A Cut Above – The 2019 Managers Of The Year

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Similar to star triathletes, the best self-storage managers have the necessary skills to conquer various territories—on site, off site, and in cyber space. From customer service and sales to property maintenance and marketing, they know that focusing on only one part of their job will merely yield mediocre results. Therefore, they practice, seek advice, and make adjustments to fine-tune their numerous proficiencies. Through training and education, like triathletes, they develop their strengths and improve their weaknesses to ultimately achieve their goals.

Every year, Self-Storage Now! hosts a nationwide competition to acknowledge and reward the very best mangers in the industry. And each year the winners set new records for what it means to be a stellar self-storage manager. The 2019 Managers of the Year are no exception. Indisputably, these managers have what it takes to be called champions!

The Winner: Dixie Zuger
Our 2019 Manager of the Year winner, Dixie Zuger, spent 17 years as a stay-at-home mom, home schooling her three sons and three adopted children, before rejoining the workforce. Zuger, who previously worked as a paralegal for a real estate law firm, was only seeking a part-time job when she was hired as a relief manager at Boardwalk Storage – Friendship in Cumming, Ga., in June 2017.

Over a short period of time, one of the company’s property managers had left and CEO Rajen Sheth approached Zuger about becoming a full-time property manager thanks to her “strong work ethic and outstanding attitude”. After proving that she was more than capable of that position, Sheth offered her a job as Boardwalk’s area manager. That happened within only six months of hiring her as a part-time relief manager! Zuger, who Sheth calls “dynamic”, now oversees all of Boardwalk Storage’s facilities.

“She jumped right in,” says Sheth, adding that she has become an integral part of the Boardwalk team. “There is plenty of upward mobility for Dixie in the company.”

How Zuger became a permanent asset to Boardwalk Storage is a tale of tenacity. According to Sheth, that’s one of her greatest strengths. “She has a desire to learn and grow,” he says, noting that she also has a great sense of ownership for the properties she manages. “She does whatever needs to be done without having to be asked to do it.”

And at the company’s Friendship location, where she started as a property manager, there was a ton to be done. That particular facility, which was known as Friendship Storage before it was acquired by Boardwalk Development Group in April 2016, was in desperate need of a hardworking manager like Zuger to reach its potential. Although infested with rats and other pests and long overdue for plenty of TLC, Zuger was determined to “turn it around”.

“It looked like no one worked there,” Zuger says about the four-acre facility when she started as the property manager.

“Within just a couple months, all the deferred maintenance had been fixed, all the vacant units had been cleaned, the pest control problems had been handled, and customers were raving about Dixie,” says Sheth, who mentions that the previous on-site management was either rude or absent.

To shed more light on the property maintenance items Sheth mentions, Zuger redesigned the office area, painted, landscaped the entire property, weeded the overgrown parking lot, installed signage, repaired concrete, and even established a show room for the site’s various moving, shipping, and packing supplies. “We sell tons of supplies,” says Zuger, adding that she “upped the inventory” to better serve the facility’s customers.

Zuger initiated several capital improvements to the facility as well, including updated security, lighting, cameras, and gate hardware. She’s also implemented new technologies and tools to increase the company’s productivity and create efficiencies such as procedure lists and manuals for new hires. “Dixie is solely responsible for Boardwalk’s use of online auctions, RPost, phone sales scripts, GoogleAds, and training her fellow property managers,” Sheth says.

What’s more, she has been instrumental in the development of the 330-unit building that is currently being constructed on the site.

While Zuger managed to get the property in tip-top shape in a few short months, she hasn’t allowed it to revert to its former unsightly appearance. She keeps the entire site in pristine condition and even decorates for every holiday. And her dedication to the facility’s appearance doesn’t go unnoticed. In fact, the majority of her customers comment on how impeccably clean she maintains it.

“She tirelessly cleans her units and property and continually works on visual improvements,” says Sheth, who adds that Zuger has been known to work outside of the posted office hours to clean recently vacated units to accommodate new tenants. For example, he recalls a situation when an out-of-town tenant wanted to move into a unit on a Sunday—a day that the facility is closed. Zuger made sure the unit, which had been vacated that Friday, was clean and ready for his arrival.     

