New Charter COO Sallerson: I’ve Seen How Some Operators ‘Muck it Up’

Industry veteran Jayne Sallerson has a new feather in her cap, having just been elevated to COO of Naperville, Illinois-based Charter Senior Living.

But she has her work cut out for her, too. Charter, a relative newcomer in the industry, plans to more than double the size of its portfolio in the next three years, meaning Sallerson will have to keep the company’s systems and infrastructure in place as it scales up. Today, the company manages 12 senior living communities throughout the U.S.

With that in mind, Senior Housing News caught up with Sallerson to talk about her plans for the COO role, and how she wants to help guide the company’s strategy during its crucial growth period to come.

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SHN: I know you have a long and storied history in the senior living industry. So if you could, trace your path from where you started to how you got where you are today with Charter.

Sallerson: I’ve always been in the health care sales and operations sector. My whole career since I graduated college in ’85. The way I really got into the industry was, I was working for a group purchasing organization, I started a division for a company in New England, and I called on assisted living and independent living communities … in about ’97. I was calling on them trying to get the assisted living communities to utilize my vendors through our GPO. That’s how I got into the industry. I met an operations director and about a month later he called me and said, you know, you’re so passionate about food, I figured you could be passionate about caring for seniors and selling senior housing.

I started as a regional director of sales and worked my way up. I started at Emeritus back in ’98. I was a regional, then I transitioned over to Summerville Senior Living, which is where the growth of my career was. I had the opportunity to work with Granger Cobb for 13 years. I became vice president of sales for Granger at Summerville, and then transitioned over with the merger between Emeritus and Summerville to EVP of sales and marketing. I spent the bulk of my career doing that.

Then, When the acquisition happened with Brookdale, I decided not to go with Brookdale, and I took a two-year stint. I had a noncompete and I couldn’t operate, so I became the COO for Sherpa CRM, which is a software sales platform designed for senior housing. It was a great opportunity for me. It allowed me to get exposed to all these other operators to see how they were doing things. Some of the things that we were doing at Emeritus or Summerville, it really gave me visibility of different ways of doing things. I think the lesson learned by this whole experience was, sometimes as operators, you muck it up. You end up creating so many policies and procedures that you stifle the building. The larger you get, that’s what happens. I would look at these smaller companies and say, they don’t have these fancy-dancy systems and processes and procedures, and they’re 98% full. It really helped me understand the balance that’s needed in terms of operational structure.

That’s kind of all how it happened. Now, I’m a partner and owner within Charter. [Charter CEO Keven Bennema] and I were actually regional directors back at Summerville. He was regional director of operations and I was regional director of sales. So, we worked together, we were road warriors for five years, and we were very successful. We have a great chemistry together. And probably about a year and a half ago he approached me and said, let’s do this together.

You were a partner, investor and chief sales and strategy officer before taking on the COO title. What were your top priorities in your former role?

My top priority was to get the sales infrastructure in place. The company grew pretty fast. And my first opportunity was, I have to put a sales infrastructure in place and accountabilities in place. I have some pretty well established processes that I’ve used over the years in terms of projecting sales. I really spent the bulk of the time getting infrastructure in place and making sure we had the right people in place.

And, there was a whole marketing side of it as well. I formalized the branding of the company. Within the last year, we relaunched our website and our company branding, which really kind of put a baseline for sales and marketing in place. That allowed us to then, as we talked about the future of Charter, really look at, as we grow what do we really need? That’s why the change has been made in terms of me assuming the role of COO. We’ve hired a corporate director of sales who can take the structure and run with it, and I can focus on the operations. And Keven is focusing more on the growth of Charter.

How has Charter’s operational model evolved since the company’s founding roughly two years ago? And, any lessons learned along the way?

Our whole infrastructure, it’s been about assuring that our policies and procedures are really tightened up. When I came in, there were some loose policies in regard to some of the associates and we got that all cleaned up. And the other thing is the back-of-the-house in terms of accounting, payroll management and human capital management. That’s why I’m really passionate and excited about converting all our back-of-the-house in January. And implementing all this new technology that all talks to each other. That will give much more visibility.

