For the past 12 years, Ms Helen Ng has led General Storage Company, a multinational self-storage company which operates the Lock+Store brand in Singapore and Malaysia, and The Store House brand in Hong Kong. Ms Ng is also the chairperson of Self-Storage Association Asia, the first Singaporean in a key role on its board.
In this interview, she offers thoughts on the advantages of self-storage in Singapore, and why environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives are a worthwhile long-term investment.
Q: What are the trends driving more Singaporeans to seek storage outside of their houses?
A: The Covid-19 pandemic has led to several interesting trends.
Because of the restrictions to overseas travel, we saw many people take on recreational activities: some started golfing, some became avid cyclists, and some expanded their toy collection. With space at a premium, some of our customers store their golf clubs, mountain bikes and collectibles with us.
We also saw some businesses which downscaled their office space when more people worked from home. It made more business sense to have hot desking arrangements, but these companies also needed to store their inventory and excess equipment.
In addition, some of our customers are entrepreneurs and in their “5-to-9” (after-work hours) operate small businesses which operate exclusively online. As their e-commerce businesses grow, I think there is a point where their partners or parents cannot tolerate the barang barang they store at home!
Because Lock+Store offers 24/7 access, it’s easy for them to pick and pack their stock anytime. We are also a more affordable option for smaller businesses, because unlike warehouses, they can choose smaller spaces and they’re not committed to store for long periods.
We also saw delays to housing projects. Some of these homeowners have already purchased their furniture, so Lock+Store helps them to hold their furniture. Now that the world is opening up again after the pandemic, more people also use Lock+Store to store their items as they relocate for careers.
Q: How has the pandemic changed the self-storage industry and pushed industry players to adapt and keep up?
A: The pandemic has accelerated our adoption of technology to solve problems, like mitigating the risk of face-to-face interactions. We found that we could optimise some of our business practices.
Previously it was difficult to convince some customers to switch to digital payments – “cash only!” But during the pandemic, nobody wanted to touch physical money, so it was suddenly much easier to switch to contactless and digital payments.
With this mindset shift, we could also advance other innovations. Now that contactless customer service is more accepted, we are redesigning our front offices to be digital by default and customers will be able to easily self-help with the tablets that we will provide.
We also introduced new products to help our customers make better storage decisions. When the Covid-19 measures prevented our potential customers from visiting our locations, we incorporated Calcumate's 3D storage calculator into our revamped website to help them estimate their required space.
This month, the industry will hold Self Storage Expo Asia, the first in-person expo after the pandemic, where we will discuss technologies like the latest access control management systems, big data management and AI’s potential. But ultimately, our customers must accept and embrace these new innovations.
Q: How can the self-storage industry embrace ESG?
A: ESG is not a new concept, but the focus has been renewed into something more intentional and long-term. In past years, we might have encouraged our staff to volunteer on an ad-hoc basis. Now, we are more thoughtful and try to find avenues where we can deliver measurable and consistent impact.
Environmentalism is important to us. We already experience real effects of climate change. At a fundamental level, doing business on planet Earth means taking corporate responsibility to make sure we continue to have a habitable Earth to live, work and play in.
While companies exist to earn profits for shareholders, I believe that once you have a healthy business, you should start to consider how you can add value to your society and to the world.
Q: What are some ESG challenges faced by industry players?
A: Foremost, we recognise pragmatically that while people are now more attuned to ESG causes, at the end of the day they will make consumer decisions based on price and product.
The truth is that we cannot depend on ESG to run our businesses. We don’t start ESG expecting returns. Realistically, a company needs to make its own financially sound decisions. But alongside those decisions, we also commit to meaningful and impactful ESG initiatives in the hope that there are long-term benefits for the environment.
It is important to enlist the support of all stakeholders – storers, investors, industry peers, staff and senior management – in ESG initiatives. The more people support and improve these initiatives, the higher chance these initiatives will be successful.
Q: What are some ESG initiatives you have adopted for your company?
A: In the past few years, we saw the world grapple with supply chain issues, including Singapore’s food security. These issues helped shape Lock+Store’s ESG philosophy. As a result of our discussion, our new ESG vision is “A green and caring tomorrow with self-storage.”
We took a practical decision to install solar panels on the roof of our Chai Chee facility. It has saved us energy costs but importantly, 20 per cent of our energy mix is now low-carbon. There is a physical limit to how many solar panels we can install, but hopefully as technology improves, we will find more ways to reduce carbon emissions.
We are proud to be part of SGRecycle, a social recycling initiative by SGPaperRecycle where a network of more than 100 SGRecycle stations are deployed around Singapore islandwide to collect waste paper in return for incentives or reward points. We have deployed a station at our Chai Chee facility and will be deploying stations for fabric and carton boxes by year end.
We have installed EV charging points at our Chai Chee facility to support Singapore’s efforts to reduce our carbon footprint and the move towards green transport.
We also started an Edible Garden at our Chai Chee location. We were initially inspired by the initiatives to install urban farms on top of HDB carpark rooftops, and wanted a similar project using our rooftop space.
But after consulting with our landscape design partners SG Garden, they convinced us that it would be better to locate it in a more accessible, communal space so our staff can see it every day and even participate in the gardening if they are keen.
We also have plans to donate the freshly harvested vegetables to local organisations serving low-income communities. This is one way we can motivate our staff, contribute to Singapore’s food security and uplift our local communities.
Another initiative we are proud of is our partnership with a locally registered charity, Ray of Hope (ROH), which crowdfunds and donates 100 per cent of their proceeds to their beneficiaries. As they receive many donations in-kind, they face a challenge in storing these donations of household essentials.
After doing the necessary checks, Lock+Store was happy to sponsor a space for them to store these items. It was a natural partnership which utilised Lock+Store’s facilities and enabled ROH to store and distribute aid to needy households more effectively.
We are also pleased to support the nature conservation and appreciation goals of Nature Society (Singapore) by sponsoring a storage unit for their publications and business documents.
We take the long-term view when it comes to these initiatives, and will continue to finetune these projects over time. We are confident Lock+Store will continue to do good while serving the community well into our future.
Visit Lock+Store to find out how you can meet your storage needs.