Cris Burnam has been working in the self-storage industry since 1987. He has served as president of StorageMart since founding the company with his brother Mike Burnam in 1999. Cris grew StorageMart from a single self-storage facility into the world’s largest privately owned self-storage company, with 149 locations across the U.S. and Canada.
Cris was named a 2014 EY Entrepreneur Of The Year in the Services/Real Estate category for the Central Midwest region — one of the highest honors an American entrepreneur can receive.
Why did you choose the self-storage industry for your career?
My family has been in many different businesses because my father has always been a serial entrepreneur. Most of them had a strong real estate flavor.
When he decided to get into the storage business in 1973, it was clearly a case of being in the right place at the right time. It was the beginning of an industry. We had the opportunity to shape the way the self-storage industry grew and develop strong relationships with other self-storage founders. I’ve been around it since I was 10 years old, so you could say I grew up in the storage business.
What are a few trends in the self-storage industry that really excite you?
Consumer trends in self-storage indicate that customers expect more convenience, cleaner stores, and climate-controlled spaces. Customers want it to be easy to do business, and we do our best to make it easy to transact and provide convenient locations and friendly service. How can we make it easier for customers to do business with StorageMart? That’s a fundamental principal that will bring success in any business.
What’s the best piece of advice you have for entrepreneurs about entering into business with a family member?
It’s the best move you’ll ever make if you and your family members can share a vision of the future you can create together. If the vision isn’t there and the interests aren’t aligned, then it isn’t going to work. But that’s true for any business, not just a family business.
How does your commitment to your community translate into your business?
As a self-storage business, we have the unique opportunity to provide local nonprofit groups with the space they need to make a difference. We all benefit when our community is healthy and thriving, and we’re able to partner with groups by simply offering a place to store their children’s theater equipment, Little League gear, or emergency response packages.
We’re also a co-founder of Charity Storage, an organization that allows people to drop off unwanted (but still valuable) items for auction in our monthly lien sales. The proceeds are donated to various local charities and Kure It Cancer Research.
Spreading goodwill within our communities is something I believe will always come back favorably. We’ve also been able to make strategic partnerships with a few notable folks like the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts and our friends at “Storage Wars” — Candy Olsen, Courtney Wagner, and Dan Dotson.
What are some keys to keeping a consistent brand for StorageMart across multiple cultures and countries?
We focus on the customer first, and that makes StorageMart strong in every local market. When we get that right, our customers are happy, and they share their good experiences with their friends. We have a strong brand.
Through our beacon charity program, Charity Storage, we select local nonprofit groups to partner with. Using the Charity Storage program strengthens the brand and provides an opportunity to connect locally, making us relevant to the community and culture.
For instance, we partner with Wayside Waifs in the Kansas City metropolitan area, which is a widely known animal rescue organization. In Canada, we partner with Skate To Great, which provides skates and ice time for kids across the country who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity. These are two great groups with local appeal, and we value their contribution to our communities.
Company culture also goes a long way toward implementing a customer-centric brand. If our employees have all the support, training, and acknowledgement they need, then they’re confident in their job and happy to greet customers. Building a positive employee culture by establishing expectations and an attainable reward system helps us scale our customer values all the way from my desk to the front desk at the store.
Being accessible and sending out kudos when someone does something great is crucial, as well. Being noticed or recognized for a job well done reinforces good service and sparks others to follow suit.
All of the above are important, but the overarching theme is fantastic customer service provided by great employees at impeccably clean stores equipped with outstanding features. When we consistently execute on these items, our brand is not only strong; it’s unbeatable.
How does your strong background as an entrepreneur influence how you make decisions?
Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough. Launch something that will improve your business, and then expand upon it. Perfect is a journey, not a destination. Always try to predict the latest trends.
For example, we saw that consumers wanted climate-controlled self-storage, so we began building some of the first multi-level, fully climate-controlled storage facilities. We build stores that have state-of-the-art features like indoor loading bays that are heated and air conditioned, carpeted facilities that prevent dust creation and accumulation, and technology that delivers the fastest rental experience possible. That’s valuable to customers.
But all these things have come about due to our relentless drive to improve our product. One of the most important things I do is wander around our markets, stores, competitors, and similar businesses searching for the next big thing. It’s vital to watch, listen, and learn what customers really want.
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