The Industry’s Finest – 2016 Manager Of The Year

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With a seemingly never-ending To-Do list and the need for top-notch customer service skills, the position of self-storage manager is not a job for the faint of heart. Case in point: In a single day a property manager may have to handle an irate tenant whose unit is being auctioned off due to non-payment, deal with the illegal storage of prohibited or hazardous goods, assist a grieving customer with a move-in, or clean up a disgusting mess left behind in an abandoned unit.

Those examples were merely a handful of the difficult situations that managers encounter on a frequent basis. Add to the mix the daily office duties, maintenance matters, and marketing responsibilities, and you have a plate that is beyond full. Quite simply, there is usually more to do than an average eight-hour work day permits. What’s more, due to increased competition, technological advancements, and steady demand, the bar seems to be set higher each year.

The strenuousness of the job is one of the reasons MiniCo Publishing takes the time to recognize and reward the best of the best through its annual “Manager of the Year” competition. With numerous submissions received from across the United States, it is certainly challenging to select the one winner and two runners-up who best represent the cream of the crop. For that reason, being chosen for the honor is an outstanding accomplishment. Therefore, hearty congratulations are in order for these three model self-storage managers: Danielle Rainey, Rusty Hill, and Cindy Cruz!

Meet Dani
Danielle “Dani” Rainey was bound to be a winning self-storage manager before she even stepped inside a storage facility. Prior to joining Sentry Self Storage Management as a part-time storage consultant for Champion Self Storage in Ruskin, Fla., in 2011, Rainey was holding down two part-time jobs to support her daughter. As an assistant to a real estate agent and a customer service representative for Winn-Dixie, she was acquiring the people skills and work ethic that would eventually enable her to become a stellar property manager and MiniCo’s 2016 Manager of the Year.

Her drive to succeed was recognized almost immediately by her supervisor, and it wasn’t long before she was promoted from part-time to full-time storage consultant at Sentry’s Tampa facility. “Dani’s ‘can-do’ attitude has definitely taken her on an awesome journey with Sentry Self Storage Management,” says Lissette Ramos, a district manager for the company. “She very quickly separated herself from her peers by showing unsurpassed dedication to excellence.” 

It was at the Tampa location that Rainey really began to shine. As a matter of fact, her dedication and motivation landed her another promotion at the beginning of 2013; this time to property manager. In the first year of her new position she managed to overcome several significant issues including water problems, rodents, and customer complaints. However, Rainey, who was responsible for soliciting project bids to fix up the facility, took it all in stride as she loves the challenges and variety of tasks that the job entails. “I like having my hands in a lot of different things,” she says, adding that she gets bored easily—a characteristic that is a perfect match for the multifaceted position of facility manager.

She even used the mishaps as inspiration, developing a better system for gathering and sorting through project proposals. And, according to Ramos, Rainey’s project form ultimately evolved into the Project Bidders Form that is currently utilized throughout the entire company.

Despite the dilemmas, Rainey managed to increase the square foot occupancy at Sentry’s Tampa facility by nine percent. In addition, she was able to increase the unit occupancy by eight percent and the economic occupancy by 13 percent as well as exceed the budgeted financial levels by 9.1 percent or $32,526. “This is a huge accomplishment for such a mature store that had been seeing negative revenue in the past,” Ramos says. “As a result of her hard work at this property, Dani won Manager of the First Quarter 2013 as well as Manager of the Year in 2013 within the company.”

Following her success at the Tampa location, Rainey was chosen to turn around the Champion Wimauma facility when it became part of the Sentry portfolio in August 2013. As manager of Champion Wimauma, she was responsible for completing a long list of projects, including the installation of new signage, landscaping, painting, an alarm system installation, retention pond work, and the hiring and training of new associates. As for the numbers, Rainey increase square foot occupancy by seven percent, unit occupancy by two percent, and economic occupancy by two percent, while exceeding budgeted revenues by 8.7 percent. What’s more, she accomplished all of that and more within her first 100 days as property manager.

