Operating Blind: How a blind storage owner found success

August 10, 2015 1
Operating Blind: How a blind storage owner found success

David Talley never let his lack of sight stop him from doing anything–including opening and operating a self-storage facility for the last 25 years.

The 64-year-old was born blind due to a hereditary condition called aniridia. Aniridia is an absence of irises that usually occurs in both eyes. He has just one-tenth normal vision in his left eye to help compensate for his sightless right eye.

What he did with his near-total blindness, including building the Rock Creek Mini Storage in Hueytown, AL and overseeing its operation since 1984 – leaves most folks in total awe.

Early life

Growing up, Talley learned early that the deck was stacked against him.

“I have been made fun of,” Talley said. “I found out that in regular public school, I could get away with anything. I wouldn’t even have to crack a book and they would pass me.”

So he didn’t, and they did.

As a result, when he entered the Alabama School for the Blind in Talladega as a public school fifth grader, he was so far behind that they sent him back a grade.

“I probably should have been sent back to the second grade,” Talley said. “I hadn’t even learned how to pronounce words. I had to have a speech therapist to learn how.”

He vowed that one day, he’d show the naysayers; he just wasn’t sure how. The answer slammed him to the mat shortly after he joined the high school wrestling team.

Wrestling with confidence

“Wrestling was the only sport that we could participate in with the public schools,” he said. “My first year in wrestling, I didn’t consider myself very good, but I was wrestling for third place in the state tournament when my opponent took me down and pinned me before I knew it.”

Talley would turn that loss into a personal and professional triumph.

“I realized I had to either quit wrestling or give it 110 percent, so I decided I would give it my 110 percent and vowed to make sure I would never get pinned again. I went 68-0 after that loss,” Talley said.

“I think that helped me better than anything in business, because in business or in life, what you put into it is what you’re going to get out of it,” Talley said.

Michael-Talley

Like his father, Michael Talley is also a successful blind businessman.

Ready For Work

Fresh out of high school, Talley moved to Atlanta and hired on as a stock clerk with Hancock Fabrics, eager to climb the corporate ladder. After four years, he’d assumed many managerial duties without compensation. But when he went to apply for an assistant manager opening, the person overseeing the hiring quickly set him straight.

“He said, ‘You can apply for it, but I wouldn’t look for them to accept you.’ When I asked him why, he said, “Well, if Mr. Hancock in Tupelo, Mississippi knew I had a blind man closing my doors at night, he would have your job and my job, too,'” Talley said.

Talley immediately recognized that if he ever hoped to see success, he’d have to work for himself.

As luck would have it, a friend introduced him to the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation Services, which operates the Business Enterprise Program (BEP) to prepare the blind for self-employment. After he completed the six-month training program, Talley landed his first contract, providing vending machine services and operating a snack bar at the Tennessee Valley Authority power plant. He’s been affiliated with the BEP ever since.

“Thanks to the 1936 Randolph-Sheppard Vending Stand Act, we have a federal regulation that gives us priority in any federal government or State of Alabama facility,” Talley explained. “At one time, we had 165 blind vendors throughout the state.”

Self-Storage Calling

In 1984, more than a decade out of high school and now a husband and new father, Talley realized that working for himself, he’d need to start planning for retirement, pronto. He found his solution close at hand.

“I had a piece of land across the street from me and I was debating what to do with it,” Talley said. “Somebody suggested a storage building, so I decided to try it. We put up a fence around the property and built one building, and it was an instant hit. So we built a second one and same thing; it just exploded. We had to turn people away.”

He named his storage facility Rock Creek after a nearby stream. Within four years, it had grown to four buildings with a total of 104 units.

“I decided I wanted to build it a little bit better than the average person, so we decided to build ours out of concrete brick on concrete slabs and a regular roof system. We advertised that our units had less humidity in them, and they did,” Talley said.

Proving the doubters wrong

Talley and his sighted wife operated the facility themselves for 25 years while he worked the snack and vending trade for the Alabama Department of Corrections. Even after they divorced, she continues to manage their co-owned storage business.

Talley, who also owns 12 rental houses, has since relocated to Talladega, where he feeds up to 500 people a day at the Department of Homeland Security’s nationwide training facility for first responders on the old Fort McClellan army base.

Talley, is proud to have proven the doubters wrong. “You can either listen to them and become nothing but a rocking chair person or turn them into a motivation for you,” Talley said.

He’s especially proud that he passed that determination on to his son Michael, 38, who was also born blind with his father’s condition. Michael now runs his own vending business in Birmingham, where he provides snacks throughout the city, including Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport.

Despite his success, Talley does have one regret.

“I maybe waited too late to get into storage,” Talley said. “If I’d gotten into that thing in the seventies, I’d probably be a rich man now and would not be working. It just exploded!”

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