9 Jun 2010

King of Self Storage Interviewed by Queen of Networking

This morning, I had the pleasure of chatting with Toronto’s legendary king of self storage, Allan Barkin, president of Jiffy Self Storage. Barkin recently received the Consumer Choice Award for Business Excellence at a televised Global TV presentation at Stage West, in Mississauga, ON. He is only one of small handful of Toronto businesses ever to achieve this honor 14 consecutive times.

Donna: Allan, I’m delighted to have the chance to learn more about you and your business. Tell me, how did you first get involved in Self Storage?

Allan: I had been watching the self storage industry in Canada for some time and found that self storage service here was lagging years behind the Americans. Being an opportunist and entrepreneur, I felt that launching an upscale high profile facility in Canada would be a great opportunity and even felt small errors in judgment would not affect our ability to fill up space, because the demand for Toronto storage space was doubling each year since first starting our research. Our first location at the crossroads of Highways 400 and 401 in Toronto was built on surplus land being auctioned off by Ontario Ministry of Transportation. We thought that this would be a great location to build our flagship store and expand from there. We were the highest bidder at an outdoor auction during a freezing rain storm in late February 1986 and that is how Jiffy came to be.

Donna: Were you surprised that you won the award for the 14th consecutive time?

Allan: Honestly, the answer is YES. I used to think that I was lucky to have won, but how long can a lucky streak last? If you are a gambler, maybe a lucky streak could last 3 to 4 plays, at most 5 plays. Can anyone ever imagine having a lucky streak of 14? If I were a gambler, I would say that this would be next to impossible. I guess we try harder to please our customers more than the others because our reputation is always on the line and if we mess up, others will find out.

Yes, I hope to win the Consumer Choice Award next year for the 15th time but who knows? I now understand that I did not win 14 consecutive times by chance but with all the competition in the Toronto self storage arena, we know that others are following closely what we do best. I like to say that our competition is always nipping at our tails. New media internet is extremely transparent and anything that we do as a company is easily accessible and can be copied by others. There are no secrets out there in the virtual world. As a Toronto storage business, Jiffy always has to be at the leading edge of self storage and has to keep coming up with newer and better ways of providing the best value self storage service to our Toronto storage customers. If the storage price does match the storage value, then Jiffy will cease to be.

Donna: What do you do that is different than your competitors?

Allan: I guess we do a lot of things differently than our competitors but this may not be apparent to the casual observer. It is a combination of everything that we offer and it is more than just offering empty space between walls. The Consumer Choice Award recognition only proves what I have been saying and there are other recognitions that we have received over the years that Jiffy is extremely proud such as: Being chosen by the editors of Toronto Life Magazine as Toronto’s best storage company and consistently receiving a top grade by Toronto Better Business Bureau of A+. Jiffy also achieves a perfect record of zero complaints with the BBB in Toronto.

Donna: Have you had any setbacks or changed your mind about self storage?

Allan: After our purchase and during the early years of business in self storage in Toronto, we had many setbacks. Major construction was delayed by more than a year due to many trade strikes by various unions like steel workers, drywall installers, construction laborers and more. During this time, more and more storage calls kept coming in at the unheard of rate of 70-75 per day and we did not have a single storage space ready for any of these customers.

Finally we were ready for our grand opening except for one more unfinished item — and that was the completion of the elevator installation. We had only a couple of hours of work left to complete the job and get the elevating license and wouldn’t you know it; the elevator workers went on strike and it was more than 6 months before the strike would be settled.

By the time this last strike was settled and our Toronto storage facility was open for business, the heated economy that we had come to know had fizzled completely out and came to a an abrupt halt. Even in the best of days after we officially opened, we only had 2 or 3 call queries about storage compared to 75 calls per day in the heyday.

Even with all our homework and due diligence, we did not anticipate record high interest rates of 15%-16%, at what seems today to be usurious. We could have never imagined in our wildest dreams that this type of thing could happen. Instead of months to fill the storage facility, it was years and it was almost becoming unsustainable with the high interest rates and high vacancy rates.

Donna: What did you learn from this experience?

Allan: From all our research, we were told time and time again that self storage was recession proof and we felt we could be confident and move forward in this business in any economy without much risk. Boy, were we ever wrong. In order to prevent this type of thing from happening again to us, we decided that we would not just depend on the standby residential sector to fill the bulk of our storage space and therefore decided to change the standard self storage model from a residential base to a multi-faceted base.

Donna: What do you mean by multi-faceted base?

Allan: We started looking at various services that used storage and analyzed each service to see if there was some common thread that would be key to increasing storage services from these other sectors. Naturally, we went after businesses services like drug reps and other marketing reps that needed storage services, and so did every other storage company, so this type of business to business (B2B) was not revolutionary, nor did it do anything to help save our business.

We came to the conclusion that to get people to come out to us, we would have to develop a strategy and reputation where the public would perceive us to be the Toronto storage experts and therefore would seek us out. We figured out that we had to be fully competent and have a complete understanding of each step for getting storage goods to us and by understanding each step along the way, we were able to advise families, businesses and professional consultants how to get from A to B in the least path of resistance. We found that people knew what they wanted (and that was storage) but they really did not know where or how to start.

Off-site storage for persons forced to down size due to downturns in the economy, health and other personal reasons is very stressful and we are able to reduce the stress elements to tolerable levels. We also were able to advise how to reduce storage bulk so persons requiring storage would have to lay out less money rather than more.  We created strategic alliances with top city ancillary services and these various other services referred their clients to us and we reciprocated in the same way. Naturally, we make it a point only to deal with honest companies that are competent and have earned reputations as being the best in their fields.

Donna:  I understand that you wrote a book and are offering it for free. Is that correct?

Allan: Yes, that’s correct. During our reinvention of our storage business ”way back then,” I did write a highly successful and informative book called How to Sell the Gorilla and Other Techniques for Fantastic Garage Sales and it is about making unimaginable money in insanely successful garage sales. I decided to write this book to help our clients reduce the size of their storage and therefore help keep their storage costs lower and at the same time help them make lots of money. During the writing of this book, I collaborated with many of our storage tenants that tried their luck at garage sales. Many people that followed my garage sale book tips paid for storage with the proceeds of their garage sale and had lots of change left over. Just recently I updated the book on how to market a successful garage sale using internet, Facebook and various other specialty websites. Jiffy Storage is offering anyone this book for free and it can be freely forwarded to anyone that is thinking about garage sales. Click this link for your personal garage sale book.

Donna: Do you have any role models or inspirations?

Allan: I really don’t have a particular role model, but I like to read about people that are leaders in their particular field of business and try to learn from them how to improve our storage business. So I guess by learning from others and also in part by analyzing our errors, we improved our self storage business in Toronto that also enhanced our image as the best self storage in Toronto.

Donna: Did you ever aspire to do something else?

Allan: Early in my career I wanted to be an architect and design great buildings. I still like to think about this profession but I am happier than ever being the most recognized Toronto Self Storage Company. This is my legacy. This is how I want to be remembered. Nothing makes me happier than solving storage problems for people stressing their next move.

It sounds like Allan loves what he does and being the recipient of the Consumer Choice Award for 14 years running validates that he’s doing something right! If you want to know more about Allan Barkin or Jiffy Self Storage – www.jiffystorage.com

Donna Messer is an author and journalist. Her book “Effective Networking Strategies” is a Canadian best seller. She writes for business publications across the country. www.connectuscanada.com

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