Meet James Balda, ALFA’s New CEO

Less than four months into his new role as president and CEO of the Assisted Living Federation of America, James Balda has helped roll out new credentialing efforts, launched a campaign that aims to prepare industry stakeholders for the next 10 years, and hosted his first annual conference, which had a record 2,700 attendees. 

Not to mention he is learning the ins and outs of the senior living industry — from the biggest opportunities he has as ALFA chief to the biggest challenges the industry faces now and in the future, including an “impending retirement crisis.”

Having joined ALFA from the National Restaurant Association, Balda brought decades of association experience to his post — but he wasn’t involved in senior living until assuming the position at ALFA in mid-January 2015. Senior Housing News caught up with Balda at the annual conference in Tampa, Fla., to learn more about his transition to senior living, his goals for the association and the industry, and possible rebranding or merger efforts.


Senior Housing News: You previously served as senior vice president of innovation and business development at the National Restaurant Association. What experience or knowledge has transferred to the senior living industry? 

James Balda: In the restaurant industry, it’s all about hospitality, and understandably so — it’s the lifeblood of the industry. I’ve been amazed at how much of that carries over into the senior living space. Why wouldn’t it? But I never thought of it that way. As I’ve been exploring communities, meeting people and seeing how they interact with residents, it’s almost like they’re family and that’s been amazing to me. I’m grateful for that because it means I’m in the right job and I’m in the right industry.

Professionally, my job at the National Restaurant Association — and this is a credit to the CEO there, Dawn Sweeney — is really what prepared me for this role. A lot of the thinking I’m doing, the discussions I’m having, the actions I’m taking are things I’ve learned from her. … I’ve been able to translate a lot of that into this new role in the first three and a half months.


SHN: What are some of those things you learned from the National Restaurant Association? 

JB: The importance of metrics — you can’t manage what you can’t measure. So we [at ALFA] are implementing for ourselves an internal scorecard that’s designed to align the work that we do as staff and management with the priorities of our Board. That was something I learned from [Sweeney], which was hugely beneficial for us at the National Restaurant Association and I think will be hugely beneficial for us here in terms of helping us keep our focus on the priorities we have today.

SHN: What has been the steepest learning curve for you so far at ALFA?

JB: I’m a trade association professional but this is my first CEO role, so working with the Board has been something new for me. In terms of a learning curve, it’s probably understanding the industry — understanding the nuances, and the whole senior environment.

SHN: What is the biggest opportunity for the industry? 

JB: There’s an opportunity for us as an industry to really be a critical part of the solution of what is going to be an impending retirement crisis.

SHN: ALFA recently announced it is forming an independent credentialing organization, and has also just launched the Senior Living 2025 program. What other new initiatives are you working on? 

JB: Standards is another big priority for us. Here at [the conference] we’re bringing together our new executive advisory board, which is the CEOs of all of our gold members, and we’re going to engage them [Wednesday] afternoon in a lengthy discussion around standards.

Standards are essentially the equivalent of credentialing for professionals but for a community. We as an industry need to think about standards for our communities so consumers and regulators can be comfortable in the knowledge that this community raises the bar. Our objective is to ultimately create a first generation set of standards that we can get folks to coalesce around.

It goes under a larger self-regulation theme that we’re working toward. I call it a self-regulation theme because at the end of the day our industry is regulated at the state level, but there is still a need for us to think about how we can self-regulate so that more regulation isn’t put on us. The credentialing program is one of those initiatives and the standards initiative is as well.

SHN: There’s been talk about ALFA changing its name to be more all-inclusive of senior living industry. Are there still discussions around rebranding the association?

JB: Those talks continue. We are taking a look at whether or not we should rename ourselves, whether we should simply refresh our brand as ALFA, or something in between. For now, we’re the New ALFA in terms of our focus on some new initiatives and priorities that the industry’s been talking about needing for years. We are also the New ALFA in terms of our broader tent — who we represent — which is assisted living, independent living and memory care. We’re casting ourselves as the New ALFA, but as a brand, it’s really less about your name and more about what you do. I think the work we’re doing now is really going to set the stage for who we are in the future.

SHN: For years, there has been discussion of a proposed merger between ALFA and the American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA). Will the industry ever see this happen? 

JB: There were discussions of a merger — that didn’t work out and that was long before I moved into my role, so I can’t really talk much to that. What I can say is once I started, two of the first people who reached out to me were David Schless and Bob Kramer of ASHA and [the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care], respectively. They’ve been great in helping me understand the industry, helping me understand the history of the industry and the history of the associations and who does what. I think there is a desire amongst all of us to figure out how to collaborate and work well together. That’s a genuine commitment, certainly on my end. 

SHN: What’s your vision for the future of ALFA? 

JB: There are many associations out there representing the industry and all of us do different things and do them well. When I think about where the industry’s going and a lot of the activity that is taking place today around care, health care and quality, and the work we’re doing on standards and credentialing, I see us ultimately becoming the trade association representing the senior living industry.

I see us engaging more members in a lot of the activities that we’re doing. I see us becoming much more effective advocates at the state level in partnership with our state partners, but I also see us becoming more engaged in dialogue at the federal level. … The retirement crisis will force those conversations, so we need to be prepared. 

Written by Emily Study

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