2017 Manager Of The Year: Ambitious Aces

Posted by Erica Shatzer on May 27, 2017 12:00:00 AM

On a daily basis, self-storage managers have a full deck of duties on their hands. From customer service and facility maintenance to landscaping and marketing—and everything in between—there’s a never-ending stream of tasks to complete in order to compete with the steadily increasing competition.

While many managers find ways to prioritize their responsibilities and create efficiencies to produce quality results, few are able to master all aspects of the self-storage game, especially in a short period of time.

However, through this year’s stack of entries for our annual Manager of the Year contest, we were dealt three winning property managers, all of whom turned their facilities around and became storage champions in less than four years!   

Winner: Joni Schaefer

The 2017 Manager of the Year, Joni Schaefer, became a self-storage property manager and co-owner two years ago. Prior to self-storage, Joni served as a civil servant for the Air Force for 20 years before spending 13 years making real estate investments by flipping rental properties. Her previous work experience gave her the knowledge to recognize that, with a good dose of elbow grease and determination, Carbondale Self Storage in Carbondale, Ill., would be a good bet.

With no previous self-storage experience, Joni joined the Illinois Self Storage Association for guidance. She wanted to learn as much as possible from other people’s mistakes and successes. She was later voted onto the associations board of directors.

In 2015, when Joni and her husband purchased the facility, it was called Stor-N-Lok, and it was inundated with issues. In fact, when asked about her first impression of the property, she replies, “I probably would have been petrified without previous experience, but I saw potential despite the neglect.”

For starters, the landscaping had begun to emulate an urban jungle—so overgrown with towering weeds and thick brush that the facility’s sign was no longer visible. It was an eyesore that made passers-by uneasy to the point that they’d cross the street to avoid walking alongside the property. Therefore, removing the unwanted vegetation was Joni’s initial priority. “I first cleared out the brush to make it look like someone cared,” she says.

After clearing the site of overgrowth and trash, Joni had to tackle the severely disheveled office. “There was no heat or AC in the office, the water to the office had been off for years because of a burst pipe,” says Donn Schaefer, co-owner of Carbondale Self Storage. “The office was crammed full of junk and also had roaches and fleas.” In addition, according to the electric company, which had to do some troubleshooting at the property, there were lights that hadn’t been on in three years.

Once the urgent items were fixed, Joni had other pressing issues to handle: homeless and non-paying tenants. She researched the local self-storage laws and cited them when informing the live-in tenants that they needed to vacate their units. “I made them aware of Illinois’ laws,” she says, “and re-educate them that this was a service they had to pay for.”

Joni also had a new rental agreement drafted, and then she obtained updated signatures and updated contact information for each tenant. This helped her figure out who was renting what. “There was no software in place,” she recalls. “It took a long time to sort out.” This way due to the fact that the previous owner has simply utilized a corkboard and index cards for tracking tenants. While attempting to make sense of the disorganization, Joni researched, selected, and implemented a property management system for the facility and discarded the “paper system”.

Shortly after getting those issues sorted out, Joni arranged an auction to evict the delinquent tenants who were unable or unwilling to pay. “It was 100 percent occupied,” she says, “but only half were paying.” However, Donn notes that occupancy is now in the high 90s. Now, thanks to auto-pay, online payments, and a local bank accepting payments, all of which Joni set up, there are few delinquencies and some of the facility’s original tenants remain.

As tenants move-out and units were auctioned off, Joni cleaned them and sprayed them for pests. “One by one, as money came into the facility, she would make a major repair or clean up a portion of the facility,” says Donn. Joni, who calls herself a to-do list person with a keen ability to prioritize projects, has replaced signage and a roof, repaired doors, and painted the office’s exterior and the manager’s apartment, which a college student rents—all while operating on “a shoestring budget”. She also plans to spruce up the office by adding a retail display area stocked with all the moving and storing necessities.

