Changemakers: Mary Leary, President and CEO of Mather

Having been at the helm of Mather for nearly 18 years, Mary Leary is no stranger to change. She formerly held an executive role with Classic Residence by Hyatt and today brings her experience both in for-profit and not-for-profit senior living to some new innovations the not-for-profit Mather is driving forward.

Among her recent claims to change, Leary and Mather spearheaded the launch of the term “life plan community” in an effort to better describe the concept to consumers. With communities in greater Chicago and Arizona, and another under development in the Washington, D.C. market, Mather also lays claim to Mather Institute and Leary founded and chairs Novare, a national consortium of single-site and small-system life plan community providers.

These innovations did not always come easily, and Leary shares with SHN some of her perspectives on how and when to prompt change. We also find out about the latest developments for Mather in its new Tysons, Virginia location; how the COVID-19 pandemic is reshaping the future of senior housing; and why even when you’re told you can’t do something, sometimes that’s exactly what you should do.

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First, describe a change or changes you’ve led at Mather or in the senior living industry that you’re most proud of.

A few changes come to mind. First, transforming a little-known not-for-profit into a well-regarded industry leader with a reputation for innovation and successful business models; two, conceiving of and implementing [the national consortium of single-site and small-system life plan community providers] Novare; three, conducting translational research that moves the industry forward; and four, helping to change how consumers view senior living through words and images.

I’m assuming, also, included in all of that is the life plan community designation you spearheaded.

Absolutely. That fits into the category of how consumers view senior living through words and images.

In your view, how do you think the life plan community designation has changed the industry?

I’m excited that so many have embraced the new terminology. I believe that it is helping to transform older adults’ perception of life plan communities. We conducted research that showed that continuing care retirement communities were perceived to be a step beyond nursing home care, which came as quite a shock to most people. We realized that we needed to change things up to help people understand what life plan communities are all about.

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We realized that we needed to change things up to help people understand what life plan communities are all about.

It was a several-year process to involve and engage the industry as a whole because we knew at Mather that if we were the only ones to change the name that it might create confusion. People might not really know what we were talking about. We really wanted to get the entire industry to embrace it, which is what has happened.

Can you update us on some of the change-making efforts that you’re currently focused on at Mather? Some that come to mind are the Mather community in Tysons, Virginia, the rebranding of the organization’s name, and the ongoing Age Well study.

Mather is developing a ground-up life plan community in Tysons, Virginia. The Mather in Tysons is a for profit community in a different state from our headquarters and will utilize short-term construction financing. While none of this is new for Mather, I’d say it’s a big change for not-for-profits. The Mather in Tysons is a $450 million-plus life plan community located in a walkable urban area that will consist of two high-rise towers, 27 stories and 18 stories.

It’s a little different from many life plan communities in that it will include a significant retail component on the ground floor, as well as a community center that will be open to Fairfax County residents who are 50 and better. We’ve always looked at the residential market for ideas to reduce the perception that senior living is a last resort option. We want our communities to be something that people look forward to.

We are incorporating a number of new concepts, including smart-home features. We’ll provide a home automation hub that can be integrated with residents’ smartphones or tablets or desktop computers that will control light, temperature, appliances, window treatments, as well as provide a link to community services such as valet, work orders, meal delivery, et cetera. We’re also providing gas cooktops — we’ve heard many say, “You can’t do that in senior housing,” but the boomers are our market and we know they like gas cooktops. Another interesting feature is that we are going to install exterior building lighting that can generate a light show in the evenings, like you might see on the Hong Kong skyline.

I would say that our marketing strategy for Tysons is indicative of how we plan to change things up for this new community. Our creative strategy has been to stand out in the D.C. market, coming across as bold, unique and innovative and nothing like typical senior living advertising. We have an in-house marketing agency, which has developed a concept that features Mather dogs, pairing them with aspirational phrases that resonate with boomers, based on research conducted by Mather Institute, such as “defy expectations,” “unlearn ordinary” and “rethink possible.”

We like to have fun with what we do, so we kid that our dog campaign is a “breed” apart, and we say that our dogs are “haute canine” rather than haute couture, as the dogs are dressed to the nines with human accessories. We also kid that our advertising campaign has given people “paws,” as in P-A-W-S, in terms of who we are, what we are and how we are different.

We’re thrilled with our results since this was a big change in the way life plan communities are marketed. We generated 106 — 10% — deposits within the first five months after receiving entitlement approvals, reserving apartments equal to $180 million in entrance fees, with the average deposit being more than $1.5 million per home. Last week, we made a virtual sale on a $2 million home. [It was] virtual due to our sales team sheltering in place due to Covid-19.

The way that you’re financing the Tysons corner construction project is a little bit different from the way that nonprofits typically do? Is that right?

Correct. Most not-for-profit providers obtain long-term tax-exempt bond financing. Many not-for-profit providers may not have access to equity like for-profits have, although I’m hoping that that will change. I previously served as the chief operating officer Classic Residence by Hyatt so I grew up on the for-profit side of the industry. I was very comfortable with that approach for financing which looks to short-term bank financing that is paid off by first-generation entrance fees for entrance fee life-plan communities.

