report card requires that you look at your facility from a different perspective for once. Try to look through new eyes, recommends Chiswell. Ask yourself if your facility is as comfortable for women as it is for men. "You have to look at your self-storage facility like you have a pair of high heels on," he says, pointing out the importance of female customers in the scope of business.
Appealing to women through the decor of the office is another element of the business that is worth looking into. Chiswell suggests adopting a decor that is female-friendly.
"I'm not saying paint the office pink and have bows everywhere, but not early Tool Time, either," he says.
By the time you've given your facility it's grade for the year, you have collected enough information to create next year's maintenance budget. Some lenders require a set-aside maintenance budget of 4 or 5 cents per square foot, per year. Whether you arrive at it through guesswork or an equation, the research you've just done is invaluable. And the older the facility, the more need there will be for a maintenance budget. In fact, Chiswell recalls, "I've seen facilities that are 5 years old that have just been totally ignored and a facility that is 10 or 15 years old that looks 10 times as sharp," due to the degree of maintenance that has been followed by the manager and operator.
R.M.A. (Remember Me Always)
Probably the most valuable information you gather through a facility report card is about your customers. Who were they? How old are they? Where do they live? Whether you have a computer or not, you now have a full year's worth of customer information at your fingertips, and it would be a crime not to use it.
"Let's say that the average commercial customer is renting a 10-by-10 or larger space, and we determine that by looking at the trends, that our commercial customer stays an average of 20 months and that our average residential customer stays an average of three months," says Chiswell. "Who would I rather have?
"(Commercial customers) pay better, they stay longer. But in many cases, we are doing nothing to try to attract them."
Likewise, it's also an excellent time to ask yourself if you are getting the kind of return on auctions that you are looking for. If your recovery rate is very low, then you might want to direct more attention toward negotiating with customers and avoiding auctions altogether. "Let's say you auction 50 units, and on those units, you averaged 90 percent recovery," says Chiswell. You could consider your auctions very successful. If, however, you only recover 10 or 15 percent of what's owed to you through the auctions, then it is probably better to make a deal with your customers to get them to pay what they can, so you can repossess the unit.
Getting an "A" on your facility report card at the end of the year is certainly something to write home about. Whether you get to go to the head of your class or you have to stay back a year, sometimes the journey is just as important as the destination. In other words, no matter what grade you received on your facility report card, use what you've learned about your facility in the next year as far as knowing where the sticky maintenance issues are, budgeting, marketing and handling delinquent accounts. In all these areas, it is easy to see that a little maintenance each month goes a long way toward keeping the annual chores down.
"By staying on top of the faciliy, by correcting the little things, it prevents them from creating major problems later," concludes Chiswell.