It’s doubtful if a textbook has been published on how to take over another self storage company and integrate it with your own. This meant that Steve Williams and his newly formed integration team had to rely on experience to take them through the process when Safestore completed the acquisition of Mentmore (Spaces) in June last year.
The addition of the Spaces stores means that Safestore is the only national UK self storage company, trading from 70 stores and three business centres across Scotland, Wales and all regions of England. In addition there are seven stores in Paris, trading under the Une Piece en Plus (UPP) brand.
When it became apparent that Mentmore could be up for sale Steve Williams and Dave Davies (head of operations) went on an investigative tour visiting every Spaces store.
“We visited every one to get a view of the business and the people,” said Dave. They built up a comprehensive analysis of the portfolio on a store-by-store basis that was to prove invaluable in the following months.
An integration team of Dave Davies, Stuart Beavers, Avril Jones and Bijal Dohdia was selected because they each had relevant experience and expertise. Steve had started his career as store manager at Payless DIY in 1971 eventually becoming operations director for Payless and thence for Wickes and Pet City/Petsmart before joining Safestore.
At Payless DIY and Pet City he was involved in both acquisitions and re-branding. Dave (operations), Stuart (administration), Avril (human resources) and Bijal (IT) also had extensive on the job experience of mergers, acquisitions and integration. The team concentrated on putting together an acquisition strategy document supported by a detailed critical path and action plan. The document covered every aspect of the business and acquisition, including a full assessment of risks, threats and opportunities. The plan is still reviewed on a very regular basis.
“One of the most important factors was to start working towards ‘one company – one team’ from the off and for all staff to understand the benefits, opportunities and responsibilities associated with being the UK’s number one self storage company,” said Steve.
To this end, “A national managers’ conference was held within a week of the two businesses coming together where we got everyone together and outlined our plans for the integration of the larger business. Two senior managers from France were also there,” recalled Steve.
“We decided not to impose policy on the French operation – it was up to them to accept or ignore our suggestions, but they have accepted 80% of our operational procedures as well as increasing merchandising and larger and more open reception areas,” said Steve.
The major thrust of the integration was around the “way forward” programme, which was a 24 week programme designed to introduce common working practices, the achievement of a minimum store standard and a unified approach to sales and customer service across the whole enlarged business.
Over a four-week period following the merger, every manager and assistant manager attended a training course in sales skills and customer service, and new policies and procedures were introduced via regular managers meetings throughout the programme.
Without doubt, however the biggest challenge was to get all stores to a consistent standard of cleanliness and appearance. The responsibility for this was given to the store managers and their teams who personally undertook a co-ordinated cleaning and painting programme over September, October and November, after which they remain responsible for the ongoing cleaning.
The reason for this, Steve stresses, is to give the store team ownership of, and pride in their store. For the record some 2.5 million sq ft of floor has been painted and over £100,000 paid in bonuses to staff at all levels upon successful completion.
“Alongside the staff’s efforts to paint and clean, we had outstanding work and repairs completed on the newly acquired stores, and we have had over 1,000 urgently required units built since June, said Steve.
All stores will be re-branded Safestore by the end of 2005, with the first store completed at Orpington in Kent in early December 2004.
One of the first, and biggest tasks facing the team was to amalgamate three head offices, two of Mentmore and one of Safestore’s, in to one combined function. This was achieved within seven weeks, and the head office now occupies an impressive modern and spacious open plan office adjacent to the existing Safestore store in Borehamwood.
As head of IT, Bijal took responsibility for integrating the management information and finance data for the two companies. The management information system chosen was Spacemanager for Windows, which was the system operated by Safestore.
This had been running on a centralised server for over 18 months and was proven, efficient, reliable and allowed the production of real-time information in a timely manner.
To run the enlarged company an enhanced trading board headed by Steve and including Dave Davies and Glen Sullivan Bissett, respective divisional directors for North and South, finance director Richard Hodsden, property director.
Neil Moulder, HR director Avril Jones, and marketing director Ian Nash was formed.
The day-to-day operation of the stores is the responsibility of the divisional directors who have seven regional managers and two auditors – who monitor security, health and safety and administration – reporting to them.
“The principle of having auditors works well as they help ensure each store delivers compliance to company policies and a standardised service to all our customers. Each site is graded red, amber or green on a number of criteria, which identifies items which need addressing on a store by store basis,” said Steve.
