Three Burnam Generations Build StorageMart Into Top 10 Operation
Sometime in the early 1970s, Gordon Burnam took his three children on a spring break trip to Brownsville, Texas. Constant rain nearly spoiled the trip, so Burnam, who has been described as a “serial entrepreneur” by his son, Mike, made the best of the situation by visiting a local business.
As fate would have it, they pulled into a self-storage facility.
“Mom and dad had been in many businesses,” recalls Mike Burnam,
who was in high school at the time. “On this trip, they did what they did most
of the time when they went on trips—they looked for new businesses. They
happened to drive into a self-storage property in Brownsville.”
After his third visit to the facility, the owner finally let Gordon
Burnam take the facility lease off his hands for a mere $10. Burnam returned to
Missouri in 1972 and convinced a local savings and loan to lend him enough
money to erect new buildings on the Brownsville property. “That was how he got
into the self-storage business,” Mike Burnam says.
It was also how Mike, and eventually nine other members of his
family, got into the business. The latest family member to join the company is
Alex Burnam, the son of President Cris Burnam, who became a senior acquisitions
analyst in May. Alex joins Mike’s son, Weyen, his daughter, Kerri Jones, and
niece, Mercedes, as the family’s “3Gs,” or third generation to work at
Gordon’s late wife, Mickey, and their children, Kim and Tim, have
worked at the company as well.
Roller Coaster History
Mike says that between 1972 and 1976, his father tripled the size
of the initial store. Then, in 1978, a local banker took an interest in
Gordon’s success and offered to invest with him. Since the Burnams had
recreational interests in South Carolina and Mississippi, that’s where they
built their initial facilities. They continued to expand until 1986, when they
sold their interests because of changing tax laws.
In 1987, the Burnams started over with two properties in Mobile, Ala.,
and Pensacola, Fla., and looked to expand. To do that, funds were needed, so
the Burnams followed the money—straight into the offices of professionals in
“We were talking to every doctor, dentist, and lawyer in our hometown,
trying to raise limited partnership funds to build and buy additional
properties,” says Mike.
Recalling the experience, Cris says, “Mike and I were raising
money— $25,000 per unit—and we would literally sit in doctor’s examination
rooms and doctors would come in between patients and we’d pitch them on
By 1994 the family controlled 58 stores that were eventually taken
public into the Storage Trust Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) in 1994. Storage
Trust grew to 237 stores by 1999, when Public Storage bought out the REIT.
The Burnam family was left with 14 facilities that did not compete
directly with Public Storage, along with six employees, most of whom were
Burnams. They then launched StorageMart with an infusion of capital from
private equity firm Warburg Pincus.
“Most of those were the ones we sold in 1986,” Mike, CEO, says
about the 14 properties. “We bought and sold those properties three times by
When Warburg Pincus cashed out in 2006, the family found a new
partner in, of all places, their hometown of Columbia, Mo.
Today, StorageMart has grown into the largest privately-owned
self-storage company in the world, with 196 facilities in the U.S., Canada, and
the United Kingdom. StorageMart has risen to the seventh largest self-storage
operation in the country, according to Mini-Storage
Messenger’s “Top Operators” list.
A Family Way
Self-storage was always in the blood and under the fingernails of
the Burnam kids. Gordon made sure the teenage siblings knew the business inside
and out by having them clean out units, pick up trash, fix roof leaks, and
As the children grew into adults, they took on more
responsibilities. Along the way they developed individual capabilities and a
trust in each other’s judgment.
“When you work with family, you have a bond and trust level,” says
Cris Burnam. “We all have different talents, but, at another level, trust is
there. That’s a lot of what has made our family dynamic work so well.”
The Burnams avoided the pitfall of the second-generation syndrome
of family businesses where the children of the founder feel entitled or lack
the same drive as the patriarch. “I have heard horror stories about other
family businesses that have not been as fortunate as we have,” says Mike. “In
most cases, going from first generation to second generation is where a lot of
problems come up. We were fortunate enough to go public, which solved that
Burnam outlines where various family members fit in the business mix.
