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Don Clauson (pictured left) and Travis Morrow (pictured right) are a couple of serious heavy hitters in the self-storage industry! Don is the CEO of Strat Property Management Incorporated and the Chairman of the Self-Storage Association Board of Directors, while Travis is the President of the Self-Storage Division at Strat Property Management and the winner of the 2018 Overall Facility of the Year Award.
In this first part of our two-part conversation, we talk about how these guys got into the industry, their view on self storage technology, and a whole lot more. Click the icon or link below to listen to the full episode, or you can read along with the transcript. Enjoy!
Rachael Dempsey: Hey everybody, welcome to the Janus Connected Podcast. My name is Rachael Dempsey and we have two really exciting guests joining us today. Don Clauson is the CEO of Strat Property Management Inc., and he’s also the chairman of the Self-Storage Association Board of Directors. Our other guest is Travis Morrow, and he’s the President of Strat Property Management and the winner of the 2018 Overall Facility of the Year Award. Thank you both for joining us today and welcome to the podcast!
Travis Morrow: Thank you!
Don Clauson: Thank you for the opportunity. I look forward to having the conversation!
RD: Alright, me too! There’s so many things I want to talk to you guys about, so let’s just dive right into it. So Don, you’ve been involved in multiple aspects of both self-storage and real estate over the past 28 years. Tell us, how did you break into the market, and how would you say things have changed since you first started?
DC: Well, let me clarify. So yeah it’s been 27 plus years. I want everyone to know I started when I was like 12. I’m just kidding (laughs). It’s been a while and I have had the opportunity to get into this amazing business for a long time. So when we talk about what’s changed, it’s almost easier to talk about what hasn’t changed. Obviously the basic fundamentals of the self-storage businesses that were a solution for our customers to store their belongings. I started as a broker when self-storage facilities were truly selling for a twelve cap or higher. It wasn’t unusual to see a transaction to take place at twenty dollars for a foot or less. That’s the start of a very significant change and have the opportunity to watch our business really mature. As my career went on, I’ve seen so many different properties and so many different management styles. We decided that it would be really important to get into the management business which we did – myself and my partner about twenty years ago. Then we just wanted to try to get onto the ownership side, and we were fortunate enough to do so. Now we are more of an owner of the management company where they just manage what they own. Although, we do have some third party management still, it’s not our focus. The other thing that has changed is the amazing technology that’s coming into this business. There was basically none back there, and I say that with all respect. The innovators, PMS systems, and keypads. To see where we were back in my first self-storage experience in 1992 and where we are now in 2019, pretty much everything has changed except for the basic need and use for self-storage facilities.
RD: Excellent. Well thank you for that perspective. It’s crazy to think I’ve been in here for I think a little over three years and to see how it’s changed in that short period, and then especially when you’re talking about that length of time. It’s just amazing. Alright, Travis let’s turn over to you. So you’ve also been in the business for quite a while and you’re clocking in at fifteen years I believe. What were your first few years like as you found your footing in self-storage?
TM: So, my first three years in storage was on the consulting side with National Self Storage. I was the consulting business manager that was in charge of potentially doing feasibility studies for third parties that were interested in getting into the business. That is where I learned the business and fundamentally was what makes a good storage facility. What piece of dirt is going to become a profitable investment for the person that hired us? And many times I told people no, which they probably didn’t want to hear at the time. There are fundamentals that go into what makes a good facility. At the time when I was consulting for third parties it didn’t meet all of the criteria. I wasn’t going to tell them to invest their money. That was kind of my introduction to self-storage. I had a little bit of tech background coming out of college and had built a database for our company for competition and now some different things. My introduction to self-storage was where do you build one and what makes it work?
RD: Awesome! So you weren’t just giving a pass to anybody, you were very strategic about it. That’s really awesome to hear!
TM: A lot of new people coming into the industry, everyone tells them they need to get a feasibility study. They kind of kick on that just a little bit, because they know their site, they think their site is going to work, and it’s going to be fantastic, and they’re super excited about it. When I come in and put some fundamentals behind it, and I’m not as excited as they are, sometimes it’s a tough pill to swallow. The cost of paying us to do the feasibility study was much less of the full investment of building a storage facility. I have no problem telling them no, because I’m saving them millions of dollars versus what they were paying.
RD: Can you both tell us a little more about Strat Property Management and what role it plays in the industry?
DC: I’ll start with this. It’s actually one of my favorite topics. I’m not sure that we play a role in the industry, but I would say that if there was a secret sauce, we truly have the most incredible team of really dedicated, hard-working, customer service, driven team members. I believe in the industry. They truly care about the property they operate and the company they are a team member of. When we were fortunate to have Travis agree to join us as the President of our self-storage division, he just played such a major role with his in depth knowledge and his operational abilities. He has also brought us advancing technology in such a big way. If I were to say that we played a role in this industry, it would not be a boastful statement, but I truly believe it’s just that our team and the way we operate in providing the different opportunities. We would love to see the industry embrace what we believe that’s the level of expectation of customer service. We strengthen the communities in which we work. We treat others the way they want to be treated. We always represent with integrity. We like to say that you accomplish something just to make someone’s day, then take it to the next level. What Travis has helped us bring in, is that we really want to embrace technology and all that it has to offer. Travis is making this happen, and it’s definitely played a big role to our relationship with Janus. It’s pretty exciting that we’re opening our third facility utilizing the SecurGuard System and adding some other processes with MASS units and three of our facilities, with more to come. I’m not sure if that’s industry changing, but it’s something that we’re very proud of here at Strat Property Management.