But that is merely one example of Zuger’s exceptional customer service. Besides throwing parties for her tenants, such as a recent breakfast buffet, Zuger is always “on call” for her customers. She caters to them, calls them her “friends”, and ranks customer service as her No. 1 priority. Sheth confirms that claim, saying, “Dixie works diligently to provide many new perks in customer service. She has coordinated out-of-town move-ins and meets trucks and customers after hours and even on holidays.”

And Boardwalk Storage – Friendship’s progress reflects her commitment to her tenants. According to Sheth, 18 months after she took over the property, revenues are up 15 percent, net operating income is up 33 percent, and occupancy increased from 82 percent to 95.5 percent. Zuger’s also managed to increase collections and decrease delinquencies by getting customers to sign up for the facility’s Autopay option. Now, 85 percent of its tenants are on Autopay—a 30 percent increase. It’s a tactic that is beneficial for the business as well as the tenants, since only four units have been auctioned under her leadership.

Moreover, although Zuger is keen on keeping her tenants happy, she doesn’t tolerate late payments. To assist with her collection efforts, she created text message payment reminder campaigns through SiteLink. “I’m a stickler for collections,” she says. However, she does work with customers to keep them caught up and is more than courteous when it comes to her fixed-income tenants. “I know the customers who are on social security,” she says. “I stagger their payments and wait to process them until their checks clear.”   

Of course, her existing tenants aren’t her only concern. Zuger is constantly marketing the facility to attract new tenants. For instance, she recently sent out a mailing to everyone who applied for a business license in 2018, since half of her tenants are businesses or tradesmen. She also leaves flyers on construction vehicles when she’s out and about. She notes that the property rents to numerous landscapers, electricians, carpet cleaners, plumbers, and the like—all of whom she allows to customize units with shelves or other items to make storing their gear and tools easier.

In addition to targeting commercial tenants, Zuger visits subdivisions and distributes referral postcards (that she created) to all her customers for $25 off rent when they refer a new tenant. The facility’s U-Haul business is another source of rentals, but she is adamant that her best form of marketing is simply being on site and active, as well as “answering the phone with a smile”.       

From the countless examples above, it may hard to believe that Zuger managed to accomplish all of that with minimal training but it’s true. “For the most part, she would just figure it out,” says Sheth. “It’s like fixing a plane while trying to fly it. It takes a lot to do it, but that’s what makes her so fantastic.”

She certainly learned the ins and outs of self-storage management in record-breaking time! Nowadays, she is running five properties and oversees three managers and a relief manager. Zuger’s also an active member of the Georgia Self Storage Association, attending meetings, expos, and training sessions as well as joining one of its board committees.

“It’s tough to find someone like Dixie,” Sheth says.

Clearly, Zuger is a cut above the rest!

First Runners-Up: Perry Greene and Dilynn Russell
Not unlike Zuger, one of this year’s first runners-up in the Manager of the Year competition started out as a relief manager at Cashway Mini Warehouses in Sierra Vista, Ariz. Perry Greene, who had just completed a four-year term with the United States Air Force, was hired as a relief manager and later promoted to property manager when the facility’s manager left the industry. At that point, Greene inquired about his wife, Dilynn Russell, who had experience in retail sales at major department stores, potentially filling the relief manager position.

Andrew Kelly, principal of A B Kelly Realty, LLC, and Sierra Self Storage Consulting, LLC, the management company that oversees Cashway Mini Warehouses, told the couple that he’d give them a 30-day trial run at the 100,000-square-foot self-storage facility and hire them if they demonstrated that they could manage it. “In two weeks, they proved they had what it would take,” says Kelly, who then hired Greene as the manager and Russell as the relief manager. “As a team they are unstoppable.”

The fact that they enjoy working together is only one reason they make such a great management team. Ultimately, it’s their distinct, complementary strengths and can-do attitudes that combine to create what Kelly calls a “dynamic duo”. Greene is the detail-oriented task master with computer skills who takes initiative as well as accountability. He also has a strong work ethic and a keen ability to problem solve. Russell is the friendly sales woman with impeccable customer service and organizational skills.

“With Dilynn’s outstanding administrative capabilities, it allows me to know the office is being run correctly and without error so that I am able to perform work around the property and provide security without interruption,” says Greene. “Even though we function very well independently, we come together stronger as a team.”

