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Working Together, Separately (Or, Why I Hate Managing Self Storage and Will Never Go Back to It)
My spouse and I got married because we really appreciate each other and enjoy being together. We play off each other, strengthen each other’s weaknesses, finish each other’s thoughts. We’ve frequently said, only half jokingly, that the two of us combined make one full person. That’s probably the main reason why, shortly after uniting fourteen years ago, we decided that we would like to have a job, or a career if you prefer, where we could work together, side by side, as a team. (Something neither one of us would have ever considered with our previous spouses.)
The idea of going into our own business was not realistic at that point (no funds, no collateral), so we set out to find an industry that would hire a married couple to work as a team. Finally we spotted a help wanted ad in the paper for a self storage resident management couple to live on site and manage the ins and outs of a self storage facility. The job description was enticing and sounded like it was right up our alley, not to mention the fact that experience in self storage was not required, so we decided to jointly apply, and we were hired.
We moved into the on-site apartment, nervously enthusiastic about getting started on our new endeavor. We had already began planning our strategy as far as how we would assume our joint management responsibilities and how we would divide up the specifics of each task that we were expected to accomplish as a team. My spouse is the more outgoing verbal ‘people person’, while I’m the ‘behind the scenes’ administrative one, so we naturally decided to work with that, and incorporate our individual strengths and weaknesses to get the job done. Of course there’s always a learning curve, but for the most part, based on the job description we had received, we were cautiously confident that we pretty much had it figured out.
Being naive about the self storage industry, ideally we should have taken the time to do more investigative homework. But we were anxious for the job, and grateful to get it, so we jumped in head first with blinders on.
Our plan to share both inside and outside duties ran into a bit of a snag almost instantly. I suddenly found myself alone inside the office, flying solo, doing all the storage unit rentals, making and receiving all the phone calls, greeting all the customers and tenants, while my husband was outside mowing the lawn, cleaning units, and doing yard work and facility repairs. Not quite how we pictured it during the interview. Occasionally our paths would cross, like when he came inside to use the bathroom, or when we ate lunch together. Other than that, we had managed to slip into the mode of him doing his thing and me doing mine, despite our original understanding that the arrangement would be US doing OUR thing, jointly, not separately.
I was more than willing to assist him with the outside work, when our schedule permitted it, which in our opinion was not a problem, since we did, after all, live right there on site, and our ‘on duty’ hours were more than flexible. And he, as an experienced white collar employee and marketing whiz, had no qualms about being the ‘voice’ of the office, allowing me to contentedly fit into my preferred ‘behind the scenes’ administrative comfort zone.
When we casually mentioned our concerns to upper management regarding the apparent misunderstanding, we were told in no uncertain terms that the wife was to be the manager of the facility, principally in charge of the office and everything related to it, while the husband was to be strictly maintenance. What? Suddenly the ‘management team’ was not a team at all.
Needless to say, this situation did not make me happy, and my spouse wasn’t too thrilled about it either, especially when our supervisor instructed him that he was not even to set foot in the office unless absolutely necessary. And things got progressively worse. Soon my spouse was being summoned to other facilities to assist with maintenance there. Then his hours were cut from full-time to part-time, and he was still expected to get everything done that was required at OUR facility. The whole situation was getting old. We had taken our lumps, adjusted to our learning curve, and now it was time to move on. After a year and a half, we made the decision to stay in self storage management, but look for a better match, another company more attuned to our desire to work together as a team, and not merely as two unrelated individuals who just happened to be employed by the same company.
We crossed state lines to interview for our next self storage resident management team position, and were greeted by a graciously cordial southern couple, owners of the company and its four facilities. We recognized them from the photo they had faxed to us previously, insisting that we fax them a photo of ourselves as well.
They paid for our hotel room (we stayed the night) and met us for breakfast the next day, their treat, so we could get to know each other. My spouse went with the flow, like he always does, while I, being socially inept, struggled to maintain the appearance of self confidence and interest in what was being said, especially when they started sharing stories about their life, encouraging us to do the same.
Nevertheless, we did get the job, receiving a phone call offer shortly after we arrived back home that night. We hated the company we were currently working for so much by this time that we gladly accepted the position, in spite of the fact that we never actually discussed with our new employers the details of how we like to work together as a team and assist each other with all duties, both inside the office and outside on the grounds, and despite the owners’ requirement that my husband shave off his well groomed beard.
