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It’s not about storage

May 10, 2018
Steve Jordan takes a trip down a wet and windy M5 to visit Rob and Emma Lane’s new warehouse and self store in Exeter.

It’s happened to me before.  Someone calls to tell me they have a new warehouse and invites me over to take a look and write a story about it.  I’m torn.  I know it’s really important to them, they might have spent a fortune on it and it makes a big difference to their business, but is it really worth writing about?  After all, every moving company in the land has one.  How am I going to make good copy out of this, I wonder? But then, just occasionally, something extraordinary comes along.  

To be fair, I should have known.  The Lane family have something of a reputation for chucking away the rule book when it comes to designing buildings. I remember being stunned by the company’s place in Bristol, run by Rob’s sister Maria and her husband Angus, when I went there for the first time a few years ago.  The head office in Truro, run by Mark, Rob’s elder brother, has always been impressive and has now been extended further. That Rob and his wife Emma should have built something wonderful should not have been a surprise for me.  But it was! 

Now I could tell you about how many boxes it can hold, how high it is, how many self storage rooms it has, how many loading bays and how big the yard is but, when you see the place for the first time, that doesn’t really seem to matter anymore. There is something else going on. 

Its location, for a start, catches you a bit by surprise.  It’s on one of the busiest commuter routes in the area in the middle of one of Europe’s largest trading estates. It’s a landmark building, strategically positioned and designed to impress with its high curving roof, blue and red frontage and three-dimensional windows adding a zigzag contrast to the building’s otherwise flowing lines. Its neighbours include Porsche, Citroen and Mini just opposite.  Most of the other luxury automotive brands are nearby too.  Nearly 75% of the company’s trade comes from drive-by customers and it’s no surprise. “We even added a clock on the front so people could check the time on the way to work,” explained Rob. “It’s something else to catch the eye.”      

Then you walk inside.  To say it has the ‘Wow!’ factor would be an understatement. The doors open automatically onto a vast, open plan office with white and blue feature walls, pristine white desks, mustard chairs and details including trunks and stylized maps that suggest a theme of travel by land, air and sea.  Then you look up.  There’s something missing.  There’s no ceiling! 

Of course, there’s a story to that.  The building was designed by Mark and Rob.  It was originally designed to accommodate four storage boxes high but, because of the curved roof, there was the potential to go higher.  “We realised we were only about 30cm short of being able to go five high,” explained Rob.  “But we didn’t know where the extra height would come from.”  But then the brothers had a brainwave.  If they cut out all the suspended ceilings and lowered each floor of the building just a little, that would give them the extra height they needed for the additional level of revenue-generating storage.   

It also created a unique look to the inside.  Instead of the smooth lines of a traditional tiled office ceiling, they would have something very different.  The wiring, plumbing and air conditioning ducts would be exposed.  Some might think it ugly.  Rob thought it was a beautiful industrial style and, with the addition of 20 period lights that he recovered from a factory, the look was complete. “I had seen the style used in restaurants in refurbished buildings but the regulations are much more strict for new build,” he said. “It was a lot of extra work, but I think it’s worth it.”  I would agree. Amusingly Rob said that they had originally fitted movement sensors to reduce power usage,  but in a modern office that didn’t work so well.  “People tend to stay at their desks more than they might have done in the past.  Because nobody was moving around the lights kept going out. It was quite funny. So we had a choice, either get people to walk around a lot, or fit remote controls.”  So, controls it is! The lights also dim depending on the light coming in through the windows. 

 The atmosphere in the office is one of calm relaxation.  No customer could ever fail to be impressed and, as a working environment, it’s airy, spacious and uncluttered: Rob hates clutter.  “I wanted people to think, wow, that’s different, when they walk in,” said Rob.  “Emma and I also wanted somewhere nice for people to work.  My staff are important, so I want them to enjoy working here and look forward to coming to work.  We spend a lot of time here, it’s got to be right.”  

The inspiration for the building comes from Rob’s experience of colourful French industrial estates and the demands of the modern self storage business that represents over 50% of the company’s business. “The self storage industry is all about presentation,” said Rob.  “Most places are clinically clean with bright white counters and screens. I wanted ours to be more distinctive and set a new level in the UK. The big nationals are building big statement buildings so we wanted our building to stand out when compared with them.”  And there appears to be a commercial benefit in being different: the company’s wooden container storage has increased by 30% since the building opened last year and the self storage has doubled with, Rob claims, very little promotion.  

There’s virtually no paper anywhere except on the operations desk.  As with any moving business, that’s the nerve centre of the business and not a place that Rob is prepared to turn over purely to technology. “An old-fashioned diary can never go offline,” he said. There’s plenty of thought gone into the outside too with a yard that provides enough space for a road train to drive in and turn in a single swing. 

The principle is repeated throughout.  The crew’s room is very smart with lockers personally chosen by Rob, the bathrooms include elements of styling that suggest they are more than just functional. The showers are used not just by Rob’s own crews but visiting drivers too. 

But the building is not just a pretty face.  It’s a highly efficient moving facility, self store, and provider of shredding, archiving and fulfilment services. The self store was created by Active Supply and Design and provides around 70 rooms on each floor ranging from student lockers to 250 sq ft rooms.  Customers have code-controlled access 24/7 as long as their account is up to date; the corridors have proximity lighting designed to eliminate dark areas to provide a comfortable, safe environment for visitors around the clock; there’s one room in which the sizes of the rooms are marked out on the floor to help customers decide what space they need; and relaxing music plays through the radio. “That music needs to be a little louder to make people feel comfortable,” said Rob.  He then noticed a minute scratch on a room door. “We’ll need to get that fixed.”  Attention to detail matters. 

The zigzag windows are more than just striking from the outside.  Inside they have a function, creating a viewing and reception area on each floor giving panoramic views of the whole city.  Rob uses the area to host networking meetings and the customers like it too. “One elderly couple brings deck chairs and sandwiches,” he said. “It’s a lovely place to sit.” 

 It’s a family business, now into its third generation.  Rob’s parents, Mike and Sylvia Lane always said to put the money back into the business and build something for the future. Rob and Emma have worked hard to do exactly that and now their daughter, Alexandra (19) is learning the ropes. What exactly does she do?  “Whatever Mum or Dad ask me to,” she said.  Emma added that they all just get on with doing whatever is needed.  “We are not very good at job titles here,” she said. 

Those who are not family, feel as if they are.  Matt Collingbourne, the general manager, has worked with Rob for many years and Frances Mortimer, Assistant Manager and European Co-ordinator says the company has a very ‘family feel’ about it. “It’s a happy place to work, cheery but quiet,” she said. 

The truth is, you could build a warehouse and self store, more cheaply, that would be just as functional. If you were just looking at the bottom line, you might do that. But it’s not about the storage, it’s about the image, the style, the pleasure of coming to work every day, the challenge of being different and the excitement of being in business.  Yes, Rob could have taken the easy route, but that’s not the Lane way and, anyway, where’s the fun in that?

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