I can’t tell you how many people have told me about their dream of starting a storage business. My quest began, many years ago, when I was about to graduate from college. During exit counseling, I described to my counselor how my dream was to be in business for myself. After all, my father had his own successful restaurant. I was fascinated to hear about his stories and the day’s events each night at dinner.
Little did I know at the time, choosing the right business, designing the buildings and being actively involved in day-to-day operations is all easier said than done. It takes discipline, lots of cash and a sustained determination to overcome any roadblock that comes up.
One of the key ingredients in the development of any business is having the liquid resource commensurate with the type of business one wishes to enter. Many opportunities will come your way when you are looking.
My prerequisites for choosing a business were:
- The business had to have the potential to provide a sustained profit.
- I had to be passionate about storage business.
- A basic public demand or need for the products and services to be offered had to be confirmed to exist.
- The type of business had to be one where not just anyone could overcome the financial hurdles to entry.
Work experience inside the industry is a necessity before entering any business venture. You will not make it past first base with a banker without out the proper knowledge of the business you look to enter. Our training first came by way of Public Storage. My partner and wife, Linda, took on the task by working nights and weekends for Public Storage. Linda gave here all by being a meticulous manager and motivated sales associate. Learning from the best in the industry was our next goal.
Linda accepted an offer providing relief management for Universal Management who, arguably, has some of the best practices in self storage management in the industry. Universal had, at the time, approximately 20 properties under management in the Atlanta area. The properties were varied – good, bad and ugly. There were properties of all types and all personalities. The managers of each property had their own unique management style. We learned from the best.
One day the leader, at the time, in the self storage industry offered Linda an opportunity to manage a new property still under construction. We both learned a great deal about design and operations from SurGuard. One day I came to pick up Linda for Lunch. She mentioned how the builder who had built the self-storage property was cleaning out his storage room and throwing everything in the dumpster. I thought to myself immediately that I had to dive that dumpster before the trash man arrived. Upon inspection of the contents of the dumpster, I could see constructions plans and architectural design standards manuals. I had hit the jackpot. I retrieved these items and more that later proved very valuable by saving many thousands of dollars in professional fees. I will always be grateful to that builder who, at the time, worked for a company called Rib Roof.
Here is a perfect example of how day dreams turn into reality. One day while traveling I noticed a truck traveling past me in the same direction. It was hauling a big box I later found identified as an intermodal container. I thought to myself, hum, if I could figure out how to deliver a small container into someone’s driveway then that could be the basis for a revolutionary new business concept for moving and storage in one step. The beauty of it was that you could have hundreds of storage containers and need only one truck!
During my quest to investigate portable storage regulation by way of zoning came up on me like a roadblock. I back tracked a bit before I found out about a similar concept called self storage where there was already a thriving industry that existed. I found out about an industry conference being held in Nashville, TN and went to it with Linda. Here my eyes were opened to a thriving industry where it was evident that a basic need was confirmed to exist – people store lots of stuff. Linda and I looked at quick ways to enter into the business. One was through franchising. We both felt too independent to operate under the control of others. What’s more, no one at the time had a dominant brand in the market. The industry was, at the time, made up of mom and pop owner/operators.
Being big on ideas and short on cash seemed to always be my motto. I soon realized that it was all relative. If you are willing to make certain adjustments, the cash component can be tilted in your favor. We both decided that if we were going to overcome the cost of land, which was a hurdle in the Atlanta area, we would need to look at secondary markets.
I remembered Camden County and the slow but steady development I had seen each year while traveling to and from Cumberland Island. It is easy to spot growth when you visit once a year.
Somehow I was introduced to “Lion” Jimmy McCollum, a well-known local resident of Kingsland, GA. Jimmy turned out to be the most well versed business man in the county. He showed me a site followed by several others. The first site was it, I knew it. It had the famous three L’s (location, location, location). The site was situated on the busiest four lane road in the county. Was situated between two cities (Kingsland & St. Marys) and only two miles from Kings Bay Naval Base. The size was 13 acres, a bit more than needed but that was ok. We could afford all 13 acres. We made an offer to the owner, RayLand which was a subsidiary of Rayonier. They accepted and we were the proud owners of 13 acres free and clear. The site was raw land and, in the past, used to grow pine trees. It had wetland challenges I became familiar with but nothing that a little perseverance and money could not cure.
In March of 1999, we opened for business. Leading up to opening day, Linda and I had endured threats from indigenous locals in similar businesses and heavy handed local politicians set on making it difficult for outsiders to do business within the “Good Old Boy Network”. Moreover, we were innovators at the time by bringing an un tested product called climate controlled storage to a market where there was none. Comments from the locals were “it will never work” and “nobody will pay for climate controlled storage” and “no one will travel an extra two miles to store our site”. Little did our competitors and others know – we had one our homework. We were intents on building the best facility in Camden County and we did just that.
We filled our rental units within eight months and built many more and filled them. We developed the first and, to this day, only portable storage operations. We grew and the completion sold out. More competitors entered the market as copycats. We expanded further acquiring the old 84 Lumber location primarily for its size and existing structures. We remodeled and redesigned it into a Class A storage facility. As I walked through the property before renovations started with my banker, I will never forget what he said. He said, Jim, after all that you have said about how you will develop your business here, I can see your vision. We are going to do your loan. I was ecstatic! We remodeled and redesigned the former lumber yard into a facility with over 70,000 sq. ft. of storage. It has become a resounding success but not without discipline and patience. You see, we purchased the property in 2009 about the time financial markets were crashing. There were lots of sleepless nights and hand ringing but the decision was made to move forward. We did and worked hard to make things a success.
To be successful, over time, I’ve found that you must be:
- Consistent and offer a quality product and service.
- Diversify but stay focused on your core business. Recessions do occur unexpectedly.
- Innovate with products and services where a basic public need exists and not just anyone is able to offer the same product.
In large part, our success is based on these three principals and hard work by my wife, my son and me. It’s a true family business.