From C-Suite to Startup: Lisa Brush, Symphony Senior Living

Sometimes taking one step back means taking two steps forward. At least that was the case with Lisa Brush, whose more than 20-year career includes time at Sunrise Senior Living, its REIT counterpart, and Ventas.

When Brush launched her career in senior housing at the ripe age of 22, it didn’t take long for her to climb up to the c-suite. After just four years at The Steeves & Rozema Group of Companies — a developer, owner and manager of senior housing, apartment and commercial real estate in Canada — Brush took the helm as CEO.

Though it was during these formative years that Brush laid the foundation for her career, it wasn’t until she left Steeves & Rozema that she was propelled forward in the industry.

Advertisement

“Something that a lot of people get wrong in their career development is feeling like they have to follow a linear trajectory on an upward scale,” Brush says. “I encourage people to not look at titles as much. I was CEO of a more than 30-property company, but probably one of the best decisions I ever made was to become the vice president of operations at Sunrise.”

With tenacity, high standards and a passion for the business, Brush set out to not only be the best but work with the best in the industry, says Tiffany Tomasso, now the CEO of Kensington Senior Living, who previously worked as Brush’s supervisor as chief operating officer of Sunrise.

“She wants to be associated with the best. She has very high standards for herself and what she wants to create and if you look at her career path, she’s done it,” Tomasso says. “She wanted to work in assisted living in the U.S., she wanted to work for Sunrise, she set out to meet Paul Klaassen and me, and wasn’t going to stop until she got an opportunity with us. That’s where her tenacity comes in. She was very, very persistent and flexible in what she had to do in order to become part of the company.”

At Sunrise — and at other companies in the years following — Brush learned lessons in corporate politics, company culture, Canadian markets and operational efficiencies. And despite her success as current president and CEO of Toronto-based Symphony Senior Living, Brush is looking beyond the company to take it to the next level.

With change on the horizon, Brush reflects on her 20-year career in senior housing, including the good, the bad and the growth opportunity.

‘Head Over Heels’

Like many professionals who have risen in the ranks of senior housing, Brush seemed to have fallen into the industry, rather than seeking it out.

After finishing her MBA at the University of Windsor, she landed at Steeves & Rozema, a company that soon sparked her interest in senior living.

At the time she joined, the company had just bought two additional retirement homes — the equivalent of independent living communities in the U.S. — opening the door to opportunity for Brush.

“I worked really hands-on in those senior homes and loved what I did,” she says. “It was so different from the commercial real estate and construction sides of the business. That didn’t seem to have as much of a draw for me as senior housing.”

While Brush helped grow the company from 25 to more than 35 properties during her tenure, something began pulling her in a different direction.

“We got the company professionally managed, and I wanted to keep going and really focus on senior housing,” she says. “I had this idea that I needed to work with a public company — I’m not sure what was compelling me to do that at the time.”

She gravitated toward one company, in particular: Sunrise Senior Living (NYSE: SRZ).

“I started thinking about who I wanted to work for, and I cold-called most of the CEOs at the time. During that process, I fell head over heels for Sunrise,” she says.

‘Pockets of Politics’

Over the years, Brush has learned a thing or two about senior living — in both Canada and the U.S.

For starters, “Canada lags about 10 years behind the U.S.,” she says. “We are much more institutional, even in our private-pay [communities].”

However, differences aside, there’s one thing that always seemed to have a presence in senior housing, regardless of the company’s location: politics.

“During those early formative years [at Steeves & Rozema], I was able to really influence the company to maintain a very low level of politics, so our people were focused on the mission and the team,” she says. “When I went into the corporate world — working at a public company — in different scenarios, the whole dynamic of politics came out to some degree.”

And, for Brush, it became a lesson in corporate culture.

“One of the things I learned was how influential and potentially detrimental that can be for a company, and how important it is for CEOs to make sure they create a culture where politics don’t rule the day,” she says.

At Ventas (NYSE: VTR), “politics were quite minimal.” But at Sunrise, “we seemed to be plagued with pockets of politics much more,” she says.

Having witnessed this firsthand, Brush has translated her experiences to Symphony Senior Living, where she says she’s better able to coach team members coming from both small providers and the corporate world.

‘Hot, Hot, Hot’

Not long after Sunrise REIT was founded in 2004, Brush became a prime candidate to manage the Toronto-based entity’s operations.

“We needed somebody in the REIT who could bring the voice of the operating team to the table, otherwise it was just going to be the deals side,” Tomasso says. “I looked within Sunrise for someone who could speak the finance deal language but could also speak the operating language.”