TM: And I will say that Don is certainly not boastful, but I believe that Strat Property Management does have an impact on the industry and not just from the technology side that Don referenced, but we’re on the phone with the chairman of the board of the Self Storage Association. I’m also on the board of the Self Storage Association. We are having an impact on our industry above and beyond the impact that we’re having on our own facilities. I agree one hundred percent with Don and wish the entire industry would come around to the technological development that are happening in our industry surely from a customer experience standpoint. My flag right now is customer experience. I talk about it as frequently as I can to as many operators as I can, because we need to pick up the pace in the industry in my opinion of the customer experience. If you look at your cell phone and think about how many business are represented on the apps on your cell phone, we want our stores to be one of those businesses. That’s how customers choose to interact with the world these days, and I need my stores to be there. Any self-storage operator, I hope, would want to be there. The technology is presenting itself to allow us to do that.
RD: So it’s really that idea of meeting the customers and potential customers where they are as opposed to that old school idea of just having them find you kind of randomly on the internet or the yellow pages or something.
TM: Well, I haven’t said yellow pages in a long time (laughs) but yes.
DC: But Rachael, you put that very well. It’s meeting the customers where they want to be met. We talk again about the value of great managers, assistant managers, anybody that represents any of our facilities. Travis puts it very well. Technology is changing the way we are going to operate. People don’t usually love change, but they certainly are embracing the technology that open to them. We are certainly seeing more activity driven through cell phones or their computer sitting at home. We are embracing it, and we believe that is not a choice because that’s what a good base of our customers want. If we are going to treat others the way they want to be treated, we better be able to offer this.
RD: Awesome! And that’s definitely setting you guys apart. Something else I wanted to touch on. So, our podcasts are really trying to reach out to and provide a resource for folks that have been I the industry for a while but also those who maybe are brand new to it. Hearing from expertise like you guys and some of our other guests, I always like to ask this question. Don, what are the top four or five things that you wish that you had known when you built your first facility. Alongside that, what are some of the biggest lessons learned from that first construction experience?
DC: (laughs) Rachael, if we could narrow it down to the forty or fifty things that'd be something.
RD: (laughs) Alright, I’ve got the time.
DC: Truly, we’ve been doing this for a while, and I couldn’t really narrow it down to four or five things. I think that truly we learn four or five things on each new project. I’m not trying to duck your question in any way. This is another thing Travis has brought to our organization. He has an incredible eye for detail and creativity blended with his understanding of technology. He has really stepped up our development opportunities. In a way you can’t really measure the invaluable contributions. The primary thing that I believe is the importance of really building the product and the right unit mix that’s needed for the location. Knowing that could change, make sure you provide enough flexibility in order to change those unit sizes. Think ahead. You would determine the biggest need in that market or ten by fifteens. Knowing that might change to a need for five by tens or ten by thirty’s. When you’re designing your facility, really recognize that the current unit mixture building is likely subject to change over decades or however long you’re going to own that facility. Try to think ahead and build for that in a way that you’re laying out your original facility. The other thing is to not cut corners and not to try to do it as cheaply as possible. Which I think it does account for being quite thrifty and wanting to do things economically pleasing as possible. Cutting back on making your facility stand out, Travis certainly took it to another level with his Dove Mountain location. Something between that and the first facility that I built in 1999. Not only has the market changed, the world has changed – the self-storage world. I think you have to keep in mind that your unit mix might change. Build for that. Also, as tough as it is when you’re spending that money, spend it wisely but don’t cut back on the systems that are needed. I’m not trying to make this a Janus commercial but use the upgraded Janus material or put in the SecurGuard/Nokē system which again we have done in the last three facilities that have come out of the ground. Go ahead and spend a few extra dollars doing your office the right way. Abide some technology options in the offices. Travis has done Dove Mountain, and we have done our Lakeside location that recently opened and our next one that’s opening.
RD: Awesome. Well thank you so much for that. Travis let’s get your take on that question. What are the top few things you wish that you’d known when you built your first facility?
TM: I’ve been somewhat fortunate. It was an unexpected benefit I’ll call it being the facility of the year, because I have got to tour my facility for numerous self-storage operators of all sizes talking about the thing we did at that facility. When we built that specific project, it was the first one that I had got to build in nine years. When we built it, my focus was customer experience. That is the one thing I tell people as I’m touring the facility. They should be focused on as well. Fifteen years ago, when I was doing feasibility studies, it was drive up units and people would put a lock on them and go through the gate. It’s pretty vanilla standard self-storage experience. That has changed so dramatically that I wish I would have paid more attention to what that experience was then as I’m doing currently. Like I said, my flag right now is customer experience. That is the one thing I could have paid more attention to fifteen years ago. Just how tenants interact with our properties. I could have driven a lot more value to my tenants had I been more focused on it. Now I’m solely focused on it, but fifteen years ago, that’s what I would have told myself. It’s the customers and how they experience self-storage.
RD: Alright, thank you so much for that! This wraps up the first half of our two part series with Don and Travis. You can check our next episode to hear the rest of our conversation.
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Janus International Group, is the leading global manufacturer and supplier of turn-key self-storage, commercial and industrial building solutions including: roll up and swing doors, hallway systems, re-locatable storage units, and facility and door automation technologies. The Janus team operates out of several U.S. locations and five locations internationally.