While the TV show Storage Wars and its imitators have shone a bright light on the self-storage industry over the last few years, they’veonly told a small fraction of the self-storage story. The much larger part has to do with the millions of moves in and out of storage spaces undertaken by Americans each year at locations across the nation, such as Roemer Way Self-Storage in Santa Maria. Klara Bergman has owned and operated it since it opened in 2005, so she knows a thing or two about the realities of the business.Having worked in equity and private capital funding for 35 years, specializing in shopping
malls, Bergman said she was approached by a group of out-of-area investors about setting up a self-storage business on the Central Coast. Once she’d raised the capital and the location had been acquired, she explained, the investors decided Santa Maria was too far from home, so she bought them out. At the time there was an unmet demand in the area for self-storage, she said, with customers having to go on waiting lists—but that didn’t last.“Unfortunately there were so many delays that by the time construction was completed there were other facilities that had come online and that created a tremendous amount of competition,” Bergman said of the extended time it took to set up Roemer Way.Undaunted, she found new ways to promote her business in a sea of competition. The unexpected key to her strategy has been nonprofits: “The way we [promoted the business] was we started networking with the nonprofit organizations in town and when they have an auction we will contribute gifts or a unit for six months, sometimes even a year. They will store their merchandise for the auction in our unit for free. So we call those partnerships. It helps their nonprofit organization because it gives them an opportunity to accumulate gifts and store them here.”
Minding The Storage:
PHOTO BY FRANK GONZALESOwner Klara Bergman and Facilities Manager Ashley Martins focus on making their self-storage customers comfortable.
The donation of goods and services has been a resounding success for both Bergman and the nonprofits. Some of the partners include the Boys & Girls Club, the Humane Society, the Good Samaritan Shelter, and United Way. In large part through these partnerships, Bergman has gotten the word out without the need for as much traditional advertising.“At least 60 percent of our business is referral,” she said. While the referrals get customers to take notice, the appearance of the storage facility and Bergman’s understanding of business policies are what make long-term customers. Unlike the ubiquitous trailer- or warehouse-style storage facilities, Roemer Way looks like a home. After all, Bergman said she used the same colors and furniture as she had in her own home: “I wanted [the business] to have a feeling of not being a warehouse and being inviting. We have customers that come in and say, ‘Wow, this is so relaxing,’” she said. The same welcoming theme is at the core of Bergman’s rental policies: “We try to be lenient and understanding because we understand the economic times. It’s very difficult right now.”Even when the economy is booming, trips to the self-storage facility aren’t often made for happy reasons.
“We have to take into consideration that most of the time when people store, it’s for unpleasant reasons. It’s a death, a divorce, a parent going into a nursing home, just unusual, sad circumstances,” she said.To help customers in difficulty, Bergman often lends them units to help consolidate their goods into smaller spaces or to downsize from two units to one and either sell or throw away unwanted items. This way customers pay less—but because the price is more manageable, they make payments more reliably.Despite this, when people abuse the system, they often lose their goods in auctions. And it’s in auctions—such as the one that happened Jan.9—that the image of Storage Wars and Bergman’s own experience diverge. On the one hand the shows have made auctions more popular: “Five years ago, we were lucky if we had three or four people show up for an auction. As soon as that first show came on the air, the first time following that show, we had 30 people come by. I was shocked.” On the other hand, auctions are never the desired outcome for anyone except the auction winners.“It’s good for [auction attendees], but it’s a lose-lose proposition for the landlord and the tenant, because we can never recover our money. The tenant loses their merchandise, which is sad, and we lose the money, which is sad. I would say if we recoup a third of what they owe us, we are doing great,” she said.As a result Bergman is no fan of such shows: “It’s the essence of one man’s loss is another man’s gain.” Instead, Bergman focuses on the positive aspects of her work: “I like the people. I enjoy interacting with people and helping them solve their problems.”For more information about Roemer Way Self-Storage—located on 330 Roemer Way in Santa Maria—call 347-9111 or go to santamaria-selfstorage.com.Thursday, February 14, 2013 Volume: 13, Issue: 49