“In 2015, Dani had exceeded budgeted revenue and occupancy at the property in Wimauma so quickly that it received attention from a buyer, who made an offer to purchase the property that couldn’t be refused,” says Ramos. “After overseeing the sale of that property, she has come full circle and taken over the facility in Ruskin.” 

Since returning to the Ruskin property, Rainey has expanded its square footage and her career. The facility has grown by 117 units and she has taken on a new responsibility as senior property manager, which enables her to assist all of Sentry’s locations within that district.

And Rainey couldn’t be more grateful for the room to grow! “Before expanding the store there was limited space,” says Rainey. “It was 97 percent occupied and that was a challenge. Not being able to accommodate people resulted in a massive waiting list.” She adds that the waiting list itself proved to be problematic as she attempted to efficiently match scheduled move-outs with the needs of customers who were waiting to move in. But, like all the other road blocks she has faced, Rainey was able to assist a majority of the customers.

Now the facility has more availability, which Rainey looks to fill through her tried-and-true marketing strategies. For starters, she is active in the two chambers of commerce within the community, attending luncheons, breakfasts, and other events, where she distributes goody bags filled with candies and logo items. Rainey also hands out the goody bags at community events such as the Seafood Festival in Ruskin. In addition, she has had success acquiring short-term rentals during the holiday season by placing flyers with rental coupons on the parked cars of Black Friday shoppers.   

Rainey stays busy with charitable events as well. The facilities have hosted yard sales that raised money for various charities through table fees and car washes in conjunction with the local Girl Scout troops. The facilities’ staff also participate in walks for the March of Dimes to raise money for the charity. 

Speaking of helping others, when asked what advice she would give to other self-storage managers, Rainey says, “Put your heart into it. You need to love the job and people.” Along with having the right attitude, she adds, “Regrets and mistakes happen, but don’t let it discourage you. Keep going and keep trying!”

First Runner-Up: Rusty Hill
Similar to Rainey, Rusty Hill, the first runner-up for 2016, has a strong work ethic. He isn’t one to shy away from tasks that require plenty of elbow grease and stamina. As a matter of fact, prior to becoming a self-storage manager in 2013 he working in the forestry industry.

“Four short years ago, Rusty was pulling logs out of the forests of North Georgia—some of the hardest labor a man can find,” says James “Jadie” Hatcher, co-owner of Stone Gate Mini Storage in Cleveland, Ga. “When the recession hit, Rusty was out of a job and struggling to find work.”  

After losing his forestry job, Hill had been working for Hatcher and his business partner, Jacob “Jake” Raby, on a part-time basis on an engine development project. That’s when the duo took an interest in a self-storage facility in the area. “He had always shown a willingness to learn, respect for our property, and loyalty/honesty that was above and beyond requirement. How many employees do you know that clock out to use the restroom?” says Hatcher. “Jake and I decided if Rusty was willing to manage the property then we would make a run at purchasing the property from the bank.”

One of the most impressive aspects of Hill’s success story may very well be that neither of the facility’s owners had any previous experience running a self-storage facility when they purchased the property from the bank in 2013. Therefore, Hill was responsible for taking the helm and re-directing the facility without a proven set of directions to follow. “With some hard work, determination, and ability to adapt and overcome, he’s grown a business from a negative cash (bank foreclosure) to a successful business showing a very nice income for its owners,” says Hatcher, who adds that at the time of purchase the property was barely at 40 percent occupancy. To make matters worse, the tenants were frequently late making payments and the community had a negative opinion of the facility.

Hill’s first order of business was mending the property’s reputation by re-establishing trust with the members of the community. He was able to gain the respect and admiration of his tenants with his approachable personality and understanding nature. Hill then used that foundation to garner word-of-mouth marketing, references, and referrals for the facility—a tactic that has more than doubled the occupancy rate.

