Where Sunrise Senior Living’s New CEO is Taking the Company Next

Four months after moving into a new position as Sunrise Senior Living CEO, Chris Winkle is already well underway with the company’s growth strategy. Last week, Sunrise expanded its partnership with Health Care REIT in at $257 million deal to acquire United Kingdom-based Gracewell Healthcare, with Sunrise taking over the operations of the portfolio and signing on for an additional development pipeline.

With a background in health care companies, including roles as CEO for a diagnostic imaging center operator, president and CEO for Mariner Health Care and chief of operations for Integrated Health Services, he brings to his new role experience in managing sub-acute care, long-term acute care and ancillary services, among other health care operations. (Winkle served as Sunrise Chief Operating Officer prior to becoming CEO.)

Winkle shared his insights with SHN on how Sunrise is well-positioned to partner with other health care systems, where he sees the company’s growth opportunities, and why Sunrise doesn’t have to stick with only one brand.

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Senior Housing News: What are your plans for the remainder of your first six months as CEO? 

Chris Winkle: To develop our growth plan. With the recent Gracewell acquisition, we have started to execute on it already. The goal now is to build it up. This has taken up the first four months and I see it taking up the remainder of the year to see that we have the pieces in place to execute on our growth strategy.

We currently have three active projects underway, and development clearly is going to be a core part of our strategy.

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SHN: Sunrise has built a strong brand. How do you see it evolving in the future? 

CW: The goal for Sunrise is to maintain the distinctiveness of its brand, and not dilute it. We plan to keep the Gracewell brand in the UK. The real key is that we don’t turn everything into Sunrise. We can manage multiple brands.

SHN: Speaking of the Gracewell deal, do you have more plans for growth in the UK? 

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CW: It’s a classic case of a relationship transaction. Health Care REIT is one of our capital partners. They had an opportunity with Gracewell and we stepped in on the management side. We will always be opportunistic when partners bring those opportunities to us. The UK is attractive, as is North America.

SHN: How is tech playing into the innovation at Sunrise? 

CW: There are several ways, as we are looking at new communities with features like wi-fi. Resident safety is a big component, as is using tech to enable clinical outcomes. There are the guts of the infrastructure to make sure you have the connectivity that is needed, having the processes in all of the new developments to go in and look at wi-fi, and things of that nature, and also building on resident safety.

SHN: You come from a long background spanning different health care roles. How does that bring new perspective to your role as CEO? 

CW: The fact that I’ve been involved in a lot of parts of health care gives me an understanding of what other organizations are doing. I’ve seen the significance of care in multiple settings. But at the same time, Sunrise is still unique in terms of what it has created. To me, the No. 1 thing is building off of that and not interfering with it.

Some argue that it falls into the hospitality bucket, but we’re focused on the home-like environment, and figuring out how you bring in some of the technology infrastructure and ways to improve, but not interfere with the resident.

In the early ’90s, when sub-acute care was pioneered, it was a way to bring a hospital level of care to skilled nursing. There are a lot of similarities [with ACOs today] because it’s more home-like and residential, but at the same time, we are part of the health care network. When you look at coverage in key markets, we are very attractive to health systems. We serve a lot of seniors and health care users, and we have a critical mass of residents in these core markets.

SHN: After selling the Sunrise property portfolio to Health Care REIT last year, do you see the potential for the company to get back into real estate ownership?

CW: I don’t rule out having real estate ownership, but the key for us right now is real estate development and we have multiple partners for that. Developing Sunrise, selling and managing is the primary strategy. We’re not opposed to ownership, but it won’t be a conscious strategy.

SHN: As Sunrise is a high-end senior living brand, are there any plans to get into more affordable options?

CW: It’s more an issue of offering different options and opportunities than a focus on affordability. There’s a lot of product out there. [It’s our job] to make sure we have a different identity for our different brands. And if we’re managing several brands, they can all be a part of that relationship with an ACO.

SHN: What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing right now? 

CW: We’ve been through a lot of change in the last couple of years, and we’re really getting everyone focused on a long-term growth opportunity right now. We’re looking at how to put things into place from a long-term value perspective and take Sunrise to an entirely new level. We have the same challenges that everybody else does. We are making sure we’re putting the right emphasis and focus on the long term.

Written by Elizabeth Ecker

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