Blue Harbor Taps Former Merrill Gardens President as CEO

In picking its first CEO, Blue Harbor Senior Living has found a leader with deep industry experience to take the reins as the company grows in new directions.

Tana Gall became CEO of the Portland, Oregon-based management company effective July 1. In the past, Gall served as president both of Merrill Gardens and Leisure Care, two of the largest senior living providers in the nation, both headquartered in Seattle. Most recently, she co-founded and was principal of senior living consulting firm 2Ten Consulting.

2Ten co-founder Jason Childers also has transitioned to Blue Harbor, where he will be executive vice president. He is a long-time colleague of Gall’s, having also served in leadership roles at Merrill Gardens and Leisure Care.

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Blue Harbor Senior Living was founded in 2012, after investment management firm Fortress Investment Group (NYSE: FIG) purchased an eight-building portfolio in Portland. Having acquired the management company as well as the real estate, Fortress dubbed the management arm Blue Harbor.

The brand has grown as Fortress has acquired other senior living communities around the country. Currently, Blue Harbor manages 26 communities in 13 states, offering independent living, assisted living, and memory care. Fortress-affiliated real estate investment trust New Senior Investment Group (NYSE: SNR) owns the real estate of most of these properties, and it was a meeting last fall with New Senior CEO Susan Givens that eventually led to Gall taking the reins at Blue Harbor.

“It was just an intro meeting,” Gall told Senior Housing News. “A couple months later, [Givens] called me … and she said, ‘I want to talk to you about employment.’”

Gall, enjoying her first year with 2Ten, had not been actively thinking about a return to the C-Suite of an operating company. However, part of the long-term plan for 2Ten was to get into management services, which is where her “passion” lies, Gall said.

So, one attraction to Blue Harbor was that part of the growth plan is to expand its presence as a third-party manager. Already, it serves as a third-party manager for two buildings, and is poised to do so for a property getting under construction in Missouri.

“I love operations,” Gall said. “Being with employees and giving them a great work environment. If they have a great work environment, our residents have a great environment. Ultimately, this seemed like a great opportunity.”

Five days into the job, Gall said she has been impressed with the team at Blue Harbor, singling out their approach to compliance.

“I’ll learn a lot from them on how they update policies and how that’s all rolled out,” she said.

Next week, regional teams will be coming to Portland, providing an opportunity for Gall to continue to familiarize herself with the company—and getting to know the team is her first area of emphasis. She also plans to visit all of the Blue Harbor communities nationwide within her first six months.

“It’ll be me absorbing what makes a Blue Harbor community,” she said. “And from there, create plans for growth.”

Setting the Right Pace

As for why now was the time for Blue Harbor to bring someone in as CEO, Gall pointed to the growth plans for the company.

That will proceed through acquisitions with Fortress as well as through expanding the third-party management side, she said. However, she’s not in a rush to get deals done.

Instead, she’s temporarily slowed down the pipeline to get a sense of where the company is at and to make sure the right infrastructure is in place to support growth.

Part of the process will involve defining the “ideal building” for Blue Harbor. Given that growth has come mainly through acquisitions, the company currently is managing a variety of buildings, including standalone memory care and those that mix assisted living and memory care.

And in growing the third-party management business, making sure that Blue Harbor is well-aligned with developers and owners before partnering with them is crucial, Gall emphasized.

In terms of how many acquisitions and management contracts could be undertaken in the near-term, there currently are no firm numbers.

“I don’t have a magic number of where we want to be in a year or two, because I want to make sure we’re doing an excellent job and then pursue strategic growth moving forward,” Gall said.

Similarly, there are no plans for rapid internal change at Blue Harbor, even as the leadership expands to include herself and Childers, she said.

“I think we’ve got great people, maybe just make sure people are on the right seat on the bus,” she said. “I don’t foresee major changes.”

While she has two decades of experience with Merrill Gardens and Leisure Care to drawn on, it was her last year as a consultant that might prove to be the most influential in how she approaches her new role.

“I was in the weeds for 21 years, and to step back and be in a consultant position and look at the whole industry, not necessarily one company, really will help in forming what I think can be a really great management company,” she said.

In particular, the importance of workforce development has come to the fore for her, Gall explained.

“I’ve really been trying to study what makes people attracted to our industry and how do we get those people in and get them to be ambassadors,” she said. “That’s my hope, that in a year I have some of the best executive directors in the country working for us, because I’ve seen that’s when the business comes in, and you’ve got happy residents and team members. That’s where I’ll spend my time.”

Written by Tim Mullaney

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