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Reflections on the Storage Industry: Economics, Commitments, Patriotism and More

September 13, 2008

6 Min Read
Reflections on the Storage Industry: Economics, Commitments, Patriotism and More

The song “Tomorrow” from the musical Annie is a fitting theme song for the situation many self-storage owners are in right now. Several factors are contributing to the negative national economy: rising unemployment, the mortgage crisis and abundance of foreclosures, home-value meltdowns, and inflated oil/gasoline prices. Hopefully, your micro-market is still chugging along and operating results have remained solid. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for many facilities with occupancies off 20 percent or more from historical levels.

During my 20-plus years in this industry, I have been guilty of being an optimist as well as an idealist regarding the future of self-storage. Despite all the doom and gloom, I still strongly believe self-storage is one of the finest entrepreneurial opportunities available in the United States and world. The new normal may no longer be 95 percent occupancies with 5 percent to 10 percent annual rent increases, but our investment returns will improve and our industry will remain strong.

Yes, we may have to adjust expectations and budgets, but in the end, we still enjoy one of the best investment returns in all of real estate. If you view your site as a retail business, you’re probably still benefiting from the best gross revenue-to-payroll ratio of any business, except maybe loan sharking.

My encouragement to “hang on ’til tomorrow” comes as a challenge to owners and managers alike. The mantra for marketing is no longer “ready, aim, fire!” Instead, it must be, “ready, aim, fire, review the results, re-aim and fire again.” Honestly ask yourself:

  • Why don’t all my employees have business cards?

  • Why have I been running the same Yellow Pages ad for the last four years?

  • Why has the brochure (if you have one at all) been reduced to a black-and-white copy of the color brochure printed for our grand opening?

Things will improve. Telephone volume will build. Occupancies will increase. Rates will rise. Tomorrow will come. However, make sure when it does, you have done everything necessary to be ready to rumble.

Making a List, Checking It Twice

I'm a big believer in making lists and then following them to completion. When you commit things to a list and responsibilities are conveyed to everyone, the subjective measurement of importance is eliminated. At the end of a shift, either an item has been completed and checked off the list or it is yet to be done.

Many owners are blessed with team members who’ve been with them for a long time. Unfortunately, sometimes people can become a bit lazy. They may work on a “when I get around to it” mindset, or maybe things happen because “that’s always the way we’ve done it.”

Not everything in our day-to-day operations—like cleaning up the grounds or pulling out the weeds—can be converted into a simple checkmark. Plus, one person’s idea of clean and complete may not be the same as another’s.

Creating a list forces you, as the owner or lead manager, to justify why an item is on the list at all. The frequency of the task should be seriously considered, not applied randomly by slipping it into the daily, weekly or monthly column. Make sure all staff members understand the importance of each item so they can appreciate the responsibility involved in completing it. Never give the reason: “Because I say so and I sign your check.” It’s a bad answer and surefire way to spoil relations with employees.

Lists also eliminate the “I’m not a mind-reader” response from employees when you ask why specific things have not been accomplished. Jointly developing an operational checklist, with the entire management team having input, produces an attitude that this is “Our List of Things to Be Accomplished” instead of the “Boss’ List of Things We Need to Do.” The approach and final product are much better when you work as a team.

Proud To Be an American

“Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land ... God bless the U.S.A.” These words of composer Lee Greenwood put into simple perspective the sentiments of most Americans no matter what their politics. So please remember our service members when working on delinquencies and auction processing. Is it possible a tenant is currently severing in the U.S. Military or National Guard? Don’t end up being the facility on TV news because you auctioned off the belongings of military person overseas.

Also, remember our veterans when hiring. They may lack some of the traditional sales skills desired, but there is no replacement for loyalty and a sense of duty to one’s country.

You can also look for ways to tell our troops that we support them. Maybe you can work with a group like Marine Moms or other organizations focused on providing care packages to service members stationed around the world. Offer a unit for a “package-packing party” or become a drop-off site for area residents who want to show their support in a practical way with product donations. The methods by which you can assist our military are only limited by your own imagination. Put your thinking hat on and let me know what you are doing.

The Passing of NBC’s Tim Russert

Just as I was finishing this column, the world mourned the sudden passing of Tim Russert. At only 58, his death, caused by a heart attack while at work, has left a major void in our nation’s TV news industry.

A native of Buffalo, N.Y., like me, Tim never forgot his roots. He will be remembered not only for his journalism excellence in political reporting, but as the longest serving host on Sunday morning’s “Meet The Press.”

There are three transcendent themes in Tim’s life from which we can all learn. First, he was always fully prepared for his show and interviews. He was tireless in his research and fully primed before the cameras began rolling. Can we claim that same preparation for our own jobs every day?

The second was his love and devotion to his wife and son, his immediate family and co-workers, whom he considered his extended family. His two family focused books Big Russ and Me and Wisdom of Our Fathers were both New York Times bestsellers. In a tough, often cynical and jaded business, his prioritization of family was still hallmark.

Third, Tim was a committed man of faith. Not “wearing it on his sleeve” or egotistically as a badge of honor, he quietly practiced Catholicism and honored his faith in how he lived his life. Being a living example of one’s faith can be the most effective ministry of all.

“Meet The Press” and NBC News will go on without him, but he will never be truly replaced. We have lost one of the nation’s finest journalists, husband, father, brother and son. His life has truly touched the entire world.

Jim Chiswell is the owner of Chiswell & Associates LLC, which has provided feasibility studies, acquisition due diligence and customized manager training for the self-storage industry since 1990. He is a member of the Inside Self-Storage Editorial Advisory Board, a moderator for the Self-Storage Talk online community, and a faculty member of the Self-Storage Training Institute. He can be reached at 434.589.4446; visit www.selfstorageconsulting.com.

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