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The Right Stuff Self-Storage Rising Stars - Christen Gibson


By Jennifer LeClaire

With Baby Boomers nearing retirement age, business leaders across all industries are concerned

about an impending leadership crisis. Let’s face it; without strong leadership, a company’s vision

becomes muddied and the rivers of innovation become stagnant.

While self-storage certainly isn’t immune, the good news is that today’s savvy veterans are grooming

their successors. These young leaders are poised to carry the industry torch into new races. To be sure,

these rising stars carry innovative ideas, technological expertise, fresh perspectives, and novel skills

that are impacting the industry today and promise to keep it growing tomorrow.

“The young folks entering the business grew up with self-storage,” says Bob Francis, operating partner

at The Heron Group, a self-storage real estate group in Kissimmee, Fla. “They are not like the current

plateau of leaders that saw self-storage appear rather suddenly. Because of that they have different

ideas about how things can and should work, and new approaches. They are bringing a whole new skill

set to the table.”

New Leaders, New Skill Sets

Five years ago, self-storage wasn’t management intensive, according to CB Richard Ellis first vice president

Aaron Swerdlin. Self-storage was more like land banking and most operators didn’t have a longterm

business plan in mind. “A rising tide raises all ships, and as the industry becomes more sophisti-


Self-Storage Rising Stars

cated, it is forcing operators to plan more strategically,” he notes. “The young leaders are coming in with

skills and education. Over the next three to five years, they’ll learn how to apply that knowledge.”

Bill Hobin, president of the William Warren Group, a self-storage developer and property management

company based in Santa Monica, Calif., says his company has a number of young employees that offer

different viewpoints on operating systems, property management, and marketing. “The younger generation

understands the return on technology investment and the importance of a Web presence,” he says.

“These things are changing the way the industry looks.”

Some have described the self-storage industry as an “old boy” network but with an infusion of younger

blood, that is quickly changing. Perhaps more than anywhere else, the technology side of the business

is filled with up-and-coming Information Technology leaders who will largely be responsible for the

behind-the- scenes success of mega operators. “The youth bring enthusiasm and new ideas,” agrees

Tom Garden, president of Syrasoft LLC, a Camillus, N.Y.-based self-storage software company. “They

think outside the traditional box and look to the Internet to enable credit card transactions and other

things we could hardly imagine five years ago.”

Make Way For Minh Tran

Minh Tran calls himself the “rainmaker” at CB Richard Ellis’ Self Storage Advisory

Group. He has brokered more than $300 million worth of self-storage real estate in

recent years. He’s a young one that may soon be giving you advice on the hottest

self-storage properties—and he’s only 25 years old.

“I like dealing with people and dealing with numbers,” says Tran, who attended the

Texas A&M University Master of Land Economic and Real Estate program. He also

holds a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in Finance from the university.

Tran joined CB Richard Ellis in 2003 as a sales associate. He interacts with buyers and sellers for the

acquisition and disposition of self-storage facilities and to perform valuation services for the private client

sector. Among his most significant transactions are regional dispositions on behalf of Storage USA/GE,

Walton Street Capital, and Devon Self-Storage.

Swerdlin says Tran’s enthusiasm sets him apart. His leadership style is to model the way. Swerdlin

notes that Tran is already in charge of the marketing plan for the Self Storage Advisory Group’s West

Coast office, in addition to co-designing all macro-marketing materials.

“The only self-storage industry Minh has ever known has enjoyed tremendous transaction velocity and

institutional attention that many industry veterans went without for many years,” he says. “This has positioned

Minh with the distinct advantage of recognizing the industry only as an institutional and sophisticated

industry, thus allowing him to design his approach without the drag of ‘what used to be.’”

Indeed, Tran is making a name for himself with innovative marketing ideas that are impacting the business

of self-storage real estate. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I’m the best cold caller out

here, but there are ways that you can reach people without cold calling them. The way I do it is through

marketing,” says Tran, noting that the young up-and-comers in the industry “have the energy to conquer

the world.”

Absolute Teamwork

While many large outfits are raising up potential leaders, three young influentials

are raising revenues in the here and now, proving that the future is here.

Memphis-based self-storage property management firm Absolute Storage

Management (ASM), Inc.’s three founders have a combined 30 years of experience

in the self-storage industry.

