Storage Down Under: Sam Kennard, Kennards Self Storage

Posted by Erica Shatzer on Mar 5, 2024 5:53:37 PM

How do you become one of Australia’s richest citizens? The same way you expand your business from 50 self-storage units to more than 100 self-storage facilities. It takes time and tenacity—two things Sam Kennard, CEO of Kennards Self Storage, which celebrated a milestone anniversary of 50 years in business in 2023, has had on his side for decades. 


Birth Of A Business 

In 1972, Sam’s father, Neville Kennard, was serving as the managing director of Kennards Hire, a family-owned business that rents equipment, tools, and supplies to builders, when he left Australia for a business trip to the United States. After attending a convention geared toward equipment rental businesses, Neville encountered a simple, first-generation “mini-storage” facility in Los Angeles, Calif., that ignited his entrepreneurial spirit.  


“The penny dropped. He just loved the idea,” Sam says, adding that he was likely mulling over the specifics of the business on his flight back to Sydney.


Within a year, Neville had built 50 3-meter-by-6-meter storage units (nearly the same size as 10-by-20s in the U.S.) behind the Kennards Hire Centre at Newbridge Road in Moorebank—the first self-storage units in Australia. According to the company’s website, “It was developed with no market research, just instinct and courage.” To which, Sam replies, “If he had asked people or did market research into whether people needed storage units, then probably the answer would have been negative. But he just thought it was a good idea and just sort of better to take the plunge and do it and then try it and see what happens.” 


The units were advertised with nothing more than a “Kennards Mini Storage” banner and a small advertisement in the Yellow Pages, but they rented rather quickly. With proof that the concept was viable in the area, Neville set to work developing about 100 units on the available land at the property. 


Kennard & Dad


Although the self-storage rentals were successful, Neville and his brother Andy continued to focus on growing Kennards Hire. Throughout Sam’s childhood, the self-storage side of the family business grew at a slow pace.  


However, in 1981, his father and uncle decided to form a company (Easi Stor Pty Limited) that would specialize in developing, owning, and operating stand-alone self-storage facilities. The newly formed company’s first project, which opened that year, was also the first self-storage facility in Queensland.  


A New Era 

By 1991, Neville was ready to dedicate all his effort to self-storage, so he entrusted Andy with the leadership of Kennards Hire. Sam says the splitting of the business into two separate entities was done “to better enable future generations to own more discreetly without blending cousins, and cousins who get married, and cousins’ cousins. It was a very mature, amicable, friendly negotiation. They used to describe it as trading marbles—‘you have that business, and I’ll have those two properties.’” 


At the start of 1991, the business had eight self-storage properties in Sydney, Newcastle, and Brisbane. Neville eventually sold three of his other business ventures (a portable toilet rental business, a construction building rental business, and a generator rental business) to provide capital to grow the storage business.  

After attending Hawkesbury Agricultural College, Sam obtained a Bachelor of Business degree in land economics and entered the family business that year at 21 years old. “It was a business degree with a focus on real estate,” he says. “The degree was very useful as it covered property development, feasibility, property finance, property law, marketing, construction, and so on. These are useful skills for the acquisition and development of self-storage properties.” 


However, like many new hires, Sam began his self-storage career in customer-facing roles, working in one of the stores as the assistant manager. He was promoted to manager but expressed interest in doing more for the company. Sam was assigned several special projects, such as redesigning the business’ brochure and assisting with the company’s rebranding to Kennards Self Storage, but admits that he, perhaps not so secretly, “always had ambition to lead the family business.”  


Around the same time, Neville, now the sole owner of the self-storage business, was preparing the company for the next generation, including Sam and his two brothers, making succession decisions that would eventually place Sam at the helm much sooner than he ever anticipated.  


It was December of 1994, three years after Sam joined the company and shortly before his 25th birthday, when Neville abruptly and unexpectedly announced that he was retiring.  


Sam recalls his father telling him, “I’m flying to the U.S. after Boxing Day, and I’m going to live there for a year, and you’re going to take over.” 


About becoming CEO at a young age, he says, “I was thrown into the deep end.” At first, he wasn’t sure whether he’d sink or swim. Thankfully, though fully immersed in the business and inundated by the learning curve, Sam knew the company’s properties well and could still seek guidance from his father over the telephone (when he wasn’t hitting the slopes in Aspen). Neville also served on the board of directors following his retirement.  


“I did not do anything drastic when I took over,” he says. “Just continued with the operating system and development program. My changes were more gradual and incremental over time.” 


After a few years in charge, Sam received an email that left him questioning his confidence in the business and himself. “One of my key employees blasted an email through the whole company, just sort of laying out her view,” he says. “She loved the business so much that she thought she’d fall on her sword, telling me everything she thought that was going wrong in the business.” 


Sam goes on to say, “I was in denial. I was refusing to accept that this great business had people problems. That was just a blast in the face for me. I did not expect that she would do that. I was very hurt by the fact that she would do something so damaging.” 


On the other hand, her cross correspondence became the catalyst for positive changes throughout the company. He used it as an opportunity to overhaul the company’s culture and his management style. First Sam had employees complete a survey about the company culture, but the results were just as disappointing as that email, revealing that Kennards Self Storage wasn’t a “fun” place to work.  


“We had a people explosion, in the sense, in 1998,” he says. “I reflected, learnt, and made changes to how lead the team. I changed from an authoritarian style or a command-and-control style to a much more constructive, a collaborative style of leadership, which is much more my nature.” 


As Sam worked on elevating the culture, he replaced his entire leadership team, promoting some employees, keeping the fiery employee who sent the email, and adding new positions to create a more efficient work environment. He also makes it a point to give each manager a copy of the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey. Kennards Self Storage has conducted an organizational cultural inventory with Human Synergistics nearly every year since that intense cleanse.  


