Celebrating Mickey Burnam in Honor of Women in Business Month
She didn’t see the gun until she was staring down the cold, steel barrel. On the other end, a desperate man demanded money. For 17-year-old Mickey Burnam, it was just one of those days.
Recruited by the Pacific Finance & Loan Company in 1951 for her hard-earned business acumen, she was one of most motivated people in the office. And on this day, she found herself making one of the most important business deals of her early career.
Having just returned from the bank when the intruder barged in, her mind immediately jumped to the unassuming envelope containing $2,000 cash that she had placed on her desk just moments before. Surely that would be more than enough to satisfy the robber and send him packing.
But Mickey instinctively knew that she didn’t love that deal. A split second later, she calmly emptied the nearby petty cash box onto the counter. The man collected the contents and disappeared out the door with less than $100 to show for his trouble.
As trying and exciting as that day was, it proved to be just one example in a long line of memorable decisions, successes, and failures that lay ahead of her and future husband, Gordon Burnam. Together, the couple would go on to found dozens of businesses, including what could arguably be considered the birth of the self storage industry.
Who Was Mickey Burnam?
The best way to appreciate just how remarkable Mickey was as a businesswoman, mother, and role model, is to hear it from the people who knew her best. We sat down with members of Mickey’s family, friends, and coworkers to better understand the impact she made – and continues to make – to this day.
Kim Flower, daughter: My mom was there from the beginning of our entry into the self storage business. Everything pretty much started with her – how to run things, collect rent, do the accounting. And at that time, this was still a non-computerized business. Which worked out perfectly because my dad was notorious for coming up with ideas, sometimes throwing himself into new projects. They offset each other in just the right ways.
Over the years, they went through dozens of different businesses before arriving at the concept of storage. It’s true that my dad always had a more visible role from the outside, but my mom was behind the scenes supporting him 100%. And, in a significant way, she was in more of a power position than he was. I’m proud of what they accomplished together.
I really think the old cliché is true. Mothers always know best. Even from a young age, I still remember how important it was to her that I was actively working. She didn’t care if it was inside the family business or not. What she wanted for me was to get that experience, and to do the hard things that needed to be done – however unglamorous they were or how reluctant I might have felt. Looking back, that’s what really paid off for me in the end. Thank you, mom.
Tim Burnam, son: From 1973 on, my mom did the layout and unit mix of all of our facilities. Back when it was just her and my dad, she’d get out a piece of paper, a pencil, a ruler, and draw the plans. She was one of the first people who grasped the idea that planning a successful self storage facility didn’t mean filling the property with as many individual units as you could – especially if 90% of them were going to sit vacant. Back then, she didn’t have anyone to tell her that; no best practices to consult. Self storage was too new. She had to figure it out for herself.
I think a lot of people misunderstood my mom. She wanted very much to get down to business and get things accomplished so that she could move on to the next pressing matter on her list. Sometimes her business-centric disposition probably caused people to think she was mean. But if you got to know her, you’d quickly find out that she was quite friendly, personable, and kind. If you wanted to talk to her about something personal, you’d best save it for the golf course. Otherwise, she could certainly get frustrated with you if you used her business time for chit-chat.
Looking back, I’m amazed that she was able to help start and run over 60 different businesses in the years she and my father were married. I miss her every day and often find myself thinking “What would mom do?” She was a very good person, mother, and leader who was equally proud of all of us for our unique contributions to the family.
Kerri Jones, granddaughter: “You must be wearing a girdle in that dress!” My grandmother said that to me once at a StorageMart Christmas party. A comment like that might rub some people the wrong way, but I knew it came from a good place.
In some cases, life is too short to hold back your opinions. My grandma certainly wasn’t afraid or hesitant to share hers nor was she afraid of the opinions that came back at her. She owned her opinions but she knew there was a time and a place for everything.
She also believed that sometimes you had to let your work do the speaking for you. She worked harder than any woman I know, and was very smart – graduating high school at 16. She was the CFO of every business Gordon started, and people listened to her when she said what would work and what wouldn’t because they knew she was most likely right.
