How an Intern-Turned-Executive is Helping Steer Senior Lifestyle Corp.

Attracting potential workers early in their careers hasn’t always been senior living’s strong suit, and operators are in competition with hospitality and other industries sometimes viewed as more appealing. This has prompted further focus on providing different entry-points to the business—including a greater emphasis on internships—and converting introductory roles to positions of greater magnitude.

As providers strive to be more successful at attracting and cultivating young talent, they can learn from past success stories, such as Justin Robins, the new executive vice president and chief administrative officer for Chicago-based owner, operator and developer Senior Lifestyle Corp. Robins started with the company while in high school as an intern with the acquisitions and development team, and has since worked his way through several departments and job titles, like financial analyst and director of hospitality.

Over the course of his career, Robins has gleaned important career lessons and life experiences that helped shape him into the leader he is today. Senior Housing News sat down with Robins to learn about his career progression, what it was like to live in Senior Lifestyle communities for weeks at a time and advice he would give to current senior living interns.

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Senior Housing News: Tell us about your career. What brought you to this point?

Justin Robins: It started in my high school internship, between the age of 15 and 16. My father had identified industries he felt were viable—ones I would be able to grow in and that would be there for me even after college. As a 16 year old, you don’t understand that, but I took his advice and interviewed at a couple different companies, Senior Lifestyle being one of them. I really liked the people here.

My initial internship was with the development and acquisitions team directly reporting to [current] vice president of development Bob Gawronski. My role was low-risk so that I wouldn’t mess things up, but high-exposure to the elements and the growth of the company. After the first summer, Co-Founder and Chairman Bill Kaplan told me every summer I’d come back, I’d get a little more responsibility.

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So through college, I stuck with that acquisitions and development track and added a little of the human resources experience, as well, owning more of the documents and analysis for myself. After graduation, I actually accepted a job with Arthur Andersen, but they postponed my start date. I called Bill and asked for some part-time work at the Senior Lifestyle office. While I was here again, I recognized something—that I had made a career decision almost solely based on my skill sets and not necessarily what my interests were. When I realized this is what makes me happy, I was committed to the industry and this company. I told Bill I wanted to work here full-time, and they offered me a financial analyst job. The announcement of [Enron’s scandal] came out a couple weeks later, and I was glad my decision was based solely on the opportunity I saw here and my passion for working with this office as a team. [Arthur Andersen was Enron’s accountancy firm and folded in the wake of the scandal.]

SHN: Once you were officially on board with Senior Lifestyle, how did you progress from that point?

As the company grew, I began taking on more responsibility. They split up the acquisition and development departments, and I went with development. I love the idea of engaging with the communities at large, going to community meetings, starting from scratch and seeing it through to the end. So I did that for a few years, and that translated to the next step, which was a director of hospitality position. It was suggested that I needed to broaden my perspective and get that operational experience under my belt. Through that, I had some wonderful experiences, which were essentially long-term stays at communities. I played bingo, I called bingo and I got yelled at for the way I called bingo. It opened my eyes to what it was like to be a resident, to what it was like to be an associate at a community.

From that, I was asked to head up the capital and plant operations team. I would be able to manage the reinvestment dollars from the business relationship and the actual tactical aspect of making it happen. When they saw I had mastered what I was doing, the discussion started about my development and how they saw that going. I went to business solutions, where I added IT and procurement to my oversight. I built the IT team out to execute on the vision the company had and saw that out for a couple years. More responsibility came through the addition of the asset management team.

Most recently is my promotion to chief administrative officer and executive vice president. That came through me again showing I would take on tasks, see them through to the finish and do an admirable job. Now, I have the ability to get involved in everything and almost anything.

SHN: It seems like even from the very beginning of your time here, you had a lot of exposure to leadership. Does that standard still exist today?

JR: We have three interns this summer, and before they got here, we made the announcement at a meeting, asking everyone to think about what intern-friendly meetings they can participate in. Let them be exposed to different meetings about our developments. Let them be exposed to the sales and marketing team talking about different campaigns. Those opportunities for interns are wonderful. I remember what it’s like to be an intern, and sometimes your position is grunt-style work, but exposing them to meetings where Bill is or President and CEO Jon DeLuca is gives them a better picture of Senior Lifestyle.

