When an independent, two-shop self-storage company wins its community’s top business awards, you know management must be doing something right. Extra Closet Self Storage of Plainfield and Warrenville, Ill., landed the chamber of commerce’s 2003 “Small Business of the Year Award” for service, and the Business Ledger’s “Excellence in Business Award” in the small-company category. Established 28 years ago, Extra Closet continues to flourish in a tight market pool teeming with imported big fish.
Debra Bennett Lellback, owner, is the mastermind behind Extra Closet’s success. She’s one of those people who can’t help striving for that next tier of excellence. Talk to her for just a few minutes, and it’s evident that being the best is a matter of personal integrity for her. She readily admits Extra Closet isn’t doing anything groundbreaking. Like the experts say, it’s the little things that count. And Lellback is a master of the little things.
“There are three niches we get into to let people know we are here to do whatever we can for them: community involvement through chambers and other organizations; support of nonprofits; and onsite management,” says Lellback. “I think there is a huge difference between an owner who is in a facility only a couple times a month, and an owner who is a driving force that sets standards for her managers.”
Lellback inherited the company from her mentor and father, Omar Bennett, a self-storage pioneer in the 1970s. When Extra Closet expanded into the Plainville market more than a decade after opening its first facility, Bennett recognized the industry’s new competitive landscape.
“We really started to focus on differentiating ourselves as best we could from the non-local owners,” says Lellback, who worked with her father until his death in 2001. “We promoted our onsite management, and the fact we were family-owned and -operated and active in the community for years. People respond to that.”
A lot of business owners talk about the importance of a caring corporate image. But when a company operates lean and mean—Lellback employs just three people—it’s easier to pump life into policy. The Extra Closet website doesn’t shy from making this bold statement: “We offer a simple, human touch that large corporate facilities can’t provide.”
The Big Boys aim to employ very nice people, too, so how do Extra Closet facilities live up to their claim? “First of all, I think we are very empathetic to people who come to us,” Lellback says. “They are going through some kind of stressful change—they’re moving, or getting a divorce or separation, or expanding their business. We try to be sensitive to that fact, and help them understand we’re not just a storage facility where they can dump their stuff. We are here to partner with them and offer them whatever assistance we can, whether it’s a referral, a soda or just listening to their story.”
Phone Calls and Cards
If someone calls The Extra Closet, he likely will reach a person—a live one, who actually works for the company. “When we leave the office, the phone gets call-forwarded to my cell phone or the manager on call,” Lellback says. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, when someone calls us, he is not going to get a call center or a recording. If someone has a problem, we want to react to it. And, obviously, if it’s a customer wanting storage, we want to react to that, too.”
The Extra Closet sends thank-you notes with survey cards to customers who move in or out. If the survey doesn’t look right, Lellback calls them to follow up. She also calls every new tenant to check on their moving-in experience. “I think that is our competitive edge,” she says. “It takes me maybe 30 minutes, twice a month. If I don’t get them personally, I leave a message, and people appreciate it. It’s basic stuff, but a lot of competitors don’t do it.”
As a free perk for customers who are small contractors or use storage for their homebased businesses, Extra Closet provides a conference room, copier, fax, phone and notary service at no charge. “We also accept deliveries and put stuff in their units,” Lellback says. “It’s not difficult, but it’s important to the small business guy.”
The Right Thing to Do
Both Extra Closet locations are active chamber members. “We don’t just say it’s the right thing to do—we get involved. People know then that we are concerned about the community,” Lellback says.
Following in the footsteps of her father, Lellback strongly believes in assisting charitable efforts. She favors those that help children and women. Extra Closet supports the American Association for University Women book drive, which provides scholarships. “We store the books all year, and let [the organization] use our truck for pickups. We also promote the sale through our chamber connections,” Lellback explains.
Among its numerous charitable activities, Extra Closet has hosted car-seat safety checks and garage sales, and it stores furniture for the Guardian Angels, a group that helps people in transition. Schools in need of storage for fundraising activities know they can count on Extra Storage to donate a unit as well. The facilities are perennial collection sites for Dress for Success, a clothing drive for low-income women trying to enter the workforce.
“I allot 2.5 to 3 percent of my storage space for charity,” Lellback says. “It’s the least I can do, and that’s a commitment I’ve made to myself. The other thing is it brings people into my facility who may not have come before. So there is a benefit besides helping people—it gets us exposure, and we can reach people we wouldn’t be able to reach any other way.”
News That’s Fit to Print
Extra Closet promotes its charitable activities in its own newsletter, too. The publication, produced on an office computer, is mailed once a month to tenants and posted on the company website. The marketing tool strengthens the relationship between Extra Closet and its customers, Lellback says. “It’s amazing to me how many people will come to us and say ‘I read that.’ It also helps our tenants get more familiar with people in the office. We do little blips about somebody new, and we recently featured each of my manager’s favorite, funny storage stories.”
The newsletter includes seasonal tips for safe storage and a couple of unique offers. Lellback works with local businesses to donate a free lunch each month. A tenant is selected at random as a winner and is announced in the newsletter. Through her business-community networking, Lellback has also produced a coupon sheet for new tenants, presented at the time of rental. Local merchants donate a free loaf of bread, free cup of coffee, etc., just for Extra Closet customers.
The Staff Shall Comfort Me
The Extra Closet approach to hiring and training has evolved over the years. Lellback wants staff who will exercise caring and sensitivity toward customers. Two years ago, she started working with a corporate-strategies company to educate her in looking for the right people and training them in sales and management.
“From the start, my managers know my expectations,” she says. “I can’t be in three chambers, but they will be in one of them. At first it’s hard, but I teach them to network, to sell better in person and on the phone.” Employees feel they are getting something out of the Extra Space experience—they’re not just renting storage spaces, they’re acquiring valuable skills.
Rewards—emotional and financial— are also part of the package. Last year on Employees’ Day, Lellback hired a massage company to give staff 45-minute massages. “They were in heaven,” she says. “It’s those kinds of things that, in a small group, make a huge difference.”
Lellback employs a full-time manager at each location as well as a floating manager who works part time. In addition to regular daily duties, her managers are always working on marketing campaigns, the newsletter, package delivery, etc. “We run a pretty tight ship, but the managers really like having the other projects because it gives them something to do in their downtime.”
When a competitor comes to town and declines to join the chamber, Lellback admits she breathes a sight of relief, because maintaining an average occupancy rate of 85 percent isn’t always easy. Those who perform the minimum may get away with a decent profit, but they aren’t going to steal Extra Closet’s customers. Lellback says she’s not sure why other companies don’t follow the textbook rules for self-storage excellence.
“If I don’t do it, it will affect our occupancy,” she says. “I think a lot of independent guys look for certain occupancy, and then they get there and go on autopilot. Maybe they didn’t have mentoring, like I had from my father. That’s what he was like: He was involved with community groups, and he gave to nonprofits he felt passionate about. It’s part of my nature to do that, too, and part of my vision as an entrepreneur. My attitude is: How much more can I do, and how much more can I improve?”
As for larger companies, they may have more money, but a corporate message can get diffused as it filters down through layers of management. “I don’t spend a lot of money on marketing, but I do spend a lot of time,” Lellback says. “I don’t think a lot of people commit the same time and energy I do.”
Lellback and her husband are discussing the possibility of a third site, but they’re not decided yet. Establishing a new facility and getting known in a community is brutally hard work, she says. “Sometimes you just want to enjoy what you have.”
For more information, call 815.254.9099; visit www.theextracloset.com.