In addition to their exceptional qualities, their backgrounds have been beneficial for the facility as well as its tenants. For starters, the property is located near a military base. As a former military couple, they are able to relate to the facility’s large number of military tenants. “They fit in perfect there,” says Kelly, adding that they go the extra mile for their military customers as well as their other tenants. As a matter of fact, the couple has not had a single customer complaint—only calls of appreciation!

As for the facility, it advanced thanks to Greene’s knack for tech. “He installed a closed-circuit security system,” Kelly says, who mentions that he also purchased a new laptop for the site following a computer crash and loaded all the facility’s software onto it. “His e-Military computer skills have saved the owner thousands of dollars in repairs …”

The couple also supervised more than $100,000 in capital improvements at the property. Kelly states that he was fully confident in them and allowed them to sign off on various projects.

Their hard work resulted in a five percent increase in occupancy at the facility in their first year as resident managers. Currently, Cashway Mini Warehouses’ 1,000-plus units are approximately 85 percent occupied. And Kelly notes that the duo has managed to consistently stay on budget and achieve revenue increases of no less than three percent each year.

“We couldn’t ask for anything more,” says Kelly. “They are a rare couple. We’re glad to have them and hope they stay for many years.”

Second Runner-Up: Chris Hovey
Of all our 2019 winners, Chris Hovey has had the most experience in the self-storage industry. Ten years ago, Hovey was attending college to obtain a history degree and started working at a self-storage facility as a maintenance man. He moved up to assistant manager, but then he decided to join the restaurant industry. Three and a half years had passed when he re-entered the self-storage industry as a full-time assistant manager. After that facility was sold, Hovey landed a job with Absolute Storage Management. He took over the management of Arlington Climate-Controlled Storage in Arlington, Tenn., a brand-new property that opened in April 2018.

According to Chris Hedrick, regional manager at Absolute Storage Management, Hovey, who he describes as friendly, thoughtful, and creative, has been crushing the facility’s goals. “He exceeded budget in the first year by 77 percent total income,” says Hedrick. “He is below budget expenses seven percent for the year. He has increased occupancy over first-year expectations by 20 percent. His mystery shop ratings were over 90 percent, including a one-time 99 percent. After all these great numbers, he has increased net operating income by 1,203 percent over budget.”

How has Hovey managed to achieve these impressive stats? Hedrick says it’s his superlative marketing methods. For starters, Hovey regularly visits local businesses that may need storage and creates audience-specific advertisements. He has targeted ads for HOAs as well as lawyers and attorneys who may need a place to store records. Hovey also places ads in church bulletins and includes the facility’s information in the move-in packets at apartment complexes. While these targeted ads cost more to produce, the higher sales compensated for the additional advertising expenses.

Besides advertisements, Hovey has found community outreach to be another effective form of marketing. The facility makes donations to sports teams of local schools and allows them to store their equipment free of charge. In return, the facility’s name is prominently displayed on the teams’ jerseys and banners.

His customer service is spot on as well. Hovey has been known to stay late to assist customers and has a genuine desire to help anyone at any time. “He’s a super friendly guy,” says Hedrick, who adds that his greatest strength is his leadership skills.

Hovey’s helpful demeanor even landed him a promotion. He has been serving as the company’s regional trainer for the past two years. “He is a trainer for our company and helps implement new ideas and processes to help others improve performance,” Hedrick says, adding that he has 17 facilities in his region.

And it’s the company’s receptiveness to new ideas that Hovey thoroughly appreciates. Through Absolute Storage Management, he has been able to pursue his personal interests as well, such as photography and cinematography. Hovey has completed photo shoots for the company and produced a donation commercial for St. Jude. He’s also been responsible for implementing and distributing a monthly podcast newsletter that’s shared with the entire company and assisting with various special projects for the company.

Indeed, it’s safe to say that Hovey is a Jack of all trades!

Stars Of Self-Storage
On behalf of MiniCo Publishing and the Self-Storage Now! editorial staff, we’d like to extend our sincerest congratulations to Zuger, Greene, Russell, and Hovey—all of whom are shining examples for self-storage managers everywhere! May your storage endeavors continue to be successful!

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

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