Mini Storage Messenger, December 2004 | Wesco Storage

By Jennifer Hollingsworth

B lazing a trail that others are sure to follow, Wesco Self-Storage Center opened its doors in Torrance, Calif. on May 4, 2004, made pos sible by the vision of one man and the expertise of another. This merging of idea and ability may not have materialized if owner Tom Colich and developer Ed Detrich, both based in Torrance, Calif., hadn't met by chance at an American Rental Association conference in New Orleans.

"Tom really wanted to put in a tool and equip ment rental business," says Detrich, president and COO of Wesco Rental Businesses, LP. "I did a demographic study for him and found the market to be very ripe for it. While we were talking, Tom said, 'I've always wanted to put in a self-storage facility, but could never find anybody who could tell me what to do and who I was comfortable with.' I said, 'Gee Tom, that's funny because we've only talked about tool and equipment so far, but I've been in the self-storage business for about 30 years.'" Thus spawned the partnership that would forever alter the equation of self-storage.

Onto Something Good

What makes Wesco Self-Storage Center so remarkable is that it's an integral cog in the wheel of five businesses that reside under the guise of Wesco Rental Businesses. Consisting of Wesco Tool & Equipment Rental, Wesco Contractor Supply & Sales, Wesco Party & Special Events Rental & Sales, Wesco Self-Storage Center, and the Coffee Beanery, this unique conglomeration is presenting a self-storage concept like none other before it. "The idea with the retail entities is that we started looking for ones that would work with this facility, because we wanted to own and manage all of them," says Detrich. "Fortunately, a property came available on a five-acre parcel a mere two blocks from corporate headquarters. We put a bid on it and got it." Moreover, the 110,000 square-foot property had already received seismic retrofit prior to purchase, making it more feasible for the task at hand.

Wesco Rental Businesses chose Centershift management software not only for management of the facility, but to tie all of the retail businesses together. "They wanted all of their different retail shops to be able to settle to the same merchant account from a credit card standpoint, so we worked with them to make sure that could occur," says Terry Bagley, president and CEO of Centershift in Salt Lake City, Utah.

While inserting self-storage into mixed-use developments has been done, positioning a facility into a mixed-use development designed and owned by the same entity is certainly a novelty in the industry. "To our knowledge it's the first concept like this anywhere in the country," says Detrich. "The stymieing part about it is that we did a demographic on each of these businesses-the synergy of each is based off the other, because the same demographics use all of the businesses we put in. It's been unique-it's been so fun. I've put up a lot of storage facilities, but this has been the most unique and most challenging one that I've done, because most of the others were cookie-cutter types."

The excitement over this new concept is contagious. "I think they're onto something," says Bagley. "They're setting new market standards-a really high watermark. Many people are looking to copy their success."

While the completed product stands as a testament to the blood, sweat, and tears that went into its design and construction, it artfully disguises the challenges that were overcome in order for that work to take place.

An Extraordinary Conversion

The uniqueness of this facility begins with its design, as each of the business elements meld together to collectively resemble a strip shopping mall. While it was cost-effective to convert a warehouse into a self-storage facility, no expense was spared in making it a top-notch, state-of-the-art center.

"It is absolutely more unique than any self-storage we've done, especially with the retail combination," says Donnie Gerault, project manager for Austin, Texas-based MST Constructors, Inc. "The amount of retail and cosmetic improvements that we did to that conversion made it unique. We've never done that much to a storage facility ever."

After securing the property, Colich and Detrich initiated the plan by hiring one of the self-storage industry's premiere architectural firms, Jordan Architects, Inc., based in San Clemente, Calif. "The look is contemporary and strong, with a storefront," says Bruce Jordan, president of Jordan Architects, Inc. "The challenge for us was to convert an ugly, old warehouse into a beautiful, state-of-the-art building."

This now-modern building is flanked by stainless steel columns and a two-story glass atrium which holds the office, also outfitted with stainless steel and rich wood. A fountain and patio with wrought-iron tables and chairs welcome those who approach, while a series of lights laced up the palm trees that grace the front of the Coffee Beanery illuminate the exterior at night. The building itself is lit with halogen up and down, proudly displaying the property to the plentiful drive-by traffic.

