Former Merrill Gardens President, Former Aegis CFO to Helm New Cogir USA Operating Company

Cogir — a leading Canadian senior housing operator — is officially launching a U.S. management company under the leadership of two industry veterans, former Merrill Gardens President David Eskenazy and former Aegis Living CFO Walter Jossart.

“We’re definitely very excited about it,” Jossart told Senior Housing News. “We’re working through methodically to understand the foundation [of the platform] and looking forward to building scale.”

Based in Montreal, Cogir Real Estate has a diversified portfolio that includes 7 million square feet of commercial real estate, including boutique hotels and about 40 private residences for seniors in Canada. In late 2018, Cogir made its U.S. entrance into senior housing when it formed a joint venture with Toledo, Ohio-based real estate investment trust Welltower (NYSE: WELL), taking over management of 12 former Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD) communities in the greater San Francisco and Seattle metro areas.

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Cogir President and CEO Mathieu Duguay viewed those dozen properties as a launching pad for further U.S. expansion, with a goal of having a portfolio of 50 to 100 properties within 5 years, he told SHN in August 2018.

Now, the company has experienced leaders in place to drive that effort.

Eskenazy will be chairman of the board and Jossart will be president of Cogir USA. These hires “mark the beginning of the launch” of the U.S.-based management company, according to a press release issued today.

Eskenazy recently retired from being president of Seattle-based Merrill Gardens, where he oversaw that company’s growth while also leading an effort to create a technologically sophisticated operating platform. At the time he left the company, Merrill Gardens’ portfolio consisted of 33 senior living properties in eight U.S. states and three in China. The company has since acquired 21 Blue Harbor Senior Living communities.

From his time at Merrill Gardens, Eskenazy has connections with Welltower — a longtime capital partner of the provider — and he also has a level of familiarity with Cogir’s U.S. portfolio. Some of the Cogir buildings were operated by Merrill Gardens before being sold to Emeritus Corp., which went on to be acquired by Brookdale.

He first connected with Duguay at a National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC) event, Eskenazy told SHN. A friendship developed as Eskenazy provided advice to Duguay about the particulars of operating senior housing in the United States.

“He felt he needed to build a quality leadership team for the operations of Cogir in the United States,” Eskenazy said of Duguay. “At the time, I couldn’t really talk to him about my plans, but I suggested that later, I could work with him at a board level — that fits with what my career objectives were, with respect to retiring from an operational role and serving on boards.”

When Jossart’s name came up as a candidate to lead the operating company, he was an “easy recommendation” for Eskenazy to make, he said. The two men had worked together at Bellevue, Washington-based Aegis Living before Eskenazy went to Merrill Gardens.

Jossart has been with Aegis for the last decade, serving as CFO for the past four years. Aegis currently operates 32 properties and is pursuing aggressive growth. Prior to his tenure with Aegis, Jossart was an investment advisor to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Cascade Investment.

Jossart has started to tour the Cogir properties to meet the teams on the ground and evaluate systems and processes. He is looking to “build on successes that Cogir has already had” by leveraging his knowledge of best operational practices in areas such as care, compliance, sales, marketing and analytics.

Cogir’s growth in the United States could come through a mix of development and acquisitions. The company’s development team remains based in Montreal. The U.S. operations team is still determining where it will be headquartered, Eskenazy said. He and Jossart have already made one hire, bringing someone on board to help oversee the facilities, and they anticipate adding regional positions as the portfolio expands.

In addition to further growth in California and Washington, Cogir USA likely will have a presence in Oregon as well, Eskenazy anticipates.

“I think there’s plenty of room in the senior housing market for another top-notch operator,” Jossart said.

Cogir’s Canadian communities are highly amenitized and serve lighter acuity, more independent residents, which could be a direction that Cogir’s future U.S. properties also might move toward, Jossart and Eskenazy said. 

The 12-property portfolio acquired in the JV with Welltower have been branded with the Cogir name. The U.S. operating company is going to evaluate the brand strategy moving forward, and there is the potential to create more than one brand, Eskenazy said.

While they would not comment specifically on the number of U.S. properties that Cogir might ultimately operate, Jossart and Eskenazy did emphasize that they are focused on creating a scalable operating platform to support substantial growth.

“I am thrilled to be able to draw from the vast experience of both David and Walter as we begin this exciting chapter in the U.S.,” Duguay said in the press release issued today. “Cogir draws its strength by listening to its customers and remaining at the forefront of the market — a simple formula, but one that has been the key to their success since day one. David and Walter both believe in this same philosophy, which makes them a great fit to lead our U.S. team as we continue to [grow] our portfolio through both acquisitions and development.”

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