Several of our life plan communities are for-profit models that are 50-50 equity partnerships with for-profit entities.

This idea of, “You can’t do that in senior housing”… is there anything else that you are already doing even though you were told, “You just can’t do this?”

Great question. One of the things that we’re investigating, which hasn’t occurred before in senior living that we know of, is that we would like to develop new communities with a consortium of not-for-profit providers. As I mentioned, most not-for-profits have traditionally served a fairly small primary market, and most not-for-profit providers that go beyond their primary market may not necessarily develop new communities. I’ve had the idea for a couple of years to develop a consortium of not-for-profit organizations, so we could come together to develop new communities in new markets. I’ve actually been working with our non-profit consortium, Novare, on this.

Providers could invest varying amounts of equity and they could provide certain services [to] the new community or be a silent equity partner that learns from the opportunity and receives a financial return. I think it’s an opportunity for providers to strengthen their own brands, as well as strengthen the brand of the new community, and it’s a virtual way for providers to serve more older adults. I think the key is to do it in a new market in which not-for-profit providers do not currently have a presence. That way, all of the providers are on an equal playing field, in terms of who’s best to help out with various aspects of the community, whether it’s overseeing the development, taking the lead on the sales and marketing or actually assisting and operating the community. That’s one idea.

COVID-19 will absolutely lead to changes in senior living, and … it will speed up the pace of change in a way that is unprecedented.

Have you done any projects under this structure yet or are you still looking to do your first one?

We’ve explored it with some not-for-profit providers on two different opportunities. We have not yet announced this as happening, but we’re working on it.

This would be through Novare itself or would this be a new organization?

It could either be through Novare or through a different group of providers. In one case, we had reached an agreement with a not-for-profit provider to be an equity partner and they were not part of Novare. I think it certainly would work much more easily through a group like Novare in which we’ve established a very strong relationship, which I think would make it much easier to make decisions that could otherwise be difficult to make.

How would the ownership structure work when a community is actually open?

The ownership would include those providers who invest equity to develop the community. The owners, they may have varying percentage interests based on the amount of equity they contribute.

I want to learn about COVID-19. Obviously, this is something that’s shaping the industry. Is it changing how you are currently thinking about senior living in general?

I think COVID-19 will absolutely lead to changes in senior living, and I think that it will speed up the pace of change in a way that is unprecedented. Everything that I do and think about right now is colored by the dramatic changes in our country and communities. I think part of innovating is forgetting, unlearning, dismantling, and undoing what one does currently, and that is exactly what is occurring in senior living and our country right now.

With virtually everything, the increased velocity and adoption of technology is already impacting everything we’re doing. It’s even more the case with COVID-19 from selling our communities virtually to providing virtual resident enrichment programs, to having virtual corporate offices. I think that COVID-19 will likely impact services that are provided.

Right now our residents are enjoying prepared meals delivered to their apartments, and we’ve received some feedback from residents that they’re actually enjoying this because they can eat at their own pace while enjoying watching a show. It’s possible, and I think this is definitely the case with boomers, that we may not need as much square footage devoted to our restaurants in the future.

Residents right now are connecting virtually for programs. In fact, Novare is setting up a virtual in-house channel so that we can share programs across the country. I think that that will become more of the norm where people will have a choice to participate in their own homes or in spaces within the community. Wellness is being delivered through telehealth, so some communities may see a reduced need for square footage devoted to wellness clinics.

I also think that we’ll see even more consolidation and a larger Novare as standalone communities or small systems realize that it doesn’t make sense to do it alone. It’s possible that some providers might utilize more third-party service providers as well.

One thing I have been a bit concerned about are people’s perceptions of senior living communities as the result of the crippling situation and significant outbreaks that have been in the news. I do think that we’ll be able to turn this into a positive because we’re hearing so many stories of residents coming together to support each other and support their community, finding an increased sense of purpose, feeling a part of something and feeling protected.

I know from the steps that we’ve taken at our communities to help prevent COVID-19, that adult children have been so appreciative of the infection control procedures that we’ve put in place, and I think it gives people a lot of peace of mind that we know what to do, whereas people who may be living out in the community might be struggling with exactly what they should be implementing.

In what ways do you think that dining venues might change? It sounds like we might move toward a more scaled-down version of at least the physical plant side of dining in the future.

I think that will definitely be the case as providers begin to serve the boomers, and that is the market we’re serving in Tysons, Virginia. We’re seeing that boomers want choice. At Mather, we really like the concept of urban life plan communities and so in those settings, residents have very easy access to many more choices, whether it’s walking up the street to go to a restaurant or having meals delivered or picking up carry out or having meals delivered to their apartment home from the community. For The Mather in Tysons, we’ve already looked to scale down the square footage in our restaurants.

I want to switch focus here and talk about change. Describe a time when you tried to lead a change and it didn’t go well. What happened and what did you learn from it?