Although the facility improvements helped bring in new tenants, Joni implemented strategic marketing tactics to bring about a full house. She sent out postcards to residents of the neighborhood and created referral flyers with pull-off tabs. The referral program awards tenants and apartment complex managers $25 for each new referral. Joni also networks with real estate agents and fosters business-to-business relationships. In addition, she has been responsible for the facility’s website and search engine optimization (SEO). To boost the facility’s search engine ranking, Joni added key words such as sheds and lockers to the SEO efforts. She also changed the facility’s name to include the location and product—a common search term approach used by potential customers who are looking for self-storage. Last but not least, Joni is donating a month of storage to a local gala’s silent auction and planning several other community outreach initiatives such as sponsoring a little league team, organizing a community charity walk, and hosting practical problem-solving opportunities for high school students with an interest in business management.

At the end of the day, the tenants are the reason Joni loves her job as a self-storage manager. “Interacting with different people and learning about their lives is my favorite part of the job,” she says, adding that she’s a lot like her dad in that he “never met a stranger”.

Of course, this makes having to auction off units a difficult part of the job. “You have to do it, but it saddens me that people are struggling in their lives,” says Joni, who advises self-storage managers to treat their customers like people and to enjoy them. “Don’t treat them like a number.”

With all she’s accomplished at Carbondale Self Storage in the past two years, it’s safe to say that, like a royal flush, you can’t get a much better manager than Joni!

First Runner-Up: Chris Rhodes

Our first runner-up, Chris Rhodes, has been the manager of All American Self Storage 35th Street in Tuscaloosa, Ala., since June 2013. During the past four years, he has been—quite literally—putting out fires for the facility.

In September of 2015, Rhodes received an early morning phone call from a friend asking about the property he manages. That call was immediately followed by a call from the local fire department, notifying him that a smoke alarm in one of the climate-controlled buildings had been triggered. The 136-unit building had 91 occupied units. Although only three of those units burnt to ash, the entire building had smoke damage. This was the start of a 10-month project to repair the building and remedy the tenants’ losses. Rhodes, who says recalling the incident makes him uneasy, had to have “tough conversations” with each tenant. Plus, every tenants’ unit had to be thoroughly inspected. After nearly three weeks, when the building was deemed safe to enter, he collaborated with ServPro to assist with the clean-up aspect of the job, which included removing, cleaning, and photographing every item within those 91 units. With signed addendums to their rental agreements, the tenants’ goods were relocated to other units after the inspection and clean-up process.

Thankfully, Rhodes’ facility had good insurance in place to cover the costs of the damage to the tenants’ stored goods. Moreover, All American Self Storage was lucky to have Rhodes to sort through the red tape, keep the process moving, and deal with emotional tenants. “There were lots of legal and emotional conversations,” he says, “but we didn’t lose tenants.”

Once the tenants’ salvaged items were moved into different units, Rhodes assisted with the renovation of the building. Uncertainty as to the extent of damage resulted in some delays as well. In the end, only the steel beams and interior walls could be salvaged from the original building; the walls had to be repainted and the roll-up doors had to be replaced. However, despite this unfortunate and exhausting experience, Rhodes says the story’s silver lining is that the building is better than it ever was. “I have more confidence about renting out those units now,” he adds.

His confidence in the restored building enabled him to reach 100 percent occupancy in May of this year. This trait also helps him manage his large—and overwhelming—tenant base of college students. The facility, which is near the University of Alabama, handles swarms of college students at the end of the spring semesters.

For example, this year approximately 370 students rented units at the company’s three facilities during the month of May. To make matters more challenging, most of those new rentals occurred during the first week alone. The facility also fielded nearly a thousand phone calls that month.

“The summer months are very busy and challenging,” he says, noting that ample time is spent preparing for the students. To make the move-ins more successful, he prepares his staff on how to handle questions and issues that may arise. In the past, he’s had to make numerous repairs to the facility following the mass move-ins and move-outs. He also has the paperwork ready in advance and utilizes eSign to streamline the process. Most importantly, Rhodes conducts frequent lock checks to ensure that the student tenants move into the correct units.

