By Teri L. Lanza
Who would have thought that a successful company averaging 50 percent annual growth and anticipating $15 million in sales this year would have sprouted from some simple diligence and a dining-room table? But it did. In 1993, Michael Branon, owner and president of Mako Steel Inc., set out to begin a niche company focusing on the self-storage construction market. He was joined a year later by vice president Caesar Wright. The two, who had previously worked for four years together at another company, have been making it all work ever since.
According to Branon, when the self-storage industry began to boom in the late 1980s, he began to focus on the new opportunity. "I had come from a commercial/industrial, metal-building background," he says, "and discovered that self-storage appeared to have a much greater upside due to its inherent tax advantages, risk aversion and potential demand. Mako Steel simply developed enough expertise to tap the demand and provide its clients with a high level of service to ensure repeat business in the future." The company that began in the construction of commercial steel buildings, now concentrates almost exclusively on mini-storage. "About 95 percent of what we do is self-storage construction," Branon says.
Branon feels fortunate that the self-storage industry grew beyond his expectations. "It didn't take a rocket scientist to look at a business that--at the time--had few suppliers and what I forecasted as substantial future demand and figure it made sense to get into that. But I never dreamed that the industry would grow as it has."
Mako Steel, based in Encinitas, Calif., has nine employees and additional offices in Yucaipa, Calif., Lake Havasu City, Ariz., and Vancouver, Wash. While the company has built in 35 different states and does business nationally, it has recently been focusing more of its attention in the Western states over the past year because of a booming California economy.
More Than Just Builders
From L to R: Caesar Wright (vice president), Lee Kleinmaier (office manager), James Bartnick (project manager), Mike Branon (president), Mark Zerlaut (technical Services), Robert Lesko (project manager)
Becoming big boys in the industry has meant experience gained for the owners of Mako, but not only that--it has resulted in a wealth of information available to the customers that come to them for service. "I think all of our guys here have picked up enough information where they can act not just as builders but as consultants, in a way," explains Branon. "We work with a lot of builders and even architects who are kind of green in terms of mini-storage. We work with them on the design phase."
According to Wright, "We like working with first-time builders. We offer a lot of consultation to them regarding layouts, making them more economical. We offer a lot of feedback to owners; for example, if they show us a design that looks good on paper but doesn't work from a construction standpoint. Our 'in-house' drafting department not only saves time on preparation, but serves as a valuable checkpoint to solve construction problems in the planning phase instead of the building phase."
"People buy buildings from Mako," says Branon, "but it's the intangibles that come with the building that really matter--consulting, design analysis, competent labor crews and a helpful, upbeat staff. That's what sets us apart from your basic company."
Steel buildings are still steel buildings--it's how you enable them to support innovations in design that bring them up to speed. Explains Branon, "I wouldn't consider us to be 'cutting-edge' innovators, but I would say that we're in tune with changing market conditions and architectural requirements. We've become very competent in combining our products to meet these needs." One of those needs, especially in recent years, is enhanced aesthetics.
"The structures we were building two to three years ago were primarily metal," says Wright. "Now we're finding that to be changing in a lot of cities and counties. Architecturally, self-storage is becoming more of a show-piece type of property, with a lot of exterior stucco and tilt-up, which works well with our design because we can provide the necessary framing. We can detail and provide materials that accent stucco and masonry by using architectural panels and pairing nice trim packages to complement them. We find that most of the clientele that come to us are being forced to go that route. We're good allies in that case because we know how to dress up a building, but make the inside utilitarian so that the customer can maximize revenues."
Mako Steel is also working in multistory construction, which Branon says they are finding on jobs more and more frequently. The company is currently finishing a four-story project in Alaska. "Multistory and boat/RV storage are natural extensions of the basic self-storage concept," says Wright. "We've helped our clients achieve remarkable success in these areas as well."
Philosophy of Care
"Mako offers the customer the buying power of a big company but the service you'd expect from a small company, where people actually care about your project," says Wright. "Although we have had phenomenal growth, we like to think that we offer a personal touch to the owners and builders that we work with. Even though business is a serious matter, we actually have been known to have fun at work. I think our customers sense that we enjoy what we do, which results in a lighter, more cooperative project. Our high level of repeat business owes a lot to the fact that our builders know we enjoy working with them, and that we want them to be successful."
"For a lot of these guys," points out Branon, "this is their first project or the main investment opportunity that they're going to have in their lifetime, and they don't want to get the big company runaround where you make a phone call and nobody returns it for a couple of days, if at all. One thing I'm most proud of at my company is that all of our guys here return their phone calls promptly. We look at things from a builder's perspective. We try to combine the best qualities of a big company and a small company together--that's how we handle the buying power and the service. That's what makes us successful."
For more information, call Mako Steel at (800) 383-4932 or visit their Web site at www.makosteel.com .