Mather seeks to innovate in incremental steps so the changes that haven’t succeeded have not been game-changers in and of themselves. Mather is always thought to be out there in terms of marketing communities and so there was one time when we implemented a direct mail piece with an overweight man in a Speedo.

It was an orange Speedo, so it was on-brand for Mather. However, the image was a bit ahead of its time and perhaps always will be. It really hasn’t stopped us from trying to be out there with our marketing. We’ve learned from the past that all news is good news even if someone doesn’t like something that you’ve said or you’ve done, if you’ve gotten their attention from a marketing perspective, that’s a good thing because you can then engage them in conversation. In this case, we lost a depositor who felt that the direct mail piece was unbecoming to a not-for-profit organization. We did engage in conversation with this depositor and interestingly down the road, the depositor came back asking to submit a new deposit to live in the community.

One other example that I can think of is that we may have been one of the first to implement electric cars at our communities as an environmentally sound step. Unfortunately, at that time, all that was offered were Priuses, which are pretty small and it was very difficult for residents to get in and out of, so we didn’t keep that car too long.

Making change is often about taking risks. How do you describe your tolerance for risk?

I had a colleague tell me once that, while I may overthink the small things, I have no problem making big decisions. I’m still thinking that one through, but I would say that I am very comfortable with ambiguity and really thrive on ambiguity because it allows for creativity. I’d say that I have a pretty strong tolerance for risk but I always back it up by being extremely tenacious to ensure that we do everything that we can to be successful.

As I mentioned before, I always seek to take calculated risks by understanding the risks upfront, and also identifying exit ramps. As a result, I’ve not typically regretted things that have failed because we went into it eyes wide open and have done everything we could do to be successful.

How do you think about timing changes so that you are ahead of the curve but you’re not too far ahead of the market?

When Mather opened The Mather in Evanston in 2009, we looked out 10 to 15 years to what we thought boomers would want, and we actually attracted a number of boomers as residents, although this was somewhat curtailed when the great recession occurred because it was more of a want versus need purchase. For development of The Mather in Tysons, the boomers have arrived and they are our market.

We’re continuing to research what the boomers want, especially through Mather Institute, but we’re also looking beyond boomers to what Gen Xers may want, as the oldest Gen Xer is 55 years old and already qualifies to live in active adult communities. Mather Institute is studying this and we’ll be sharing those findings with Mather and also with the industry as we do with other research findings that the Institute has implemented. We especially look on the fringe of various industries for ideas that may seem really out there today but which could very well become mainstream tomorrow.

It sounds to me that Mather is finding ways to be more competitive by mixing the traditional non-profit model and being willing to work on a for-profit basis sometimes and do different kinds of financing. Is that fair to say?

Absolutely. We’ve been doing that since 2003. Among the challenges that the not-for-profit providers have is access to capital. Perhaps not having a comfort level in pursuing equity in the manner in which Mather has been successful but, also, many not-for-profit life-plan community providers have very large campuses. It is difficult to replicate a large life-plan community that could be 500,000 to 700,000 square feet. Mather has been very successful in implementing that model, but in order to scale more quickly, we have been working on what we call our NextGen model, which is a smaller streamlined version of an entrance fee life plan community, offering similar services but provided in a different way, whether it’s providing in-home care versus providing in a separate care center, concierge medicine, virtual programs or a la carte services like we discussed relative to dining. We’ve come up with a model that’s half the size of our typical life plan community, which eliminates the on-site continuum of care in a specific location. We’re also looking at unbundling of services such that this type of program will fit well on urban infill sites.

Do you have any timeline of when you hope to announce a specific project on this model?

We’re in conversations with a for-profit company regarding an opportunity at this time. I look forward to, hopefully, sharing an update when we can.

What are you most proud of in terms of elevating Mather from a small, relatively unknown organization to one that wields a lot of influence in the industry?

I’ve spent more than half of my career on the for-profit side. I was fortunate in developing very strong industry relationships with for-profit providers and the for-profit trade associations, having served in leadership roles with some of them. I think it’s been easy for me to call on those folks or reach out to them to collaborate. It’s actually taken me a while. I’ve been with Mather almost 18 years as CEO and I feel like I’m just getting to the point where I have a similar close working relationship with not-for-profit providers.

I think that Mather Institute has been a vehicle that has enabled Mather to bring both for-profits and not-for-profits together because the research that we conduct and the findings that we have shared benefit all providers. I’m also very much a consensus builder. I always feel that the more varying opinions that you have, the better the final product will be. I’m proud of the growth that Mather has had since joining in 2002. At that time, Mather served 8,400 older adults. In 2019, we served 57,000 older adults. Part of this is possible through the growth of our investments.

We’re a somewhat unique not-for-profit in that we have a strong endowment. Our endowment has grown from $255 million in 2002 to $560 million in 2019, with a portion of those investments being contributed annually to help us fulfill our mission of creating Ways to Age Well by implementing research through Mather Institute, as well as providing community-based services. To your point, we’ve had well over 3,500 senior living providers replicate programs that have been developed by Mather Institute over the years. I often hear that we punch above our weight.

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