“Our annual culture survey results (known as the Organizational Cultural Inventory) improved the following year,” he says. “The outcome showed people felt a higher level of engagement and ownership, and that their work was valued, and their ideas mattered.” 


Kennard Sam Inside


Full Speed Ahead 

In addition to adding new positions at the company’s corporate headquarters and improving its culture, Kennards Self Storage was simultaneously expanding its real estate portfolio, albeit in a more selective manner. Sam had begun fine-tuning its investment criteria to ensure that acquisitions and developments align with the company’s growth strategy.  


“Over the years we have accumulated a portfolio of high-quality premium self-storage locations,” Sam says. “It’s no race for me. I’m discerning about getting the best locations.” 


Throughout his first decade in the family business, 14 new self-storage facilities were acquired and developed, including its Melbourne expansion with the acquisition of Huntingdale, bringing the total number of facilities owned and operated up to 23.  


Screenshot 2024-03-04 at 11.07.11 PMKennards Facility

With the right people in the right positions, and enough cash flow to reinvest profits into the portfolio, the privately owned company was poised for more substantial growth, but Sam recognized that developing self-storage facilities was a slower way to expand the portfolio. “It takes a long time to build a portfolio of storages,” he says. There are no shortcuts to development. You can’t go out and build 50 locations in three years because the properties are not available, you won’t get the locations, you won’t execute approvals and construction—you just can’t do it.”  


For that reason, Sam began seeking acquisitions to propel portfolio growth. After the turn of the century, one of Kennards Self Storage’s largest competitors was up for grabs. Sam was motivated to make a move, but the company would need additional funds before bidding on 27-property Millers Self Storage portfolio. “At the beginning of the public sale campaign for Millers, we were approached by numerous potential partners,” he says. “Valad Property Group offered sophisticated financial perspective and considerable acquisition experience. The people were also well known to me.” 


With Valad Property Group, a REIT listed on the Australian Stock Exchange, as its capital partner, Kennards Self Storage was able to acquire the portfolio for $220 million in 2004 through a 50/50 partnership and nearly double its number of self-storage properties (from 29 to 56) overnight. As for the terms of the acquisition, Kennards retained independent ownership of its existing properties and managed the business for the joint venture. The Millers properties were re-branded to Kennards Self Storage in 2005. 


“It was like doing a mini MBA, I think,” Sam says about the acquisition, which required him to work many late nights to get the deal in order. “It’s intense. And it’s stressful. And I did that and decided I didn’t really want to ever do that again.” 

The partnership with Valad also enabled Kennards Self Storage to expand into New Zealand with the acquisitions of eight locations in Auckland and other North Island provincial areas within the country.  


About four years after the partnership acquired Millers Self Storage, amid the global financial crisis known as the Great Recession, Valad Property Group needed funding, so Kennard Self Storage purchased Valad’s 50 percent share and became the full owner of those joint venture assets. According to the company’s website, “The acquisition involved 38 properties. This was a significant step for Kennards which remains privately owned.” 


Despite that hefty investment to acquire Valad’s share of those properties, Kennards Self Storage continued to experience impressive growth with Sam holding the reins. In less than two decades, his ambition had expanded the company’s portfolio to 69 facilities with a total of 48,631 units and 429,282 square meters (approximately 4.6 million square feet). Still, he set his sights higher, purchasing its Moore Park center for $27 million in 2011.  


Growth After Loss 

Though the business was primed for even more expansion, Sam, his family, and the company endured a heartbreaking loss when Neville passed away on June 3, 2012. Sam and his two brothers, Walter and Jim, inherited ownership of the business from their father, but only Sam carries on Neville’s self-storage legacy. “They aren’t involved in the industry,” he says. “My dad was very entrepreneurial, tenacious, and liked to challenge the status quo. He also had an acute property mind. I enjoyed his take on our potential property acquisitions.” 


Pushing past the grief, Sam and Kennards Self Storage celebrated 40 years of operations six months later. The milestone was marked by adding six locations to its portfolio in 2013, including the acquisition of a four-property portfolio in Southeast Queensland for $17 million. By the end of that year, Kennards had a total of 79 facilities with 510,000 square meters (nearly 5.5 million square feet).  


Then, in 2015, Sam made the decision to relocate the company’s headquarters to its new flagship location in Macquarie Park in Sydney’s north. Per Kennards Self Storage’s website, “With space to grow, the relocation places KSS alongside many multinational corporate headquarters. It was an opportunity to reset and reposition the company for the future with significant enhancements in systems and technology made in the transition.” 


It was an astute move that has enabled Sam and Kennards Self Storage to reach 100 facilities a few months before its 50th year in business. In 2023, Kennards added nine new locations, hitting 109 locations, which generated a net profit of $328 million last year; it currently has 10 additional facilities in the development pipeline. Today, Kennards Self Storage employs more than 300 people and its assets are worth more than $2.2 billion. 


Even though Kennards Self Storage is one of the three largest self-storage companies in Australia, the other two being REITs National Storage and Storage King, Sam intends to keep it a private, family-owned business. “I have no plans to list or bring in outside equity partners,” he says, adding that sustainable growth remains his primary objective.  


For Sam, the sky is the limit, especially after being ranked one of Australia’s top 50 richest people by Forbes in February 2023. “I still get a thrill from finding and developing locations,” he says. “It still feels entrepreneurial.”  


Screenshot 2024-03-04 at 11.06.12 PM 


Erica Shatzer is the editor of Modern Storage Media. 



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