Dudley Self Storage
Built by hand
By Tom Brecke
Twelve years ago, Clem Hill's wife had a "crazy" idea. Hill, a retired general contractor-turned-rancher in the sleepy little town of Payson, Ariz., had invested in a small piece of land near the downtown area of the city with plans to develop and construct an apartment complex. After the plans and drawings were completed, Hill was left with a piece of land unusable for the apartments. When his wife suggested he use the extra space for a few self-storage units, Hill took it to heart and decided to give it a try.
"I decided to put one building there for some mini-storage units, just to try it out," says Hill. "And before I was even finished with the building, people were ready to move in."
As a retired general contractor who specialized in building retirement-care facilities in California, Hill, now 80, did all work on the storage building himself, including plumbing, electrical and the concrete-block work.
Following the success of the first building, Hill decided to add a second one, and started a pattern that would lead him to abandon the apartment plans entirely and use the land exclusively for self-storage. "I did another building the following winter and that rented up. Then I did another one," says Hill. "Every time that happened, I had to modify this master plan I had for the apartments. Pretty soon, I just scrapped the plans for the apartments completely and made the whole property into mini-storage buildings."
A dozen years later, Dudley Self Storage has 89 units in six buildings, all hand-built by Hill, one building at a time.
"I didn't get into this intentionally--I fell into it--and it's the best thing that has ever happened to me," he says. "It has been very successful and it beats the heck out of apartments."
Small Town, Small Facility
With only 89 units, Hill knows his facility is small by modern standards--other facilities in Payson boast well over 200 spaces--but it doesn't bother him. He writes all bills by hand once each month and says a large percentage of his renters prefer to pay in person, probably because 40 percent of his clientele are older and enjoy stopping in for a chat.
"They like to talk, so I talk to them. Some come over and pay me cash or give me a check, eyeball to eyeball," he says.
But this face-to-face camaraderie also works in Hill's favor in order to combat the other facilities' amenities, such as electronic gate access and computer billing. He says this doesn't bother him, though, because he relies more on convenience and a down-home attitude to run his facility.
"I'm not really bothered by competition. I'm a little more flexible than they are," relates Hill. "They have rules and electronic gates that are worrisome (to customers) in a sense. I know most people admire the electronic entrances and the monitoring of the facility, and that's understandable because of where their office is--they're not able to see the driveways. By using the electronic gear they can keep an eye on the whole place. My facility is small enough to see the whole place, except for one area."
Despite the lack of modern-day security, Hill says he has no theft or vandalism problems.
Hill not only did all the construction work on his facility, but was able to use his home-building experience to give Dudley Self Storage a more "homey" feel using overhanging eaves on the roofs and adding as many plants and trees as possible.
"I had seen enough mini-storage facilities to see that they all kind of looked like prisons to me," says Hill. "I wanted to try to do away with that look, so I used gable roofs, just like you do with a house--rafter tails hanging out. I always liked plants, so I put plenty of plants and trees in also. I think the place looks creative and nice."
With an elevation near 6,000 feet, Payson's hilly, rolling terrain adds to the aesthetics of Dudley Self Storage, but it also required Hill to be more creative with the development and unit mix of the facility.
"The shape of the land dictated how and what I built. It is more or less rectangular in outside dimensions, but there's a slope in the level of the land," he explains. "You have to see the place to appreciate it because you're almost powerless as to what you can do as far as unit mix. If your land is level, you can put in a row of 5-by-10s in one area and 10-by-15s in another, but when you hit sloping ground, the ground will dictate what the sizes will be. There's no sense in fighting earth."
Hill admits he has some "oddball"-sized units, but says he generally rents units based on the number of square feet, rather than actual dimensions.
"I've got a few 10-by-17s. Now 10-by-20 is a popular size, but a 10-by-17 is only 30 feet less," he says. "I'll just say, 'Hey, if you stack your stuff frugally and sensibly, nine times out of 10, you can get all that stuff that you think belongs in a 10-by-20 into a 10-by-17.'"
Surprisingly, Hill says he requires few marketing efforts to keep his facility at a comfortable rental base. He only runs an ad in the local Yellow Pages and doesn't even use a large sign at the front the facility, which is located a few blocks off a main road.
Being a former contractor, Hill concedes he has a soft spot for commercial users. One of his first customers was in construction, and Hill continues to offer discounts to customers that use his facility for business.
"One of the first guys to rent one of my units was a general contractor, and he's still here. He got me thinking--he said he wanted to make sure he wouldn't get locked out. He'd want to unload his truck at night. So I've never put up a fence, and I've kind of catered to businesses. I've got plumbers, both Payson libraries, sheet-rock contractors, framers and electricians."
While the storage industry gets bigger and bigger and more technologically advanced, there are those facilities that still manage to work using the old-fashioned methods of doing business--friendliness and stellar customer service. Dudley Self Storage proves this notion, and Hill is happy to be the one dishing it out. He couldn't be happier with the self-storage business, a venture that began as an excuse to use some vacant land and ended up making himself a successful entrepreneur. Like he says: "I'm sure glad my wife got that goofy idea."