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Pittsburgh's Brand-New, 107-Year-Old Self-Storage Business: A Conversion Tale

Continued from page 2

While reading a local Pittsburgh newsletter, we read about the city’s Storefront Renovation and Downtown Façade Restoration program. It provided matching funds for business owners who renovated their storefronts. It was a long and winding road, but well worth the journey. The $5,000 grant we were awarded allowed us to invest in a very attractive and welcoming storefront.

Value Engineering

Paying for something yourself gives you a real appreciation of what’s important. The difference between “nice to have” and “need to have” is now very well-defined for us. It boils down to this: If the expense is an absolute business requirement or will make the customer experience appreciably better, then it’s a “need to have.” Everything else is secondary. We call this “value engineering,” and we do it every day. In fact, we do it many times every day.

Case in point: Local building codes for Pittsburgh storage facilities require a two-tier water fountain for ADA-compliance. Water fountains aren’t cheap and, based on our experience, aren’t used that much anymore in the age of people carrying their own water bottles. But building codes have not caught up with that fact, so we went on the hunt.

New water fountains cost $800 or more. We did a local search on Craigslist but didn’t find anything in the Pittsburgh area. We went national and used the online website Search Tempest and found one in North Carolina for half the price. A long way from Pittsburgh, but right along the way if driving to Florida for spring break. Timing is everything!

New Technology

The author with his iPhone, standing in front of storefront, which was partially funded by a grant from the city. Just because your building is more than a century old, it doesn’t mean you can’t embrace new technology. Our team makes heavy use of the iPhone every day. Video conferencing, customer-video testimonials, remote-security camera feeds, and remote garage-door opening are all enabled by our team’s iPhones.

In addition, our lighting incorporates the latest technologies. Super-efficient lights use little energy and motion-sensors switch lights off when you leave, eliminating unnecessary energy use. Also, we’re planning to go completely paperless. The contracting process will soon be all done online through our Web portal. Tenants can select a locker, complete their application and pay for their locker online. Tenants regularly compliment us on the efficiency and sophistication of our operation.

A Final Note

In retrospect, we were very lucky. If you’ve ever done a restoration, you know renovations of older homes are often twice the price of new construction. We had the same concerns when we approached this project. But we worked the details day in and day out. Every decision was scrutinized, agonized and socialized. Every dollar was optimized to ensure the highest return.

Virtually every evening was filled with conference calls among the partners, reviewing the previous day’s events and planning for the next. Sure, we were lucky. But luck favors the prepared, and we were very well prepared.

To read more about the use of technology in operating City Center Self Storage and how you can do the same in running your own facility, click here .

Nick Lackner is the founder and general manager of City Center Self Storage in Pittsburgh. To reach him, e-mail For more information, visit .

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