Q&A: FreeUp Storage bolsters leadership team with key appointments

Al Harris
April 10, 2024

Spartan Investment Group, a Colorado-based real estate investment firm focusing on the self-storage sector, recently hired Melissa Robbins as vice president of marketing and Derrick Harris as vice president of operations for its national banner, FreeUp Storage.

Melissa Robbins brings over fifteen years of experience in strategic marketing programs for multifamily properties, having served as senior director of marketing at Greystar prior to joining FreeUp. Derrick Harris, on the other hand, boasts a robust background in executive leadership with a focus on operations, having held the position of senior operations manager at Store Space Self Storage.

In her role as VP of marketing, Robbins will spearhead the development and execution of FreeUp Storage’s marketing strategy, with a focus on customer acquisition and brand establishment. Meanwhile, Harris will be tasked with optimizing operational procedures and enhancing the overall customer experience.

These strategic hires come as the self-storage industry faces a period of slow demand and low prices. Investing in marketing to attract a steady flow of customers and operations to improve efficiency is a logical move for Spartan as it seeks to continue its rapid growth.

Founded in 2014 and headquartered in Golden, Colorado, Spartan Investment Group is a privately held real estate investment firm specializing in the self-storage industry. It has over 5,000 investors and has raised $450 million to acquire nearly 60 facilities totaling 30,000 units and $500 million in assets under management across the United States in under a decade.

Following the news of the strategic appointments at FreeUp Storage, the SpareFoot Storage Beat caught up with Melissa Robbins and Derrick Harris to discuss their new roles and their vision for the future of the company.

What has drawn you to work in the self-storage industry? How did your work in multi-family prepare you for this new role?

Melissa Robbins: As a real estate investor myself, I was drawn to self-storage because of the unique asset class and potential for returns. When an opportunity arose to learn a new asset class at a quality organization like Spartan, that was attractive.

So far, my experience in multifamily has served me well at Spartan. The biggest benefit coming from a global real estate player is the knowledge of how to scale and that is where my team spends the most time. We are currently developing strategies around automation, AI, and big data so we can grow and scale in a healthy way.

It has recently been reported that millennials are the largest cohort of storage customers, is that true within your portfolio?

Robbins: Our Free Up Storage locations are in secondary and tertiary markets which brings a varied demographic to each. Overall, when we look at our website audience we see Millennials and Gen X as our largest users with Gen Z growing over time. This data allows us to engage with and provide assistance to our customers at critical moments in their lives. Older millennials nearing their mid-40s or Gen X customers are often orchestrating their child’s move-out or return home and need additional storage. At the same time, they may be helping aging parents downsize while they may be moving, remodeling, or downsizing themselves.

How do you intend to target this segment?

Robbins: To better serve our customer base, we’ve been experimenting with specific keyword strategies, retargeting, and geofencing techniques with success. At our facilities, we’re testing smart technology and are making improvements to our online leasing and self-service technologies to save our customers time and improve their experiences. Looking even further ahead, I see a technology-focused future where products and services are streamlined, automated, AI-infused, and fully integrated and it’s exciting to have this opportunity with Spartan to help shape our future.

What is the biggest business challenge you face as you look at the self-storage industry, especially heading into the busy leasing season?

Robbins: Increasing competition and rising marketing costs are our biggest challenges currently. However, the storage industry is ripe for disruption and we are already seeing new technology partners serving storage to improve our efficiency, lower costs, and increase customer satisfaction.

Derrick Harris: The most significant operational challenge we face heading into the lease-up season is driving rates while increasing occupancy. The fair market value for a standard 10×10 has dropped dramatically over the last 12 months, and it doesn’t seem that it will increase significantly in the near future.

What do you hope to accomplish in the first six months on the job?

Harris: I will be very focused on coaching our team toward operational excellence, strategic digital marketing, and rate and expense management. We all want to have a successful year and make sure FreeUp Storage stands out as a leader in the space.

The industry is in a bit of a slow phase due to the sluggish housing market, what is your approach to increasing efficiency under such conditions? What tools or strategies do you find most effective?

Harris: In a market like we are experiencing now, it is essential that we prioritize customer needs, be proactive with communications, and ensure that the rental process is streamlined and easy to navigate. There are no second chances in such a competitive market. We must be open, available, and rent-ready to be successful.

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