“I don’t like it, but it’s your decision,” I remember telling him.
“It’ll always grow back,” he said reluctantly.
So we relocated and began our new adventure, taking our limited self storage experience with us, hopeful, though admittedly not totally convinced, that this position would be an improvement over the last one.
We worked extremely hard at that facility. The owners refused to hire a landscaper, despite the property’s size and logistics, so we had our hands full (more like overflowing) with mowing, flower planting, bush sculpting, tree trimming, weeding and watering, not to mention storage unit cleaning and an abundance of other maintenance duties too convoluted to describe here. All of this, of course, was in addition to the office administration part of the job. The owner didn’t believe in computers (no joke), so all reports and other paperwork were to be done manually. Payments were taken using the one write system, letters were created on an old typewriter, using carbon paper for copies, end of the month reports were written out by hand and calculated using an adding machine.
I will not embarrass myself by revealing the meager salary we were receiving for all of the above, but trust me, it definitely was not worth it. Nevertheless, we did our best to keep up with everything that needed to be done, and frankly, we did a first-rate job. My spouse and I looked like hell, but the property was in great shape.
Well, we were pretty much ignored by upper management until the economy started suffering in the area where we lived and worked. The railroad, which was the township’s primary source of employment and income, was losing money, so workers began losing their jobs. The situation snowballed, affecting everything and everybody. Retail stores and businesses began closing, malls were emptying out, and since the unemployed couldn’t find work locally, people started moving out of the area.
Naturally this was also having an effect on the self storage industry. People weren’t going to rent units that they couldn’t pay for, so new rentals were few and far between, and move-outs were abundant. Predictably, the whole situation was affecting our profit and loss numbers in a bad way.
According to the owners, our facility was spiraling downward due to the fact that we weren’t spending enough time in the office. They alleged that the two of us were outside too much, and that no one was available to greet potential customers that would increase business. New rule #1: One of us had to be in the office at all times, no exceptions. New rule #2: The office was too small for two people to work effectively, so the other one of us was to stay outside.
And so it began. My spouse was outside working like a dog under the whip and sweating like a pig with a fever, while I sat in the office doing pretty much nothing. Oh yeah, this makes sense. And it’s really improving the situation too.
This is where your brain splits into two personalities, like the bad twin and the good twin. (Except in my case, it’s usually the bad twin and the ‘lesser of two evils’ twin.) One personality says, “Fine. If this is what you want, fine. I’ll just sit here and get paid for nothing, what do I care?, while the facility goes down the toilet because my husband can’t keep up with it.” The other personality says, “This is stupid and ridiculous. I can’t do this. I’m going back outside.” Needless to say, I chose the latter.
One hot summer day the two of us were outside, sweating profusely, cleaning a 10×30 unit that would be rented the following morning, when the owners showed up unexpectedly. We were gone less than a week later.
A husband and wife losing their home plus both their jobs at the exact same time is a shock, to say the least. Having virtually no money and being given three days to get out is devastating. We decided to go back to our home state, so we could, if nothing else, at least see familiar surroundings and enjoy long-missed foods that weren’t available at our current location.
Six ‘seems like forever’ months later, we were finally hired by another self storage company. It started out as a resident management team position, but through a bizarre string of unforeseen events, we ended up being switched to a different facility that did not have an apartment on the property. Yet, we could both work there as a ‘team’.
The idea of being able to rent our very own, personally selected apartment away from the facility, and not being required to live on site, was exhilarating, and we were only too pleased to make the switch.
Traveling back and forth between work and home was refreshing. Being able to lock up the facility and office, and actually leave for the evening, was wonderful. The pay was above average, so we were able to catch up on all our back bills, which had steadily accumulated since being employed by the last self storage company.
But for all intents and purposes, the method of operation was the same. One of you outside, one of you inside, was the rule. My spouse didn’t have an issue with it, not really. Admittedly, I was the problem, and have been since day one of our working in the self storage environment.
