In its infancy, the self-storage industry’s need for leadership and education was paramount to its success. For that reason, some of the industry’s pioneers pulled together to establish the national Self Storage Association, which was originally known as the “Self-Service Storage Association”, in 1975. The formation of the association enabled industry professionals to share ideas, promote industry legislation and standards, network and collaborate to reach common goals.
Although the industry has grown by leaps and bounds since the national association was initially created, the need for formal self-storage-specific organizations has not dwindled. As a matter of fact, Dean Keller, broker for Laguna Beach, Calif.-based Bancap Self Storage Group, Inc., emphasizes that the combined efforts of both local and national groups are largely responsible for thrusting this once “unproven” industry into its present-day real estate glory.
“The SSA and our whole industry has come so far thanks to the vision and leadership of the many volunteers, leaders, and association professionals who have served our industry since its founding,” says Keller. “We’ve come a long way since then!”
Giving Back Keller, who has been involved with numerous self-storage associations in various aspects, notes that his enthusiasm for contributing to the growth of the industry stems from his upbringing. “I have always believed in ‘giving back’ ever since I experienced others doing it as a young college student,” he says. “I did not come from a wealthy or well-connected family. So those times when someone gave me an opportunity, introduction, insight, scholarship, or whatever else, it was absolutely key in my own personal development and financial success.”
In an attempt to repay the industry, which he states has been good for him and his family, Keller has felt obligated to contribute his time, talents, and treasure to several associations. “I also try to lead by example and encourage others to give back and get more involved too,” he says. “That is one reason why I am so passionate about the SSA Foundation and its Scholarship Fund. I love how we are helping young people in much the same way that I was helped at that age.”
The Self Storage Association Foundation (SSAF), a charitable and educational organization, was created by the SSA’s board of directors in 2006. Keller currently serves as the treasurer on the SSAF’s board of governors. In addition to providing educational information/programs, the SSAF makes charitable donations to industry-related causes and awards scholarships to young self-storage employees and family members.
Since its inception, the SSAF Scholarship program has awarded more than $410,000 to 173 students with roots in the self-storage industry and it is currently involved in a $5.5 million fundraising campaign to establish a permanent endowment fund for scholarships.
A Little Background Besides serving as the treasurer on the board of governors for the SSAF, Keller has held several titles with self-storage associations. For starters, he served on the board of the SSA’s “Western Region”, which was one of four SSA regional groups focused on promoting education, involvement, and participation on a more local level before individual state associations were formed. Keller also served as the chairman of SSA’s 20th Anniversary National Conference.
“The SSA Western Region was very active and strong, with its own staff and its own successful events,” recalls Keller. “However, as a result of the real estate crisis in the early 1990s, all the regions were folded into the national association. Despite our desire to remain autonomous, the regional staff was terminated, and all our regional events were cancelled, with the exception of the Ski Workshop, which is still going strong all these years later.”
Keller goes on to say that the decreased activities of the regions spurred the development of a new association independent from the SSA. “To fill the void for local involvement, networking, and mutual support, I joined with several other local owners to form the Southern California Storage Operators Network,” he says. “That group was so successful that we soon replicated it in Northern California as well, but more local activity and advocacy in California was still needed.”
The California Self Storage Association (CSSA) was then formed to address that need. Keller was one of its founding members and helped provide initial funding of the organization. “Since then, the CSSA has gone on to become one of the largest and most successful state associations in the industry,” he says. “I had the privilege of serving on the CSSA board for many years, including as its chairperson.”
For Continued Success While some within the self-storage industry may question the validity and necessity of independent state associations given the exponential growth and maturation of the real estate sector, Keller isn’t one of them. In fact, he is adamant that strong state associations are vital to the continued success of the industry.
“What makes this industry great is both the local, hands-on, independent nature of our roots, and the great gains we have seen in sophistication and mainstream acceptance since then,” says Keller. “The increased level of sophistication and professionalism in this industry has been great. The leadership of the SSA and its staff, with the participation and input of the national REITs, has been instrumental in that. But local gatherings have also been important hubs of innovation and leadership development. Local owners value connection with other local owner/operators, which is difficult on a national level.”
Keller states that we must remember that self-storage is “still primarily a local business”. “Even the national operators state that some 80 percent of our industry is still independent local owners and investors,” he says, “so I think it is also important to keep in touch with our roots—not just for nostalgia sake, but for the overall health, vibrancy, and profitability of our whole industry.”
Of course, as Keller notes, state associations serve another purpose: They create opportunities to gain experience. “The local associations are also great as ‘farm leagues’ for future leaders on the national level,” he says. “Let’s face it, there are only a handful of seats on the national board. So, for local owners/operators, it is difficult to become actively engaged in overall industry leadership. There is also a big difference between being a truly independent local association versus one that appears to be a subsidiary of the national group. That being said, not all state associations are able to afford the level of organizational support that the larger state associations can. In those cases, the SSA’s association management services are an outstanding way to provide a higher level of service and support for many state associations.”
What’s more, Keller points out that state self-storage associations can offer more localized networking events that enable better inclusion, camaraderie, and collaboration for finding solutions to state-specific issues. “At my core, I guess I am just more of a local control type of person,” he says. “So, while I definitely appreciate the value and importance of an outstanding national association, I am also a big supporter of fostering local leadership and events were local owner/operators and vendors do not get lost in the crowd at the national level. I also think healthy competition between groups tends to raise the level of success for all.”
Pay It Forward! Indeed, there’s no denying that associations—both on a local and national level—have enabled self-storage owners, operators, and vendors raise the bar for the entire industry. From improving state statutes to providing better customer services and industry standards, self-storage associations have helped shape the industry into an asset class that investors can’t get enough of.
And as the pioneers and veterans start planning or entering their retirements, it is more important than ever to ensure its future leaders will be well-equipped to take it to even greater heights. Therefore, Keller encourages the members of the industry to pay it forward by getting actively involved and making contributions for the betterment of the industry.
“Whether you donate your time or your money or both,” Keller says, “I believe the rewards are always greater.”
Sidebar A “Permanent” Gift Of Education The Self Storage Association Foundation (SSAF) has begun a $5.5 million fundraising drive to permanently endow its scholarship program. In addition to providing for the long-term stability and security of the program, these funds will enable hundreds more students in our industry to receive financial assistance for their studies.
For more details about the program, to make a contribution, or learn how to submit an application or recommend someone for a scholarship, visit www.selfstorage.org/About-SSA/SSA-Foundation/SSA-Foundation-Scholarship.
Erica Shatzer is the editor of Mini-Storage Messenger, Self-Storage Now!, and Self-Storage Canada.