Women In Self-Storage: Anne Ballard, Universal Storage Group

Posted by Erica Shatzer on Aug 2, 2023 10:26:00 PM

Anne Ballard is a lady who’s worn many hats in her lifetime, both figuratively and literally. Soon to be 71, and with more than 200 hats in her collections, she’s accumulated a wealth of knowledge from hands-on experiences and worldly travel—a far better education than she could have ever received inside any classroom. From a student of life to the president of marketing, training, and developmental services at Universal Storage Group, Ballard’s rich history could serve as inspiration for industrious, independent women everywhere. 


A Productive Past 

As one of eight children, Ballard, who’s always possessed a passion for reading and learning, was determined to blaze her own path in life. Her father attended and taught at Clemson University after his military service, so that seemed like a logical choice for her continued education, but she had no desire to share an alma mater with her brothers and sisters. Instead, she enrolled at the University of South Carolina for what would be her first and only year at that institution.


In 1971, boredom spurred her to relocate to the small town of American Falls, Idaho, where she lived with her sister and brother-in-law for four short months.  “I like to say that I read every book in that library and dated every single guy in that town,” jests Ballard. Even as a young woman, she craved the hustle and bustle of a big city. So she went to work for a company based in Boise, applied for any job that wasn’t “illegal or immoral,” entered the sales force, and soon mastered the art of selling.  


Throughout the 1970s, Ballard took her sales skills on the road, travelling the U.S. and experiencing the diverse cultures of many countries around the world. She returned to South Carolina for a little while in the early 80s to grow sales at her father’s business, but she had no plans to stay in her hometown. Her heart was set on the “Big Peach.” 


After moving to Atlanta, Ga., she landed a part-time position at an apartment complex, where she was expected to lease units without any formal training from the business owner. Relying on her positivity and the property map, Ballard managed to “close 100 percent of the traffic.” Quickly realizing that she was capable of so much more, she joined The Pointe Properties of Sanbury, Corp., as a leasing agent, then manager and eventually marketing director, for their portfolio of apartments.  


By the late 1980s, Ballard had become her own boss, founding a real estate marketing company in Atlanta on Windy Hill Road called The Marketing Solution. The course of her life would take a turn when she took on a client named Harty Kilgore, who owned mini warehouses and needed someone to do the direct mailing, Yellow Pages ads, and employee training for his growing company.  


Leading Change 

Subsequent to earning his respect and trust, Kilgore asked Ballard to work alongside Barry McWhirter, another one of her clients, to establish a self-storage association for Georgia. This was the beginning of the Georgia Storage Owners Society (GSOS).  


“We mailed out meeting notices to all the Georgia storage owners and facilities we could find and started having monthly meetings the first Tuesday each month,” recalls Ballard. “Sometimes at 7:30 a.m. in the bar of the old Ramada hotel that used to sit on Cotillion Drive in Dunwoody at I-285; it is now a mid-rise condo property. From those morning meetings we evolved to lunch meetings at that same hotel. A speaker would be invited to come enlighten us, and we tracked development on a map handed out at the meetings each month.”  


As GSOS grew in size, its focus began to shift. Ballard and GSOS members were interested in the laws that regulated self-storage in Georgia and how they could potentially improve them. That’s around the time she met Scott Zucker, Esq., who would eventually become one of the industry’s most respected attorneys. They worked together to construct a state lease to protect self-storage owners. When auctioneers were applying pressure to the growing self-storage industry in Georgia, Ballard and Zucker were on the steps of the Capitol, lobbying for support of a law that would give facility owners the right to choose to conduct their own lien sales instead of hiring an auctioneer. Getting the law passed was the first legislative win for the association, which has since changed its name to the Georgia Self Storage Association (GASSA).  


Scott and Anne


“We’ve changed the law five times since,” says Ballard, who has proudly served as the past president twice and resided on the board of directors. She was also responsible for creating the member directory for the association. This year Ballard presented her 24th annual year-end review to GASSA members.  