I’m an introvert. And I’m unyielding and pigheaded about it too. There’s no way that I’m going to change, I don’t want to change. This is me, and I like me the way I am. I’m not a ‘people person’. I am not the epitome of excellent customer service. Working in Wal-mart as a cashier would put me right over the edge. For someone like myself, being alone in a one-person office, left to answer the phone and greet obnoxious customers all day long, is one step below torture. Super friendly, outgoing, people-loving extroverts will never understand that. But it’s okay… I don’t understand them either.
Plus, I have no particular interest in the self storage industry. The only reason I even got into it was to work side by side with my spouse. I would never, ever apply to a self storage company by myself. I’d go back to what I used to do before we met, sitting behind a cubicle at a computer with my feet up, next to an IN box filled to the max with documents waiting to be typed and/or edited. Ah, heaven.
Somewhere along the way, it got to the point where we agreed to take a break from self storage management and start our own business. It was a sure fire way to work together as a husband and wife team on our own terms, plus we had been able to save a little money that we could use to get ourselves started. A couple of years later, following a debilitating crash and burn, plus a short and distasteful attempt at co-managing a retirement facility, we found ourselves on the internet, applying once more for self storage management team positions, dismissing our own ‘three strikes and you’re out’ promise to each other that we would not go back to that again.
“It’s all we know anymore,” he said. “We’re good at it.”
“Oy,” I sighed, wanting to shoot us both.
We were hired by a perky, personable, seemingly understanding regional manager, who flew out to where my spouse and I were living specifically to interview us. She asked if we were willing to relocate to Florida. The thought had never occurred to us, and we had no major objections right off the bat. She then arranged for the company to pay all of our relocation expenses, which was an unexpected pleasant surprise to say the least. Talk about an offer you can’t refuse.
She didn’t appear to have a problem at all with the way we wanted to manage the facility. We explained our system for working together and getting things done most effectively, and we made sure she was clear on how we liked to share responsibilities and tasks both inside the office and outside on the grounds. We even told her that the two of us together made one complete person. She basically responded that it didn’t matter to her which one of us did it, or how we did it, as long as everything got done. And not necessarily all at once either. As long as she saw some degree of progress, she said, that would be more than fine. Whichever way we wanted to work it was okay with her. Wow, did we finally end up at the right place?
“Home at last,” said my husband.
“We’ll see. I hope so,” said I.
Our first year in Florida, under her supervision, was as close as you’re ever going to get to self storage paradise in this lifetime. Our regional manager was true to her word, basically leaving us alone and letting us do the job. She appreciated our slightly bizarre sense of humor, which most people don’t seem to, plus she would bring us fun little presents, including desserts, and things to decorate the office. She seemed to respect us, our experience, and the fact that we really did know what we were doing. We genuinely liked her.
Then, just like that, to our horror, our regional manager left the company. She had been out of commission for some weeks, but we just assumed she’d be back once she felt better. According to rumor control, stress was to blame for her ill health, which apparently was not improving. She and her husband both worked for the company (he was the one who trained us), but they rarely even saw each other because they were forever being sent to different locations for extended periods of time. They had started out, way back when, working together at the same site, but that arrangement was short lived. With promotion came separation. She had hinted to us a couple of times that she was tired of them always being apart, and that all her traveling was taking a toll on her.
The regional manager who replaced her had been just recently promoted. He and his spouse were hired by the company about a year before we were hired, and they were managing a facility in southern Florida, or she was anyway. His wife preferred to run the office on her own, complaining that when he hung around, he was always under foot. So essentially he became the maintenance man, landscaper, and marketer for his facility.
Then, with his so-called promotion came extensive traveling to several states for long periods of time. It got to the point where he was rarely home. When asked, he insisted adamantly that it was not a problem, that his wife was a big girl who could take care of herself. He did seem to have a problem, though, with the way we managed OUR facility, although he never did say too much about it directly. Only his frequent little remarks and innuendos about our ‘togetherness’ gave him away.
As time passed, we couldn’t help but notice that he was looking more and more tired. Eventually he fell quite ill and was forced to work from home, ironically, but not before he made arrangements for my spouse and myself to be replaced by other managers. That’s right, once again we lost our home and both of our jobs, with three days to get out. We never saw it coming.
Last thing we heard about the new resident management couple was that the wife was running the office, and her husband was outside doing all the landscaping and maintenance. Never the two paths shall cross.
Working together, separately. I guess my husband and I just don’t fit into the mold. But, ha! The joke’s on them, because really, we don’t want to.
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