Changemakers: Gregory Smith, Founder, President and CEO, Maplewood Senior Living

Maplewood Senior Living is now a well-established provider, but founder and CEO Gregory Smith has earned changemaker status by keeping an entrepreneurial spirit alive.

From creating a new urban senior living brand, to co-locating assisted living with medical office, to adding a working farm to the company’s portfolio, Smith has made Maplewood into an industry trendsetter.

He began Maplewood as a development company in 2004, to diversify his existing business in hotel and office real estate and management. His grandmother and great-aunt moved into that first assisted living community, making the business personal, and Maplewood soon began operating its senior living properties.

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Today, the Westport, Connecticut-based company has a portfolio of 14 buildings across Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Ohio, with development underway in New Jersey. The company is also entering Manhattan with its forthcoming, $300 million Inspir highrise. This is the start of a planned pipeline of Inspir projects in other U.S. and international cities, which Smith believes could reach $5 billion in capital deployed.

Smith discussed the plans for Inspir, the increasing integration of senior living and health care, and how Maplewood is investing in technology to enhance the resident experience while driving operational efficiencies.

What are some changemaking efforts you’re most proud of?

One of the things that I’m the most proud of, and the biggest thing that I’ve done over the last 10 years, has to do with collaboration.

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I believe that inclusion creates an incredibly strong culture, which is ultimately the backbone of your organization. When we started fully developing the Maplewood brand, it was sitting down with not only the executive management team but others that were in our corporate office and talking about, who are we, what do we want to be? How do we create all these engaging programs and cultural initiatives and environments for our residents, but also while we create a culture of inclusion for our associates?

It was a process that ultimately led to the philosophical approach of our company and our mission moving forward. That was truly a team effort and one that just didn’t have my own personal fingerprints on it as a founder and CEO. I think that collaborative effort created this pride of ownership amongst all of those team members.

That changed who we were 10 years ago to who we are today. We wouldn’t be launching this global Inspir brand if it weren’t for those changes in how I manage.

Are there particular things that you had to change?

It’s not that I didn’t listen to people on my team [before], but I brought in people that are exceptionally talented. And it was really taking the time to listen to every one of those team members and what their input was, and not just listening, but reacting to it. That helped me in determining where we would move and what the vision was.

Let’s talk about some changemaking initiatives, starting with the Connecticut farm that Maplewood bought, which will support dining and be a resident engagement center.

We bought our farm about four years ago. I ended up bringing my dad on, a retired GE executive who is such a hands-on person, to lead the charge on the initiative with the farm. We’ve taken the steps to bring on a farmer who’s been farming our land for the last three years and providing produce at this time to our communities in the Connecticut market.

This takes time, energy, resources, capital, and we’ve invested millions into it already. We’ve been working in the past with the University of Connecticut’s agricultural department, looking at architects on the design of the farm. What can we grow on the farm, what can we have for livestock on the farm? We have an acre and a half irrigation pond that we built. All of these things are creating this environment of not only sustainability but cultural engagement for our residents.

This is probably a five to seven year process. But in the meantime, we are providing probably 16 to 20 different types of produce to all of our communities in the Connecticut market.

We’re thoughtfully designing and building something that’s truly unique, that fits the mold of who we are as an organization. And, taking it at that point and saying, [can we] replicate it in other markets.

The plans call for a community activity center and living quarters, so people could spend weekends on the farm?

The whole focus, I think, is on having a place for our residents to gather.

[We’re] building a vineyard that sits below this activities center. There’s a commercial test kitchen where we can have our own chefs working with the residents on new recipes utilizing just-picked produce.

And then having indoor seating and lounge seating, where people can come relax. It’s something that we see that’s not just for the residents, but also their families. We’ve talked about having guest quarters where residents can stay with family members and enjoy waking up in the morning and being a part of that [farm] life for a day or a night.

Let’s turn to the Norwalk Hospital/Western Connecticut Health Network project. It’s a $100 million building to include assisted living, medical office and health/fitness centers. How did the project come together?

My brother is the CEO of our Maplewood health care division, overseeing all aspects of medical office. And so between him, myself and Western Connecticut Health Network, which is now a seven hospital system called Nuvance, we came up with the concept of integrating assisted living into this medical care model of having, not just primary care, but every sub-specialty you could think about. A surgical center, urgent care, radiology, ophthalmology — all of these things embedded in this one building where our residents would have access to health care at their fingertips.

You’re talking about a 160,000-square-foot medical facility that’s incorporating a number of specialties, and looking at this as an opportunity from a research perspective as well. This could be a teaching environment as well. So, it’s all about wellness. This is what we feel wellness is all about. It’s not for everybody per se, but this is something that we feel that a lot of residents in our market — and outside of our market — are going to gravitate to, when they see what we’re constructing.

Will the assisted living still have a homelike feel?

We never deviate from that homelike feel. It’s a hospitality, residential, homelike environment that will implore a much more robust access to health care than you might see in the typical senior housing development.

Is this a glimpse of the future?

I think this is going to be one of those fundamental shifts going forward, where you’re going to be seeing not only partnerships with regards to the continuum of care but migrating to a more physically integrated type of model than we’ve seen in the past.

Maplewood is on the leading edge of urban senior living with the Inspir project and plans for growing that brand. How did the Manhattan project come about?

This has been a labor of love and something we’ve been thinking about for the past five or six years.

Our feeling was, there’s no reason why you can’t have senior housing embedded in urban infill markets. And I think, as thought leaders in the industry and pioneers here, we did a tremendous amount of homework. Not only from a cost perspective, but from an entitlement and construction perspective, it’s really something that’s a unique challenge, that’s not for everybody. But I think that there is a shift toward senior housing being there.

