What’s in store for Rob and Gabi
Sitting, relaxed and comfortable in his office, looking over thriving Mt Maunganui streets, Lance’s client Rob Lilly talks about the journey he and wife Gabi have enjoyed in their lives. There are many entrepreneurs in this country, and certainly Rob would not call himself even that, but what stands out about Rob is his determination to enjoy life and do what inspires and excites, and that includes always looking for the next opportunity, and doing business with people he likes and trusts.
Rob and Gabi have been clients of Lance’s for 20 years, and that has meant that together they have opened and closed companies, sold businesses and started new ones. Rob was introduced to Lance by Rob’s parents, as he was their accountant. The association grew from just doing Rob’s accounts, as when issues arose with the various businesses they have been involved in over the years, Lance would be there with the skills and know-how to solve them. “These days Lance provides much more than a straight accountancy role – he provides sound advice on strategic business and tax planning, as well as anything else that crops up. He is one of my key people”, Rob says. “These are the people I rely on to give me sound advice in business; Lance, my brother-in-law, and my lawyer”. He then goes on to jokingly refer to them as his ‘Master Mind team’.
Amongst other business adventures over the years, including developing commercial property, starting and running a building company, and having a 1,000 acre dry stock farm, Rob and Gabi built and ran a chain of storage facilities through-out the central North Island. At peak there were six facilities, but after they sold off several of them, they now have two large Stash It storage facilities locally – one in Westminster Drive in Tauranga, and one on Domain Road in Papamoa. However, true to Rob’s enthusiasm for opportunity, despite scaling back with the sale of some of the facilities – both of their existing sites are being extended due to demand. When finished, both the Tauranga and Papamoa sites will have 600 units, in a variety of different sizes.
However, storage was not always where he saw himself heading. You could say it was an unexpected benefit when a plan to attract an anchor business to a commercial building development was unsuccessful 20 years ago. At the time Rob was excited by opportunities in commercial development, and he was building new industrial facilities in Brook Street, by Fraser Cove. Always on the lookout for a good opportunity, he met with the developer of a site in Wairau Rd, Auckland, who had successfully used Placemakers as an anchor tenant to draw other tenants to his commercial property. What he learnt there, and on a subsequent trip to a storage facility in Los Angeles, inspired him to start up his own storage business which would also serve as the anchor tenant.
It soon became apparent that in the depressed property market of ‘94 that storage, not commercial development, was his bread and butter. The next nine years saw Rob build new facilities in Jean Batten Drive (Tauranga), Palmerston North, Napier, Hastings and Wanganui. During this time business thrived, and extensions at each of these facilities were ongoing.
You might think that the business of storing items might be uneventful, but Rob has some stories which are certainly not dull. The majority of the units hold household furniture, often due to selling house, or downsizing to a smaller home. However, you don’t always know what is in them. Clients lease the units, and the storage company don’t have automatic access. People have their own individual pin codes, keys and padlocks.
Over the years, despite lease agreements forbidding explosives, drugs and firearms, Rob has seen police raids complete with sniffer dogs; finding ill-gotten gains from armed robberies, and other illegal dealings. “All facilities have 24-hour CCTV, providing security for the units”, explains Rob. “On one particular occasion, the manager of our Palmerston North branch phoned me to say that he had seen a guy opening one of the units on the security footage, who looked very much like a bank robber he had seen on TV. We contacted the police, who put in extra cameras to catch the guy. Unfortunately, he must have been on to them, and cleared out his unit in the middle of the night when they weren’t watching”.
Fortunately, this type of tenant is rare, and demand for their facilities is driven primarily through factors which also drive property booms. In this way, Rob believes that demand for storage is not just correlated to, but predicts the state of the property market. “In fact, our business is what you call a ‘bellwether’ industry. That is, we see trends first”. He goes on to explain; “when the property market is hot, like it is now – demand for housing is high, and supply is low. We get an increased demand for storing furniture after people sell property and have nowhere to put it. Also, the situation where people have sold and downsized their home, and can afford to keep excess furniture that they aren’t ready to get rid of, because they have sold well”. In fact, Rob says that this is such a well-known phenomenon that he regularly gets calls from a local stock broker to ask how business is going, as an indicator of property market trends.
In 2007, in a bid to scale down operations towards retirement, Rob and Gabi decided that they would sell off most of the storage facilities. “Lance’s advice proved invaluable during this process. The buyers were a large corporate business who had a team of five lawyers. On our side of the negotiations, we had Lance, my lawyer and I”. Rob explains; “A small reliable team, which were extremely capable. However, truly invaluable was that if Lance didn’t know something, he was big enough to seek the answer from someone who did. He always had our best interest at heart”.
Then in 2009, Rob and Gabi bought the dry stock farm in the Hauraki Gulf. “I had a rush of blood to the head. I was avoiding retirement and wanted to do something different”, he explains. “We get up there every week – sharing our time 50:50 between here and there”. A farm manager oversees operations up there, but doesn’t live on the farm. “I like to do some of the stock work myself, so with the businesses here as well, it keeps me busy”.
It is a wonderful retreat for family too – sitting on the shores of the Hauraki Gulf, his children and grandchildren get to enjoy the real New Zealand farm experience, complete with beautiful surroundings. Rob and Gabi have two sons and a daughter, four grandies, and two more on the way. All three of the (now grown-up) children have been involved in the business over the years to varying degrees, with his daughter due to join it in a more formal administrative capacity in August. Gabi and Rob plan to do a bit more travel in the future, with Gabi’s brothers still over in Germany, her former home country.
However, when Rob talks retirement, you get the feeling that it is relative. Rob laughs; “A friend of mine always tells me I need to find a hobby outside of business. My reply is always that business is my hobby”. I can believe that, because through the course of our conversation we have discussed several other side-line business opportunities – not particularly for Rob, but for someone – all discussed with the enthusiasm of possibility. “Business is exciting for me; I like to talk opportunities with people and love doing deals. Life is about enjoying what you do”. And for Rob, that has meant following these opportunities, equipped with the right people to guide him; “Luck is something you make yourself”.
From an interview with Rob Lilly, Stash It Self Storage owner, farmer and business enthusiast