Professional management is the key to self-storage success, but finding just the right staff is never easy. When Susan and Lothar Knieriemen of the Sun Harbor Self Storage in Summerfield, Fla., opened their first facility, they discovered the answer lay, not in a single manager or couple, but in a talented team of part-timers.
“We were originally going to just throw up a few of those storage buildings behind our real estate business. However, further investigation and the opportunity to attend industry seminars led us to believe we should expand on the square footage and go full force into the storage business professionally,” says Lothar. Sun Harbor, in phase two of construction, will have 63,000 square feet and 482 units when completed this year.
Susan and Lothar were not willing to settle for less than perfection as they assembled the team for their store. With years of management, real estate and accounting experience, they knew there were many truly professional people living in their community who would be willing to work part-time hours—and prefer it to a full-time commitment. Dissatisfied with the prospect of hiring just one or two good people, they wanted an all-star lineup.
The Sun Harbor team consists of four women who each work 15 to 20 hours per week under Susan’s supervision. Between them, they cover the 55 hours per week the office is open. Another part-timer picks up trash and cleans the property, and subcontractors are used for any heavy-duty maintenance tasks. With the aid of her personal assistant, Susan oversees the self-storage facility as well as the real estate business, Sun Harbor Realty, she also owns with Lothar.
“Our lease-up rate was more than double the estimates in our feasibility report,” explains Susan. “We reached breakeven in 90 days and have consistently maintained 80 percent to 85 percent occupancy, even as new buildings have been brought on line over the past year. I attribute this directly to our office staff.”
Meet the Team
The first team member the Knieriemens hired was Linda Blevins, who previously worked in a law office in South Florida. Susan already knew her personally. “Linda can convince just about anyone to rent a unit, including all of her family and friends, who rent from us now,” she teases.
Theresa Rizzo was the next member brought on board after retiring from the Marion County Sheriff’s Department. According to Susan, “Theresa is proud of her Italian heritage and is not afraid to use her great sense of humor with customers. Her ability to get people to do what she asks of them with her firm but gentle way is especially helpful in dealing with delinquent customers.”
The third hire was Karen Riddle, Linda’s sister-in-law, who had previous self-storage experience. “Karen seems to have a special way of dealing with customers who move down here from out of state,” says Lothar. “She is willing to help them with all kinds of moving issues and questions.”
The final member of the Sun Harbor squad is Tamara Trush, who previously worked as Susan’s assistant controller for nine years. “Tamara has one of the best accounting minds ever and is extremely knowledgeable about computers. I hired people I could trust. I can train them to sell self-storage, but I can’t train them to be honest,” Susan says.
Tamara makes up the team’s work schedule on a six-week rotation. Everyone gets the same number of hours, and they can always switch days with each other to suit their individual needs. Vacation and sick time are not a problem because Susan and Tamara simply schedule around it. If necessary, they shift their hours between the two businesses to fill in gaps.
Susan formulated office procedures so the office team handles the basics of move-ins, move-outs, payments and transfers. She and Tamara share the daily responsibility of sending welcome and late letters, making bank deposits, and performing other routine tasks to take some of the day-to-day burden from the rest of the team. Everyone is required to make reminder and delinquent-customer calls when necessary.
The Secret to Success
When asked if having a team of all part-timers is confusing for customers, Susan says, “Most of our customers know each staff member by name. The girls excel at selling—talking with prospective customers and current customers, either on the phone or in person; showing spaces; and describing the features and benefits of storing with us. They never miss a chance to talk with our tenants.”
What’s the key to making it work? “Our big success secret is we all have a good time working here. It’s an extremely relaxed environment but also professional. Our staff doesn’t have to put on a smile when someone walks in the door; chances are they’re already chuckling about something else. The girls are friends outside the office and do a lot of things socially. There’s no jealousy among them, and they are willing to help each other, whatever the situation.”
Many owners doubt that part-time employees can be as productive as their key managers. But part-timers are rarely paid to work at higher levels. As the saying goes, it’s possible to be pennywise and pound foolish. By failing to sufficiently compensate part-time staff, owners miss out on 15 percent to 20 percent of their sales opportunities each week because their “fill in” employees are not effective.
At Sun Harbor, all team members are paid above the average hourly wage for similar retail positions in the community—in addition to receiving regular and year-end bonuses. While the exclusive use of part-time employees may not work for every facility, the Sun Harbor experience cannot be ignored. The Knieriemens have proven what a happy and motivated staff can accomplish, and the difference hiring the right employees can make, even as part-timers.
Jim Chiswell is the owner of Chiswell & Associates LLC. Since 1990, his firm has provided feasibility studies, acquisition due diligence and customized manager training for the self-storage industry. In addition to being a member of theInside Self-Storage Editorial Advisory Board, he contributes regularly to the magazine and is a frequent speaker at ISS Expos and various national and state association meetings. He can be reached at 434.589.4446; visit www.selfstorageconsulting.com.