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My Journey From Self-Storage Manager to Owner: Why and How I Did It

There are many self-storage managers who’d like to become facility owners themselves but aren’t sure how to accomplish it. The author shares his journey, including how he made the leap, and offers guidance to help you advance your own career.

Alex Braun II

April 7, 2023

6 Min Read
My Journey From Self-Storage Manager to Owner

I’ve been in the self-storage industry for 20-plus years. In that time, I’ve grown from a property manager to an owner in my own right. The journey wasn’t intentional from the start, but it evolved as I learned more about this best-kept secret in commercial real estate.

It started when I was in my early 20s, living on my own as I worked my way through college. I was struggling with how to balance work, school and social life when I received some helpful advice: “Find a job that includes living arrangements so paying the rent isn’t the top priority. That way you can reprioritize school and long-term goals rather than the day-to-day and month-to-month. Look into becoming an apartment or a self-storage manager. They have residences, so you can work and live at the same place.”

I thought storage? I knew nothing about this industry. When I looked into it, I mostly found retired couples sitting behind a desk collecting rent. (Keep in mind this was in the early 2000s, and there were several “mom and pop” facilities in my area.)

I soon came across an ad for a manager position in the newspaper. I got the job and started working at a family-owned operation in San Leandro, California. I was, in fact, taking over for a retired couple. The husband had recently died, and the owners thought it was a good time to transition to a new business model, one more strategic and sales-oriented. I had some sales and management experience, so I was able to enter this multi-billion-dollar industry. It created a path of growth and development I never imagined.

Take Initiative

Initiative played an integral role in my advancement through many levels of self-storage employment, from assistant manager to resident manager, general manager to district manager, and director of operations to ownership. When you take initiative, there’s no guarantee that it’ll pay off; but, if you don’t, you’ll definitely miss opportunities. For me, some of the best decisions I made along my journey were:

  • Assisting with the opening a new facility. When the business expanded, I was the first to put myself out there. This allowed me to show the company what I could really do.

  • Pursuing education. Finishing my college degrees made me a more productive asset, which increased my value and leverage.

  • Networking. Connecting with others in the industry opened doors for me. It also allowed me to take my existing relationships to a new level.

  • Investing sweat equity. The owners for whom I worked gave me a chance learn from them and earn my way into ownership, but I had to prove my worth and show how it would be a win/win for both parties for me to transition from employee to partner.

Take Advantage of Opportunity

Storage operation isn’t like high-paced retail. It’s easy to get stuck at a certain level of employment. However, within obstacles is where you can find opportunities.

Self-storage offers flexibility you don’t often have when working at other jobs. For example, because my facility was open seven days per week, I was able to take my two days off during the standard work week. That meant I could take college courses and finish my bachelor’s degree. Working daytime shifts allowed me to take night courses toward my master’s degree.

Plus, whenever I had downtime on the job, I used it to perfect my craft. Many self-storage managers simply bide their time, but if you’re willing to take advantage of it in more productive ways, you can use it to position yourself for advancement.

In fact, learning the many facets of the self-storage industry can take you far. Dig into finance, development, acquisitions, operations, etc. Take the time to learn everything you can about the business.

It wasn’t until I truly understood the ins and outs of the industry that I knew I wanted to find my way into ownership. The beauty of selling people space appealed to me, especially once I realized it came with low overhead, minimal labor, a real estate component and the lowest default rate among asset classes. Plus, the resiliency is amazing when compared to other industries. Whether times are good or bad, people need a place to put their stuff, and they usually store it for longer than planned. When you’re looking at the essence of a business model, it doesn’t get simpler or better than that.

Get Out There and Connect

The saying stands true: “It isn’t what you know, it’s who you know.” You can be the best at what you do, but sometimes someone has to give you a chance. The trick is getting active and connecting with people in the self-storage industry. In the past, this mostly happened at conferences and tradeshows, but social media, webinars, podcasts and online networks have opened entirely new avenues you can use to build a network and make a name for yourself.

Also, having mentors can be essential to learning, avoiding mistakes and being at the right place at the right time. Try to surround yourself with others who are further along in their self-storage career journey, especially those who are where you want to be. Ask how they got there. Learn from their accomplishments and mistakes.

Consistently engage yourself. Make it a routine, and you’ll be able to position yourself for future opportunities. If you’re constantly improving and connecting, you’ll be able to build and understand your value. This industry has always thrived on rockstar managers who are great at what they do. Find out what it means to be one and strive to meet those criteria. This’ll give you leverage for advancement.

Lean on your mentors and understand the importance of timing. Things don’t happen overnight. Know where you want to go, put yourself in position to get there, then patiently go through the process and understand the business cycle. If it takes a degree or a certification, achieve it. If it’s certain experience you need, find out what it takes to get it. If it’s finances holding you back, find ways to secure funds.

I know these things are easier said than done, but it’s about positioning yourself correctly and putting in the work. It also helps to have a little bit of luck, but I believe luck can be created. It’s where preparation meets opportunity. So, be ready to jump through those windows when they open.

One of the biggest obstacles I faced was being able to get my foot in the door financially. Storage projects cost millions of dollars, and that’s difficult to manage when you’re working on a salary. I focused on establishing good credit, lowering my debt/liabilities and building cash reserves. I also focused on education and establishing relationships with those who could give me a chance. Then I leveraged all those advantages to negotiate sweat equity while using my cash to bet on myself. It started off small, but with each project, I was able to gain larger amounts of equity.

If you build your value in self-storage, others will bet on you, too. If I was able to do it, I know others can. Hopefully, my journey sparked some ideas to put you on the path to where you want to be in this great industry!

Alex Braun II is director of operations for Hawaii & San Francisco Development Co. He’s managed, operated and developed startup and existing self-storage, RV/boat storage and portable-storage businesses for more than 20 years. He specializes in sales and marketing, employee development, and new-program implementation. To reach him, email [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Alex Braun II

Hawaii & San Francisco Development Co., Director of Operations

Alex Braun II is director of operations for Hawaii & San Francisco Development Co. He’s managed, operated and developed startup and existing self-storage, RV/boat storage and portable-storage businesses for more than 20 years. He specializes in sales and marketing, employee development, and new-program implementation. To reach him, email [email protected].

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