Aegis CEO: Boring Designs, Lackluster Leadership Plague Senior Housing

Dull building designs have become too commonplace in senior living, according to Dwayne Clark, CEO of Bellevue, Washington-based Aegis Living.

“Assisted living, retirement homes, independent living, I think we’ve been quite boring with our design,” Clark said during a recent appearance on the Senior Housing News podcast, Transform. “People want a little entertainment in their architecture. “

Currently, Aegis has 32 communities in its portfolio, many of which carry unique thematic designs. The company has placed an emphasis on hospitality and wellness, with the overall goal of elevating and shaking up the traditional senior living model. To achieve that, the senior living provider has hired leaders from a wide swath of big-name companies, including Starbucks, Amazon, Nordstrom and Ritz-Carlton.

Clark talked about Aegis’ current trajectory, why the provider wants to stop using the term “assisted living,” and how some providers try to generate marketing buzz by touting amenities such as spas that aren’t fully realized. He also opened up about a health scare that prompted him to embark on a globe-trotting journey to discover the keys to longevity and healthy aging. That journey is chronicled in his new book, “30 Summers More.”

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

On how senior living design falls short of the mark, and why Aegis likes themed communities:

Assisted living, retirement homes, independent living, I think we’ve been quite boring with our design. And the interesting thing that I’ve noticed is that people want a little entertainment in their architecture. They want thematic identities in these things.

So, I travel a lot. I’ve been to, I think, 83 countries now. And I love staying in great hotels. And usually, great hotels have some kind of thematic design, especially great five-star boutique hotels. I have a hotel that I stay at in Capri, and the room that I stay in is all done on a theme of Pan Am … so they have Pan Am airplanes and stewardess hats and pilot uniforms and everything. I stay there because it’s fun. It makes the experience fun.

We try to fit things into the neighborhood that has some meaning. For instance, in Queen Anne, [a neighborhood] in Seattle, we built a project and we put a whole faux-Pike Place Market in it … Well, there’s a connection with that neighborhood and the market, and it brings back these great memories of joy. 

We just opened a project on Mercer Island. And it has ski lodges, an old Chris-Craft boat in the memory care courtyard. The people on Mercer Island are big boaters and big skiers. And so, again, we wanted to have these people feel like these were some of their best moments in terms of bringing joy into their life.

So, part of it is inspired by the fact that I’ve traveled and I have a lot of personal fun, I thought, well, why can’t residents have that kind of fun? And part of it is, making a connection with a neighborhood in which we’re building and operating in.

On how small details connect with residents:

We have movie theaters. Not a big, innovative concept. A lot of retirement homes build movie theaters. But we go beyond that. We build a box office just like you’re going up to the ticket booth. And we build a marquee, but we even go further than that. We have a concession stand. We have gone to the candy makers. And we said, we want the candy wrapped in the same wrapping that they had when our residents were seven years old. So, essentially, 75 years ago. We want the packaging to look the same as it did 75 years ago. And there’s a company that does that.

I want to bring you back to this concept of moments of joy. As we age, we constantly feel like there’s things being taken away from us. You can’t run like used to. You can’t work out like you used to. You can’t eat like you used to. You don’t sleep as well. There’s constantly things taken away from us. And what I try to do is say, what can I give back to these people? Where can I plug into their psyche, that when they see that, they’re going to smile or they’re going to reminisce in a positive way?

Why do we do that? Because when our residents see that candy, they’re like, “Oh, my God, that’s the Sugar Babies that I used to buy exactly in the same packaging as when I was seven years old, and my dad took me to “Gone with the Wind,” and that brings back such a great memory for me.” That’s the distinction between the level of detail that we go to, and everybody else.

On the hiring of Kris Engskov as president this year, and why Seattle consistently produces top talent:

I think Kris Engskov is an incredible president, I’m fortunate to have him. He was president of Starbucks, North America, they oversaw 30,000 employees, $19 billion in revenue. He also was President Bill Clinton’s assistant press secretary and his top aide. So, he’s had an incredible career. But beyond that, he’s such a great cultural fit.

He was at Starbucks for 15 years, which is quite unusual, actually. I think any time a person is at a company that long, they’re going to have their own following, their own tribe, their own connections with people. I’ve known Howard Schultz since 1998. My first book I wrote on the industry, called “Help Wanted,” Howard was interviewed for it in 1999. So my history with Starbucks goes back a long, long way.

My next book is called “The Seattle Secret.” That’s the working title. People don’t understand Seattle and its service industry, and the companies that were founded here. Starbucks was founded here. Costco was founded here, Nordstrom was founded here. Boeing was founded here. Amazon was founded here. Microsoft was founded here. Zillow was founded here. REI was founded here. Eddie Bauer. I can just go down the list.

It’s a very innovative, entrepreneurial, service-oriented town. And because of that, you have very innovative leaders and you have very innovative managers. From the very first day I started Aegis — actually, before the very first day, when I was writing the business plan for Aegis — I knew what I wanted to do was hire people from outside the industry.

I will tell you, most of our general managers come from Four Seasons, from Ritz-Carlton, from Marriott, from Mandarin Oriental, those kinds of companies. And we don’t hire anyone as a general manager into our company from an industry competitor. We just don’t.

In fact, about a year ago, my staff said, Dwayne, maybe it’s time we go back to the industry. We have a vice president position open. Over six months, we probably interviewed about 15 candidates. I don’t think one of them got to my level. And every one of the 15 candidates for vice president, everybody said they wouldn’t be in our top five GM candidates.

So, I just think our managers are so superior. We pay them a lot of money, they get a profit sharing bonus plan. They make a lot of money, way more than the average manager. But, it’s what we do to attract the best. I call it the making of the quilt. Picture a patchwork quilt, and each of the patches represent a different company, so one patch may be Amazon, one patch may be Starbucks, one patch may be Nordstrom, one patch may be Costco, one patch may be Four Seasons. That quilt is our company.

Those are not your typical people that you’ll have in assisted living running a company. And I think that’s our essence. That’s what makes us unique, better, more sophisticated. It’s what creates the value and why we’re able to charge the most, why our margins are the best. All that’s not by accident, it’s by design.

On what Clark learned while writing “30 Summers More,” and why he wants Aegis to stop using the term “assisted living”:

I want to make the lives of my staff better. Tomorrow night, I’m teaching a meditation class to 40 people. We’re going to have weekly health tips for our staff, we’re giving out books to the staff, we’re doing conferences for the staff, on how to improve their life. That goes hand-in-hand with our culture of trying to make employees’ lives better.

Beyond that … we want to stop using the words “assisted living.” We want to make Aegis into a more wellness-oriented organization, so that people come to us to live, not to die. And we have all kinds of ideas and programs and people that we’re pivoting towards.

As with anything in operations, people would say, “Well, don’t say that because some people will copy you.” You know, I was I was one of the first pioneers in the industry who put spas in assisted living. And we really thought this out. I mean, the type of essential oils we used, where we bought them from, what kind of tubs to use for seniors that help with mobility, the perfect aromas, and so on.

I just toured a place a couple weeks ago that said, oh, yeah, we have a spa at our community. I went in, and they have a loofah and a battery-operated candle, and they market it the same way we do. That’s not a spa. You’re trying to get the marketing boost without putting the thought or the effort into the execution.

And I bring up that parallel because I think the same thing will happen on wellness. People say, “Oh, well, we’ve got a wellness program, too.” Well, do you have a gerontologist on staff? I mean, those are the kinds of things that we’re looking at doing, and it will separate us in the end. The book is foundational for a lot of things that we do. And that’s one of the reasons I wrote it.

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