Senior Star co-founders and brothers Bill and Bob Thomas didn’t so much approach the senior living business as the business approached them. Or rather, it sort of fell into their laps.
Their first two communities came under receivership of the brothers more than 25 years ago at a time when they were active in real estate, but not yet senior living. Today, the company operates 14 thriving communities and a staff of 1,200, and has become a figurehead for memory care, among other care types.
The Tulsa, Oklahoma-based company operates several cutting-edge memory care initiatives, including virtual dementia tours, which have been adopted by other providers, and by outside organizations including nurses and other care professionals.
Just shy of four decades after his first year in real estate, co-founder Bob Thomas sat down with SHN to share his take on how to grow a good thing, giving back as a rule, and what’s next for Senior Star.
Senior Housing News: How did you get your start in senior living?
Bob Thomas: My twin brother Bill and I have been in business for 39 years. In 1989, we were doing a lot of receivership and foreclosure work during a troubled time for real estate. It just so happened that one of those properties was a senior housing community.
Our company became enamored with what we were doing there, and we have steadily grown from two properties to where we are today.
SHN: Will there be more?
BT: We are on a plan and a mission to double the size of our company within the next five years.
SHN: What does that plan look like?
BT: Within our financial capacity—both internal and through partnerships—this could be done in a year or five years. We have invested the capital both on the development side and acquisition side to fully position us so we can grow. It will probably be more acquisition than new development.
People might say we are growing aggressively … but rather, we have aggressively funded our capacity for growth.
SHN: How does Senior Star differentiate itself from the competition?
BT: Generally speaking, I’m proud of the whole business. If there’s a difference-maker, it’s how driven we are within the culture of our company. We have a significant culture centered around giving back and community involvement. That not only translates into our immediate relationships, but also the broader communities where we are based, as well as metro areas and cities.
In each of our locales we are building relationships that are helping that community at large. We do that in many ways, including through the Alzheimer’s Association. This heightens expectations about how we serve our employees.
SHN: Senior Star has been on the forefront of memory care innovation. What’s new?
BT: We are constantly in training. We have quality initiatives in general and we keep up with them through the Alzheimer’s Association. We also do a couple of things that are physically unique.
For example, the Snoezelin Room. We have that in all of our communities. We also have good computer-based programs for assisted living and memory support.
One big focus on the development side that is enhancing opportunities in existing communities is in memory gardens. In a recent project we completed last January in Kansas City, the memory garden is just awesome. It has a 1930s vintage car under a carport hearkening back to a previous age. Residents can sit in the car, wax it, open the hood … it’s really interesting.
We also have a labyrinth there. It’s something we haven’t seen before. And when it’s not in use by one of our residents, it can become a little spiritual walk for employees.
SHN: How will Senior Star be different going forward?
BT: We’re a family operation because of Bill and me, but we have an executive team that really runs this company. They free us up to work on global things—going to Washington, meeting with elected officials. We spend a lot of time and energy on that focus. It really has helped us change the course of this business.
Written by Elizabeth Ecker