New Company, New Focus  

With the GSOS up and running, Kilgore was ready to enlist Ballard’s help in a new project. He wanted her to launch the management company that would be known as Universal Management Co. “We started with four stores and helped him grow the business to 11 stores,” says Ballard. Then Kilgore sold nine of 11 of the “mini warehouses” in his portfolio that she had been overseeing.  


“StorageMart bought nine of them,” she says, adding that Mike Burnam later praised her for managing the facilities so well. “He said they had ‘no upside’ to them,” which was a testament to her exceptional abilities and helped her attract new clients for the new company. Those referrals came easy, says Ballard, pointing out that Kilgore was known for pinching pennies. “I guess they thought that if I could keep Mr. Kilgore happy, I was doing something right.”  


One of her first objectives with Universal Management Co. was to get self-storage facilities away from paper ledger cards and peg boards and onto computers. Ballard and her partner, Norma Taylor of Bay Management, were instrumental in automating the clients’ facilities with property management software.  


She also focused on collecting data to improve operations. In 1999, she began producing year-end reviews that incorporated data about site traffic, expenses, income, and customer-specific information such as what tenants were storing, why they were using storage, and how long they were renting units. “Everyone knows I like charts about everything,” says Ballard.  


Setting standards was another one of her ongoing projects. She initiated a training program with tests and rewards as the source of success and simplified a six-page telephone script to enable managers to improve their phone sales. Mystery shops and rewards of $50 per perfect score were implemented as well.  


Taylor was brought on board as her partner to run all the back-office operations with Ballard handling training, marketing, legal, and sales. Although she and Ballard both had successful track records, Kilgore expected to lose money with this new company. But Ballard, being a goal-setter and a go-getter, made a bet with Kilgore that he’d owe them lunch for each month they exceeded their financial targets. To Kilgore’s surprise, those ladies won that bet each and every month! To keep it fair, as their monthly targets increased, so did the value of their rewards—first by the quality of restaurant and then by the transportation to lunch.


On one occasion, Ballard insisted that they take a limousine through The Varsity (a classic American fast-food Atlanta landmark) drive-thru for frosted oranges. The dynamic duo eventually made a bet that would require Kilgore to take them to Paris when they hit $250,000, but he sold the company the month before they hit that goal.  


“We work hard, but we play hard,” says Ballard, who has kept that goal-setting spirit alive throughout the years with employee bonuses, recognitions, rewards, benefits, and awards. She feels it’s an excellent employee retention strategy. And with corporate employees staying an average of 16 years, she’s probably right!  

Later, in 2012, Universal Management Company merged with RES to create Universal Storage Group (USG)—a company that’s known for regularly beating the REITs in yearly same-store sales and NOI increases.  


USG Leadership Team


A Lasting Impression  

Over the years, Ballard has made an impact on more than just Georgia and the facilities USG manages. She’s been a frequent speaker at association conferences, a regular contributor to numerous industry publications (including Mini-Storage Messenger and its annual Self-Storage Almanac), and a well-respected expert on all things marketing. As a matter of fact, her invaluable insights were published in the 2010 paperback The Hat Lady Speaks—a sold-out book.  


What’s more, her expertise has been acknowledged numerous times through various industry honors, including 12 Facility of the Year awards (six of which were for facilities she designed herself) and nine ISS Best of Business awards for Best Manager Training, Best Third-Party Management, and Best Operational Consulting. She’s also trained self-storage managers who have gone on to win Manager of the Year awards.  


While she may start to work less in 2024 and beyond, Ballard isn’t ready to fully retire any time soon. “It’s time to take some time off,” she says, adding that she has a “great team” in place to allow her to do so without worry.  


Still an avid reader, Ballard ends by saying, “Maybe it’s time to write another book!”  



Erica Shatzer is the editor of Modern Storage Media.