By Barry Morris
Most people in the self-storage business are familiar with Capco Steel, which has designed, engineered, constructed and erected steel self-storage buildings for 15 years. The name Artistic Builders Inc. (ABI) hasn't existed as long and may not be as familiar, but Capco's sister company seems to be rapidly gaining recognition in the industry similar to that of its older sibling.
As the owner of Capco, Charles Plunkett was approached a few years ago by a local group in San Antonio, Texas, about building a self-storage project from the ground up. Having a background in general contracting but being several years removed from it, Plunkett decided to return to the general contracting arena. This "appetite," as he calls it, led to the formation of ABI in 1994. The company built the San Antonio group's complex, a project that won a facility-of-the-year award in 1996.
From the Ground Up
Plunkett describes ABI as a multi-tasking company providing development assistance and building of self-storage facilities. "Most of our work is not hard bid work--someone saying, 'Here's a set of plans; give us a bid on this project'--although we're capable of doing that. Rather, most of our work exists because someone has the idea that they want to develop a storage facility and doesn't really know what to do. They come to us and we'll assist them in what I call pre-development work: helping them evaluate their site, what kind of construction difficulties they'll have there, their real-estate deals, and so on.
"We will actually, in many cases, come up with a conceptual design of the overall look of the project that's generally intended to fit within the area where it's located. Then they can either have their architects and engineers develop the plans, or we can take care of that. We can then build it for them from the ground up and hand them the keys when it's finished."
Some contractors include services that may present a conflict, but ABI avoids such situations. "One aspect of pre-development analysis we do not get involved in is doing market-feasibility studies," Plunkett says. "We will recommend people to market analysts, and we would generally always recommend that they have a feasibility study done. But we're professionals in designing and building facilities, not in doing feasibility studies; and we've always felt there was an inherent conflict to someone hiring us to tell them whether or not we should build a project for them."
ABI will also represent clients at meetings with cities to acquire necessary variances, zoning adjustments and the like. "It's pretty normal for us to represent our clients at various hearings and, so far, we've been successful on every occasion."
ABI gets a letter of intent, with a small advance payment, from a client wanting to enlist its help during the hearings process, says Senior Project Manager Glenda Jacoby. While not a legally binding contract, the letter-of-intent process exists to discourage what Jacoby calls "tire kickers," assuring the client is serious about ABI's involvement in their project. In citing the need for this provision, Jacoby lamented, "On one job, we worked with a client for eight months--at no charge--before we ever broke ground." However, if the client stays with ABI to complete the project, the advance payment is applied to the contract amount.
Quality and Commitment
ABI's basic philosophy is very simple: You are what you build. "I know this word is used loosely, but we are really known as a 'quality' company," says Plunkett. "We work very hard to do a good job, and we are not known for cutting corners or taking the short road on things. It's not uncommon for us even to spend money out of our own pocket on a project if we feel that it needs it and, for some reason, don't feel justified in charging the customer."
Much of ABI's business comes from people who have seen the company's finished projects, says Jacoby. "It's very common for us to hear such comments as, 'Boy, this is not like the typical storage facility we're used to seeing.'" ABI's reputation for quality recently brought it together with Brundage Management Company. ABI has completed work on one new Brundage property (another facility-of-the-year award winner), and two more are being constructed. Some of Brundage's older facilities are also being remodeled by ABI to more closely resemble the company's newer developments.
Plunkett feels ABI's focus on the self-storage industry is important to its success, and adds that other companies trying to capitalize on the industry's growth may not be qualified to do so. "We could be actively pursuing building office buildings, restaurants and so forth, but we feel we're highly specialized in self-storage," he says. "We have a lot knowledge to offer people, and a lot of experience and ability that we feel not a lot of people have. And we enjoy the industry. Therefore, we have stayed focused in this industry when the temptation has been there to go into other things."
It's not uncommon for developers to award projects to ABI even if other companies underbid them, says Plunkett. "We try to provide a good value and be very fair in our pricing, but we can't always do it as cheaply as someone else. But we never know what they're doing to get there. Everything is not always apples to apples. They may be cutting corners and so forth, and that's just something we choose not to do. Our reputation is at stake."