“Self storage isn’t exactly rock and roll,” admits Tom Ash, one of the founders of The MCR Self Storage Company Ltd.
He’s not wrong. But it’s a booming industry that’s weathered several UK recessions. It’s also one that not many people know that much about.
As Tom explains, “until you need self storage, you don’t really want it. It’s not like a commodity that you can sell or you want for. That’s the difficult thing: unless you need it, it’s not on people’s radar.”
Perhaps the lack of awareness is unsurprising, given that thirty years ago the UK didn’t even have a self-storage industry.
But the times they are a’changin’. Ours is now the biggest in Europe, with an estimated 48% of the market and an annual turnover of £750m, according to a 2017 study.
Thanks to a mixture of social change and our natural hoarding tendencies, we’re using more storage than ever before. In the past decade alone, the amount of storage space used in the UK doubled to more than 44m sq ft in 2017 – the equivalent of 0.7 sq ft per person.
It’s been estimated that we have six times more stuff than our parents’ generation. This, combined with an increased demand for inner-city living in recent years, means that we’ve got more stuff but nowhere to put it.
No wonder the industry is booming.
For those early to the party like Tom, it’s proven a lucrative business choice, giving his young family a comfortable life in Manchester, as well the means to support his local community in numerous ways – from sponsoring his local rugby team to offering space free of charge to local community groups and projects in his area.
A self-made man, Tom left school at 18 and enrolled on a management training programme with B&Q in his home town of Bury St Edmunds. But when his then girlfriend (now wife) got a job offer that was too good to refuse in Knutsford, they found themselves upping sticks and relocating to – wait for it – Northwich.
“We were only there 18 months but it was all we could afford at the time,” says Tom.
Whilst he was living there, he had one of the worst depressions he had ever had.
“I was properly under, I kept having panic attacks, anxiety was through the roof, and Jane didn’t know what was up with me.”
What lifted him out of it?
“My brother said to me, ‘you know what Tom, you live in Northwich, you’ve got one of the best cities in the UK on your doorstep, 20 minutes away, why don’t you start going into Manchester?’
“I’d literally drive my Peugeot 306 into Manchester, I’d park up and I would literally just walk up and down the streets reading autobiographies or pieces on Noel and Liam because I’m massively into my music. Anything to get me off how I was feeling.
“One day I came back home and was at my wits end with how I was feeling and I said ‘you know what Jane, I think we need to move into Manchester because I just feel at peace whenever I’m there. Even though it’s like this vibrant city, there’s something about Manchester I’m really embracing at the moment and I think we should do it.”
And so, right in the middle of the property boom, they managed to flip their Northwich house for £20k more than they’d bought it for and moved their little family into a flat in Salford Quays.
Shortly after, he found himself singing in a band, with a new best friend, and getting props from Clint Boon on XFM. Finally, it felt like everything was coming together.
It was around this time that he got into the self-storage business.
“Funnily enough, when I first heard about self-storage the first thing that sprang to mind was that scene in Silence of the Lambs where they go to the self-storage depot and they find that head in a jar.
“At the time, self storage was sort of a growing industry. I was appointed assistant manager for a company called Spaces which subsequently got bought out by Safestore.”
From there, it was a relatively speedy rise to the top. Around three years into his time with the company, whilst on his honeymoon, he got a call from an ex-colleague offering him a job as a store manager for a mobile storage company in Wythenshawe.
Eighteen months later, he was promoted to general manager for the whole company, with a territory stretching from Aberdeen to Maidstone.
But come 2008, when the recession hit, the directors weren’t really interested in developing or growing the business any further and he found himself thinking about going it alone.
“Me and one of my store managers who was also based in Manchester, Tony, were sort of like ‘we could do this…we could do that..if this was my company we’d have these systems in place.
“There was only so many times that we would go to the pub on a Friday and have these conversations, and as one pint turns into two and two into four it’s ‘we should actually do this’”.
So in 2011, with one young child and another on the way, he handed in his notice and set up shop in some warehousing space in Trafford Park.
“I can remember day one, walking down Princess street with my polo top on with my little badge and I’d be passing all these people and it wasn’t sort of like panic but it was just a very sobering thoughtbefore I”d had my first drink – ‘Tom, nobody knows your company exists in the city. No one. Not a soul.’”
Not long after setting up shop, the riots hit Manchester.
“You heard these whispers, things on the radio that there was a bit of an uprising, and Tony lived at Oldham at the time and he was driving up Oldham Road and he said he’d seen a large gang of maybe 50-70 people just walking down the road to the city centre. And he phoned me up and he said ‘something’s going on mate. I’ve never seen anything like this before.’
The next day, finding themselves pretty quiet – “probably more quiet than we wanted to be in our first year,” – they hopped in their pickup truck with a couple of shovels and brooms and went down into the city centre to help with the clean-up.
“We were sweeping glass outside Dawsons just near Piccadilly Gardens on Portland Street and Manchester Glass was everywhere putting up wood. I’ve never seen anything like it.
“People always think of community in small villages or small towns, and they don’t really think about it how a city with as large a population as Manchester can actually the next day turn out in force and help people they don’t even know. You look at that and think: ‘that is the city I want to be part of.’“
They returned to work the next day, uplifted by Manchester’s strong community spirit.
“It was a tough ask to start with because the problem with self-storage is even though you have your reccurring retentive revenue, you put your initial investment in to buy your storage units, your vehicles etc, so that’s one big outlay.
“Then you’ve got this huge warehouse that’s not making you money. It was thirteen months, but we got there and ever since we’ve been in the black.”
They found a niche in mobile storage units, offering something the bigger companies weren’t – an all-inclusive, streamlined service that didn’t require you to pack and load your own boxes into your unit.
And it’s proven a success.
“We’ve been very fortunate with the business,” says Tom.
“I always had in my head from day one, if you don’t do what you need to get done today it’s going to impact you maybe a year, two years. It’s like the whole ‘if you don’t pick up that phone, if you let the phone ring off, then who knows?’ You never know what is going to be on the other end.
“But we pride ourselves on our customer service. It’s a massive cliche but it’s about putting yourself in the customer’s shoes. What service would you want? How would you like to be treated? How would you like to be spoken to? And that’s what we’ve done. We’ve just been honest.
“I’ve loved absolutely every minute of it. Considering I’m someone from the south-east, Manchester is my home. It’s my wife’s home even though she’s from Hampshire. We both moved up here and completely embraced Manchester and what it has to offer. It’s our city.
“As it stands now for the foreseeable future we’ve decided to solely concentrate on Manchester for our core business. Because it’s what we are: it’s our name, it’s everything about us, it’s how we grew our business.
“Even though we’ve been very hard working, we do owe a lot to this city.”