Brush fit the bill. Her leadership skills, knowledge and experience made her uniquely suited to fill the role as chief operating officer of Sunrise REIT.

“Good leaders have to have a strong sense of themselves and be able to take a seat at the table and have the confidence of the people around them,” Tomasso says. “Lisa had that within the Sunrise leadership team and the roles she played. Going into a REIT that was mainly the deals side, she could bring both sides of this business to the table.”

Not surprisingly, during her time at Sunrise REIT, the economy played a role in influencing her career path.

As COO from 2006 to 2007, Brush was eventually involved in the company’s $2.5 billion sale to Ventas.

“The markets were hot, hot, hot in ’06 and ’07, so we sold our 80 assets to Ventas, and I was ‘sold’ with those assets along with a colleague of mine,” says Brush, who became senior vice president of senior housing operations and development at Ventas.

However, it was her prior experience that ultimately led to her next career move.

“At the end of the day, I wasn’t in the field anymore; I was a bank,” she says. “I didn’t want to be a bank or the person who goes in and says ‘this is what you’re doing wrong.’ I wanted to be the person to stick around and help make it happen. So I chose to leave the REIT and start up Symphony.”

With the help of the market downturn, Symphony was founded by taking on a five-property portfolio consisting of 1,000 units in two Canadian provinces.

“I grabbed a team and on Jan. 1, 2010, we jumped in and created an accounting group, operations group, created the brand, fleshed everything out and within the first two weeks, we were having to make payroll for 500 employees.”

Now the 13th largest senior housing operator in Canada, Symphony manages 2,000 units of private-pay independent, assisted living and dementia care at 11 communities.

“It really was the problem of ’08 and the over-leverage, even in Canada, that caused Symphony to become Symphony,” Brush says.

‘Up At Night’

Ask any leader in the senior living industry “what keeps you up at night?” and they’ll share a range of answers, from rising interest rates to resident safety. For Brush, the answer to that question depends on her team members.

“I sleep fairly well because I have a very good team,” she says. “If anything keeps me up at night, it’s when I’m going through a transition and I’m not sure if I’ve got the right people at the property level.”

With the right team members, Brush says success will follow.

“At the end of the day, we have to focus on what we are trying to achieve here, not just maximizing shareholder return — because I’m the shareholder and that’s not getting me up in the morning. We have to provide a return to our investors, provide an excellent service, and be proud of what we do and how we treat people,” she says.

One program, in particular, integrates a unique approach to caring for memory care residents with Brush’s background in Buddhism.

The Moments Club is a day and night program that provides safe experiences for those with dementia, while offering caregivers a break for a couple of days per week.

Now available at all 11 Symphony communities, Moments Club gives participants full access to specialized activities and programs during the day or night, depending on that individual’s schedule.

“One of first things that happens is families can’t get [loved ones with dementia] to sleep. If you’re having this problem, we’ll move you to the night program. Staff will come and pick you up at 7 o’clock and go back to the community, where we have 24/7 staff who program through the night with them,” Brush says.

She adds, “Our staff on the night shift usually wear pajamas as their uniform because it’ll often prompt residents to go back to sleep — we try to create a night environment without forcing people to adhere to our schedule.”

The program’s name stems from Symphony’s memory care wings, called Moments Neighbourhoods.

“The whole Moments program is based on living in the moment and accessing whatever moments you have right now in a positive way,” Brush says. “Part of that comes from the fact that I’m a Buddhist, and Buddhism is very much about accessing the moment and being present.”

‘Difficult to Grow’

Despite Symphony’s success in Canada, the market is stifling the company’s growth.

“It’s been really, really difficult to grow in Canada. There’s not a lot of product coming on the market and the stuff that does is extremely distressed, which we’ve taken on,” Brush says. “But we’re only 11 properties and 2,000 units, and it’s taken me five years to get here. It doesn’t look like that’s going to drastically change anytime soon.”

Thinking back to her days at Sunrise — a company which she says exhibited tremendous passion in the field, yet also had “immense scale” — Brush is looking to expand Symphony’s operations beyond Canada.

“We’re looking at opportunities to merge with another company, likely in the U.S.,” she says. “What we’re looking forward to is being able to join with a group to leverage what we already have and get some scale and some volume under us. That’s probably the one thing I took away from the various positions I’ve had, including at Sunrise, where they gained scale and did exceptionally well.”

Ultimately, whatever the future holds for Symphony Senior Living, the show must go on for Lisa Brush — 20-year industry veteran and mother of two, who has transitioned from c-suite to startup and has even more to explore in senior housing.

Written by Emily Study

Companies featured in this article:

, , , ,