One of the things I found is that the executive directors, they didn’t have real-time visibility as to what was happening in their business every day. They had to kind of wait for things. And now, they each will have their own platform, their dashboard, where they can see where they are with payroll, accounts payable versus budget and other KPIs.

What I had heard from our executive directors was, it’s hard for me to find information, So that’s why we streamlined all that and gave them one platform to work off of instead of four. And that’s what happens. As you grow, you keep adding these platforms and you wonder why they’re confused. I think that’s a critical component in terms of growing our infrastructure. And again, also growing our regional teams as they go out there.

We turned over some regional staff that didn’t want to do the hard work. The easy work is going into a building and walking around and looking at financials. The hard work is understanding why, and where’s the breakdown and really digging. You have to dig. It’s no different than digging into sales. It’s the same thing from an operational perspective. You have to dig. And you have to go, that doesn’t seem to be working. Why isn’t it working? Where is the breakdown? It could be as simple as they don’t know how to run a good standup meeting in the morning, and directing that. Or maybe they’re not connecting enough with the customer. And you can’t identify that unless you’re in the building and really spending time in buildings.

What will you focus on in your new role as COO? How will your responsibilities change with the new title?

I’m focusing on a couple of things. The first is our operational infrastructure in terms of making sure we have our systems in place, our structure in place, our policies and procedures in place. In January, we’re converting some technology to help us manage our whole human capital platform from hire to when an employee leaves. My ultimate goal is to, as we build out the company, keep the policies, procedures and structure in the middle. I don’t want it so tight that the communities can’t operate locally, because it’s such a local market. But I don’t need it so loose that there’s risk. My balance always is making sure we don’t get overcomplicated or make things too hard. We all know that executive directors drown in buildings from being directed by multiple people in an organization.

The second priority is, we are totally a hands-on company. I’ve worked long enough in the business to know you have to be in the buildings. One thing our whole senior team is committed to is, we’re hitting our building at least twice a month. Whether it’s Keven or myself. I’m in buildings three weeks out of four weeks most of the time. Our regional teams are out in the buildings, too, and they’re not just auditors. And that’s what a lot of regionals will do, is they become auditors but they don’t become fixers. So, we need to make sure they’re in the communities and they’re auditing for efficiencies or potential risk, but also rolling up their sleeves helping the executive directors. And teaching them, modeling for them, and coaching for them, and showing how they can staff more efficiently. That’s a huge priority of mine. I don’t want a regional staff that’s just going to bop around from building to building and point fingers.

It also allows us to stay close to the customer and stay close to the associates. So, by me being in the communities as much as I am, and the regionals being as much as they are, and Keven being in as much as he is, it allows us to really stay close to what our customers are saying and feeling and what our associates are saying and feeling.

That’s a huge component of my focus. The closer we stay to associates and customers, the better off we are. We can pivot quicker. We can know how something we implement will impact them. That’s critical in our industry, especially with the staffing shortage for good caregivers.

I know Charter has plans to more than double the size of its portfolio in the next three years. Scaling is a challenge, no matter who you are. How do you plan to keep all of this structure in place as you add communities at that rate?

This isn’t a race, It’s a marathon. It’s slow and steady. We have to make sure that we can stay close to the communities in some fashion and keep our culture moving. At any point if we feel like we’re losing that, that’s when our growth will stop because we don’t ever want to become a huge company where we can’t impact the people we want to impact.

Scalability of your systems and visibility is critical. So, by the systems we’re putting in now and the technology were putting in now, it’s going to allow us to scale more effectively and give us visibility more effectively. But I don’t think we’re ever going to sit in an office and not be in buildings. I also think it’s making sure we never lose sight of our customers. And this is the hardest part in growth, not losing sight of the customer or losing sight of our associates and why we’re doing this in the first place. So, we have to make sure, throughout this growth period, we always are bringing it back to who the core is, and if you look at the center of that circle, it’s the residents and the associates.

