After Big Changes, Integral Senior Living Pursues ‘Initiative-Free Year’

Collette Gray leads one of the largest senior living operators in the United States — but she had humble beginnings in the industry.

“I started as a sales and marketing director in a brand new building. I didn’t even have a trailer,” she said during a recent appearance on the Senior Housing News podcast, Transform. “I was working out of my car and sold the community, and I have not looked back ever since.”

Gray held numerous positions as she rose through the ranks, including as an executive director and in regional sales and operations. Today, she is CEO/COO of Carlsbad, California-based Integral Senior Living (ISL), a pure-play management company with a portfolio of about 75 communities. It was founded by Sue Farrow in 2001.

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Like other senior housing CEOs, Gray is trying to navigate steep workforce challenges. Integral added a new role to its leadership ranks to focus on this effort. And ISL has made several other changes in recent years, including company-wide updates to its dining, activities and memory care programs. 

In fact, the pace of change has been so great, ISL has committed to focusing on execution during an “initiative-free year.”

Although, with expectations rising among consumers and senior housing ownership groups, ISL must remain nimble and constantly refine its operational approach even if there are no plans for more comprehensive initiatives, Gray said during her Transform interview.

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Highlights of that interview are below, edited for length and clarity. Subscribe to Transform via Apple PodcastsSoundCloud or Google Play.

On an “initiative-free year”:

This past year we rebranded our culinary program to Elevate. The year before it was our activity program to Vibrant Life. Our memory care program to Generations. We’ve done that. We continually tweak and modify and do things to those programs. But, as far as rolling something else out this next year, I think we have done quite a bit. We’ve got some amazing programming in place and now we’re just going to stop and take a breath … and execute.

I think you can only put so much on communities … We’re not a top-down company. We’re very collaborative and want to have everyone be a part of the bigger picture here. And I think we’ve done that for the past couple of years, and we’ve made some key changes, and we’ve updated and grown our programming. So, I think the teams, owners and the market appreciate that we changed and updated the programming. But I think at some point you need to be able to take the time to execute on it.

On attracting millennials and retaining workers:

When you look at millennials, some people think that’s a bad word. I don’t. I think it’s a great opportunity to bring some fresh talent into the industry. We know that they want meaningful, purposeful work. So, we’re looking at different ways in which we can attract associates, and we train our associates that every resident has a story …

I think we are the higher than average for retention, and we’re very proud of that. I think our culture played a significant role in that. I know a lot of people talk about culture. We continually reinforce [it]. We’ve got 12 “culture keepers.” We continually reinforce them on a day to day basis. I think, when I look at it, we’ve really fostered an environment of fun in our company. You know, it makes people want to come to work every day and be a part of something bigger. I personally send out biweekly emails to our teams about culture, sharing tips and best practices, just trying to keep it top of mind.

On a new recruitment approach:

We were proud to say in years past, we never had to use a recruiter. The labor market has changed so much that now we have an in-house recruiter. We’re lucky to have him … We saw that there was a need for this position. And again, if you asked me four years ago, did I think we’d have a recruiter, I’d say absolutely not. Here we are with our very own amazing recruiter.

… So we might be doing job fairs,we’re active on websites, and he helps monitor those. There’s so many different avenues, and so we look at what’s going to give us the best ROI, so that we’re not just throwing everything out there. So he’s really tracking that and monitoring that … It is very, very market specific.

On the pace of growing the portfolio:

We’ve never really intentionally set out to have a certain number of communities. As third-party operators, this business is very transactional and fluid. Communities come and go, and contracts come and go. And so we’ve had new communities come into our portfolio and then communities that have been sold to owner/operators.

So, for the past couple of years, we’ve pretty much stayed at the same size. But I see, with the 12 under development and the eight communities transitioning in, I see that now we will probably see some growth in the next couple of years.

We’ve seen a lot of new developments, and that’s been a large part of our business simply based on the market … there’s a lot of equity out there. But who we are and how we came to be has always been third-party management, taking over troubled assets and helping course correct them so that they can operate more efficiently or be poised for sale. I would say right now, it’s probably a mix of 50/50 with new development and with transition communities.

On whether ISL is seeing more turnaround opportunities due to oversupply:

We absolutely are. We’ve actually already started taking those over. We have for the past couple of years actually been taking those over, whether it be a distressed [community] in a particular market, or just a community that’s underperforming, and an owner comes in and infuses some capital dollars into it and we reposition the asset. So we’ve seen that over the past couple of years.

On more involved ownership groups:

There’s definitely more oversight.

You have a lot of folks that have been in this space and are now, you know, they’ve operated in a regional capacity and they’ve now moved into an asset manager type of role … They have a lot of questions. They want additional analytical data. We’re very open to doing that. But at the end of the day, they’ve hired ISL as a management company for a reason. We know what we’re doing.

So, we’re very collaborative, and we don’t mind the additional oversight, but it always goes back to the fact you hired us for a reason and let us be able to do our job, but again, collaborate with one another, and we’re open to their feedback and suggestions as well.

In the past, you wouldn’t have gotten feedback, you wouldn’t have had visits. We’re seeing that more now, and we embraced that because we’ve got great relationships with our owners. It definitely is changing though.

On the Argentum Women in Leadership initiative, which she chairs:

You look at the number of women now that are in CEO, COO roles, CFO roles. We’ve made good progress. But that’s just the start.

So as a committee, we’ve met a couple of times. We rolled it out at the Argentum conference in May, the Women In Leadership initiative, and we focus on three key areas in which we’ve developed actual subcommittees for.

One is establishing a mentorship program for women in senior housing. The other is a committee in which we are looking at how we tell our story and how we utilize the media to do that. And then the last initiative is recruiting women into senior living, and how do we bring people into this industry and elevate women in the workforce. So we’ve got these three subcommittees. We’re actually meeting next month in person, and we’ve got some exciting things to come. I look forward to sharing more in the very near future about this great initiative.

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