How Columbia Pacific Is Creating a Scalable Senior Living Model in India

Columbia Pacific Group is making headway on its efforts to bring senior living to the massive Indian market.

The private investment firm — co-founded by U.S. senior living pioneer Dan Baty — is now constructing its first community in India and has assembled an experienced operational team, with intentions to have 5,000 units under management within five years.

Seattle-based Columbia Pacific launched this effort two years ago, with the acquisition of Serene Senior Care for an undisclosed sum. At the time, Serene was based in Chennai had a portfolio of 735 units across India.

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The plan, laid out by Columbia Pacific at the time of the acquisition, was to use Serene as a platform for growth as demand is set to explode in India — the country is estimated to have 98 million people approaching their senior years.

For the last two years, initial groundwork has been laid to achieve this objective, Carsten Belanich, the lead for Columbia Pacific Management’s International Senior Housing Funds, told Senior Housing News.

Today, key leaders have been recruited, corporate staff numbers about 100 people, the first new development is under construction in the city of Bangalore, and a dual-brand strategy is in place for further expansion, Belanich said.

An aging-in-place model

Columbia Pacific Communities — the name for Columbia Pacific’s Indian senior living business — acquired the Bangalore site and began construction in late spring.

The community will be about 150 for-sale units. This is the primary differentiator from U.S. senior living, which is primarily a rental product.

“Fundamentally, in U.S. terms, it’s an independent living product,” Belanich said. “It’s an apartment designed for seniors, but doesn’t look a whole lot different than a multifamily apartment.”

Available services are planned to include housekeeping, three meals a day served in a restaurant setting, and a concierge for activities and fitness.

Columbia Pacific Communities’ leadership team is well-versed in creating a hospitality-forward operation; notably, CEO Mohit Nirula previously filled leadership roles with luxury hotel group Oberoi. The corporate team now is based in Bangalore.

Health care support will also be part of the Columbia Pacific Communities’ offering, including a nurse on call, a nearby hospital, and an ambulance. Ambulances in India are typically privately run, Belanich explained.

“Going forward, we’re really putting a lot of effort into creating services that allow our residents to age in place,” he said.

This means layering on assisted living-type services, such as medication management and help with activities of daily living.

Conceptual design for the community was done by Perkins Eastman — an architecture firm with as significant U.S. senior living business — in concert with a local Bangalore architect.

“You would not feel out of place if you were here in Seattle and walked into one of these buildings,” Belanich said.

2 brands for the middle market

Despite the attention to hospitality and design, Columbia Pacific Communities is not aiming to create a luxury product. Rather, the goal is to serve a middle-class and upper-middle-class consumer.

The company will appeal to this demographic through two brands: Serene by Columbia Pacific, which includes the legacy Serene properties and others that will be created for a mid-range price point; and Columbia Pacific Signature, which will be the brand for more high-end buildings.

The project going up in Bangalore will be a Columbia Pacific Signature community. The Serene and Signature brands likely will both grow at a steady pace, although site availability will play a large role in determining what gets built, Belanich said.

Sites ideally would be in areas outside of extremely dense city centers but close to shopping and other amenities, and within proximity of a hospital — ideally one under the Columbia Pacific banner, given that the firm has a well-established hospital division in the country.

The firm’s hospital and health care expertise should help Columbia Pacific Communities compete against live-in maids, which are relatively inexpensive in India, Belanich noted.

South and west India in particular are areas being considered for future projects, with a focus on cities such as Chennai and Bangalore where Serene has an existing footprint. Easy access to an international airport is another plus.

“Something upwards of 70% of residents at the existing nine communities have at least one child living abroad,” Belanich noted.

Although a development pipeline is being assembled, the focus for the moment is on getting the first project up and running. Still, Columbia Pacific is looking to the future, which could involve expanding senior living beyond India to other new markets in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia.

“We really think the growth/demand for senior housing is a global phenomenon, tied to changing patterns of work and change in the multifamily household,” Belanich said.

And he’s happy to be an early mover to bring senior living to these markets, even if this is an unexpected turn in his career. After serving as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy, he first came to Columbia Pacific on an internship, thinking he would go on to business school on the G.I. Bill.

But, he was drawn in by senior living and is excited about “the ability to build an industry from the ground up, in a country where we really think there’s a strong business case for it, [where it] can produce returns in the long term if you have patient capital.”

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