StorageBlue is heading to Newark’s Ironbound, taking up residence on Ferry Street at the more than 1 million-square-foot former site of the Ballantine beer brewery. Set to open in five to six months, the 90,000-square-foot location will be the brand’s second in the city – it has 15 altogether, for now – but it’s one that CEO Alan Mruvka has had his sights set on for some time.
“One of our first buildings was in Newark, and it’s always been one of the better buildings in the portfolio,” he told NJBIZ. “So, I’ve been looking for years for a second Newark building and this building came along, it was off-market and I grabbed it.”
The P. Ballantine and Sons Brewing Co. site closed its doors in 1972 – Marty Crane’s drink of choice is now owned by Pabst Brewing Co. – but it got its start in the Brick City way before that, back in 1840. “I’m very excited about it,” Mruvka said. “I love the history.” In fact, after he finished architecture school, Mruvka specialized in renovating historic buildings. “That’s my passion, historic structures. So, when I find a building like this, it’s amazing to me.”
Following his passions has paid off for Mruvka in the past. You’re probably familiar with some of his other ventures, E! Entertainment Television and FX Television, for example, both of which Mruvka founded. At 26, he was the youngest CEO of a major television network – manning the helm for 14 years – and led it to the fastest growth of a start-up cable channel in television history. But he didn’t actually make the turn from TV to self-storage, it was kind of the other way around.
“By default, I’m a self-storage pioneer because that was 32 years ago in 1990,” Mruvka said.
“That” was a 50,000-square-foot building—the first location of American Self Storage, which he started with his father and two other partners and ultimately expanded to encompass 17 buildings across New York and New Jersey adding up to almost 3 million square feet of self-storage, according to Mrvuka. Architects weren’t getting hired when he left school, so Mruvka turned to development. He started small, renovating two- or four-unit brownstones in Jersey City and Hoboken, ultimately working up to the acquisition of that 50,000-square-foot building, which was left behind when he had the inspiration for E! – “the most basic idea of the network was, ‘why don’t I do an MTV for the movies?’” – and headed West to pursue the concept.
‘Fast forward to’
Though he was based in Los Angeles, Mruvka says he was an active partner in American Self Storage.
“Fast forward to, eight years ago where my father was 90 at the time – he’s since passed away – and the other guy was retiring,” said Mruvka, who was the youngest of the partnership. “And it was just time to do something.” So, they ended up selling 10 of the 17 buildings and then splitting the remaining seven. Mruvka ended up with four – his father sold him his share – “so I had a choice,” he said, “and I figure, you know what, I’m going to give it a go.”
Giving it a go involved renovations for some of the buildings, which were a little rundown, and re-staffing the locations.
“[T]he reality is, I really, really got into it once I got into it,” Mruvka said of the industry New Jersey-based StorageBlue operates within. “[E]ven when I was in in entertainment, I was getting very much into online programming and even e-commerce and self-storage.” And that’s where Mruvka’s passions paid off, again.
According to Marcus & Millichap’s 2022 Self-Storage National Investment Forecast, the sector has delivered record performances over the past two years. As COVID restrictions closed offices, and with many employers – 74% of those domestically based, per the report – indicating they’re looking to adopt a hybrid return-to-work strategy, self-storage has seen increased demand as people make space to create workplaces in their homes. In addition to sustained interest, the drop in vacancy has restored rent growth in the sector. According to the Forecast, another holdover from COVID impacting the industry is the adoption of a “touchless” business model. Not only is the methodology expected post-pandemic, younger renters – Millennials represent the largest and most-active of self-storage users – expect it.
Mruvka’s been anticipating that angle for years. In fact, it’s baked into StorageBlue’s operations and predates the pandemic.
“The act of getting the self-storage unit is a low-tech result to a high-tech experience,” he said. And the high-tech aspect produces a better experience for the customer. In addition to being able to lease space through StorageBlue’s website in much the same way you would book a hotel room, you can also schedule a pickup. The M&M Forecast also pointed out that this kind of e-commerce mindset allows for increased off-hours leasing activity. Yes – StorageBlue will cart your stuff to the facility so you don’t have to.
“[Y]ou never even have to see the storage building,” Mruvka said. “You know, we’re not movers, we’re just drivers. But we offer ways to help pack it up and get it down to the curb and … we load it in the truck and we’re gone, and you don’t have to worry about a thing.”
Post-COVID, StorageBlue uses technology that allows customers to access the facility with their phone. “[I]t automatically slides open the front door, you go in the elevator—your phone in your pocket would automatically hit the button in the elevator. It takes you to the floor you need to go to, and you can even open your unit with your phone,” Mruvka said, adding that the company is looking into further contact-less options and facial recognition technology, as well.
Oops, I did it again
In addition to the buildings StorageBlue has open and is operating now, Mruvka says there are another 10 that he’s working on. For a project like the one at Newark’s Ballantine site, he says the conversion of “these old, pre-war buildings” into self-storage sites is a quicker one. But facilities aren’t the only projects Mruvka has in the works. The Englewood Cliffs native is also building up the StorageBlue brand in the New Jersey-New York metropolitan area. He says he likes the challenge of doing something local, versus his past experience building and marketing brands on a national scale.
“[A]nd the reason I’m doing that is because I want to own a market,” he said. “I’m not just about, one building in Atlanta, one building in Nashville … For lack of a better example, I want to be the Manhattan Mini Storage of New Jersey.” He wants to be the region’s go-to operator. And, with the brand gearing up to announce its first location across the Hudson River in New York, StorageBlue and its leader are setting the stage to take on that challenge and keep turning the self-storage industry on its head.
The company has been recognized for its growth – on the 2020 Inc. 5000 list – and for its service, nabbing best-of awards from StorageUnits.com and Expertise, helping to raise its profile. Making further headway in its attempts to conquer the region, StorageBlue is the official self-storage partner of New York Yankees Radio Network, a pairing that entered its second year this past April, and the exclusive self-storage partner of 1010 WINS radio, sponsoring the station’s drive time traffic reports.
“When I first came here from California, I wanted, my plan was to disrupt the industry and I did,” Mruvka says. On the one hand, that disruption presents itself in the way StorageBlue operates and the options it offers, but that’s not the only thing. The company has another feature that its competitors in the sector don’t: an entertainment division.
Part of Mruvka’s inspiration for E! stemmed from a desire to figure out how movies could market themselves more effectively on a nationwide scale – think back to when you used to check showtimes in the newspaper. “They would spend $50 million or $80 million on a movie, and then depend on a black and white newspaper,” to sell it, Mruvka said. His efforts to craft a more effective platform ended up being successful and transformed the TV-scape in the process. So when you start to think that an entertainment division for a self-storage company maybe sounds like a stretch, think again.
If everything is marketing, a music video and full-length song (“Too Much Junk in the Trunk” featuring artist Betty Idol) promoting the brand or a dedicated YouTube channel offering original programming (“Storage Pirates of New Jersey”) are all just part of the bigger picture and the bigger effort to establish StorageBlue. “I’m doing a lot of marketing,” Mruvka said. “I’m building this brand … but I always tell people I’m building it like Branson built Virgin.” Which means the sky’s – literally – the limit, as he pointed out: “Virgin was a record store. Now they’re sending people into space.”
To Mruvka, StorageBlue has the same potential.
“We’ll have a total entertainment division. We’re gonna do movies. We’re gonna do music. We’re gonna do everything,” he said. “So, people will get over the name.”