Of course, individually they are barely over 30 years old. All three of them are 32,

to be exact. This trio of young guns is demonstrating that teamwork makes the

dream work. ASM partners Michael Haugh, Matt Bailey, and Scott Beatty man-

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age more than 1.5 million square feet of self-storage space in five states for its clients.

The three young men started their careers at Storage USA. After learning the ropes in just about every

industry realm, from operations to financing, and investment to property management, they decided to

partner in a new venture about four years ago and draw from their collaborative skills to build a self-storage

empire they could call their own.

“These guys are taking a team approach to doing business,” Francis says. “Teamwork is the mantra

young folks have always heard. That is a sophisticated approach and it is a hallmark of success. These

guys broke away from Storage USA, went out on their own, and made it happen through teamwork.”

Haugh heads up third-party management contracts and pursues acquisition and development opportunities

for ASM. With 10 years of experience under his belt, Haugh admits that he knew nothing about selfstorage

when he entered the business. He just knew he wanted to be a real estate developer, so he

started at the bottom as an assistant store manager and learned all he could.

“It’s important to surround yourself with really smart people, and you have to take calculated risks,” says

Haugh of his leadership style. “You’ve got to take a swing. It helps to have a team of partners that have

faith in each other. If you are going to lead a self-storage organization, you have to bring in quality people

and give them the authority to get things done.”

Beatty Forecasts Success

Beatty spent eight years in financial operations and forecasting/budgeting, including

four years as an operations manager, at Storage USA. That puts him in a strategic

leadership position to steer ASM’s finances in a growing industry. Beatty refers to

himself as the “risk taker” of the team, and sees industry challenges in terms of dollars.

“Finding niche markets with reasonable land prices is a challenge,” Beatty says.

“Properties have to be positioned in such a way to make them attractive because

there’s an awful lot of supply out there already. Young leaders bring a fresh outlook.

We are looking for more ways to differentiate ourselves from the competition. I think rejuvenating some

of the older ideas with a fresh approach and reaching out to younger customers will be an advantage.”

Beatty is ready to lead ASM to the next level. He’s created long-term strategic and financial plans for billion-

dollar companies in the past, and his analytical approach promises to see a financially responsible

ASM build on its current success with a unique understanding of how issues like consolidation, supply

and demand, and land inflation affect the industry short- and long-term.

Matt Bailey Builds The Business

Bailey also started in the industry as an assistant property manager at Storage

USA. His innate leadership skills sent him rapidly through the management ranks.

He held a district management position with the company for two years, during

which time he supervised 15 properties. He also served as a financial analyst at

Storage USA for a year before managing contact center operations.

At ASM, Bailey is primarily responsible for property management, marketing, and

operations. Like Haugh, he believes today’s leaders are team thinkers. “We all

have different strengths,” he explains. “We bring a lot of different skill sets to the

table, which contributes to the success of our company.”

Individually, Bailey believes the industry’s younger leaders are offering up new ideas, new ways of working,

and new technology-based revenue streams. He points to kiosks and improved management software

that is leading to strategic advantages. For his part, Bailey is promoting greater levels of professionalism

in the industry so future leaders will consider self-storage as a career choice. “We’ve come a

long way from those ‘mom and pop’ days. We have college graduates managing facilities, but we need

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to do more,” he says. “There are a lot of misconceptions about the self-storage industry. People don’t

understand the opportunity. The challenge is to get fresh minds into the industry.”

Christen Gibson Gains Experience

Christen Gibson is one of those fresh minds. You may not know her name today,

but you are bound to remember her name in a few years. The 24-year-old is learning

everything there is to know about the self-storage industry—one day at a time—

as the operations coordinator at the William Warren Group.

Gibson’s role includes motivating the staff, working with district managers and property

managers, dealing with human resources, helping make sure budgets are met,

producing marketing materials, and just anything else that needs to be done. It’s

been quite an eye opener for the young leader, whose only prior self-storage experience

came through renting a unit on summer breaks while she studied biology at the University of


“I have a lot of opportunity to make an impact on the company,” Gibson says. “There’s still so much to

improve upon that there’s really no limit. This is still a new industry and there is opportunity for growth.

