Starting a business in senior living takes guts, knowledge and a unique vision. Fighting through challenges to build their companies has given entrepreneurs a unique insight into what makes a successful company, and where senior living might need to go in the future.
Speaking at the Senior Housing News Summit in Chicago this week, three founders of senior living companies shared how they got their start, their biggest challenges and how they stay on top of their game.
Churning Through Challenges
Zeke Turner founded Mainstreet, a three-dimensional company with development, financing and care services operations, in 2002. Over the years, the company has added more components and made its mark within “one of the least desirable assets of all mankind,” according to Turner. The Carmel, Indiana-based business has heavily developed within skilled nursing to help create a new branch of the property type.
However, expanding the business and venturing in the skilled nursing space wasn’t always so simple.
“When you start out with an idea that everybody hates and no money, it’s a great combination,” Turner said facetiously during the panel. “But startups work best under those conditions. [They’re] like grapes, which grow best when they are challenged and have to fight for water or push through soil. I found the same thing with startups.”
By choosing its asset class, Mainstreet had a relatively slow start before its “sneak attack on the skilled nursing industry,” according to Turner. Driven by its mission to transform lives, Mainstreet’s sought to break down the walls of what skilled nursing was and create a new product that served people better.
“In retrospect, the best thing to happen to us was pick a product no one liked and fight through that,” Turner said. “We learned to fight through those challenges, where everybody else just stops. Figuring out what ought to be done and then figuring out how to do it, that’s how we became successful, by asking what should be, not what already is.”
For Lynne Katzmann, starting Juniper Communities meant sticking true to her vision and ensuring she remained in control of the business. As the founder and president of Juniper—now a company that has been around for 28 years and has 20 properties in four states—Katzmann’s decisions have ensured that the business is not shaped by the demands of other investors.
“In 1988 the industry was going through a dip,” Katzmann said. “Our industry wasn’t exactly the belle of the ball. Getting capital in our industry was not an easy thing. I was starting Juniper at that point in time. …It was clear to me that it didn’t matter who I was, [the lenders] were not going to lend.”
While Juniper eventually began owning and operating communities, the capital struggles shaped Katzmann’s desire to remain true to what she believed in.
“People connect with your passion, your sense of purpose,” Katzmann said. “We’re not for everybody, but for those we’re right for, we’re a great place and a great investment.”
Another entrepreneur, Lisa Brush, founder and CEO of Symphony Senior Living, says she similarly got her start in senior housing from her strong desire to help others and make a difference in others’ lives. After starting out as a hairdresser, Brush went back to school with only that vague idea in mind and quickly became a businesswoman with an MBA.
She joined a senior living company in Canada and rose to the role of CEO by the age of 29. Soon after, she moved to Sunrise Senior Living and served as vice president of operations, but was removed from the hands-on experience after Ventas acquired Sunrise and Brush moved into a position at the Chicago-based real estate investment trust. Although she admired her Ventas colleagues and found the work fascinating, ultimately that desire to be closer to the front lines of care proved irresistible.
“I was so far away from the resident, and what we were doing … wasn’t engaging my soul,” she said. “In 2008, I decided to start a company. I started Symphony Senior Living.”
Starting her company at the start of the recession left her coasting for about a year. However, Symphony has since expanded from Canada to the U.S., and now boasts six properties in Iowa along with six in Canada and another six soon to come in the Southwest.
Over the years, the entrepreneurs’ roles change as businesses expand. However, many senior living leaders see the value of remaining hands on and deeply involved at the ground floor.
“I do a lot from the gut,” Brush said. “The No. 1 thing is getting out into the field personally. As we scale and get bigger, it’s figuring out how to keep that connection. For a CEO to be effective in our industry, they have to have some connection to the field, they have to be perceived as real. That makes a difference.”
Katzmann agrees and said she visits each of Juniper’s communities at least once per year to spend time with staff.
“It’s about the people and the relationships,” she said. “The most important thing for me is not management by walking around, but building relationships by being around. You build connections. I think those relationships are what manage our culture, which keeps people committed to doing the work we need to do.”
All the executives agreed that an eagerness to learn is one of the most important qualities of a leader—which means learning from others and from evolutions throughout the industry. Not only does connecting with other people throughout the industry help teach, says Turner, but it also lays the groundwork to open up other questions for innovative solutions.
Innovation is also a responsibility to shift the industry mindset of what senior living has to offer, according to Katzmann and Turner.
“I’m a big believer that we have to rebrand our industry,” Katzmann said. “The nursing home as we know it is coming to an end. We’ve got to throw out the old concepts because otherwise we won’t have customers, and we won’t have good people to work in our buildings. It’s not just the building models, but the mindset. Transform the products, the way we talk about it, and, in doing so, we effecticely rebrand our industry.”
Written by Amy Baxter