The Organized Life

Public Storage’s History: Two Friends and an Idea

Public Storage El Cajon California opened 1972

It can sometimes seem that companies like Public Storage, with more than 2,200 locations, have always been giants. But that is never true. Like most new business out there, Public Storage started small. Very small.

Our company history is the story of two smart, hard-working guys who decided they liked working together and had an idea in the 1970’s to invest in a new industry. Each man ponied up $25,000 in seed money to grow what today is among the most prosperous companies in the world. It took two very special people to start what is now Public Storage down this road.

Wayne Hughes was born poor during the Great Depression and migrated with his family to Southern California from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. He took a paper route with the Los Angeles Herald-Express at age 10 to help his family pay bills and was so successful, the company showered him with prizes such as TVs, bicycles, $5,000 and even eventually a scholarship to USC.

Public Storage founder Ken Hughes

“He was the best salesman they ever had,” childhood friend Bill Lyons told a biographer.

Partner Ken Volk was proud to be an Eagle Scout. He attended Los Angeles High School and graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree in economics. Following service in the Navy during World War II, Ken formed Volk-McLain Communities, Inc. with a partner as a major home developer in California.

Public Storage founder Ken Volk

Wayne and Ken eventually met in the 1970’s when Wayne was an executive vice president at a real estate investment company, where he was the top producer. Ken was ready to sell his company, and Wayne was in charge of selling the assets, including a 5,000-acre development in Northern California.

Ken told his wife, Betty Volk, about meeting Wayne at work that day for the first time.

“I met the neatest guy, the best young deal-closer I ever met,” Bette recounted in a book about Public Storage. “He told me I was one of the smartest guys he ever met, and I told him I thought, next to me, you’re the smartest guy I ever met and we should partner up on something.”

A short time later, Ken discovered a small storage facility in Houston, Texas. He stopped in to investigate and discovered the units were sold-out with a waiting list, and he saw their opportunity. 

The first Public Storage location opened in El Cajon, California in 1972 with a fiesta complete with mariachis and bright orange doors to attract the attention of potential customers driving by on the nearby highway. The first customer was a distributor for STP Motor Oil. He needed a place to stash the cans that were in his driveway that “had to be gone” at his wife’s insistence. 

Public Storage El Monte California grand opening 1973

This and other early facilities—including one opened in 1973 where Wayne and Ken celebrated together in the photo below—were supposed to be a temporary use of the land. The philosophy was to keep building properties until they stopped filling up, but more than 40 years and thousands of facilities later, that hasn’t happened.

Public Storage founders Wayne Hughes and Ken Volk

What began in 1972 as a partnership is now a publicly-traded S&P 500 business and an employer of more than 5,000, thanks to the spark of an idea and the forethought of two guys who liked working together. Public Storage is the largest owner/operator of self-storage facilities in the world.

“As long as there’s activity, we’ll do fine. People move, businesses start, businesses fail, people get married, divorced, kids go to college, people die. These activities make us necessary,” said Public Storage CEO Ron Havner. “Is there new technology that can shrink people’s stuff? … Even if you can, we’ll still have the best real estate. Wayne made sure of that right from the start.”

Public Storage El Cajon California