“Each of us are very dissimilar,” he says. “Tim is the construction guy; he can
fix anything. Tim was involved in all construction and development. Mom had 40
years of accounting experience. Sister Kim took over all accounting
responsibilities; and then, as we grew, she morphed into human resources as we
got more employees. Brother Cris was involved in operations. About 2005, he
took over all operations and, without his expertise in that field, there’s no
way we could have ever progressed.”
He credits the expertise and diligence of his two brothers and
sister as being instrumental in the dramatic growth of the company since 1987,
when they sold their portfolio for the first time. Since then, the Burnams have
trusted key operations to family members.
“We recently completed a $1 billion debt refinance of the entire
company, and we took over the largest publicly listed company in Canada—very
complex financial deals,” Cris says. “My wingmen on those deals were always my
brothers. When we work a deal, even without discussing how we’re going to do
it, we fall into these roles that we are particularly good at.”
Of The 3Gs
During the past decade, a third generation of Burnams—the “3Gs”—have
been integrated into the family business.
Mike’s son, Weyen, joined the company more than 10 years ago with
a background in insurance and personnel recruitment. He started in operations and
then moved into construction as StorageMart started to grow in development and
expansions. He has taken over most of Tim Burnam’s responsibilities and now handles
all U.K. acquisitions and all of the company’s Canadian and U.S. construction,
according to his father.
Mike’s daughter, Kerri Jones, came to StorageMart a year ago with
a background in mathematics. She became asset manager and “has been able to
fill a niche nobody else in the family could do and was very difficult to hire
from outside,” Mike says.
Tim’s daughter, Mercedes, came to the company three years ago after
working in human resources with Hilton Hotels. Mercedes does all the hiring and
recruitment in the U.S. and Canada.
The newest family member to work for StorageMart is Alex Burnam,
who was deeply entrenched in the self-storage industry growing up. Over the
years, he has taken summer and internship positions throughout the company. “I
remember at a very young age going to the old headquarters to see my grandpa,
so things have really come full circle,” Alex says.
The Tulane University graduate spent time after college working
with Heitman, a Chicago investment management firm, helping transact several
real estate closings in excess of $275 million.
“The G3ers that work in our company know they have an opportunity
to take them as far as their ambition and talents will allow them to go,” says
Cris. “Alex has a bright future because he has a great education and he has a
talent of working with people.”
Alex also has a humble quality about him, which seems to be a
common trait among the Burnams. “One of the things you learn quickly in this
business is, if you’re someone who has an inflated or pretentious air about
them, that doesn’t go over well with the mas and pas of this industry,” his
father says. “We’re still a working man’s real estate class, so we think that’s
a very important factor to have a sense of how the real world works.”
Nepotism is always a danger in a family business, but the Burnam
executives try to avoid too many cozy relationships with a simple policy. “One
of the family rules is your direct offspring are not going to work for you
personally,” Cris relates. “Alex is my son, but he works for his Uncle Mike
just as Mike’s son, Weyen, works for me. We want to make sure that we’re not
too close to where you don’t have perspective about how an employee or family
member is performing.”
Any family can have internal squabbles, which can escalate when
financial issues hover over the family business. How do the Burnams handle
“We can be a family of yellers,” Cris admits. “We are all
passionate people—passionate about our jobs, our company, and our family. We know
sometimes tempers may flare, but that’s because you are so deeply committed. As
a result, we’ve developed the ability to socialize and gain a consensus among
our family ranks. Some people have a board of directors. Some people have a
bank they have to consult with. We have a family council we need to consult
with when we make major decisions. There is some yelling and table thumping
Of Fame Family
Mike has developed, built, and sold over $3.5 billion in
self-storage properties. He has been the president of the Self-Storage
Association and has served three times on the national board of directors. He
also sat on the Canadian Self Storage Association board of directors in 2007.