What’s driving that change?

I think it’s primarily driven by a couple of things. First and foremost by demand.

There’s really been no supply in a lot of these urban infill markets in a long time or ever, and it’s been really cost prohibitive. We were competing at a highest and best use level, where multifamily was right up there with us. As the multifamily market across the country has slipped a little bit in a number, if not all, urban markets, it’s been a little bit easier from an access standpoint to real estate.

Expectations are changing across the board.

But it’s not about just building in these markets and putting a shingle on the door and saying you’re open for business. It’s about being thoughtful and innovative in your design and your programming and every initiative you do. It’s somewhat of a different clientele. Expectations are changing across the board. It’s not just expectations in these urban markets, it’s in suburban markets as well. But for us it’s been, with Inspir, primarily getting in front of what those expectations are and what those trends are.

It’s creating innovative, unique environments that create experiences that are exceptional for our residents every single day. And it’s not just through architecture and design, but about technologies, access to health care, being creative in what you’re doing with your care models.

You mentioned technology. I believe you have a new tech suite for Inspir?

We’ve created a technology suite called Alli.

It’s an array of tech products that are specifically designed to make our residents’ lives much more enjoyable, and it really acts as a companion to our residents. The suite of components goes pretty broad. It’s about an immersive virtual reality, voice assistant technology, on-demand care concierge service … when all those are combined, that lends to a much happier, healthier, safer, exceptional environment.

I could say, “I’m too hot,” and the thermostat can lower the temperature for me. You’re interacting with smart speakers that allow you to turn off lights, to play music. You could speak with staff, and it gets into other things like artificial intelligence, where you have the ability to say on the system to Alli, “My light bulb is out.” Well, it’s not going to direct the request to the caregiver. It’s going to direct the request to the environmental services department.

This is using technology to drive efficiencies in care.

Also, it provides for electronic health and medical records … We’re getting real time metrics off this information, taking medical, social, personal, spiritual, cognitive and lifestyle elements all into account with technology.

In 2017, you anticipated a potential $5 billion pipeline of similar Inspir developments, in other urban markets. Is that still true?

I still hold my ground on that premonition and prediction. We have actionable deals on the West Coast, [and we’re] still active on deals here on the East Coast, so we’re clearly on the path of taking this brand and everything it has to offer not only here, domestically, but abroad. There are opportunities already presenting themselves in the U.K.

This is not a one-trick pony. This is about creating a global, international brand. It may sound like a broad-reaching initiative for me and for us, but quite frankly I think it has a lot more legs than anybody might be anticipating.

What’s an example of a changemaking effort that didn’t work out? The home care business you shut down last year?

A great example is the home care initiative.

I would not consider that as a changemaker effort, because others are doing it. But we felt that some residents may not be ready to move into an assisted living or memory care community, but may want the services or need the services today that we could introduce to them through a home care agency.

Ultimately, as we rolled that out, we saw that the initiative didn’t go as well as we would have liked. It’s not that the initiative may not have been successful, it just wasn’t up to the expectations that we had as an organization. One of the things that we did learn from that was … stay with your core competencies. And for us it’s about senior housing, [providing] exceptional care, being thought leaders and getting back to the basics of what our organization is.

And it’s not that [the home care] business took a tremendous amount of resources or a tremendous amount of capital, it’s just something that we looked at as something that wasn’t fulfilling our objectives at the time.

Do you believe in a “fail fast” approach?

I agree with that. I think that, when you find something that’s working well and is successful and delivering the results that you expect, that you want to move as quickly as you can.

Using home care as a small example, I think that the results weren’t coming as quickly as we wanted, and I think that falls into the same thinking. You nip it in the bud and you just say, “That’s not going as well as I wanted, and I don’t feel [it’s] as scalable as I would like.” And you shift gears.

To that point, [being] an organization of our size, and a little bit of a flatter organization, we are incredibly nimble, so we’re able to move quickly or able to take ideas that we have and act on them.

Do you thrive on change?

I consider myself a person who thrives on change but thoughtful change, constructive change, not change for the sake of just changing.

I always want to keep my eye on the road and not look in the rear-view mirror.

People may think that changing for the sake of changing makes a difference. There are people that do that. They make changes in the way they do business, they make changes in the way that they do programming, they make changes in the way they build their buildings. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it changes for the good.

What are some traits or skills that help you to be a changemaker?

I think being observant is one of the most important skills of being a good leader in managing through times of change. Listening to not only your executive team, but listening to your associates and then really being observant and watching trends and getting ahead of them, and being nimble.

I try to fly below the radar to some extent, but — and I’ve said this to my team forever — I always want to keep my eye on the road and not look in the rear-view mirror.

Is senior living changing fast enough today?

Change, in my opinion, by definition results from expectations. And what I mean by that is the expectations of our consumers, our residents, of our families. They’re constantly changing. As an industry, I think we’re doing a better job to address it.

I don’t think we’re doing enough yet.

And it’s not to say that others aren’t doing exceptional jobs at it. I think that as an industry, the changes that we make need to come from expectations, but we can … create new expectations from the individuals that we serve.

By being trendsetters, we don’t have to wait for our seniors and for their loved ones to say, “This is what I want.” We can say, “Here are some other things that you may not be thinking about today that we can introduce to you.” Those may become ultimate expectations over the long run. We as industry leaders have a fiduciary responsibility to that resident population to be thought leaders. Not just a handful of us, all of us.

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