We want to create an environment in which everyone can be confident in their role, where everybody feels like they have the ability to take a risk and experiment. Somebody once told me great growth takes place when you step into the unknown or into an uncomfortable position, and that helped me realize what was important in terms of being a leader to others. It’s giving them those opportunities to take a challenge, take a risk, and it’s allowing them the comfortability and space to do that. I think that’s truly what allows more junior or new employees to fall right into Senior Lifestyle and feel like part of the team, because they’re making a difference.

SHN: Do you have any advice for people starting out at an internship or entry-level position?

JR: I have two paintings in my office, and one of them is a lifejacket to remind me to always be helpful. That’s something I preach time and time again to everyone I come in contact with. If you are seen as a helpful person, it goes a very long way. People start to always come back to you. They start to rely on you.

Being helpful doesn’t necessarily mean having the exact answer or the exact piece of information someone needs, but being helpful means maybe if you don’t have the exact answer, it’s orchestrating a path so someone can get the information they need as quickly as possible and as accurately as possible. It’s good advice especially to people starting out in their careers, when maybe they don’t have the full set of skills to be able to execute on someone’s request. Instead of saying no, they can say, this is how I think we can do it, and I need to bring in this person to help. That sounds very different from “I can’t help you.”

SHN: We’re interested in you being embedded in those communities for that period of time. What was it like to go into the community coming from the corporate office?

JR: Not having gone from the community to the home office is [a different path from most]. The first side of the business I received was the transactional side, the development side. When you’re focused solely on that, you’re missing some of the pieces—missing some of the truth behind the reasons why things happen and why we need to do things in a specific way.

It was very enlightening for me to enter the communities for an extended period of time, especially seeing how small things can enhance the environment. These were all things I wish I knew earlier on that you might take for granted—what it’s like to be a server, what it’s like to be a caregiver. Those experiences are very valuable early on to help shape the interactions you have, not only with associates in the office and the communities, but also our investor partners, to help them understand the industry. I think it’s extremely beneficial.

SHN: Can we talk about some of your top priorities and goals?

JR: The Hyperion project is near and dear to my heart. To give you a little background, it was about us looking at all the data we have at the company and how we can best use that to do a better job at what we do every day. It went in a couple of phases.

The first phase was gathering all of our data in one place, and then figuring out how we can best report on that to everyone at the company. From that we created a dashboard where people can pick and click to see graphs and numbers, and more sophisticated tools to create structured reports that get pushed out on a routine basis to specific people.

The second piece was about taking the initial Hyperion model and building that into a new budgeting tool for the company. In the past, we have used Excel to do budgeting. This allows us to eliminate the use of that completely and bring everything into the cloud, creating a more stable environment for people to do budgeting. It also allows us to work more easily as a team on a budget and gives greater transparency to goals.

The third piece is something we’re finishing up now and may trickle into next year, which is the community spend-down tool. That’s essentially a checkbook for every department of the company and every community in the portfolio. We’ll start rolling out region by region. It allows our regionals and divisionals more efficient rollups to see what’s going on in communities.

That’s a pretty interesting and tremendous project for the company. It really brings up our sophistication level in terms of the way we manage data and how we report it to our partners.

SHN: What would you say has been your greatest challenge in getting to where you’re at now?

JR: The biggest challenge is, at the beginning and not so much anymore, but being open to try new things, to take a much different path, to take an extremely different role. Throughout my development, going from financial analyst to the development/acquisitions team, and then going to something completely different, it can be a little jarring at first.

During that transition from a more analytical role and moving into the operational piece, that was a big challenge for me. It was one that was a bit nerve wracking, but once I got into it, because of the culture at our company, it became a lot easier than I ever imagined. It was incredible how the communities embraced my presence. So one of the greatest challenges really was taking that sidestep and trying something completely different, and keeping that confidence that I could be challenged in a very big way and pass it with flying colors.

Interview by Kourtney Liepelt

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