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Self-Storage Manager Career Advice From an Industry Insider

Movin’ on Up: Self-Storage Manager Career Advice From an Industry Insider

Whether you’re just starting your self-storage career or looking to transition into a better position, there are specific traits you should possess and skills to master. An industry insider who’s worked her way up the ranks offers her advice.

Fourteen years ago, my husband and I were broke. We had four kids, lived paycheck to paycheck, could barely pay our rent and often wondered where our next meal was coming from. The recession was beginning, and times were tough. There were no opportunities, and housing in Nashville, Tenn., was expensive and in demand.

One morning, out of the middle of nowhere, my husband called and said we had an opportunity. A couple weeks later, we found ourselves moved into a storage facility as the new resident managers. The position included a home, electricity, water and Internet. We thought we hit the lottery. We were “trained” for one day, thrown the keys and wished good luck.

Fast forward to 2020 and I’m still in the storage business. I transitioned from property manager to district manager to senior vice president of operations to owner of my own company. I was named the “Manager of the Year” by the Tennessee Self Storage Association in 2012 and became association president this year. I’ve traveled all over the country talking about self-storage and have been published several times in industry trade magazines.

How did I get here? I often ask myself the same question. Let me take you on a walk down memory lane and share some advice that could help you, too, find great professional success in self-storage industry management.

The Early Days

As a little girl, I didn’t have dreams of working in the self-storage industry, but I quickly fell in love with it. I loved our tenants! I loved marketing. I loved collecting money. At our first job, my husband and I even planted flowers and mowed the grass. We did everything, from knocking on business doors to hosting facility events. We joined the chamber of commerce and quickly became involved in our community. I wore my name tag everywhere we went and became known as the “Storage Lady” in my hometown. Here are some other things I did:

  • I thrived on bringing delinquency down and rentals up. I learned how to read reports and set goals—monthly, quarterly and annual—and made the numbers every time.
  • I became a master at mystery shopping. If I scored less than a 95, I was upset.
  • I designed websites and newsletters, and developed relationships with industry vendors.
  • I developed daily procedures, call scripts and operating standards.
  • I worked six days a week and every holiday and cleaned the office on my day off. I took care of customers at 10 p.m., on Sundays and after hours. I didn’t take a vacation or have a day off for two solid years!
  • I learned how to operate a truck-rental profit center, and designed graphics for our own truck.
  • I read every article I could get my hands on in print and online.
  • I joined the online industry community Self-Storage Talk and found a new family there!

After what I call my four years of “Storage College,” I started looking for something else. I’d never received a raise and nor any additional benefits. Nothing. I was tired and feeling severely under appreciated. I knew I had talent and could be an asset to someone else.

I’d been “stalking” A+ Storage of Tennessee for two years, and that was where I wanted to go. With what was, in my mind, a very impressive résumé, I interviewed and felt very confident. And I got the job! I was thrilled. Obviously, the company is fantastic. This is my 10th year with A+ and it’s been quite a ride!

I can’t begin to share everything I’ve learned in this article. I should write a book! But I can share my tips on how you can find your own success story.

What You Need

To move up in the storage industry, there are specific traits you should possess and skills you should master. Hone these and you’ll see your career advance:

  • You must be able to work independently, with little supervision.
  • You must be goal-driven. Set goals and accomplish them, even if they’re small.
  • Present solutions, not just problems. What would you do to fix the situation?
  • Audit yourself daily and be accountable.
  • Be honest and dependable.
  • Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. A facility requires upkeep, and there’s a lot of cleaning involved.
  • You must be able to create an outstanding customer experience.
  • You’ll need knowledge in basic accounting, Microsoft applications, social media and typing.
  • You must have strong sales skills.

Industry Education

When looking for a position, take the time to read about the industry and any company to which you apply. Learn the questions to ask. Does the position have benefits such as health insurance? Is there a chance for growth? What’s the dress code?

When completing an application, follow the instructions and tell the employer about yourself. Stress your career successes. Let them know why you’re the perfect hire.

Though you don’t need a master’s degree to excel in the self-storage industry, furthering your education, earning certifications and self-learning will impress employers. Consider the following:

  • Join your state self-storage association.
  • Join Self-Storage Talk, the industry’s largest online community. (It’s free!)
  • Subscribe to the industry trade magazines, such as “Inside Self-Storage (ISS).”
  • Subscribe to industry newsletters and read self-storage blogs.
  • Watch industry webinars through ISS and other industry providers.
  • Share industry articles that have impressed or helped you.
  • Attend seminars and workshops at local or national industry events.
  • Pursue designations such as “Certified Self Storage Manager” from the Self Storage Association.
  • Pursue software certifications such as SiteLink Certified Professional.

