Margaret Wylde is highly regarded in the senior living industry for her research and the market intelligence provided by her firm ProMatura — in fact, she was recently inducted into the American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA) Hall of Fame for her accomplishments. Now, as Oxford, Mississippi-based ProMatura continues to help developers with their projects, she plans to draw on her accrued knowledge about senior living to create a development of her own.
“It’s been in my head for quite a while,” Wylde said, speaking with Senior Housing News on the eve of her Hall of Fame induction about a month ago. “I’m going to put my LLC together for that … this year and get started on it.”
Since the 1970s, she has owned 260 acres near Oxford. Now, the time is ripe to develop this real estate, she believes, although she is not exactly eager to transform the heavily wooded area where she has raised dogs over the years.
“I’m a tree-hugger, so it’s going to be very difficult for me to do this,” Wylde said. “But I think it would be a great place for a community.”
She’s spurred on by interest from her own friends, several of whom are a decade or more older than she is. They brought up the topic at a New Year’s Eve party, for instance.
Not only her friends but the senior living industry at large will no doubt be interested in what Wylde creates, in light of her career, which has made her an acknowledged authority. And she’s far from shy about speaking out about the conclusions she has come to through all her years of experience and research — she warns that a $150 million building can “get destroyed in a second,” and emphasizes that opulent senior living communities often do not make for nice places to live, while noting that many active adult communities may be over-amenitized.
From academic to entrepreneur
Wylde began her career in academia, earning a Ph.D. in audiology from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. Being in audiology, she was frequently interacting with older adults experiencing hearing issues. In addition to having this early insight into the senior demographic, she knew that simply doing research to get published would not satisfy her.
“I wanted to do research that people would use … in business, basically,” she said. “I wanted to do research that answered questions, solved problems, found new opportunities.”
This desire, and her familiarity with older adults, drove her to pitch the idea of a research institute at the University of Mississippi, where she was an assistant professor.
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“I just said, we need to have products, homes, devices that would fit people as their body changes as they age,” she said. “We were creating businesses with the ideas.”
After several productive years, a new president of the institute came on board, who brought a “bean counter” mentality; Wylde knew she had to make an exit. She ended up essentially buying a division from within the institute with a partner, and they went into development together, building an independent living/assisted living community in 1990 that is still standing today.
However, a second development project did not go well. The “true colors” of Wylde’s partner came out when he walked away from the deal, after a setback related to another stakeholder in the project.
“I knew I was going to stay in this industry, and I wasn’t going to get started in this industry by stiffing people,” Wylde said. “We sold the land and then we paid the debts from the proceeds … that’s sort of a trial by fire at the beginning.”
Wylde shifted away from development and turned ProMatura Group — founded in 1997 — into a preeminent market research firm for senior living. The company has also tested more than 3,000 consumer products for the 55-plus market. ProMatura has completed projects in all 50 U.S. states and 11 other countries, across six continents, with clients that have included Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD), Del Webb, AARP, Rubbermaid, and industry groups such as ASHA and the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC).
ProMatura’s feasibility studies for senior living are “meticulous” and include a demand model based on dozens of metrics.
“It’s very precise, quite frankly,” Wylde said.
In terms of the big-picture research that ProMatura has conducted over the years, Wylde pointed to work she did with ASHA as among her proudest accomplishments, including a study on what factors lead people to feel “at home” — a key consideration for senior living providers. While it’s hard to generalize about what older adults want, the research revealed that luxury does not necessarily equate to feeling at home.
“Our research shows that some of the happiest groups of people in independent living are more likely to be living in buildings that are older, not architecturally exciting,” she said. Rather, having a sense control and camaraderie, among other factors, lead to a sense of feeling at home.
Further hammering the message that senior living communities do not succeed merely on their design merits, she spoke bluntly about the need for better service and connection with residents and prospects. Seemingly trivial lapses quickly turn prospective residents off, which has a swift snowball effect.
“A $150 million building can be destroyed in a second, just by one person inside that building not answering the phone correctly, or the receptionist not looking up,” she said. “From the research we’ve done with people who didn’t buy, there was usually something stupid done, like making them come in and sit down and write down their name and address and all this stuff —- get to know them a little bit first. Don’t make them take a test. There’s many things we do in the industry that really turn people off.”
For someone in the business of helping enterprises mitigate risk through careful research, Wylde herself appears to have a high tolerance for risk — perhaps a necessary trait of an entrepreneur. It’s a mindset that has paid off for her, but with some hard lessons learned along the way.
“I’ve never felt anything was a risk, which is sort of crazy,” she said. “I started ProMatura thinking I knew what I was doing — made every mistake in the book. Went back to the book 18 times, perhaps. I don’t know … it didn’t seem risk-taking, to me.”
Back to development
All these years after moving away from development, Wylde now plans to throw her hat back into the ring with the project near Oxford. She envisions a 55-plus community mostly made up of freestanding homes for sale, as well as a service center with amenities.*
In terms of how she will leverage her accumulated knowledge in this project, one key area will be in the design of the homes.
From her research, she has a keen understanding of the shortcomings of standards set by Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). ADA standards were designed mainly with veterans in mind, meaning male wheelchair users with great upper body strength. So, many people with other types of bodies or mobility limitations are not well-served by ADA-compliant design.
One simple example is illustrated by work that Wylde did in determining the “optimal reach zone” for the placement of design elements such as electrical outlets.
“There [are] ranges that [are comfortable] for just about everybody — a tall guy with a bad back, a five-year-old in a wheelchair, a pregnant woman,” she explained. “We tried to really use all forms of human beings and make sure that we found where was the easiest, most accessible place for things.”
The inclination to have a home ownership model rather than a rental model is also based on research that Wylde did, which found that older adults in the U.S. tend to have less sense of control than those in the U.K. — where ownership is more prevalent in retirement housing.
Preferences could be shifting toward rentals, Wylde acknowledged, but she said that for the moment the United States still has high rates of home ownership, and her instinct says that older adults still do not want to sacrifice the sense of control that comes with that.
Finally, simplicity may be a watchword for this project. Wylde contends that too many senior living developments — particularly in the hot active adult sector — are over-amenitized.
“If we are allowed to test to see what people want enough that they will pay for it, and what they trade off to get a lower price, then we can optimize a community,” she said.
In terms of next steps, Wylde hopes to work with a Louisiana-based developer that has done other projects in Oxford. And she’s continuing to go strong with ProMatura. She’s traveling widely to conduct research about senior housing in other countries and educate overseas markets about the U.S. industry — not that she is trying to push the U.S. version of senior living. Rather, staying true to her roots in research, she has preached a consumer-oriented message on the international stage.
“I said, I’m not here to try and tell you that we do it right in the United States,” she told SHN. “What I’m going to do is tell you what I think people want.”
*Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article stated that an assisted living community would be located near the 55-plus housing. The article has been updated to reflect that no assisted living component is currently envisioned, per information provided by ProMatura.