New Provider Launches, Helmed By Former Senior Lifestyle COO

There’s another new entrant in senior living, and the recently launched owner, operator and developer has set out to become an employer of choice in the sector. And its leader—the former COO of Senior Lifestyle Corp.—plans to remain unusually visible within his communities.

Naperville, Illinois-based Charter Senior Living is initially targeting new developments and acquisitions in the Midwest, Southeast and Northeast, and its first deal is slated to close May 1, Founder and CEO Keven Bennema tells Senior Housing News.

The goal is to maximize opportunities in all aspects of senior housing, including independent living, assisted living, memory care and skilled nursing, though Bennema says the latter will likely come into play down the road. For now, the company’s growth will be deliberate and gradual, with a pipeline not exceeding $200 million over the course of the next three years, he says.

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“I think the key here is, I’m not going to overextend Charter Senior Living,” Bennema says. “I want to be very methodical and not too overaggressive or greedy.”

A Logical Next Step

Bennema has decades of experience in senior living operations under his belt, having served in various capacities since starting as a caregiver in 1993 and most recently spending nine years as Senior Lifestyle’s executive vice president and COO. Career-wise, he strove to either become a president and CEO of an already existing senior housing company or start his own—and the stars aligned for the latter when private equity and institutional investor sources began approaching him last May about opportunities in the space.

Without the right operator, though, they figured they’d have a hard time getting funding and loans for acquisitions and development.

“Quite honestly, they’re not interested really at all in working for companies that own and operate over 150 communities, because they just don’t believe they’re going to get the attention necessary that a company like Charter Senior Living can come and bring,” Bennema says.

The result has been various equity and debt financing partners, including a large institutional investor in the Southeast and others scattered throughout the Midwest and the West. Two primary investors have committed the necessary capital to ensure Charter Senior Living’s initial growth, Bennema says.

Calculated Growth

Investors’ interest in smaller operators has driven Charter’s “moderate” growth strategy, with plans not to exceed 30 to 50 communities over roughly the next five years. To start, Charter has two management opportunities in the Midwest and three in the Southeast set to come to fruition in the next 90 days, Bennema says, as well as two potential developments in Florida.

These seven opportunities are likely to consume the remainder of the year, and from there, Charter will look to add about 10 buildings each year, with a target of 70% of growth coming from acquisitions for the first two years and 30% from developments.

One primary reason behind this meticulous approach is so that Bennema himself can make appearances in Charter’s communities. The purpose here is not only to be accessible to residents and families, but also to learn from their concerns and comments.

“I think a lot of larger companies have made big mistakes in saying how transparent and available they’ll be to the actual customers, when in essence, most CEOs and executive level teams are barely able to visit communities once they reach a size that prevents them to do so,” Bennema says. “I really want to be a company that walks the talk and doesn’t stray from my ability to spend time at my communities, with my customers.”

An Employee-Centric Culture

Perhaps the biggest way that Bennema plans to set Charter Senior Living apart is by focusing first and foremost on employees and fostering a culture of doing what is right by its workers.

“I want our community executive directors and department heads to own their operation, and I want to be there as a support system to not only help them grow their business, but walk alongside them to help individually mentor and coach them to do what’s right,” Bennema says.

This begins with the onboarding and training process, he says. Once employees are hired, they will be immediately set on a career path that aligns with their personal goals and desires, and Charter Senior Living will do its part to support them. As they progress and grow their skills, they’ll also be financially incentivized.

“It’s going to be a very customized and individualized approach to helping all of our team members grow as much as they want to in their current roles, or to become managers, to become clinicians,” Bennema says. “That encompasses what I think is a much different approach to partnering with your employees on their career development.”

Overall, Charter’s mission involves establishing meaningful relationships across its personnel and residents that resemble familial ties.

“Our employees will be treated as family members, and our residents will be our families,” Bennema says. “I’m trying to create an environment that once you walk into a Charter Senior Living community, you immediately see the connection that our employees and residents have.”

Written by Kourtney Liepelt

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