Far from simplistic, many mountains were scaled during the process. Crews from MST Constructors went to work tearing down the face of the warehouse. Additional floor area for all of the retail establishments and the self-storage showroom was created on the north side of building, with a mezzanine added to the shell of the warehouse to house the second floor of units. The rear of the first floor holds 43,000 square feet of indoor RV parking, which will be developed into self-storage units upon the center reaching 75 percent occupancy.

Ensuring that the customers could drive directly into the facility, Gerault says, "Over 1,000 cubic yards of dirt were brought in to raise the entire site up to seven feet in the back by the loading dock. We also had to relocate the city water line from the back of the property to the front because they could not get enough water to us and the surrounding area."

Detrich adds to the subject of red tape by stating, "We had to apply for a separate use permit for each of the retail entities. With the café, we also had to apply with the health board, and it was the first time that the health board had ever faced the situation of putting a café or food serving into a self-storage facility. They had to rewrite the permitting and zoning. It was a challenge that we mastered, but I had to work with them for two months."

Signage posed another problem with the city of Torrance. "We had to get special permits for signs," says Detrich. "We put up a colorful, bright, illuminated sign that sits 40 feet in the air-like the type used in Las Vegas. Because the city said it was the first sign in that area being put up, we had to introduce the city to this concept, and we brought in a company from Vegas to help us do it."

Another obstacle was that it always seemed to rain whenever a final grade of the property was done. These obstacles derailed their goal of opening in December 2003 after beginning construction in June. While knocked behind by four to five months, the project was still completed under a year's timeless time than usual for a project of such stature.

"What is interesting is that the front of the structure was created with 36-inch steel beams, which are huge for a two-story building," says Gerault. "The section that was added was built like a fortress. If there's an earthquake, I want to be in there."

Unparalleled Security, Solid Components

It's not only the construction of the building that provides strength to the business, but also the state-of-the-art security system installed by Scottsdale, Ariz.-based PTI Integrated Systems. Not only are all storage units armed with individual alarms, but 90 cameras are aimed at various places around the property 24 hours a day, and all are connected to technology's newest Panasonic digital video recorders. A basic alarm panel was supplied for all of the retail businesses, and the manager's residence was outfitted with a home alarm.

"The amount of cameras and presentation of equipment are different from other facilities," says Craig Mayer, Business Development Representative for PTI Integrated Systems. "A lot of facilities might do a couple of monitors to show their cameras, but these guys have four plasma monitors in the office showing all of their camera views, with two additional plasma monitors just for graphics. The cameras have pan-tilt-zoom lenses that allow the user to fine-tune their security and watch someone close-up if necessary."

Biometric thumbprint security, which is lauded by many but obtained by few, governs the elevators and wine storage areas of Wesco Self-Storage Center, providing for a two-tier access control system. "They went all out with the biometrics on this one. It's as state of the art as it gets, notwithstanding iris scans- and that can be incorporated into our application later," says Mayer. Facilities with two-tier access control systems, where one has to gain access with an access card or code first, then gain access to the second floor or wine storage by the right thumbprint after that, are indeed a rare breed because of the supreme expense.

Not only do the special cameras allow the staff to closely watch facility activity, but they allow remote viewing from the Internet by management and customers. "Each RV customer gets an I.P. address, and with a high-speed Internet connection they can actually jump into the digital video recorder and take over control of the pan-tilt-zoom cameras and zoom in on their own unit," says Mayer. "It's great for peace of mind on outdoor storage and a nice touch for people wanting to check on their million-dollar RV."

Solid components including doors, hallways, ceilings and wine units manufactured by Janus International at their new Surprise, Ariz. facility lend to the strength of this storage center as well. Glossy white halls lined with forest green unit doors grace the facility. "Wesco put on all the bells and whistles," states Pat Nesbitt, technical sales representative for Temple, Ga.-based Janus International. "We installed forest green doors on all units and security mesh on the second floor from the top of the units to the ceiling. They even have silver kickplates lining the halls and silver corner guards protecting the corners."

Both challenging and unique, Wesco requested that Janus pop-rivet all of the hallways, instead of using screws, for added smooth appearance. Also unique was the way they were able to circumvent signage mandates with forest green dummy display doors that convey messages to anyone looking in the window. The crowning glory, however, is the 2,200 square-foot wine storage area, which was fitted with custom-made, glossy white doors that fit totally flush against the glossy white units.