Rhodes has his marketing and community outreach efforts in check as well. He donates units to local churches, Toys for Tots, and Relay for Life; partners with apartment complexes; hands out logo items such as koozies, pens, and T-shirts; utilizes social media; and has billboard advertisements. 

Under Rhodes’ guidance and gumption, All American has become a vital and thriving part of the community. What’s more, he’s managed to increase sales by 15 percent and maintain a great team.

While managing three facilities is no easy task, Rhodes’ advice to other self-storage is simple: “Keep in mind that you are providing a service to help people. This helps you get through the hard days.”

Second Runner-Up: Melissa “Misse” Waugh

Over the past year, Melissa “Misse” Waugh, manager of Berkeley Springs Self Storage and our second runner-up, is a friendly face in the quaint spa town of Berkeley Springs, W.V. Waugh, who manages two storage properties within roughly five miles of each other, has a diverse employment history. From working as an infant teacher at a daycare center to various roles at Food Lion, the local grocery store, she’s the queen of customer service.

With a bubbly, outgoing personality and gift for gab, Waugh has increased revenue by 10 percent and reduced delinquencies by 15 percent. “I’m 100 percent a people person,” she says. “I like to talk to customers and understand them.” Her philosophy: “Be open and respectful and it will be returned.” And as a manager, Waugh has made it her objective to put people at ease about storing their belongings.

Waugh’s accomplishments at Berkeley Springs Self Storage are proof that open and frequent communication can make all the difference. While she’s added auto-pay and an online system that accepts credit card payments to reduce delinquencies, Waugh is adamant that calling tenants helps to bring in past-due rent.

“Communication is number one with tenants,” she says. “Sometimes people simply forget to pay. I call if they’re 30 days delinquent and check on them to make sure they are OK.”

According to her tenants, the facility’s previous owners never made contact after they moved in, so Waugh has been a pleasant change of pace. As a matter of fact, she’s so vivacious that many of her tenants stop in to see her and say hi instead of just passing by the property. Waugh even has an out-of-town tenant who writes a check and mails her monthly storage payment but still calls to make sure it was received and exchange recipes.

Additionally, due to her home’s close proximity to the main facility, Waugh makes herself available to tenants after hours and on Sundays and Mondays when the facilities’ offices are closed. She also puts in some hours from home and makes sure to process any online payments received after business hours on Saturday so tenants can access their units when the offices are closed. “People appreciate when you go the extra mile,” Waugh says, adding that she is implementing a military discount as well as a discount for signing up for auto-pay.

Despite being a soft touch, Waugh is able to put emotions aside when it’s time to hold auctions. “We try to resolve issues together,” she says. “Be compassionate yet firm.”

Waugh and Berkeley Springs Self Storage are active in the community as well. They sponsor the local youth sports teams and donate units to the nearby Humane Society, Lions Club, and Boys and Girls Club. They’ve also donated items to flood victims in West Virginia. In addition, she has plans to organize charity events and set up tables/booths at local events. As for marketing, Waugh handles the facility’s social media pages and places ads in the local newspaper.

As for the facilities themselves, Waugh has added more retail items to the inventory and assisted with the upkeep of the parking lots and grounds. She has plans to remodel the office in the spring as well. 

Waugh, who thoroughly enjoys her job, loves meeting and getting to know people. “I love when people move to Berkeley Springs and I can give them suggestions about the town,” she says, noting that she also likes bumping into her tenants—past and present—in the local shops.  

Three Cheers!

On behalf of MiniCo Publishing and the Self-Storage Now! editorial staff, we’d like to extend a full house of congratulations to Joni, Chris, and Misse—all of whom have upped the ante for self-storage managers! May your storage endeavors continue to be successful!

Erica Shatzer is the editor of Mini-Storage Messenger, Self-Storage Now!, and Self-Storage Canada.