For George Keville, running G&N Storage in Winterville, NC, has been more than a way to make a living. It’s given him a reason to live.
In 1997, George was diagnosed with advanced-stage throat cancer. Around that time, he and his wife, Julia, closed their retail store to focus solely on the storage facility.
George said that coming to work, dealing with customers and collecting rent helped pull him through his bout with cancer. Instead of staying home to recuperate, George moved a sofa into the G&N office so he could see arriving customers through the window.
If the customer needs something, we are always available.
— G&N Storage co-owner Julia Keville
“I was unloading forklifts and doing chemo at the same time,” George said.
After about two years of treatment and surgery, George recovered from the cancer and kept growing the storage business. G&N now has more than 300 units in 12 buildings. In addition, the facility has four warehouse-style buildings that cater to small businesses.
Today, George Keville is healthy—and so is G&N.
No REIT rivals
Winterville, a quiet town of about 10,000, is just south of Greenville, the home of East Carolina University. Despite the metro area being one of the largest in eastern North Carolina, the absence of nationally known storage REITs may come as a surprise. In Winterville, the nearest REIT-owned facility is a CubeSmart location that’s 35 miles away.
For tips on beating the REITs, visit blog.selfstorage.com/self-storage-mom-and-pop/how-to-compete-with-the-self-storage-reits-4559.
Independent operators like G&N actually dominate this part of the state.
George and Julia Keville teamed up with her father, Norman Worthington, to launch the business in 1993 with just 80 units.
Before starting the storage facility, the Kevilles owned a shop selling fireside equipment, wood stoves and solar water heaters. Julia, 60, said she and George, 62, wanted to find a new line of business that was less seasonal in nature. The couple settled on self-storage.
In 1999, Worthington gave his stake in the business to his other two daughters. He died in 2013 at age 94.
As far as running a facility with her husband and two siblings, Julia said they don’t always agree on business matters, but they manage to find ways to work things out.
For advice on thriving in a family-owned business, visit blog.selfstorage.com/self-storage-operations/how-to-succeed-in-a-family-owned-business-4429.
At first, George and Julia planned to build the facility on land next to their retail shop, but some residents were opposed. Instead, they bought land adjacent to their home for the facility.
Julia said she can see the facility from her kitchen window while she and George fix lunch each day. Being so close to the facility meshes with the Kevilles’ hands-on management style, although it does come with some drawbacks.
“In 20 years, we’ve had people come to our door sometimes to pay the rent. It doesn’t happen very often; I can count the number of times on two hands,” Julia said.
The perfect spot
Julia said the facility stays full much of the time, with generally only a few units available. Some of the tenants have kept their belongings at G&N for 20 years. East Carolina University, a nearby medical research center and local industries attract people to the area, she said.
“A storage facility is great for people in transition,” Julia said. “Sometimes people start out storing temporarily and then decide it’s convenient, like having a big closet to keep our things in. It is very practical.”
Julia said the location, along with Kevilles’ hands-on management style and dedication to customer service, has served the family business well over the years, offering little reason to tinker with their formula. Still, Julia did make some changes when she retired from teaching in 2010 and began working at the facility full time.
“We did not have a web page and we did not offer credit card service. Now, most of our customers pay by credit card,” Julia said. She also set up a website for G&N.
The Kevilles don’t worry too much about the competition, either. All of the facilities in their area are run by small independent operators. Julia said G&N shares referrals with nearby facilities, and vice versa.
A focus on customer service
George and Julia credit customer service as one of the keys to G&N’s success. Some of the facility’s customers had shopped at their retail store. Other customers come via word of mouth or drive-bys.
“We try to offer friendly service,” Julia said. “If someone is late making a payment, we call and try to work with them and understand their reason. If the customer needs something, we are always available.”
Julia said it helps that customers like her husband.
“George has a very good rapport with people, and he is very social,” Julia said. He is active in the community and volunteers for the local Red Cross.
For tips on improving customer service, visit blog.selfstorage.com/self-storage-operations/how-to-improve-customer-service-3235.
Going the extra mile
For George, who likes to weave stories into his answers to customers’ questions, good customer service depends on building relationships.
“Last night, I was in here until a quarter to 6, and I noticed one of the doors open in a tenant’s unit,” George said recently.
The tenant is the CEO of one of the largest companies in the area, George explained. The CEO had just returned his boat to his storage unit after a fishing trip. George called the executive to tell him he’d left the door to the unit open. The tenant was appreciative.
George said that if you treat a customer right, you’ll have little to worry about in running your business.
“I’ve been self-employed all my life, and service is and always will be number one,” he said.