How One CCRC Is Reinventing Itself After 50 Years

Rowntree Gardens in Stanton, Calif.
Rowntree Gardens in Stanton, Calif.

In today’s increasingly sophisticated senior housing market, providers are constantly tasked with finding ways to differentiate while still remaining competitive in the services and programming they provide.

For those providers, especially not-for-profit continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs), that have been in the business for half a century, it is not uncommon to completely reinvent the organization beyond physical appearances.

Such is the undertaking of Rowntree Gardens, a CCRC in Orange County, Calif., which after nearly 50 years is embarking on the most ambitious project in its history. Founded in 1965 as Quaker Gardens, the CCRC is retooling nearly everything about its organization, from its branding and physical structure to its programming and culture.

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The transformation is born from an extensive review Rowntree Gardens launched in late 2013 in efforts to identify what changes would be necessary to flourish during the organization’s next 50 years.

The review, which covered the CCRC’s internal and external audience perceptions—those within the organization including current residents, as well as those not living at the community—produced three key areas of vital changes, including but not limited to investing millions of dollars into major updates like community-wide technologies, new dining venues and other amenities.

To hear more about this enterprise-wide undertaking, SHN sat down with Rowntree Gardens CEO Randy Brown for a deeper dive into his organization’s strategic reinvention and the vision behind it.

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After nearly 50 years of operation, why reinvent now? What was the impetus behind the decision and the community’s vision for rebranding as Rowntree Gardens?

After being in the business for that long, we’ve had a great reputation in the Southern California marketplace, but we had plateaued where our census was. That caused us to take a look at that and say why aren’t we seeing the needle move too much?

We have always looked at the brand as telling a story of who you are rather than what you do. We felt like we had something special, but maybe weren’t articulating that well to the outside world and realized that the brand we represented had some barriers.

One was the name Quaker Gardens. Another was because we were 50 years old, we were showing our age quite a bit and needed to freshen up our look.

We really wanted to involve all of our different audiences, including our staff, community members and even looking at some outside folks. Essentially, our brand existed but we needed to find a better way to articulate it.

It was a month of work talking to everyone that was connected to the facility.

What was it about the Quaker name specifically that Rowntree Gardens is trying to dispel misconceptions?

We had various comments that it sounded kind of old and stodgy. Some people even said they might not pursue it any further because of the name.

Only about 10% of the folks living here are from the Quaker faith. But Rowntree Gardens does have roots in the Quaker faith. We did that intentionally to have that same connection.

Mr. Joseph Rowntree was a chocolatier confectioner in the U.K. in the early 1900s whose company, Rowntree’s, created the Kit Kat and Rolo candies. As a Quaker, he was also a philanthropist well-known for taking care of his employees and the community. So there is a bit of shared values there with us.

We have an internal vision statement that says, “To be a daily blessing to all we encounter.” That has been an inherent part of our culture to begin with, but now our tagline is “where devotion meets compassion.”

The “Gardens” in our name comes from being built around a beautiful garden-like area.

The reinvention is certainly an ambitious undertaking with major updates happening on the infrastructure level as well as some remodeling work. Where are the most significant changes taking place?

The biggest thing that we worked the hardest on, and spent the most time on, was the name change and the expression of that culture as being part of that brand. We’re well on our way with establishing the brand. That’s an ongoing process that we’ll continue to build on.

We have also changed internally, taking on a craftsman style but modernized. With a 50-year-old building, we couldn’t just tear it down to the ground and rebuild it. Instead, we asked how can we implement new features in a better way?

The approach we took was to give the physical appearance a fresh, inviting look.

We’re getting ready to do the insides, including the main dining and activity rooms, and adding things like kitchenettes and bringing in double pane windows to units. We’re also updating our technology infrastructure to modernize that more, as well as create better activities and programs that emphasize safety.

How much does Rowntree Gardens plan to invest in its community-wide updates, and what is the timetable for when these changes will occur?

We’re estimated north of $3 million, but we’re not fully done with all of the changes so it will likely exceed that. It’s really been about strategically picking the right things to do.

We’re about halfway to two-thirds through the big changes, and there are other smaller projects that we’ll focus on for another year or two. With what operating profit we do have, we’re able to put that back into the facility.

We have good bones, so it wasn’t a matter of tearing buildings down, just more of bringing it up to expectations of the marketplace that has become more educated and more sophisticated in years past.

For those older CCRCs approaching the half-century mark—or even a little younger—will sweeping community-wide changes be indicative of a larger trend for organizations to remain relevant in the years to come, especially for those on the non-profit side?

We held a senior staff meeting and the theme was “change is here to stay.” What was satisfactory for prior generations isn’t going to be the same moving forward.

Certainly we’re able to give a lot of different programs and activities on our eight acres, but we want to making sure we’re picking the right things that will be attractive. It’s going to be extremely important in the future that we cannot let the marketplace change around us without changing with it.

With 50 years behind the community, looking ahead what changes will be necessary for Rowntree Gardens to flourish during its next 50 years?

They’re going to have to be centered around amenities and activities. As long as we remain a Life Care Community, we will always have the ability to provide long-term care in a financial way, but for us to be viable to coming generations we have to make sure we have the amenities, activities and commitment of being compassionate towards people.

People have to say this is a place where I can come to live with vitality for the rest of my life. The term CCRC is no longer the best description for campuses like ours. We have to look at those who are shopping now and find ways to better describe who we are, what we do and how we do it.

Written by Jason Oliva

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