Specialties And Amenities

It's an understatement to say the wine storage area at Wesco Self-Storage Center is nice. "The wine storage is a special thing to us because we've looked at a lot of wine storage facilities and we've seen anything from plywood for doors and cabinets to just a piece of metal put up for wine storage," states Detrich. His experiences prompted him to develop one of the most extravagant wine storage centers around, encompassing over 2,200 square feet of temperature and humidity-controlled storage units and offering three different sizes to fit client needs. While the wine storage area is a high-end operation, the elaborate wine tasting room is the icing on the cake.

The 1,000 square-foot wine tasting room is so elaborate that it's sure to start a trend. Graced by stone floors and a fireplace, no expense was spared in its development. "We hired a person from Italy to come in and use the old Tuscan style of graphics, plastering and stonework on the wine tasting area. We have a fireplace in it with a coat of arms, and we've gone to different places and picked up items for it-the table alone was almost $7,000," admits Detrich. "We want to introduce it to private clubs. We have no liquor license, so we just want people to bring their bottles in and sit around, talk and enjoy the ambient atmosphere. There will be no charge for tenants who use the room, only if they want some refreshments, like a cheese tray."

Standing complete, Wesco Self-Storage Center claims 120,000 rentable square feet which encompasses 882 storage units, 61 indoor RV/boat spaces, 65 outdoor RV/boat spaces, a wine storage and tasting room and a business center. RV tenants also have convenient access to a washing station, water and dump facilities, a propane-filling station and electrical hookups. The furnished, two-bedroom manager's residence is also top of the line, featuring fine wood cabinetry, granite countertops and all the amenities possible.

The facility's business center offers a variety of packing and shipping services, a full line of storage-related retail products, some everyday items, and a host of copiers, fax machines, Internet service and mailbox rentals. "We have an Equitrack system built into the machines in the business center, customers can use this with a user-friendly card that tells them how much is on their account," says Detrich. "We also have a rentable conference room with a global videoconferencing center."

As an added convenience, tenants can rent a unit or pay their monthly rent online via capabilities provided by Centershift. An Insomniac kiosk, which also interfaces with Centershift's management software, is posted outside the facility, allowing tenants to rent units and pay rent, and also dispensing insurance, facility maps and locks on the spot.

Value is also present in the midst of all the newness. "We put a 12-foot ceiling on the first floor, instead of a typical eight-foot ceiling," says Detrich. "You can actually take a customer who is currently using a 10-by-20 at another facility, put them in a 10-by-10 here and give them the same cubic feet of storage they had. They pay less and it gives them opportunity to store just as much."

The value and aesthetics of the new center aren't lost on the tenants. "'Wow' is the first word out of a customer's mouth," says Frederick Trujillo, interim manager of the self-storage facility, commenting on the reaction of their customers. "This facility is incredible. They've never seen a storage facility with slate floors, plasma monitors, and leather couches in its lobby."

Set To Excel

Claiming occupancy statistics of 18 percent for storage units, 42 percent for indoor RV/boat spaces and 100 percent for outdoor RV/boat spaces as of September, this facility has gotten a head start in the occupancy game. While they already have a waiting list for outdoor RV spaces, several factors are likely to push occupancy higher in the future.

One of those factors is the Wal-Mart® that is being constructed directly across the street. "We recently found out that there's a possibility they're going to cut a drive-in almost directly across from our property," says Detrich. "That's going to give us a big boost because the customer we target is absolutely the customer who goes to Wal-Mart."

Another factor is the Coffee Beanery Café, which is certain to draw local workers during lunch. "I think a lot of people will be going there because of easy access," says Bagley. "They're in a commercial area where there may not be a lot of convenient places that workers can go to get a sandwich and a good cup of coffee."

Mayer agrees, adding, "It's great to see people out there drinking coffee 10 feet from storage."

Besides high visibility and magnetism from the Coffee Beanery, facility employees are set to excel with special marketing techniques and dreams of expansion. "Our dream is to grow these facilities and continue opening up more tool and equipment rental businesses in the South Bay and in other parts of the country," says Detrich.

With perfect punctuation Gerault adds, "They're like the Rolls Royce of self-storage."

Jennifer S. Hollingsworth is the editor of Self-Storage Now!

This article is provided courtesy of MST Constructors Inc. with the permission of Mini-Storage Messenger magazine. MiniCo, Inc. All Rights Reserved. It is not intended for further reproduction/distribution without the exclusive permission of MiniCo, Inc.