It’s been an active year for Watermark Retirement Communities. As the Tucson-based provider has made progress on a strategic growth plan, it has made key hires, including bringing on board a new COO* and recently tapping a wellness leader who previously worked for Canyon Ranch.
“It’s been busy, that’s for sure,” COO Karen Mlawsky told Senior Housing News. “I’ve been spending time and energy on our structure, on our readiness for growth and on making sure that we are recruiting and retaining the right people.”
Mlawsky, a former health care executive, came aboard as Watermark’s new COO in March 2019. In the months since then, she has focused on maintaining the company’s culture and attracting top talent, among other initiatives.
At top of mind for Mlawsky is the notion that Watermark must equip itself with the right programs, amenities and services to appeal to the incoming baby boomer generation. To that end, the company has worked to bolster its integrated wellness programs through its partnerships, new offerings and recent hires.
Watermark has a portfolio of more than 60 communities in 21 states. The company is expanding in part through high-profile projects with partners such as real estate development giant Hines and private equity investor Kayne Anderson Real Estate Advisors (KAREA).
Elan Collection, Canyon Ranch hire
One budding service line for Watermark is the Elan Collection, a portfolio of upscale communities described by the company as having “grand-scale amenities, intimate tranquility with engaging opportunities.” Currently, the Elan Collection stands at five communities in Los Angeles and Napa, California; New York City; and Tucson, Arizona.
These communities will come with an “integrative wellness” approach that blends high-end, resort-like amenities and health care offerings.
At The Watermark at Brooklyn Heights, for instance, residents can live in one- and two-bedroom apartments that come in 78 different floor plans with designer kitchens and modern bathrooms with walk-in showers. Amenities at the community include a resident wine cellar, pilates and yoga studio, a performance arts space and an Italian-inspired exhibition kitchen. Brooklyn Heights will also come with preventive health screenings, education programs and “Skynet,” which is a resident response system with medical wearable technology.
Additionally, Watermark is working with a health system on ways to place medical workers into certain communities in order to provide consultative services to residents as part of their community fee, Mlawsky said.
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And Watermark is adding employees with an eye for wellness, too. The company recently hired Aras Erekul, a former corporate director of experience development with wellness and resort pioneer Canyon Ranch.
Watermark’s Hacienda at the Canyon community — one of the first to boast the integrative wellness model — is just three miles from Canyon Ranch in Tucson.
“The concept is for him to help us bring together all of these programs and all of the exciting things that we’re doing,” Mlawsky explained.
Watermark has a great deal of respect for Canyon Ranch’s vision, and the senior living operator is always open to collaborating with likeminded organizations, she added.
This isn’t the first time Watermark and Canyon Ranch have crossed paths. Watermark has long searched for ways to bring Canyon Ranch into the fold, including with the help of real estate development firm Hines. The three companies were seeking to build a senior living highrise in the Tanglewood neighborhood of Houston before neighborhood pushback brought the project to an end.
And Canyon Ranch is interested in senior living, too. The company in February announced its intention to bring its trailblazing wellness model to senior living with a specific focus on high-end rental models.
“We’re placing our bet on the consumer of tomorrow,” said Canyon Ranch Executive Vice President of Adult Living Development Gary Milner during SHN’s BUILD event in May. “I like the idea of having a building that is Canyon Ranch-branded, yet in the same building is another high-quality brand that addresses high-acuity care levels.”
Watermark, meanwhile, is working on several projects in the Washington, D.C. area with Dallas-based developer Silverstone. Silverstone partner John Goff is chairman of Crescent Real Estate Equities, which owns Canyon Ranch.
While the Tanglewood project with Watermark and Canyon Ranch did not come to fruition, Hines is working with Watermark as one of two partners on a development pipeline in the Southwest. Hines is also working with MorningStar Senior Living on two projects slated for the Houston market. And Hines’ senior living involvement extends futher. The firm, which counts roughly $111 billion in assets under management, has in the past partnered with Orlando, Florida-based Sentio Investments to make senior living acquisitions and teamed up with Toledo, Ohio-based real estate investment trust Welltower on two high-profile developments in Manhattan. Hines is also working with MorningStar Senior Living on two projects slated for the Houston market.
In working with its various ownership groups and partners, Watermark prefers to have some skin in the game, with some form of ownership in about 95% of the communities in its portfolio.
Watermark also works closely with its investors and owners on operations, including by sharing information with them through data portals.
“We believe that it’s important for our owners to have access and to be able to be in the communities talking with the leaders there,” Mlawsky said. “It is an open relationship, and we think it’s important for us to be transparent.”
Meeting workforce challenges
Watermark has made significant strides in recent months bringing in new workers and keeping the good ones it has — and those efforts appear to be bearing fruit. In addition to hiring Erekul, the company also brought on Stephanie Boreale, who will work as Watermark’s health services strategy leader.
“I’ve also added several managing directors in different regions in the country in order to bolster the support for our executive directors,” Mlawsky said. “We added someone centrally, and also in Northern California.”
Mlawsky added that she receives a high number of applications from people who have worked for a Watermark community in the past.
“I’d say at least a third of the folks that I interview to be a managing director or an executive director have worked for Watermark or are currently working in a related field and interested in coming back,” Mlawsky said.
Watermark is also testing out new programs to bring more employees through the door, such as a still-unspecified program to implement “pay practice changes which we really think are going to make a difference for folks that are living paycheck-to-paycheck,” she added.
While Mlawsky didn’t elaborate on the program’s particulars, she did say Watermark expects to trial that program somewhere in the Eastern United States.
“When we bring somebody on board, we want to make sure we’re spending the time and attention in the right places to ensure their success,” Mlawsky said.
*Editor’s note: a previous version of this story noted that Mlawsky was Watermark’s first COO. That is incorrect. While she was appointed to the newly created position of COO in March, the company’s first official COO was Rick Kamminga, who left the role in 2013 to work as Watermark’s managing director investor relations.