By Jeff Sacks
Bill Howard is a modest man to say the least. After all, he runs several successful self-storage facilities in Edmond, Okla., and attributes his good fortunes to nothing more than the fact that Edmond has virtually doubled its population over the past 10 years.
"I have the right location and the right town, and the right location in that town. It's not any real tribute to my intelligence; it just happens to be in the right place at the right time. It's nothing I did particularly," says Howard.
Howard first got into the self-storage industry after attending a mini-storage convention in San Francisco in 1983 with his friends Bob Williamson and Joe Looney. The friends owned a Budget Mini-Storage in Oklahoma City that they started around 1979, one of the first projects of its kind in the area.
"They were enamored with mini storages, and then I became enamored with them," Howard continues. "I owned a piece of land in this little town of Edmond, and I went ahead and built the first phase of a project there in the west part of town."
Howard was in commercial construction, erecting a line of metal buildings for other people and for himself. Then the idea of constructing self-storage facilities came to him and, as he says, "The mini-storage business seemed to be an easier, more profitable venture than a free-standing building. So I just naturally drifted into the mini-storage end of the business. I still contruct buildings, too, and operate other businesses, but mini-storage is one of the better things I do." And by better, you can bet he means more profitable.
Howard started in self-storage with a 20,000-square-foot project called Edmond Extra Storage, which he has since expanded to 54,000 square feet.
Of his first attempt in the self-storage industry, Howard says, "It was a nice mini, but I made the mistake of building it off the main road and sold the lot in front." This, of course, hid it from the view of passersby and hurt occupancy rates.
However, a few years ago he added an extra building that is tied to the main road, and this has brought up occupancy rates at the facility to the mid-90 percent range.
Then in April 1994, he built the project he is most proud of--Waterwood Self Storage, a 63,500-square-foot facility located one mile east of downtown Edmond.
Location, Location, Location
When you have a good location with a growing population, what better way to maximize your business than by building more self-storage facilities in the area?
Although he'd probably deny such economic strategizing, that must have been some of what was going through Howard's mind when he built Waterwood Self Storage.
"We're in a growing town, probably the most booming town in Oklahoma right now," he says. "There are a lot of new developments and a lot of new homes in this particular little town. When you have a lot of people coming and going, a lot of subcontractors, a lot of people building new homes, a lot of new businesses coming to town, you pick up a lot of tenants from that."
Waterwood is in the center of a partially developed office, hotel and restaurant area, across the street from the Ramada Hotel and next door to a Denny's restaurant. The University of Central Oklahoma, the state's second-largest college, is within view of the facility. Frontage is limited, but adequate.
According to Howard, Edmond is an upscale, bedroom community located 10 miles north of Oklahoma City. It is a college town, but only 30 to 40 college students are Waterwood tenants. "Customers seem to be divided, about 60 percent residential and 40 percent commercial. We have a lot of people moving into this area--probably over 50 subdivisions being constructed--so we rent units to people waiting for a house, subcontractors, retirees and so on."
Waterwood was a challenge to develop for several reasons, says Howard. "Land is very expensive, three- to four-acre sites are scarce, and re-zoning is heavily contested on all commercial projects."
Howard had the good fortune to find an excellent location that was properly zoned and also included an offsite, master water-detention facility.
However, "Even with zoning and water detention pre-approved, it still required four Edmond planning board meetings and two Edmond city council meetings before a building permit was issued," says Howard.
City of Edmond requirements include extensive landscaping, brick and wrought iron fencing, precast walls, limited door exposure and a residential appearance for the office.
"In addition," Howard adds, "we were faced with a site that was about one-third solid rock and sloped 26 feet from north to south."
After extensive engineering, Howard's people came up with a plan to drop the buildings 2 feet for every 40, and erected a 12-foot step wall on the rear of the property.
"Most of the facility on three sides is totally enclosed with aggregate wall panels, including the retaining walls. All the wall panels were precast in Oklahoma City, then trucked to the site and erected," says Howard.
The overall building layout of Waterwood Self Storage is a pleasant-looking residence/office facility with 16 storage buildings. There are 500 units, ranging from 5-by-5s to 10-by-25s. The current occupancy rate is 92 percent, and usually runs around 95 percent during the spring and summer months.
Location aside, one of the other aspects of Howard's facilities that make them more successful than some of the others in town is that he tends to build nicer-looking projects.
"We've done a lot of brick, wrought iron and landscaping, and tried to make it look upscale. I think people tend to want to go to a nicer-looking project. There are some older, shabbier-looking units in town, and we seem to do better than they do. We seem to get better rates and better occupancy, and I think we have better location," he says.
However, he offers up this piece of advice: "I think it always pays to do things with a little bit better quality. You get better tenants and better managers."
Waterwood is operated with an "open gate" policy, with hours of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. There is a 24-hour surveillance camera that uses VCR recording.
"Our most important security measure is to require all customers to use a round lock or a 2-inch (#5 Master) lock on all doors. These locks are almost impossible to cut and have eliminated most burglaries," says Howard.
"It's amazing that people will put $10,000 worth of goods in a unit and then use a $2 padlock to secure them."
The managers of the facility, Sammy and JoAnn LeGrande, live in a spacious 1,600-square-foot space, which includes a double-car garage and a 300-square-foot office. They started with the project when it originally opened in April 1994.
With the help of reasonable land costs, Howard, acting as the general contractor, was able to bring Waterwood Self Storage to fruition at a very reasonable cost and, he is proud to note, "The finished project blends well with the area. City officials and others who originally protested the project now agree that it is an asset to the community."