Ultimately, my grandma wanted me, and other women like me, to just go for it. Of course, she believed in educating yourself first. She thought if you learned about what you wanted to do, then actually doing it would be within your reach. But she’d be quick to tell you not to wait for an invitation. She’d tell you to go take it for yourself.
Jeannie Perry, co-worker and friend: I started working here in 1993. Mickey came in from time to time, and one of the things I remember most about her was just how intelligent she was. It was easy to tell that she was the driving force of the family and played a huge role in their business success.
But the other thing I remember about Mickey was her sense of humor. It was different, and I always appreciated how she spoke her mind. She was the type of person who would always tell you exactly how she thought it was.
I didn’t just respect Mickey. I genuinely liked her for who she was as a whole person. She was a great mother who loved her kids. She was a talented artist. She could make the most amazing quilts. She was good at so many things besides running a business. There are very few people in this world like Mickey.
Cris Burnam, son: Mom and Dad founded many different endeavors together. My dad was the quintessential front man; he could sell reindeers to Laplanders. But it was mom who held everything together. She did her best to keep dad focused on one business before starting in on another.
That doesn’t mean everything they touched was a success. Through the years, mom and dad made and lost multiple fortunes together across a staggering range of industries. Aside from real estate and self storage, they were in the automotive aftermarket, they opened motor speedways, started insurance companies and managing medical practices, they even tried their hands at horse meat exporting, believe it or not.
Even though mom was every bit the entrepreneur and driver in these businesses as dad was, she never sought the credit or accolades, no matter how deserving of them she rightfully was. Rather, she pushed, and prodded, and did everything she could to make dad and the family successful.
That’s who my mom was, and it wasn’t the only example of her tendency toward modesty. She gave thousands to charitable organizations but insisted upon giving anonymously because she never felt that she deserved credit or a pat on the back just for doing what she felt was right. She also never missed her turn, every Wednesday, to deliver groceries to folks all over Columbia in support of the Meals on Wheels program. She loved checking in on “her people.” I still remember the old blind man who would send mom home loaded down with his home-grown tomatoes.
Kathy Winkleman, co-worker and friend: From picking cotton to running multiple businesses, hard work was in Mickey’s DNA. She did everything she could to instill that same ethic in her family and in the people she worked with. She was just one of those people who wasn’t going to let anything get in her way and she wanted to empower others to be the same in that regard.
When I think back on the difference she made, what stands out to me is the way she communicated with each of us. When you had a conversation with Mickey she would always address you by name, look you in the eye, and give you a straight answer. She never spoke over you or below you, but sometimes you had to be careful what you asked for because she was going to tell you the unvarnished truth.
Alex Burnam, grandson: I never worked directly with my grandma, but she helped shape me into who I am today, both as a person and as a business professional. That’s because she was never afraid to tell me what she thought, even if I didn’t want to hear it. I almost always found out down the road that she was right.
Like any young person growing up, sometimes I listened and sometimes I didn’t. But no matter what, she was incredibly supportive of me and the things I wanted to accomplish. I felt like I was one of her projects or investments, and it was good for me to have her voice in my life.
One of the things she used to tell me, for as long as I can remember, was to be nice to everybody you meet – you might need their help someday. It taught me never to lash out at people just because I disagreed or because they happened to be a competitor down the street.
My grandma’s contributions to the self storage industry, the family businesses, and the people who knew her were immeasurable. I believe all of the things we have today are a result of the hard work she put in with my grandpa.
Weyen Burnam, grandson: My personal experience is a little bit different from the other grandchildren because I’m a good 20 years older than they are. So, I can still remember my grandma and grandpa being hyper focused on finding efficiencies, turning a profit, and continuing to grow the business.
Looking back at that time with the benefit of hindsight, I’ve come to understand that what might have come across as harsh or uncaring to some was really an example of their steadfast dedication – not just to the business – but to the people they loved.
The truth is, I didn’t fully appreciate just how hard they worked and how hard they wanted and expected all of us to work. But I grew up. And as I did, I gained a new perspective on why they did things the way they did. It’s why I’ve consciously tried to impart some of that work ethic into my own family.
