Assembling a Team of Winners to Play the Self-Storage Development Game

Assembling a self-storage development team isn’t much different than putting together a winning sports lineup. Follow these tips to create a team that’s built for project success.

Benjamin Burkhart, Owner

October 16, 2018

6 Min Read
Assembling a Team of Winners to Play the Self-Storage Development Game

My boys play baseball. This summer I spent time in Cooperstown, N.Y., watching them compete in tournaments involving 104 teams from across the country. Some teams really stood out, not only because of their talent but also their organization. While one pitcher tried to get the ball across the plate consistently, others shifted their defense based on the type of pitch selected. Turning a double play was tough for some teams but routine for others. Some struggled to get the bat on the ball, while others hit everything deep.

Watching well-oiled machines play the “Bad News Bears” reminded me of what I see every day in the world of self-storage development. In fact, assembling a development team isn’t much different than piecing together a winning sports lineup. In self-storage as in baseball, the best teams are always well-managed, focused, disciplined and full of talent.

Be the Manager

In baseball, the manager assembles and directs talent; he doesn’t swing the bat. He’s responsible for the result. Similarly, as a self-storage developer, you don’t have to be a soils, construction or market expert to build a successful project. You just have to hire the right people for the job and move them toward the end goal of generating strong profit and return.

“Getting the right development team in place is critical for success,” says Mike Gillikin, vice president of sales and business development for Imperial Design Builders Inc. in Fuquay-Varina, N.C. “Gathering input from consultants, engineers, architects, management company and owner helps us value-engineer the right project. That ultimately translates to better return on investment.”

Surround Yourself With Talent

So, who belongs on the team? Before you start designing your project, here are a few professionals who can help:

  • A real estate attorney can help you navigate all sorts of contract and zoning issues.

  • An accountant can set up your business efficiently.

  • Soil and environmental scientists can assist in the early concept phases to determine if your site is suitable for development without expensive mitigation strategies.

  • Market and feasibility consultants must be fully willing to tell you the truth, especially when you don’t want to hear it.

  • A third-party management company can add an important voice. It’s useful to engage the company that will ultimately operate the property to gain its blessing on unit mix, signage, office layout and other important items. Such a firm can often provide a detailed list of its required specifications, which should be incorporated into your overall plan.

Next, your design team will create a “playbook” for construction. Stores built today look and function differently from those constructed even just 10 years ago. You need to employ architects, engineers and other professionals who understand the key elements of self-storage and can navigate the local entitlement landscape.

“Owners are getting the architect/engineer team involved earlier and earlier in the process to ensure we deliver the best designs and plans from concept to permitting,” says Tim Kurmaskie, president of Raleigh, N.C.-based Architect Kurmaskie Associates Inc. “Building the best end product requires adjusting to ever-changing state building codes, designing to market demands, and value-engineering individual designs to keep things in budget in this robust construction environment.”

Architects with significant self-storage experience will save you time and money. Those who’ve designed modern facilities understand the importance of state-of-the-art design, which includes curb appeal, comfortable building and elevator access, signage, lighting, security, and management controls. If you hire someone without that requisite experience, you may end up with a weaker product in a competitive market.

Local engineers understand the political and/or administrative landscape of their “home turf.” While any site engineer may be able to work with grades and develop construction drawings, it’s good to have a local guy on the team when it comes to dealing with staff personalities, approval boards, zoning questions and variances. Your site engineer should also be able to coordinate key activities from beginning to end, from survey and soil tests to as-built certifications.

Perhaps you have architects and engineers you’ve worked with on other projects, people already on your team who may have zero self-storage experience. You can fill the knowledge gaps by adding people to your design process who understand the correct specs and requirements of modern facilities.

“The design process requires input from local design professionals who understand the entitlement process intuitively, and self storage professionals who understand the latest and greatest design trends and market-specific demands,” notes Eric Thompson, director of business development for Atlanta-based ARCO/Murray Design Build Inc. “We rely on a big team of people doing it every day to deliver the best project efficiently.”

Trust Your Advisers

I once worked with a self-storage owner who became irate when I told him his development plan was too ambitious. He argued, saying I didn’t understand his five-mile market of 10,000 people. He believed population growth alone would support his 100,000-square-foot storage project, even though rents were too low and growth wasn’t guaranteed. Still, he repeatedly challenged my analysis. He took my recommendation to build a maximum of 20,000 square feet as an insult, even though the numbers didn’t support his vision for the property.

A willingness to hear the truth is essential for any real estate developer, novice or seasoned. Your development team should include advisers who can serve as the guardrails for your ideas. Trust them to guide you. That’s why you’re paying them!

Know What You Don’t Know

The biggest mistake a self-storage developer can make is being unwilling to say, “Somebody knows better.” Too often, I’ve had an experienced developer or general contractor (GC) with a long, successful track record in building other things—roads, houses, apartments, medical offices, etc.—tell me, “I can save a lot of money because I can build it myself.” For example, an experienced GC recently told me he could build his own self-storage project for $17 per square foot. No way. Start around $45 per square foot—maybe! You may be brilliant and experienced, with lots of money, but when it comes to development and construction, it’s tough to beat someone at his own game.

When your design team develops the most efficient plan with the best unit mix and overall schematic, you have the blueprints for success. A GC or design-builder can value-engineer those plans to deliver the most efficient construction process and, ultimately, the most profitable investment. While self-storage isn’t rocket science, it has its own nuances. Work with builders who know and understand the industry, who can deliver projects on time and within budget.

Your design team should assist even after your builder takes control of the project. Architects are trained to “check” actual installation through construction-administration services. Typically, local site engineers are the ones who’ll help the builder during construction with any small field adjustments or on-the-fly value-engineering. Other third-party inspectors should ensure your project is delivered as designed.

Listen: Not every project is a home run. But if you manage it well, stay focused and disciplined and assemble the right talent, you’ll have a winner.

Benjamin Burkhart is owner of, which provides feasibility studies and development consulting to self-storage developers and owners nationwide. He can be reached at 804.598.8742 or [email protected]

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