He was inducted into the Self Storage Hall of Fame in 2015, and
became the second member of the Burnam family (following his father) to receive
Ken Nitzberg, CEO of Devon Self Storage, who was inducted into the
Hall of Fame at the same time, describes his friend Mike in these words: “He is
generous to a fault. He’s willing to share his knowledge with anybody at the
drop of a hat. If he can help you, he will go to the ends of the earth to do it
with no remuneration in sight. Considering what he’s accomplished over the
years, he’s humble about it. He’s a dear friend, and I trust him explicitly.”
Cris has been president of StorageMart since 1999 and has overseen
several periods of unprecedented growth. Through three decades in the industry,
Cris has completed over $4.5 billion in self-storage transactions. He was named
EY Entrepreneur of the Year for 2014, the same year StorageMart earned the
Torch Award from the Better Business Bureau for outstanding ethics.
As a corporate citizen in numerous communities, StorageMart
supports many charitable causes, including foster care organizations, youth
programs, shelters, and sports teams. The company’s stated goal is improving
the lives of customers and members of the community in charitable partnerships.
StorageMart donated nearly $500,000 annually in cash and free
storage throughout the U.S. and Canada in 2016.
“I think that’s an important part of being a good corporate
citizen,” Cris says. “We are particularly interested in helping organizations
that help themselves and, as a result, we donate product and time and
self-storage units to hundreds of charities throughout the U.S., Canada, and
the U.K., as well as donating many thousands of dollars to various charities.
We appreciate the noble cause that so many organizations are involved in, but
we want to make local contributions to organizations that are well run and
In additional to its charitable giving, StorageMart has made a
commitment to going green at many of its facilities. StorageMart is one of the
largest providers of renewable energy within the storage industry, outfitting
the roofs of many of its properties with solar panels.
We think being green helps you make green. It’s a good business philosophy,” Burnam says. “Wherever it makes good economic sense and environmental sense, it’s a good way to give back to our communities and the environment.”
Looking to the company’s future, Burnam is leaving all options open.
“We are very interested in expansion both through organic growth and from acquisitions,” Burnam says. “Does that mean we will buy 20 stores in 2018 or 200 stores? We feel we’re equipped operationally and financially to do either of those depending on the opportunities that are out there. We are going to continue to fill out our markets in the U.S. and Canada, and we are particularly interested in growing our new platform in the United Kingdom.”
He envisions StorageMart growing from its current 15 stores in the
United Kingdom to potentially 30 to 40 stores over the next five years.
“In the U.S., we would like to see growth in the neighborhood of 100 stores,” Burnam says. “It’s very hard to acquire in Canada, but we’d welcome the opportunity to grow by 30 to 50 stores there.”
That may be considered conservative or ambitious depending on your
perspective, however, it’s still remarkable considering how StorageMart started
as a one-facility outpost in Columbia, Mo., and grew to the global entity it
has become today—still run by the same family.
Mike is amazed at the growth not only of his family’s company but
also the self-storage industry. However, he still laments this industry doesn’t
always get the credit it deserves.
“When we went public in ‘94, we spent the first year explaining to
Wall Street how a real estate business could possibly work with month-to-month
leases,” Mike says. “We’re still fighting battles across the country when a new
developer comes into a bank and wants to borrow money. It’s still shocking to
me that some lenders don’t get self-storage even though we have one of the lowest
default rates of any real estate type.”
Burnam acknowledges the industry is evolving from a mini-warehouse image into the retail spectrum. And that’s not all the changes under way.
“We see things changing from having mom-and-pop managers to
professional managers to having phone centers take over sales responsibilities
to even having no managers,” he says. “When you start looking back and seeing
where we’ve come from and where we are today, I’m amazed every single day that
I can make a living renting spaces for people.”
For the Burnams and StorageMart’s 500-plus employees, it all
started during that fateful spring break in Texas all those years ago.
“Great things sometimes come from small beginnings, and we’re all
thankful to my father, Gordon, who stumbled upon the idea of self-storage in
1970s and was entrepreneurial enough to put those ideas to work,” Cris says.
“That was the seed that germinated everything that StorageMart is today.”
David Lucas is a freelance writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a regular contributor to all of MiniCo’s Publications.