The self-storage industry remains resilient as it deals with more than six-months of economic uncertainty amid the coronavirus pandemic, say two leaders of third-party management firm Absolute Storage Management (ASM).

The Memphis, Tennessee-based firm, founded in 2002, has grown substantially since launching with just three team members and one management contract. Today it has offices in Nashville, Atlanta, Jackson, Mississippi, and Charlotte, North Carolina, and manages over 140 storage facilities in 16 states, mainly across the South and Midwest.

“The industry is still fairly resilient,” says Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Barnett. “Our rentals are still above last years’ and vacates are still lower,” but she said past-due-rent accounts are trending higher than they were last year

ASM typically lets a unit go 90 days delinquent or longer before it begins the process of auctioning contents.

The industry, nationally, has been buoyed by a strong housing market and Barnett said she’s seen anecdotal evidence that housing is driving at least some of the nation’s demand for self storage as consumers seek out temporary storage in between moves.

“Homes sales are starting to slow as we get into the fourth quarter, but we are seeing a trend of new home construction in which these homes are nearing completion although it’s hard to predict what that will mean for self-storage,” she says.

Coronavirus impacts

When the coronavirus pandemic hit the shores of the United States earlier this year, it pushed the self-storage industry to more fully adopt online rentals, QR code access and electronic payments.

“We closed our doors for a period of time and it forced us to make online rentals and payments more convenient to the consumer,” Barnett says.

Prior to COVID-19, some of the facilities it manages had only about 10 percent of its units rented online; those properties saw online rentals balloon to about 50 percent as COVID-19 began to spread in the U.S. As infections ebb in certain areas, however, the amount of online activity also has declined, she says.

Still, with the overall increase in online activity, ASM has been able to achieve cost-savings by reducing its personnel headcount at the storage facilities it manages. The company was 75 percent through a new online rental and payment management system when COVID shut down the U.S. economy this spring. That forced ASM’s hand to complete the project more quickly than it had anticipated.

Pioneering women in management

Absolute Storage Management Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Barnett (left) and Vice President of Operations Michelle Dean

ASM recently promoted Michelle Dean to vice president of operations. From Dean’s base in Charlotte, she will collaborate directly with Barnett to manage the company’s portfolio.

Dean joined the company about 10 years ago as a part-time assistant manager in Concord, NC, and worked her way up. Most recently, she worked as the firm’s senior regional manager supervising self-storage properties across several states. In her new role, she will supervise and develop a team of regional managers, prepare and review budgets and financial reports, and provide client relations to self-storage owners.

“I worked my way up and they fostered my growth and have been open to showing me the self-storage industry and showing me the industry,” Dean says.

Besides Barnett and Dean, ASM’s chief business development officer, its vice president of human resources and its vice president of marketing are also women.

Barnett, who is based in Athens, GA, said the company looks for employees with leadership potential.

“This company identifies people who work really hard and who have a desire for growth and we invest in those people,” she said. “I started with the company 13 years ago as a property manager. It’s a cool story.”

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Kerry Curry