Things have changed tremendously in this business over the years, and you can never learn enough. Industry-specific education will especially impress potential employers.

Communication Is Key

Believe me when I tell you that your owner or supervisor wants you to succeed. Your success is their success. If you’re feeling overwhelmed or unappreciated or you simply want to climb higher, make it known. Schedule time to talk. Don’t get looked over because your supervisor didn’t know you were interested in a change.

Sadly, most owners don’t communicate their goals for the property other than having you send reports. Get to know your owner. Ask him why he got into the business, what he wants to accomplish and how he wants to do it. Share with him your ideas on how he can achieve these goals and what you can do to help. If you ask for something and he says no, ask him to explain to you what ideas he has and work from there.

If you have an owner or supervisor who simply refuses to communicate, try saying, “I really want to do a good job for you, so I need this information in order to do that.” Stay involved and continue to check in even if it’s a simple e-mail briefly stating what’s been done to accomplish the task at hand. For example, you might write, “Dear Boss, I know delinquent accounts are a goal we are working on and I wanted to let you know that Mrs. Smith paid $600 today.”

Finally, never bad-mouth your boss, especially to co-workers. Gossiping and negative talk can come back around and hurt your career. Plus, it’s just mean-spirited!

Obstacles Ahead

No one likes to admit their inadequacies, but we all have them. You might think that by constantly bringing issues to your supervisor you’re keeping him informed; however, he may simply see you as a constant complainer. Instead of the daily e-mails or phone calls, create a Google doc you can share with your supervisor and list any issues, then update it as they’re resolved.

Also, be careful how you come across in e-mails and text messages. There’s no inflection of speech in text and it can be misconstrued. Use all capital letters and exclamation points carefully. All caps are generally interpreted as the sender is SCREAMING AT ME! Here are some more pointers:

  • Fear of failure: Winston Churchill said, “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” Don’t let fear of failure keep you from trying!
  • Lack of consistency: In our business, there are day-to-day tasks that must be done. By doing them consistently, you create habit. By creating habit, you keep track of things that are imperative to your business. This is especially important if you become a supervisor and need to pass on a behavior that’s critical to staff success.
  • Procrastination: This one is easy to fall into. I don’t feel like calling my delinquent tenants today. The property check can wait one day. The phone is ringing, let the call center get it. Take tasks at hand first thing. By keeping yourself busy, you don’t have time to fall into procrastination. If you truly have everything done, read industry articles online. Find success stories. Stay inspired. Write an article about your experience in the business or a funny story about a tenant. Do one little thing that’ll help you achieve your goals.

When It’s Time for a Change

Making the decision to move on from your job is extremely hard. There are many things to consider. At one point, I thought about leaving the industry altogether. That was 10 years ago. What would I have missed if I’d made that decision? If you’re goal-driven and want to have a true career in self-storage, here are five signs that it’s time to find a new employer:

  • There’s talk that your facility might be sold. Sudden visits from appraisers, real estate investment brokers, photographers, investors or upper management could be a sign the facility is going up for sale. You might be tempted to stick it out and hope the new owner will keep you on, however, this isn’t the case most of the time.
  • There’s no room for advancement. You’re a facility manager with bigger dreams but there’s nothing available in your small operation and never will be. This may be the time to check out bigger operators with more than one facility.
  • You know more than your boss. This doesn’t have to be an owner; it also applies to district or regional managers. If you can’t trust your company’s leadership, you’ll be living in a constant state of anxiety.
  • You dread going to work every day. If this feeling lasts for months on end, it’s time to move on. As an employer, I don’t want my employees to hate their job. I would much rather work with you as you transition, and we transition.
  • You’ve lost your passion. If you find yourself not excited about your job, it may be time to leave. Indifference isn’t good for you or the company. If you think no one’s noticing, trust me, they are. I watched a powerful manager fall into this about three years in. He just wasn’t happy anymore and his numbers reflected it. It was doing no one any good for him to stay.

If you have a passion to grow and climb the ladder in the self-storage industry, you can do it! If you feel that where you are isn’t your destination, put your feelers out there and see what opportunities are available. Make sure you choose the right company that’s a fit for you. If you are new in this business, keep working hard and learn everything you can about daily operations.

Stephanie Tharpe is founder and president of A+ Management Group LP, which oversees locations in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas. She’s also senior vice president of A+ Storage of Tennessee LLC, which operates five facilities in Florida and Tennessee. Together, the companies are developing six new sites. Stephanie has been a featured speaker, roundtable host and operations panelist at several national and state association conferences over the last seven years. For more information, e-mail stharpe@aplustorage.com; visit www.aplustorage.com.

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