Women in self-storage: Ginny Sutton, Executive director of tSSA

Posted by Erica Shatzer on Nov 21, 2023 4:43:42 PM

Did you know that only 35 percent of organizations have a formalized succession planning process for critical roles? ATD Research disclosed that shocking statistic in its “Succession Planning: Ensuring Continued Excellence” report in 2018.


Not planning for succession can leave businesses at risk for lapses in leadership that could prevent them from achieving their objectives or carrying out their missions. Conversely, being ready for an eventual passing of the torch allows for a smoother transition with minimal disruption.


Luckily for members of the Texas Self Storage Association (TSSA), Ginny Sutton has been preparing for her retirement for nearly four years. And after serving as TSSA’s executive director for 26 years, Sutton’s replacement, Kristy Spurr, whom Sutton hired in February of 2020 as the deputy executive director, has a Texas-sized pair of shoes to fill.


Growing TSSA

In the early 1990s, Sutton was looking to re-enter the workforce after having her second son. The former English and journalism teacher had been serving as the director of education of the Austin Apartment Association (AAA) for six years prior to her maternity leave, but she was ready for a change. One AAA board member happened to also belong to another Texas-based association, this one for self-storage owners, and reached out to Sutton’s former boss, who recommended her for the leadership position.


She was hired as the executive director of the Texas Mini Storage Association (now known as the Texas Self Storage Association) in 1997. At the time, 11 years after the association was founded, Sutton was one of only three employees, and they were responsible for helping its 900 members succeed.


“You go into the association business to fill a need and help people,” she says. “That’s what non-profit trade associations are all about.”

Although there were active board members and association members who were willing to volunteer their time, in order to best serve all of the association’s members and grow its membership base, she needed more hands on deck.


“When I was hired, the board of directors met every single month and were highly engaged, but they also had their own businesses to run and grow. It was a tough transition from board and volunteer-based to staff-based,” recalls Sutton. “The role of board members on a not-for-profit board isn’t to run the organization day to day. That’s what the paid staff does. The board’s role is to govern and provide leadership and vision about the industry. As things have become more sophisticated, we attract more visionary leaders who don’t want to dictate the day-to-day operations, which is really a positive thing.”


With board approval, Sutton began developing the association’s team, hiring additional staff, adding membership, communications, and education staff along the way. Eventually, she promoted Holly Barr from administrative assistant to a membership role, pushing her “from day one to be the best she can be. Like all the staff, I held her to a high standard. She had all the qualities needed to take on a leadership role and is now our director of membership and business development.”


But Barr wasn’t the only one to reap the benefits of Sutton’s critical feedback. She’s been coaching and challenging TSSA employees to do their best throughout her entire tenure, including Spurr, who’s readily absorbing all the institutional knowledge that Sutton has to share. Undoubtedly, Sutton’s extensive experiences have provided invaluable lessons for her to learn. “I remember what a leap of faith it was to hire our first-ever director of communications position many years ago,” she says. “Some of the board members thought it wasn’t a necessary position, but part of leadership is determining when you need to grow your staff so you can take on new endeavors, like expanding from a simple four-page newsletter to an actual magazine and also growing a dynamic website. One person can’t carry the whole load, especially as the number of members grows so significantly.”


Sutton goes on to say, “There’s a long learning curve when it comes to understanding what the members want and need from us, so we always look for staff members who are inspired to be servant leaders. From there, you watch for the talent certain staff members have, even when they themselves don’t always recognize those talents. Two more of our administrative staff in addition to Holly have been promoted to positions with increasing responsibility as their talents were capitalized upon. Each new position added—and staff member hired as we expanded—brought something that would benefit the members and allow us to provide more to them.”


It has been time, money, and energy well spent. The Texas Self Storage Association now has nine employees to execute its mission. “Members deserve the best we can give them,” Sutton says.


As she was expanding its staff, Sutton, who describes herself as a “recovering workaholic” striving for excellence, was also accelerating the association’s membership efforts. By working long hours—typically 60 hours each week for 20 years—and attending all the national self-storage conferences and trade shows to recruit new members, she managed to more than triple the TSSA’s membership base and earn it the title of the largest self-storage association in the country. She also recently advocated for a publicly traded company (REIT) membership within the association to combat the loss of members due to consolidation. Presently, there are approximately 3,000 company members and roughly 5,000 facilities affiliated with the association; three REITs are currently members. “I pushed so hard to grow the base in those early years,” she says, adding humbly that she “stood on the shoulders of giants. They [the TSSA’s founders] did a lot of great work, providing resources people couldn’t get anywhere else.”

Ginny Sutton and Dean Jernigan
Ginny Sutton and Dean Jernigan

Countless Contributions

With a focus on turning the board’s visions into reality and helping members improve their self-storage businesses, Sutton has had a hand in shaping the self-storage industry within Texas and continually exceeded expectations throughout her 26 years as executive director. Her contributions to the TSSA and the state’s self-storage legislation have been innumerable and immeasurable, but here are some highlights.


