By Jim Chiswell
This past summer provided me many unique opportunities. My consulting work, along with some personal travel, gave me the chance to criss-cross America's Heartland, mostly by car. The highways of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri helped me to record more than 4,000 miles in my Bonneville.
My point in explaining this journey is not to give you a travel log or to rant about high gasoline prices, but to give you a framework for the following observation. In virtually every community I drove through, I saw established self-storage facilities as well as those under development. These facilities are not just in urban and suburban areas but, more importantly, across the rural landscape of America.
Signs for facilities names such as "The Cubby Hole," "A Little Extra Space," "Space R Us" and "Extra Shed" jumped out at me as I drove. Many facilities were just a single building perhaps 30 by 150 or 200 feet. Most had no office on site. Many were not fenced or paved. However, most appeared to be near full capacity. Following a trend that's being repeated hundreds of times in communities all over the United States, entrepreneurs are building facilities. Most of these micro-projects are not being counted in the mysterious number of "total facilities nationwide," which seems so difficult to establish. It was exciting to see all these facilities.
I mention this because I believe these owners may be more critical to our industry than ever before. The manner in which these new owners conduct their business is crucial in an era when the self-storage industry is seeing increased legislative initiatives and customer litigation.
It is important for all of us to embrace these new owners. We need to seek an affordable way to involve them in the activities of our state and national associations. As established owners, we need to reach out and share our expertise. Being a mentor could provide untold benefits for new owners as well as the industry as a whole.
If you are a new owner of one of these smaller facilities, do not hesitate to call on another owner near you. Make sure your occupancy agreement complies with your state's current standards for dealing with customers. Make sure your late-fee policy does not leave you open to possible future complications. Make sure your lien sales are conducted in compliance with your state's lien law so that "wrongful-sale" litigation can be avoided.
I'm excited to see how our industry is touching every community. The importance of self-storage to both our residential and commercial customers is undeniable. I am proud to be a part of this industry and trust that you are, too. Working together, we can continue to expand market opportunities while limiting our collective exposure to overzealous legislators and litigation.
It is not too early to begin planning your facility decorations for the year-end holiday season. Yes, that's right: holiday decorating! What a perfect opportunity to deck your buildings, fence line and trees with attention-grabbing lights. This is an opportunity, for just a few extra dollars on your electric bill and the one-time cost of decorations, to make the local community take notice of your facility.
Over the years I have seen very few projects dress up for the holidays. Sure, some creative managers have done a wonderful job of making their offices look festive, but the exterior generally continues in a "same-old, same-old" way. I just can't understand this, especially when we are constantly seeking new, creative methods to market our businesses year round. In addition to creating increased visibility for your rental prospects, holiday decorating will cause your existing customers to share in the holiday spirit you create. Your office should also tastefully reflect the joy of the season.
You don't have to be part of a specific religious persuasion to enjoy a holiday display of lights or a festive atmosphere at your facility, but don't force employees to execute your preconceived decorating strategy. Involve them from the beginning of the planning and implementation of your holiday decorating. Have fun and don't be afraid to go a little over the top in your display. Perhaps residents will actually slow down a little as they drive past to look at your handiwork. And don't forget to include that all-important sign: "Happy Holidays From Everyone at 'Your Name' Self Storage."
At the end of June, President Clinton signed into law the "Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act." In short, this legislation gives formal legal status to an electronic signature on a contract or other legal document. This should clear the way for self-storage owners who are aggressively using the Internet to obtain a signed occupancy agreement from a customer. It may also provide an avenue for the sending of delinquent notices via the Internet, but that is a future opportunity that may present itself. If you are interested in complete details on the law, you can search http://thomas.loc.gov and under "Senate Bill 761 (S. 761)."
On a personal note, I would like to close this column with a special thank you. On May 19th, at 7:28 a.m., Courtney Elizabeth Johnson joined the Chiswell family. Her parents--our oldest daughter, Christie, and her husband, John--have given my wife, Jackie, and I one of the greatest gifts in the world: a grandchild. Now I can point to Courtney as the reason why her grandpa acts so crazy at times! She has already brought joy to so many people. I just wanted to say "thank you" to Courtney, and her Mom and Dad, for helping me refocus on life's priorities.
Jim Chiswell is the president of Chiswell & Associates Ltd., which has provided a full range of consulting services to the self-storage industry since 1990. Mr. Chiswell can be reached at his office in Buffalo, N.Y., at (716) 634-2428; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; www.Jimdot.com.