Inside the Early Plans for the Granger Cobb Institute for Senior Living

With the senior housing industry facing a potentially dire shortage of caregivers and leadership talent in the coming years, a familiar name might be part of the solution: Granger Cobb.

Cobb was a senior living pioneer in leadership roles at a series of companies, including as CEO of Emeritus Corp., the largest provider nationally prior to its 2014 acquisition by Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD). Although he passed away in 2015, Cobb’s influence continues to be felt in the industry.

This week, plans were announced for another piece of his legacy: The Granger Cobb Institute for Senior Living at Washington State University.

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Two industry veteransBill Pettit, president of R.D. Merrill Company, and Chris Hyatt, COO of New Perspective Senior Livingintroduced plans for the institute at the Argentum Senior Living Executive Conference in Nashville. Washington State’s website includes information as well, including a video featuring footage of Cobb himself (below).

The university, with its main campus in the town of Pullman in southeast Washington, has been a hotbed for senior living education thanks in no small measure to Cobb’s efforts during his lifetime.

His involvement with Washington State was a passion project focused on growing the future senior housing workforce by generating excitement and simply getting the word out about the industry, Melanie Werdel, Cobb’s sister and Emeritus’ former executive vice president of administration, told Senior Housing News.

Along with executives from several other operating companies, including Aegis Living, Merrill Gardens, and LeisureCare, Cobb helped develop a senior living-focused curriculum at the School of Hospitality Business Management in the Carson College of Business at Washington State. The result was a course focused on the operations side of the business, co-taught by Cobb and other industry leaders.

“Granger was a true operator and was really interested in teaching this program with an operational focus rather than nursing or health care,” Werdel told Senior Housing News.

From those early years when fewer than 10 students enrolled in the class, the version of the course being taught on the main Washington State campus this semester has 45 students, Werdel said. Last semester, an online version was offered, making it available to students on satellite campuses as well.

While the class has gained in popularity, it remains focused on the operational aspects of senior living. Designed for junior and senior undergraduates, the curriculum challenges these students to create a business plan for a senior housing company over the course of the semester. Class sessions are taught by a variety of people who share their expertise in different facets of business, and instructors have included a number of high-profile senior housing leaders. Scott Eckstein, who has been an executive at several senior living companies, is clinical assistant professor and the program’s senior living executive-in-residence.

An important aspect of the experience is that the students visit actual senior housing communities and see a good cross-section of price points and care levels, Werdel said.

Now, the goal is to build on the foundation of this class.

“Given the early success and excitement around that course curriculum, in recognizing the screaming need to have the first inter-disciplinary academic program focused on senior living, and given Granger’s passion around that, we thought there is no more fitting tribute to Granger and all of his work in the industry than to build this institute,” Mark Finkelstein, former general counsel at Emeritus, told SHN.

An ambitious vision

Although the Granger Cobb Institute is still being conceptualized, with Werdel and Finkelstein leading a fundraising effort, the goals are lofty.

The institute is envisioned as offering senior living-specific degrees at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, while also being an executive education hub for those already in the industry. Hiring permanent faculty and undertaking research through the institute have been discussed, Finkelstein said.

“The objective is to build the first and preeminent academic program focused on senior living, and make it interdisciplinary,” he said. “I think it’s fair to say the ambition is large.”

Although they declined to name an exact fundraising goal or timeline, Werdel and Finkelstein said they are out to raise several million dollars. So far, they’ve seen a great deal of excitement from two primary groups of potential donors—a cross-section of institutional players, including operators, REITs, lenders, and vendors, as well as individuals who knew Cobb and see this is a fitting tribute.

Washington State has to go through steps to formally create the institute, but is very enthusiastic about the concept and is “way out ahead of this” with its support, Finkelstein said.

While there is still much work to be done before the institute is a reality, he and Werdel say the pieces are falling into place to pay this meaningful tribute to Granger Cobb—and, more importantly, to advance his vision of having academic resources and support for the industry, to better serve residents and their families.

Written by Tim Mullaney

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