She was instrumental in overhauling the TSSA Goldbook©, a 300-page legal reference guide that includes legal articles, step-by-step procedures for foreclosure and eviction, and now FAQs and more practical information to help members. Sutton recalls the painstaking effort required to revise the editions of that reference book year after year, but proudly reports that it has become an irreplaceable staple for many self-storage operators throughout Texas. Since its first printing in 1992, the Goldbook is updated every two years following the state’s legislative sessions, of which Sutton and the TSSA lobbied for changes to the self-storage statute beginning in 2011. Sutton has also assisted with the creation of numerous other print and digital resources for the TSSA, including more than 80 legal forms (some with Spanish translations), an online Resource Library, the Ask the Experts Legal Q&A Database, Self-Storage News magazine, and of course the well-known TSSA lease (offered in both a regular self-storage and boat/trailer/RV version).


Speaking of the lease, Sutton has facilitated countless revisions to keep it current and easily accessible for TSSA members with all sorts of self-storage properties. Updates are made to the lease, which she calls “an insurance policy of sorts,” for when issues arise at members’ facilities. “Kristy has picked up the gauntlet I’ve thrown down to keep everything up to date, and she has done an amazing job of it.”


“There’s always something new that pops up for members,” she adds. For instance, a recent mercury spill occurred at a member’s facility when an antique item, perhaps a thermometer, broke inside a unit, causing contamination and thousands of dollars in environmental remediation. A similar scenario involved the costly removal of medical waste that was being stored inside a unit at another facility. TSSA members resolved these unexpected situations, and many others, with the TSSA’s assistance and the resources the association provides.


“I love helping people find solutions,” she says. “I find great joy and a sense of satisfaction from that. Virtually any scenario that comes up, we have a solution for it!”


Sutton was also responsible for establishing the association’s electronic leases that were initially generated via a software program called Blue Moon. Though Sutton acknowledges that the first version of the electronic lease was “a bit clunky,” “had limitations,” and took two years to launch, it was a step in the right direction. “It evolved,” she says, adding that the program was originally installed by disk and then by flash drive. Now the e-lease is installed by TSSA staff directly into more than 15 property management software programs.


More recently, her staff is working to facilitate more e-signature services. “We rely on industry partners to make that happen and are limited by what they can do,” says Sutton, who enjoys watching owner-operators embrace technology. “But we truly want to keep our members happy.”


Sutton also streamlined the TSSA’s operations through its association management software (IMIS) by convincing board members many years ago that it was worth what seemed like an exorbitant cost. After she was hired in 1997, one of the first things she did was convince the board that the association needed to pay back licensing fees for five years to employ its many unused features to create a billing system and expand the data about members. Eventually, she and other staff created an integrated website that would enable members to pay their dues online, among other things. The most recent addition to the website includes an automatic renewal of annual dues, something Barr and Spurr have spearheaded, and the launch of an online community, called Engage, where members can ask and answer questions for one another using their own experiences.


Last but certainly not least, Sutton has been a driving force behind the TSSA’s annual conference and trade show, as well as its other educational programs, luncheons, and networking opportunities. As an emissary for the association, she’s spent her time at conferences wisely, using every minute to recruit new members, along with exhibitors and speakers for future TSSA programs.

“I was cautious about spending the association’s money,” she says. “I felt an obligation to work their money into something meaningful.”

Onward And Upward

Recently, Sutton prepared for what was her last TSSA conference and trade show. Big Ideas in Storage was held October 8 to 10 at the Fort Worth Convention Center in Fort Worth, Texas. The conference attracts owners, managers, and developers from around the state (and even other states) as well as vendor members from all corners of the country who come to exhibit. Working on a way to commemorate her time at TSSA and pay tribute to all the members she encountered throughout her journey, Sutton admits that selecting the best moments from 26 years’ worth of TSSA memories to fit into a two-minute-long farewell was a nearly impossible task.


“When you love the people in the industry you serve, it is really hard to say goodbye. So, I’ll just say ‘so long and ‘til we meet again,’ since I feel like I might make an appearance again at a future industry event. But I think it’s important, at least for now, to step aside and let the staff that succeeds me do things their way and forge their own paths.”


After her final curtain call at the conference, she’ll be tying up loose ends before handing Spurr the reigns at the end of the year.


“I’ve done my part,” she says about leaving the TSSA. “I’ve laid as strong of a foundation as I could. Now it’s up to them to take it to the next level.”


Even so, Sutton may not walk too far away from the association after she retires. “I may keep writing for the magazine if they need me,” she says, noting that the TSSA produces six issues of Self-Storage News each year.


There’s one other aspect of the association that she’s not ready to abandon: fundraising for the Shriners Children’s—Texas Hospital. The Texas Self Storage Association has been supporting the specialty pediatric hospital for more than 20 years, raising more than $2 million to-date. And to say it holds a special place in her heart would be an understatement.


“I love children, and having toured the hospital many times, I am always beyond touched at how they change these kids’ lives, whether by treating their serious burn injuries or addressing their orthopedic needs. This is a perfect example of feeling like the money you’ve raised or donated does something almost impossibly important. I’m also continually fascinated by the research they do and how they keep improving rather than resting on their laurels. People after my own heart,” she laughs. “And I’ve been inspired by the generosity of Doug Hunt and his family as they’ve led the way to raise funds year after year. He is incredibly dedicated to this cause.”


While her retirement plans remain undecided, Sutton has a long list of possibilities. Whether she’s traveling, exercising, quilting, organizing, tackling home renovations, volunteering, starting another book club, finding part-time employment as a consultant or real estate agent, or a combination of all the above, Sutton definitely won’t be resting on her laurels!



Erica Shatzer is the editor of Modern Storage Media.