Starting a business in the midst of a global pandemic was not what Trent Czisny had in mind when he founded an operating company — but Covid-19 has not shaken his ambition to take on the “last frontier of senior living.”
Czisny plans to open the first Archwood Senior Living building within a few weeks. With this community, he will begin to test the model that he has devised for senior living located in rural areas but with the same high-level service standards held by the top brands in the industry.
An education in senior living
Like many other entrepreneurs in the senior living industry, Czisny is familiar with the business because of his family, which started a 20-bed assisted living community in Wisconsin when he was a child.
“They knew nothing about the space, and I remember thinking, they’re going to start a senior center? What does that even mean?” Czisny — now in his 20s — told Senior Housing News.
That first building was developed through a partnership between his mother and uncle and was operated by his mother. Being in that building while growing up, and eventually working in it doing maintenance, solidified Czisny’s interest in the industry and in particular his passion for operations — but, he learned about other aspects of the business as well.
His family ultimately sold the community to a real estate investment trust (REIT) and shifted their focus to development. They have since developed a portfolio of communities operated on a third-party basis by providers including Chicago-based Matthews Senior Living. Czisny learned more about the development and construction process by doing a stint working as an assistant general contractor for the family business. His next stop was further afield — attending college at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Arizona.
Although sure that he wanted to make a career in senior living, Czisny also wanted to broaden his horizons beyond what he had learned working with his family. With that in mind, he attended a career fair in search of senior living operators that were hiring. He found only one: Belmont Village.
The Houston-based company is a pioneering senior living provider, known among other things for developing Class-A communities in markets with high barriers to entry. Working a sales role in Belmont Village’s community in the affluent Chicago suburb of Glenview was an eye-opening experience for Czisny.
“I had tons of exposure to senior living facilities across the state of Wisconsin — a more rural model — but transitioning to that, it was just a different world,” he said.
He was “wowed” to see menus with 25 options, large unit sizes, 24-hour nurse staffing, and the overall high quality of the build.
Working at Belmont Village was a “great fit and great experience,” but Czisny also had an entrepreneurial itch. After being in Glenview for about a year-and-a-half, an opportunity came along: His family was developing a 40-bed assisted living community in the southeastern Wisconsin town of Salem, and Czisny asked for the opportunity to operate the building under a lease.
“I was surprised when they said yes,” he said.
The Archwood model
In starting his own operating company, Czisny had a particular vision: Applying what he had learned and seen at Belmont Village to much smaller buildings in rural markets.
This is a difficult goal for several reasons, including that relatively few markets can support the rental rates charged by high-end providers.
“We can’t have $8,000 a month rents in rural America, it’s just not going to work,” Czisny acknowledged.
However, he believes that Archwood can “take cues” from the Belmont Villages of the world in terms of implementing a high level of customer service. Instilling these customer service values and skills is a current focus as he and Archwood’s executive director train their incoming workforce.
Personalization is a key principle. For example, Archwood may only offer two meal options rather than 25, but the provider pledges that if anyone does not like the food on offer, they can receive an alternative.
The building itself also has some amenities commonly seen in larger buildings, such as a bistro and lounges.
“We … really try to match what the big guys have, but on a smaller scale,” Czisny said.
Another challenge for rural senior living providers lies in staffing. Workforce shortages are acute even in cities with large pools of potential staff, and so finding highly qualified labor in rural areas can be all but impossible. This has not been the case for Archwood, Czisny explained, largely because of wise site selection.
With barely 1,000 residents, the town of Salem would hardly attract the notice of most senior living developers, but a study of the surrounding areas showed both untapped consumer demand and a potential labor pool. Many people living in Salem and nearby towns commute significant distances to work, and having a local option was appealing.
So far, Archwood has processed around 100 applications, has been fully staffed for several weeks, and is pleased with the qualifications of its hires, Czisny said. Wage rates also have been competitive.
“Maybe the community they were at was paying them $13 an hour, and we’re paying them $12.50 — they’re doing the math and saying, hey, I don’t need to spend money on gas anymore, I can be close to my house to pick up my kids from school,” Czisny said. “That’s been our true advantage.”
Operating costs in general are not as high in rural areas as in urban centers, which helps preserve margin even at the rates Archwood is charging, he added. Studio rates start at $3,900 a month, while the average rate is about $4,500 a month. These numbers include rent and services such as medication management and basic personal care.
The Illinois border is only about six miles south, and Land of Lincoln residents are attracted to the affordability of Archwood, Czisny said.
Covid-19 has complicated the plans to open Archwood, but presales have been strong — in fact, the last month has been the best so far in terms of inquiries, according to Czisny. The community is 50% pre-leased, and no depositors have backed out due to the pandemic.
Covid-19 has even created some advantages. Incoming residents and their family members will be able to move in their belongings in advance, which will then be disinfected before the building is occupied. This would not be possible for them to do if they were moving into an operational community.
Still, there are challenges to overcome. All staff and residents will be tested for Covid-19 prior to the community opening, and the building will have infection control protocols in place, including the use of masks and screening for symptoms such as fever. No grand opening with an open house will be possible.
The months ahead also are full of uncertainty; some other Wisconsin providers have expressed fear of a Covid-19 resurgence as the state reopens its economy. Czisny has become a news hawk, trying to maintain up to date on infection rates and other developments.
“I want us to have more knowledge of [Covid-19] than anyone, because it’s our duty — and the senior living industry’s — to have that kind of knowledge,” he said.
Despite the question marks related to Covid-19, he is excited not only to open Archwood but to build the company in the future. While the focus in the near-term will be on making this first community a success, Czisny believes that there is plentiful opportunity to bring high-quality senior living to markets “where the competition isn’t.”
“Our focus is going to be [places with] 20,000 or less population, those rural areas, those untapped markets,” he said. “That’s really the last frontier of senior living.”