To date both Spaces and Safestore have performed above budget. “We are the No.1 self storage provider in the UK in terms of customer numbers, square footage, revenue and profit, but in this industry, where we are all basically selling the same product, it is your people that will make the real difference. This is why so much emphasis will be put on training and inspiring our people, alongside our investment in improved services and facilities,” said Steve.
He is on record as saying that competition in the industry will continue to intensify and any business that wants to remain successful must respond and continue to up their game if they want to survive long term.
“Standards will continue to rise and to remain successful you have to keep improving; this business is improving at a rapid pace and you need to keep running to just to stand still. With new stores such as Staples Corner and Charlton we have stores that are equal to any.”
Safestore is targeting to open 30 more stores in the UK and France over the next five years. In addition it may continue on the acquisition trail if any good quality and reasonably priced companies come their way. This could be in the UK or mainland Europe.
“We are not here for the short term,” says Steve, who stated that one of the company’s key visions was “to build a profitable and sustainable business”.
This means that the company will continue to invest in the business and its staff, through both the opening of new stores and the continued enhancement of services and facilities across the existing portfolio.
Safestore have a very detailed property strategy to aid expansion. The next new store is due to open on Pentonville Road in London this April followed by two further stores in Paris during the summer. Several further potential sites are currently under active discussion.
They are also becoming increasingly innovative in attracting details of potential sites, including an offer to all Focus readers and everyone in the industry of £10,000 for the introduction of a site, which the company is not already aware of, and that it subsequently develops.
Details of potential sites should be communicated in the first instance to Neil Moulder, property director at email@example.com
The company operates with approximately 60% freehold and 40% leasehold property. “We are not a property company, we are a retail business offering customers a service,” said Steve.
Safestore’s latest store opened at Staples Corner, London on 25 November 2004, adjacent to Big Yellow.
The store is bright throughout. Light is everything with continuous runs of florescent lighting in the passageways. This means that customers feel secure even when they visit the site in the middle of the night, as it is open 24 hours a day.
Security is very visible, with a bank of three monitors in reception and a swipe card entry system. Security is further enhanced by individually alarmed units. The store has 212 Active Supply and Design-built units varying from 10 sq ft to 200 sq ft, on the ground floor, and 210 on the first, with capacity for same-again on the top floor when it is fitted out.
Being on the Staples Corner Business Park its mix is inevitable weighted to business lets. A month after opening, its occupancy was 70% business to 30% domestic. No one is complaining, and the success follows the extensive marketing drive that North London area manager Andy Thomas and store manager Patrick Kennealy have led.
The team keep the store spick and span by carrying out their own cleaning; they also carried out the local marketing supported by the central marketing function. For instance, when the store first opened, they hired three Smart Cars and liveried them in the company colours and toured, in convoy, a five mile radius catchment area to carry out leaflet drops. With the company’s updated website and the marketing drive of the staff, the fill rate has exceeded target. “We’ve started very well,” says Andy.
The store has four staff – manager, assistant manager, and two reception staff. It is open 24/7, but the reception is open 8 to 6 Monday to Saturday, with late opening until 8pm Thursday, on Sundays 10 to 4 and Bank Holidays 8 to 2pm.
“We offer a one stop shop for businesses with offices now being refurbished, van-hire and units – it’s an ideal location for a small or start-up businesses,” says Patrick.
The new store endorses the company’s philosophy that it is a retail business. You can not fail to be impressed by the inviting shiny-floored, air conditioned, glass-walled reception area with over 80ft of well displayed storage items such as cartons, tape, bubble wrap and everything you would need to pack, store or move your goods. In addition Safestore offers it’s customers saver kits of cartons that come in three size options, all meaning a considerable saving over the individual price for the customer. Following the company’s philosophy the staff assemble the saver kit themselves.
“Our lowest price guarantee gives our managers confidence that they cannot be undersold,” said Steve, adding that if any competitors was to offer silly prices in competition to one of its stores Safestore would always go 5% under that.
Safestore simply will not be beaten on price or value.
Much of the integration process is now complete, but the company is continuing to work towards the “one company, one brand, one team” philosophy and building a first class business.
Steve says he is proud of what the team have achieved over the last few years but is now focussed on the future and continuing to improve the business for both customers and employees alike. We simply want Safestore to be the preferred choice of our employees and our customers.
This article first appeared in Focus, the official journal of the Self Storage Association. www.ssauk.com