The U.S. self-storage market is more than 30 years old and comprises more than 37,000 properties, with an average occupancy of 84.6 percent. It has grown rapidly from 1992, when 19,500 properties experienced an average occupancy rate of 84.8 percent. The U.K. market, on the other hand, is in its early stages, with only 400 facilities. U.K. investors and financiers, encouraged by cross-cultural comparisons, are hopeful their immature self-storage market will follow the product growth enjoyed in the United States over the past few decades.
The U.K. storage market has two distinct characteristics: It is highly fragmented and growing extremely fast. Both are attractive to financiers, as consolidation and growth in any industry require money. The rapid expansion and earning potential of self-storage in the United Kingdom is driving consolidation at the top and bottom ends of the market. The bigger companies in the sector are using their tremendous buying power to seize market share and force operational efficiencies via information-technology systems.
A year ago, the four major U.K. self-storage players were quoted on the London Stock Exchange (LSE): Big Yellow, Lok’nStore, Mentmore and Safestore. These companies used their quoted status to raise capital through the equity markets. The strategy allowed them to avoid expensive debt and finance growth early in the establishment of businesses that, at the time, weren't generating cash, let alone profits.
The consolidation that has taken place in the United Kingdom over the past year is largely due to U.S. financial institutions that see the enormous potential for growth. U.S. private-equity business Bridgepoint bought Safestore in August 2003 and took it private. In 2004, following a bidding war against Guy Hands, another private-equity player, Safestore—again backed by Bridgepoint—bought Mentmore. Mentmore was removed from the LSE and assimilated into the Safestore business. It's now the largest U.K. self-storage player, with 70 stores across the country.
Debt vs. Equity Financing
Top-end consolidation of the market is sensible because debt is a cheap way of financing growth in a period of sustained low interest rates. The cost of capital has decreased relative to equity finance, which is relatively expensive in a low-interest-rate environment.
In neither the equity nor debt-financed models are businesses run for dividend flow. It isn't yield that interests either set of investors at this early stage. They are looking at capital growth and gaining a strong market position for future expansion and dividends. At this point, all the U.K. players are driving for scale and site location, key tenets to a successful business going forward.
There are advantages to both financing models. Being quoted on the LSE allows businesses to issue paper to finance growth, and that motivates those involved—including board members, storage managers and sales teams. Lok'nStore aligned the interests of much of its staff with shareholders by issuing options and discounted shares. The move has yielded significant results, creating motivated team members focused on what they need to make good money for themselves and, therefore, shareholders.
Big Players and the LSE
After the sales of Safestore and Mentmore, the only other LSE quoted player is Big Yellow, which has 32 stores and has just been reclassified from the Support Services sector to the Real Estate sector—an interesting move. This has been done to encourage the City to valuethe business—not on a discounted cash-flow basis, but in terms of its net asset value. Big Yellow accompanied its announcement with news the company will commission an external valuation of its property assets, all in an attempt to get a higher rating.
The U.K. industry expects Safestore to come back to the market and list on the LSE at some point as Bridgepoint looks for an exit. The move will come as the cost of debt increases in the future and the entire industry matures; all the players will generate not only significant cash, but profits to pay generous dividends to shareholders.
This move would be welcomed by Lok’nStore. A problem with having only two quoted self-storage companies listed on the LSE is the relative lack of comparative businesses. The more quoted players there are, the more interest broking houses will show. Also, it increases the following of sell-side analysts and attracts more investors in the sector, which, again, helps communicate the value of the business and drives liquidity. Lok’nStore's rating would likely improve if there were more listed self-storage companies.
The relatively green U.K. market is growing fast and already generating noteworthy amounts of cash. It is showing every sign that it will follow the United States in terms of growth, profitability and continued consolidation. An interesting and exciting few years lie ahead for the industry and its financiers as U.K. self-storage grows from adolescence to adulthood.
Andrew Jacobs is chief executive of Lok'nStore Group PLC, one of two self-storage companies quoted on the London Stock Exchange. For more information, visit www.loknstore.co.uk.