We’re going to also hire people that support our culture. We don’t want to hire executive directors or regional staff leaders that don’t embrace our culture. Sometimes as you get really big, you need someone and you’re hoping you get the best executive director. An old mentor used to say to me, fire fast, hire slow. Despite the fact that it’s hard, it’s the right thing to do, as I’d rather take my time a little bit and hire the right person as opposed to find someone who can plug a hole.

We’ve gone through growing pains. We’ve taken over buildings where you could tell they do not have the right people in the building. So, you have to turn them over and get the right management team in place. What we’ve been able to do is recruit because of Keven and I, our exposure in the market. Between the two of us, we’ve been exposed to 1,000 communities. I do a lot of recruiting, to be honest with you, through my LinkedIn. When I post something, people I worked with 15 years ago will say, I want to come aboard, what do I need to do? So that’s been a real benefit for us.

Tell me about your management structure. You like third-party management, but you also like to have some skin in the game. So, as you grow, how do you think about management?

We have some third-party management, we have some equity deals and some leases. We are kicking off our whole development pipeline. There’s a huge demand for operators for development. So, we are really gearing up. We’re really looking to partner with developers where there’s good synergy between us. I think it’s important with developers and equity firms that there’s synergy and agreed-upon collaboration. For us, we’re really being picky a little bit. We want to partner with the right people because it’s not fair for us and it’s not fair for them if there’s not that synergy. Are we looking for acquisitions? Yes, if it’s in the right location or with the right business partner. Our develop is the same way.

We’re about to open our first development in Sylvania, Ohio, next month, with about 40% pre-lease. So we’re really happy about that. We’ve got a large, 199-unit development IL-AL-memory care in Huntsville. So, we have some really good things in the pipeline. We have a freestanding memory care community in Aiken, South Carolina, opening in 2019. So, we’re really now just a combination of new developments where we have some equity in it and some good partnerships for acquisitions. And we are doing some third-party management as well.

Some of our existing partners we’ve worked with, we’ve been successful in our properties, so they’re saying, we found two more, want to come along? But some of them, we’re turning down and saying, we just don’t want it. Especially if it’s an old asset where there’s no capital that’s going to be being put into it, and we just know it won’t get the returns that people are looking for. We want to invest our time in the buildings we can make move. And that’s what we’re doing now. And investors and equity firms are searching for good operators.

Labor and technology obviously present big challenges, but also big opportunities for senior living providers. What’s your take on how those two things fit into Charter’s overall operational strategy, and what sort of upcoming initiatives do you have on that front?

One of the initiatives coming up for next year are going to be employing more technology in terms of getting more immediate feedback from customers. We all do customer satisfaction surveys and if you do it once a year. It’s great. You get a snapshot. But it’s not real-time. So , one of the things is really, how can I get a pulse of where my communities are at and where my employees are at. And there are companies out there to help you with pulsing on how our communities are doing from a culture perspective versus these one-time or twice-a-year feedback methods. That’s going to be a huge initiative for us. Because, again, it goes back to the heart of what we do.

The other one is this: our biggest impact in our buildings are the line staff. They’re the ones who are closest to the customer. But they’re also the ones who do not have access to email. So, you’re dependent on the community or the executive director to communicate to the line staff. So, my initiative is, how do we find multiple ways of touching our associates and communicating to our associates?

I always think about this: We all spend hundreds of thousands or even millions on marketing to our customers and prospects, but we don’t invest the same amount on our employees. In a way, you have to market to your internal employees and associates. You have touch points no different than you have marketing touch points. You have collateral, and email, and internet, and all the components that make up the touch points. We need to focus on the same thing for the employees. How do we touch those employees in multiple ways, so that if they don’t have technology, there’s another way to reach them. If they love technology and their phones, we reach them that way.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Written by Tim Regan

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