Since the first rows of cinder-block buildings became known as self-storage, our industry has evolved in many ways. We have added computers and sophisticated management software, and security—including individual door alarms, perimeter beams, video cameras and coded entry gates—has become a standard feature. Site design and layout has also changed dramatically. But some of the greatest modifications have been in the area of on-site management.
In the '60s and '70s, a resident manager’s apartment was almost a given at a self-storage facility. Granted, it was not much larger than a couple of 10-by-20 or 10-by-30 units, with a small living area, tiny bathroom and kitchenette. The resident manager usually did not even receive a wage. He got free rent in exchange for being little more than a caretaker. Most managers were retired singles and, if a husband-and-wife team was employed, one person usually held an outside job while the other managed the site.
In the '80s and '90s, facilities became larger, computerized and more sophisticated. No longer did they consist of rows and rows of single buildings. As large parcels of affordable land began to dwindle, we also saw the birth of conversions, which involved recycling existing buildings into multistory self-storage. Many of these were in metropolitan areas, and zoning restrictions limited some developers from including a manager’s apartment in their design plans.
Today’s self-storage continues to take on new shapes and sizes. We still see standard sites consisting of long, single-story buildings, with drive-up units and a customary manager’s residence. We also see new, multilevel, high-tech buildings with all-interior units and limited personnel. These rely more on technological security features and rental/payment options than human interaction, and onsite management is limited.
In the late '90s and the beginning of the new millennium, we began to hear rumblings in the industry about the resident manager becoming a thing of the past. The manager’s apartment was going the way of the dinosaur and would soon be equally extinct. Regardless, there were still owners who elected to build a residence into their facilities, and they started to make them even better.
One-bedroom, one-bath residences were replaced with two-bedroom, two-bath apartments. Some even had amenities that many new-home developments offered: gourmet kitchens with center islands, skylights and garden windows. Bathrooms were expanded to include oval or Jacuzzi tubs and separate showers. Living rooms had fireplaces, and master bedrooms had balconies and walk-in closets.
In the past decade, some architects have designed self-storage without a manager’s residence, but this was largely at the request of individual owners or the result of building in urban areas with strict building codes and zoning. In the absence of an apartment, the facility tended to have more bells and whistles, including upgraded security and break rooms with a sink, refrigerator and microwave. Where a manager’s apartment was designed, architects tended to design a more upscale residence than in the past.
The manager profile also evolved from one of site caretaker to professional “storage consultant.” Architects began to confer with these operations or management “specialists” who could offer valuable experience and insight from their perspectives of the office and apartment design. Their input helped design state-oft-he-art facilities that were aesthetic but functional. After all, once a site is built, it’s time to make money!
Whether building a new facility or converting an existing one, if an owner elects to build a manager’s residence, the contractors are faced with a completely different set of construction challenges. Most sites are erected of prefab steel, but an apartment will involve a wider array of materials. This means the builder must deal with several subcontractors—plumbers, electricians, etc.—in addition to the steel-erecting crew. The period for completion of the facility will be determined by the various subcontractors and the timely execution of the jobs they are hired to do.
Residence vs. Off-Site Options
The debate about resident management is heating up as technological advances make self-storage sites more self-sufficient. Customers are more educated about and comfortable with kiosk-style business interactions, but they still seem to enjoy customer service with a personal touch. Following are some things to consider when weighing on-site vs. nonresident staff:
- What effect does the absence of a resident manager have on a site’s performance? Do tenants feel the site is less secure? Do they receive the same level of service?
- If an owner does choose to build an apartment, what are the costs involved? Is it better to save the cost of an apartment and spend that money on security features?
- Is there a different employee profile for a resident manager vs. nonresident management staff? Are their daily job duties the same? Is more staff necessary with off-site management?
- How is a facility’s budget affected by resident staff vs. off-site management? How do wages and bonus programs differ? Most important, how do these roles affect a facility’s bottom line?
Why Resident Management Prevails
From an operations-management standpoint, nonresident management has distinct disadvantages. For one, property-management companies are accustomed to dealing with experienced teams trained in resident management. At facilities that use nonresident managers, they often have to resort to hiring outside the industry, which can mean a lack of experience on behalf of the new employee. Nonresident staff also carries the risk of higher job turnover, as it makes it easy for managers to leave positions with little preparation or warning.
In general, it takes more time and energy to find nonresident staff, and there is the added effort and cost involved in training. Again, experienced self-storage managers are generally accustomed to onsite positions. To accept an off-site job means finding housing, the added cost of rent, and the cost and inconvenience of telecommuting. The facility owner will typically face an increased budget for wages as well.
Finally, consider the role of manager-placement services. To successfully hire out a manager, these companies need to know about a position’s wages and bonus program, but also if there is an apartment included with the job. If there is, they need to know the size, number of bedrooms and bathrooms, and other pertinent amenities. These companies often have inside information on whether owners are building new facilities with apartments, which is obviously a bonus for those seeking full-time management positions.
There are many areas of self-storage that can vary drastically from area to area and facility to facility, including rental rates, marketing methods and the types of clients served. Similarly, there seems to be no right or wrong when it comes to self-storage development, as every project is unique. This includes the decision to have a resident manager and apartment.
The choice to build an on-site residence lies with a project’s developer or owner. But before allowing the extinction of the long-loved resident manager, consider the many facets of hiring offsite staff. In either case, you must have clear cut policies and procedures in place so staff will clearly understand the professional image you expect them to promote to clients.
Pamela Alton is the owner of Mini-Management, a nationwide manager-placement service. Mini-Management also offers full-service and “operations only” facility management, training manuals, inspections and audits, feasibility studies, consulting and training seminars. Ms. Alton is engaged to be married in 2005 and will soon go by Pamela Alton-Truitt. For more information, call 800.646.4648.
Pam Alton and the staff of Mini-Management would like to thank Virgo Publishing Inc. and Inside Self-Storage for providing the company with editorial opportunities throughout 2004 and continuing into 2005. They would also like to wish readers a happy, healthy, prosperous new year. ISS extends congratulations to Pam on her pending nuptials!