“In the three years since purchasing Stone Gate, Rusty has increased the occupancy rate to 95 percent, reduced expenses through diligent management, and, most importantly, regained the trust of our community as the number one storage facility in White County Georgia,” Hatcher says. “Our clients actually enjoy coming to pay their bill in person rather than paying with a credit card, thus reducing our merchant fees.”

With the first quarter 2016 net operating income 59 percent above projection, it’s safe to say that Hill feels at home in the self-storage industry. Driven to do his very best, he attributes his success to his customer service skills and his ability to understand customers’ needs. “More than anything, my favorite aspect of the job is working with people,” says Hill, who adds that he lives by the motto that failure is not an option.

Second Runner-Up: Cindy Cruz
In West Sacramento, Calif., Extra Self Storage is flourishing thanks to our second runner-up, Cindy Cruz, who has been a self-storage manager for the past three years after spending 14 years in the corporate world. At the start, she was not accustomed to dealing with the public through face-to-face interactions on a daily basis; however, Cruz has become an active and enthusiastic manager who thoroughly enjoys meeting, greeting, and helping customers. Moreover, she relishes in the opportunity to connect with her tenants, getting to know them on a personal level through their diverse interactions and situations—both good and bad.

“I find it fascinating how people will tell their life stories to a stranger,” says Cruz, who adds that being able to help them during hard times makes the job rewarding. And her customers appreciate her sympathetic ear.

“Cindy stays involved with all her tenants, which keeps our delinquencies to a minimum,” says Shelby Beck, general manager of Extra Self Storage. “She’s caring and willing to accommodate anyone who is in need of self-storage. Whether it be a moving college student or a family suffering a loss, her tenants find comfort in her eagerness to help them in the best way that she can with an open heart and mind.”

Her compassion, coupled with her attentiveness, has resulted in a 50 percent increase in occupancy—from 35 percent to 85 percent during her reign as self-storage manager. According to Beck, she achieved this dramatic increase by being present at the facility during operating hours to enthusiastically greet customers both in person and over the telephone.

In addition to increasing occupancy, Cruz’s customer-centric attitude enables her to minimize delinquencies. “Extra Self storage has standard policies in place to help to keep the amount of late tenants to a minimum,” says Beck. “Since Cindy has started working at our West Sacramento location, she has taken those policies and not only increased the amount of times she contacts a tenant who is behind but she has taken extra steps to ensure they are reached, whether it be via email or an extra notice sent via USPS mail. She takes every tenant’s financial situation to a personal level and does her best to give them tips on how to get caught up and how to not get behind in the future. She manages to keep her delinquencies to a minimum without waiving late fees, going outside of company policy, or giving tenants special treatment.”

Regardless of her commendable efforts to avoid delinquencies, as every self-storage manager knows all too well, lien sales still happen. To make the auctions somewhat less off-putting, Cruz partners with Charity Storage to raise money for Kure It. To date, she has filled and auctioned off nine Charity Storage units. Cruz and Extra Self Storage also lend their support to a local swim team, little league teams, and churches through sponsorships and complimentary storage space.

And Cruz’s tireless dedication to her company, community, and customers hasn’t gone unnoticed. For starters, her efforts provide the facility with both word-of-mouth marketing and positive reviews on Yelp and other websites that publish customer reviews. Cruz, who has helped improve and implement company forms, documents, policies, and procedures, also serves as district manager of two other Extra Self Storage locations: one in Live Oak, Calif., and one in Marysville, Calif.

With a supervising role under her belt, Cruz offers these words of wisdom to other self-storage managers: “Don’t assume anything. Treat each individual like a human and how you would like to be treated. Be honest, and give customers as much information as possible.”

Storage Stars

From their stellar customer service skills to their remarkable commitment to quality in all of the operational aspects of the storage business, there’s no denying that these three self-storage managers are most deserving of acknowledgement and applause. Congratulations Danielle, Rusty, and Cindy! May your excellence serve as a guiding light to all self-storage managers, and best wishes for continued success!  

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

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