Heritage Senior Living Upgrades Operations with $500,000 Tech Push

After fifteen years in business, Heritage Senior Living is upping its game with a $500,000 technology initiative, as part of a recently developed operational strategy drawing from best practices internationally.

Heritage is one of Wisconsin’s largest senior living providers and only operates in that state. With its corporate offices located in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis, the company owns and operates 15 senior living communities, with one under development.

Though there are no immediate plans to expand outside Wisconsin, Heritage is not provincial in how it does business. Last year, founder and CEO Milo Pinkerton brought Pierre Verger on board as vice president of operations. Verger relocated from France, where he had been an executive with Orpea, one of the largest long-term care and senior care providers in Europe, with about 80,000 beds. Prior to that, Verger started and ran a four-star hotel and Michelin-starred restaurant with his twin brother.

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Pinkerton, Verger and other Heritage leaders are now positioning the company for the future, focused on taking Heritage to the next level as a health care provider while maintaining top-flight customer service.

Slow and steady growth

To understand where Heritage wants to go next, it’s helpful to know the company’s history.

After earning degrees in architecture and real estate, Pinkerton worked a few jobs, including with a builder/developer and as an asset manager for a commercial finance firm. But after a $5,000 insurance settlement allowed him to pay off his student loans, he decided to take the plunge and start his own business.

“I always was entrepreneurial, was always a salesperson … I sold the tickets to the Boy Scout pancake jamboree,” he told Senior Housing News. “After working for three separate companies, two-and-a-half years each, I said, I’m ready to do this. I don’t have a client, I have very little money in savings, but I’m ready to be my own boss.”

The result was MSP Real Estate Inc., which began as a developer and builder of apartment housing. With a 15-acre tract of land near the Wisconsin city of Eau Claire, Pinkerton began thinking of doing senior living. He attended an Assisted Living Federation of America (now Argentum) conference to learn more about the industry and decided to forge ahead.

MSP worked with a third-party manager for its first assisted living building, but Pinkerton was not satisfied and started an operating company—Heritage Senior Living. That was in 2002.

Since that time, the company has grown slowly but steadily, adding about one property a year, recently hitting a tipping point in terms of scale.

“As we grew to a larger company there needed to be a larger structure, with policies and procedures,” Pinkerton said.

With his experience at Orpea, Verger brings the needed expertise. He and Pinkerton first met through the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where Pinkerton contributes to an innovation fund through the business school. Supported by the fund, 25 executives from France visited Madison and met with Pinkerton at a Heritage property in the area, to learn more about the U.S. model for assisted living. After hitting it off at that event, Pinkerton and Verger stayed in touch, and Pinkerton even visited France.

Having been an entrepreneur himself, Verger respects how Pinkerton has built his own business. And after his time working with a massive company, Verger appreciates how quickly decisions are made and changes implemented at Heritage. So now, it’s full-speed ahead on an ambitious plan.

A four-point plan

Verger and Pinkerton break down the strategy into four areas of focus:

Human resources: The company has recently made some hires to help drive clinical excellence, as acuity continues to rise in senior living. This fall, Karen Schacht joined as vice president of quality, while earlier in the year, Jaime Schiwingel was hired as vice president of clinical and medical operations. In addition, Heritage is trying out new methods of recruiting frontline workers. Recently, it began texting rather than calling applicants and has been more successful in getting timely responses.

“It’s how millennials communicate,” Pinkerton said.

Systems: Recognizing the need to have systems in place across key domains, Heritage has committed half-a-million dollars to a variety of software systems. These include PointClickCare for electronic health records, OnShift for scheduling and workforce management, and Relias Learning for ongoing staff training and education.

Heritage is also implementing tech from Dynseo, a French company. It offers tablet-based cognitive stimulation exercises, including some that can be done in groups to aid with socialization.

Procedures and policies: To ensure consistency across the company, more standardized procedures and policies are needed. Verger is introducing some practices that are common in Europe. For instance, daily “flash trainings” are taking place, in which staff do huddles for quick-hit continuing education.

Environment: When it comes to creating a great  senior living environment, Heritage may have an advantage, given Pinkerton’s architecture training.

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He is hands-on in the design process and has created an aesthetic that is distinctly Wisconsin, drawing heavily on materials such as wood and stone. He favors compact footprints for Heritage buildings, to encourage residents from different care levels to mingle in common spaces, and to reduce the likelihood of falls from residents having to walk long distances. In part because he saw the health benefits that swimming brought his own parents as they aged, every Heritage community has a therapy pool. And he is attuned to the difference that small adjustments can make, such as placing shelving at more resident-friendly heights.

“Every time we do a building, we get the team together and have a critique of the [most recently constructed] building,” Pinkerton said. “The care side, the maintenance side, the developer, the finance, the architect/design side. And we redesign and redesign. I think a lot of developers who hire an architect and do a vanilla building are making mistakes.”

Not a country club

Providing an appealing, engaging lifestyle to residents is important to both Pinkerton and Verger. But with acuity rising in senior living, they believe that quality health care, rather than hospitality, needs to be the top priority going forward.

“Others can say we want a country club and we’ll discharge if we get high needs [residents],” Pinkerton said. “We’ve chosen to [offer a] high level of care.”

This commitment is driving the current investments and operational changes. For instance, PointClickCare is enabling Heritage to have better information exchange with hospitals, skilled nursing facilities and other providers across the continuum of care, helping strengthen referral relationships and extend length-of-stay for residents. Pinkerton met with one of the largest hospital organizations in Wisconsin, and learned that 60% of discharged patients are not getting their medications properly delivered after discharge, leading to readmissions. PointClickCare’s medication management functions are enabling Heritage to perform better in this area.

“We’re getting better, richer partnerships because of the software,” he said.

But the focus on health care is not new to Heritage. Already, under Wisconsin’s Community Based Residential Care Facility (CBRF) licensure, Heritage offers “enhanced assisted living.” This level of care is for seniors who do not need to be in a skilled nursing facility but need more than the 28 hours of weekly care that licensed assisted living communities can provide.

So, the company is not reinventing itself, but trying to build on what it already does by leveraging technology and casting a wide net for the best new ideas.

“The solution is not in France, or in the United States, the issue [of senior care] is universal,” Verger said. “Every country has developed techniques, everybody is bringing something. It’s  about being open to what everyone is doing.”

Written by Tim Mullaney

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