Everyone in the family knows my grandma held things together on the accounting side, and with all of things that needed to be in place in order to have a successful business. But the other thing that sticks out in my mind was her passion for the artistic side of building a brand. She was influential in how we decided to bring the brand to life, how the signage looked, and the overall feel of the business. When I consider the full scope of her contributions, I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that there wouldn’t be a business without her.
Perhaps even more than her impact on the family’s success, it’s her continued impact on all of us that I cherish most. I have two girls. And thanks to who my grandma was, I can tell them with confidence that their voices matter and that they never need to be afraid to speak up. If someone doesn’t want to listen, that’s their choice. I saw my grandma act as the voice of reason in our business discussions, and that meant she had to be willing to stick her neck out and say no. We all respected her for that.
Adam Burnam, grandson: My grandma was an absolute pioneer. She was in the driver’s seat, running the offices, handling the numbers, and running the business overall. This was in an era when it was even less common than it is now to have a woman in a prominent leadership position.
I can remember back when StorageMart was a much smaller company than it is today. All of the Burnams in management roles looked up to her. Even as a young kid playing in the hallways, I could sense the culture of this place. It was about the value of hard work, sure. But also humility and modesty. It was always a culture where cross-collaboration was valued and encouraged. Still is today – and I believe we have grandma to thank for it.
Throughout all of the ups and downs – the false starts, the dead ends – she was rock solid and consistent. Although brazen at times, she was a straight shooter who always told it how it was. She didn’t hesitate to set you straight if you weren’t living up to your full potential. Believe me, she’d let you know. She always said the things we needed to hear, even if we didn’t want to.
And that’s exactly what I think she would do for other young women today. She’d be among the first to offer her unique mix of encouragement and constructive criticism – driven by her desire to help people realize their potential and reach new heights.
Sure, my grandma had a rough side, but it was balanced by a more delicate counterpoint. She was an artist. We have a collection of her still life paintings. Even now, I look at them and wonder what was going through her mind when she’d allow herself to take a breath and express herself in a purely artistic way.
Sadie Burnam-Schaumburg, granddaughter: My grandma was fierce in everything she did. She loved fiercely. She worked fiercely. And she was never afraid to fail. She approached everything with 100% commitment and determination. Even though grandma was a force to be reckoned with, she was never unapproachable. We always felt loved by her.
Because of the way my grandma lived her life, she taught me that I have a seat and a voice in any room. My opinion always matters, regardless of whether people want to listen or not. I’ll always remember her authenticity as a person and the pride she felt in all that she accomplished – from the early days when she had nothing to the culmination of her life’s work when she had everything.
Mike Burnam, son: Mom and dad worked together in every business they started. When we counted up the businesses it was over 40. Mom’s job in those days was to say “no,” “maybe,” or “okay” to my dad’s ideas – some of which could probably be described as crazy. That’s why mom’s role in their partnership was so important. And aside from that, she was the one keeping the books straight. It really did take a combined effort to get those companies launched.
She was the backbone of everything. The one who never got flustered and made sure dad was doing what he was supposed to be doing. But when it came time to make decisions, it was always something they did together. That’s why they had such a great partnership.
Every day we see or do something that reminds us of her. From simple things like the way she wrote her numbers to the way she taught us to keep books. We see mom everywhere we look.
Mickey’s Legacy Today
To say that Mickey Burnam helped nurture a fledgling company into a staple of life for thousands of people across three countries would be completely accurate. It would also fall far short of acknowledging the true impact she made during her time with all of us.
It can’t be measured by the number of properties acquired. A customer cost-per-acquisition. Or even the top-of-mind-awareness of a brand that probably wouldn’t exist without her. Rather, Mickey’s true impact was on the people who called her “mom,” “grandma,” “great-grandma,” “partner,” and “friend.” I’m better for knowing and working with Mickey, and I’m proud to do my part – however small – to help carry on her legacy.
Speaking of Mickey’s legacy, you can see it in action for yourself. Our “Women in Business Spotlight” showcases the incredible stories of everyday people, like Mickey, who are driving positive change and growth for StorageMart.