But we have to maintain quality at the same time.”

Gibson has brought lots of new ideas to the table at the William Warren Group. She introduced the idea

of moving packets that help present the company’s product in a comprehensive light that makes it most

convenient for the customer. She’s suggested wine storage, employee benefits, and many other wellreceived


“Christen is constantly making sure we are on pace,” Hobin says. “She is very observant, a good communicator,

and a multi-tasker. As she becomes more familiar with our industry, she will be a strong


The young Gibson plans to stay planted in the self-storage industry and continue to grow with the business.

She is preparing herself to take on more responsibility in the operations aspect of the company by

gleaning what she can from the ones who came before her, while continuing to push the innovation

envelope to new heights.

Tim Zentner Talks Tech

A running theme among self-storage’s young leaders is technology. Tim Zentner is

smack dab in the middle of the revolution as Syrasoft’s 21-year-old rising star.

Zentner is manager of the Camillus, N.Y.-based company’s tech support department.

He’s the fellow you may talk to the next time you don’t understand how that

special new feature on your software functions.

“Tim is in tune with the industry,” Garden says. “He’s very good at what he does.

He’s reliable and extremely smart at a very young age. He was the guy everyone

turned to when they had questions, so he was the natural selection to run the


For his part, Zentner says young ones like him have a keen understanding of technology because they

grew up in the computer generation, but he recognizes the value of the older generation’s experience.

Combined, he believes the industry can tackle any challenge it faces—if self-storage operators would

just embrace technology.

“The best part about tech support is helping people,” Zentner says. “There are a lot of jobs where you

don’t really get any sort of instant of gratification. It’s a good feeling when you can help get somebody’s

computer running again so they can do business more efficiently.”

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Dynamic Duo

Back to the teamwork theme, Peter Lewis, 21, and Jason Setzer, 25, are part of the

future at The Parham Companies in Bulverde, Texas. Lewis is the Intelligence

Technician, AKA the computer guy for Parham Company’s Joshua Management.

Setzer is the operations manager for Parham’s Cross Metal Buildings. As such,

their paths cross more than one might think. Lewis is helping develop software to

make Setzer’s job easier. The duo agrees that young leaders are detail-oriented

with an eye on improving processes.

Donna May, president of Joshua Management, calls Lewis “phenomenal” and says

Setzer “continually amazes” her with his self-storage knowledge, business sense,

and multiple talents.

Lewis is looking for new ways to use technology to keep stores up and running. “I’m

writing software to help us scheme market information,” he explains. “Nothing on

the market fits our needs.”

Meanwhile, Setzer is looking forward to the new software, which will help him “take

the shortest distance from A to B. “I talk with our engineers to find out about new

products and how we can incorporate those products into our buildings to save money,” he says. “The

estimating software Peter is working on will help me do that more efficiently.”

May is convinced that self-storage is following the same path as the hotel/motel industry did so long

ago, with large players slowly taking over. That, she says, is going to require these new skill sets that

the veterans keep attributing to their successors—and the

baseline is technology. “We have to keep up with technology,”

May says. “There’s going to be a larger number of facilities in

fewer hands, so there’s going to be more computer data and

information gathering on clients to help us making smarter

decisions on where to put facilities.”

As these young rising stars prepare for a bright future, industry pioneer Harvey Lenkin, the Chief

Operating Officer of Public Storage, Inc., who is retiring this year, has some parting words for the young

and old leaders alike: “You’ve got to stand the test of time,” he says. “I would tell young leaders, if they

haven’t already, to strengthen the ‘I’ word inside their vocabulary—namely integrity. Don’t give at all in

matters of integrity. That is so very important if you plan to stay in any business for any length of time

and be reasonably successful.”


Jennifer LeClaire is a freelance writer based in Hollywood, Florida,

and a regular contributor to the Mini-Storage Messenger and Self-Storage Now!

Copyright © 2005 MiniCo, Inc.® All rights reserved. This article reprint is provided with the permission of Mini-Storage Messenger®

magazine and its publisher, MiniCo, Inc. Further reproduction and/or distribution in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

For other articles, information or reprints, please visit

Don t give at all in

matters of integrity.

~ Harvey Lenkin CEO, Publis Storage Inc.


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