The UK's self storage industry has enjoyed spectacular growth during the last 10 years and is now - according to the Self Storage Association - worth in the region of £355m per year. While the market is still dominated by large multi-centre companies, smaller independent operators are popping up across the country to get their share of the action. The Mover's Deputy Editor David Jordan visited St Johns Self Storage in Leicester - two and a half years after it opened - to see how things are going.
Like most of us these days, I found my way to the St Johns site using my satnav, but when the lady said “you have reached your destination” I found myself in the car park of a garden centre with not a single container in sight. St Johns Self Storage was in fact next door, it seems that having a huge sign and a prime position often favoured by the big players like Safestore and Big Yellow, are no longer necessary for a successful self storage business.
I was met at the entrance to St Johns by owner Russell Mac who entered a number on his phone to open the electronically controlled gate. “Mind the speed humps, they’re a bit vicious,” said Russell. Security was obviously a top priority, as I would see later.
Over a welcome mug of tea Russell explained that his family had owned the three-acre site for over 40 years and until three years ago sold machine tools from the adjacent warehouse. The rest of the site was used to store new cars for local dealers in Leicester.
“The machine tool business was coming to a natural end due to changes in technology, and the car storage was not very profitable,” said Russell. “My uncle had been using a local self storage company and said that it was always full, with a waiting list of people wanting to rent units. That’s what gave us the idea of starting our own self storage company.”
At the time Russell was working as a driver for Eddie Stobart but was persuaded by his father Roger to give up his life on the road and concentrate on developing the new business.
“Initially we thought about buying old shipping containers from wherever we could find them, but we needed them to be presentable, secure and above all dry,” said Russell. “After looking at various suppliers we came upon Mr Box in Ipswich and were impressed with the quality of their units, especially the ventilation system that helps keep everything dry. They’re also a good company to deal with and very reliable.”
“We placed an initial order for ten 20-foot units and within three months they were full, it was amazing,” said Russell. “Since then things have really taken off and we now have a mixture of about 150 40ft and 20ft containers with some divided into individual compartments to make smaller units - they are all full.”
Customers include removals companies needing additional temporary storage, private individuals wanting to store their ‘treasured possessions’ and even car enthusiasts needing extra garage space to keep their classic cars.
“We charge a fixed rate per unit which we publish on our website, we like to keep things simple,” said Russell. “We rent the units by the month so people aren’t locked in to long-term contracts, they can move out anytime they want to.”
Security is of course very important and the Macs have invested in the latest technology to keep things safe, including CCTV which monitors the site 24/7 and an electronic entry system that checks everyone on and off the site. The system also shows the status of every customer’s account, sends out monthly invoices and flags up any customers who are in arrears.
“The place more or less runs itself, but you do need to be a little cautious about who you let the units to,” said Russell. “You don’t want someone to dump a load of asbestos for example, or fill it with old tyres and never come back. You could end up with a big problem and a hefty bill.”
Anyone considering starting a self storage business needs to consider planning permission and how their Council Tax will be affected. The Macs were already using the site for car storage so there was no problem with planning regulations, but their Council Tax has gone up six fold since they opened and it’s increasing rapidly as the business develops. All things considered Russell is certain they made the right decision.
“Starting St Johns Self Storage was the best thing we’ve ever done,” said Russell. “We’ve plenty of room for more containers and it seems there’s no shortage of customers, so we’re looking forward to expanding the business during the next few years. If you’re in the right location and have the space and enough capital to invest in the best equipment, it’s well worth giving self storage a try.”
Photos: Top - Russell Mac; Right - The site currently comproses 150 units; Left - Screens show activity on site and the status of each unit.
About Mr Box
Mr Box specialises in supplying containers for the self storage industry and is a member of the Self Storage Association. The company supplies containers to over 50 existing self storage clients.
Mr Box has enjoyed considerable growth since it was formed in 2000 and is now one of the UK’s largest suppliers of storage containers with a hire fleet of more than 2,000 units and annual unit sales of around 1,200. About 40% of the company’s business is in the self storage sector. Using sea or metal storage containers is an easy way to get into the business, all you need is the space to site them and you can expand the capacity simply by adding more units as you need them. There’s no need for a building because all the units are fully weatherproof and secure. Mr Box imports new containers specially adapted for the storage industry, with extra ventilation and added security among the enhancements to ensure the containers are ideal for domestic storage. Around half the units Mr Box supplies are modified in some way. For example, a 40ft container can be sub-divided into eight five foot compartments each with its own multi-lever security lock and anti-jemmy flanges. Using units like this greatly increases the return on investment for the self storage operator.
With over 12 years’ experience Mr Box is keen to attract more people to the self storage industry and is happy to offer free advice to anyone thinking of entering the business. Sarah Jones, General Manager at Mr Box said, “We supply about 50 self storage companies in the UK and we’ve helped many of them to get started by advising them on things like planning the site, security, obtaining planning permission and drawing up terms and conditions. We also help find leads for our customers through our website www.mrbox.co.uk. People looking for somewhere to store their belongings just enter their location and details on the site and we pass the lead onto the closest company to them. After all, the quicker they fill their boxes the more boxes well sell or rent!”
Mr Box also supplies access staircases and gantries for multi-level installations, high-security padlocks and all other ancillary equipment needed to set up and run a self storage business. “We aim to be a one-stop shop for the self storage industry,” said Sarah.
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