Tumultuous Year Prompts Solera CEO to Rethink Infection Control, Corporate Diversity

Solera Senior Living CEO Adam Kaplan doesn’t have all of the answers to the senior living industry’s most pressing issues — but in the midst of a challenging year, he is seeking expert partners and is not afraid to adjust course in areas ranging from infection control to corporate diversity to new developments.

In one example, the Denver-based senior living company has brought in a team of disease experts from Denver’s Rose Medical Center known as the “Covid Consultants” to help craft and hone its infection control protocols. And Solera also plans to set up a committee more representative of minorities, with the purpose of gaining another perspective and boosting diversity in management positions within the company.

“Certainly, our industry has been flipped on its head,” Kaplan said Wednesday during his appearance on SHN TALKS.

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But Solera is still moving forward with its plans despite a more uncertain future than before. The company has three senior living communities under management today, with another six underway, including one slated to open in Denver this August. Meanwhile, the company is working on ways to safely resume its dining program and visitation for residents, Kaplan said.

Regarding the way forward, Kaplan believes operators must walk a fine line between infection control and meaningful experiences for residents. On the one hand, the lockdown and all of its precautions continue to take a toll on residents’ physical and mental wellbeing. On the other hand, Covid-19 is a serious and deadly disease, a fact that is even more true for older adults.

“We’re balancing safety with engagement,” Kaplan said. “One of the biggest challenges that we’re up against right now as an industry is walking that fine line and ensuring that we’re doing everything to keep residents safe.”

‘Set the tone’

Solera took swift action when Covid-19 began to affect the industry in March. One thing Kaplan wishes he had realized sooner was how quickly everything would change, and the value of finding a partner such as Covid Consultants. Staying on top of the company’s infection control protocols required lots of extra work and diligence — and that’s on top of worrying about other things, like resident engagement and staffing, at same time.

“We’re senior housing leaders, but we’re not infection control experts,” Kaplan said. “And at some point, we had to get beyond spending 90% of our time and energy on infection control.”

So, Solera brought in the Covid Consultants, who began advising the company on its disease prevention measures. Led by infectious disease physicians Dana Lerman and John Hammer, the group advises businesses as they seek to safely reopen during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Solera initially brought in the consultants to help with Modena Cherry Creek, an assisted living community in Denver that is slated to open its doors in August. But Solera expanded that relationship, and is using recommendations from the team to inform its infection control protocols and hold it accountable in executing them.

“I think there’s a tendency as an operator to say, ‘Hey, we have great clinical leadership in the community and our corporate office, we’re following the CDC and state guidelines, we’re talking to our peers in the industry, and we’re checking all these boxes,” Kaplan said. “But I think having that third party that is an expert … will just help to make it through this.”

Having an expert third-party group on hand to inform and qualify Solera’s infection control measures also helps the company gain the trust of its residents and their families.

“I think that will provide a little more validity versus: ‘hey, our CEO is an MBA from Kellogg [School of Management],’” Kaplan said.

Kaplan also is open to engaging with other outside experts to help drive diversity through the ranks of Solera — a goal that he has spent time and effort on recently in light of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I’ve been around this industry for my whole life … [and] it didn’t take me long to observe that we had a diversity challenge as an industry at a leadership level, from the senior leadership at the community level to the senior leadership at the corporate level,” Kaplan said. “And it was important to make an impact in that area so that we could be more representative.”

Kaplan is not afraid to say he has not gone far enough to promote more voices within his company or within the industry, either. He had a recent conversation with Janale Flores, Solera’s corporate human resources director, and came away with some ideas to make the company’s corporate leadership more diverse. 

The first is to collect more data on the people who work for Solera, and note the goals they want to achieve. The second is to assemble a diversity committee made up of people who better represent various minority groups within the company. And the third is to establish new training programs to build diversity into Solera’s company culture — in fact, Kaplan seeks to enshrine diversity in the company’s core values.

“It can’t just be … ‘I’m going to select the best candidates for promotions or for hires, regardless of race or gender.’ I think that’s just not enough.” Kaplan said. “As a young operator in an industry where it’s pretty much led by the pioneers and the entrepreneurs, we have an obligation to set an example and set the tone.”

Kaplan does acknowledge he has blind spots. For example, he said he has more personal knowledge of how to support and promote people in certain jobs versus others.

“With my background, I have a better understanding for somebody that is a sales director, assisted living director or executive director, and what they need to do to become a specialist or regional or move into some type of corporate role,” Kaplan said.

Kaplan added that the company will need to find a way to better develop its frontline workers. And, he is open to the idea of collaborating with others to develop and drive the company’s goals in that area, too.

“As leaders, I think we have to lead by example,” Kaplan said.

Zero margin for error

Although Solera is still moving full steam ahead with its various development projects, the company is also taking time to ponder which projects might work best in the post-Covid world.

Aside from its community slated to open in August, the company has three properties under construction that are set to open in the third and fourth quarters of 2021. Solera is also working on another community — a senior living highrise in the Washington, D.C. area — as part of a larger mixed-use development. As the company moves forward on these projects, Kaplan and other leaders are reimagining certain elements in light of Covid-19.

“One example is, we actually pulled units out of the unit mix, because we felt like we needed to have some common-area spaces not just on floors two and three, but also spread out throughout the building,” Kaplan said, speaking of the project in the Washington, D.C. area. “So if there is a quarantine, residents have an option to get out of their apartments.”

Kaplan also anticipates that balconies will become more of a fixture in senior living units, as prospective residents and their families will be attracted to communities which seem well-suited for the next pandemic.

“I think there will be more of a shift towards dedication of outdoor spaces, which was already a big movement,” Kaplan said. “You’ll see that continued and built upon.”

Still, this is a challenging time to open a senior living community. The industry is facing both the challenges of the pandemic and some of the lingering effects of its ongoing oversupply headwinds.

“Pre-Covid … to open successfully, you had to be very good at what you do, you had to build a good product and you had to have a great team,” Kaplan said. “Now, you have the same supply issues, but you have a pandemic that directly affects seniors. So the margin for error is zero.”

Staffing is also still a challenge, but Solera is making headway in attracting former hospitality workers. The company recently hired a part-time pastry chef, and is down to two final candidates to become the culinary director of its forthcoming community in Denver.

“In the past, it would have been really challenging to convince a really top chef to leave the restaurant industry, but the reality is now, they might be working at 50% to 80% of their compensation,” Kaplan said. “And, there are questions about how long it will take for restaurants and hotels to open back up, so I think it’s a perfect time now to be pursuing talent.”

Regarding the road ahead, Kaplan does not believe the senior living industry is out of the woods with respect to Covid-19. He foresees a possible second wave of infections in the fall, and does not expect the cost of labor and equipment to fall anytime soon in many markets across the U.S. Still, Kaplan is hopeful that, if the industry does good work during a hard time, it will pay off in the end.

“More than ever, what we can stand on is, we have a great product, we do something really valuable for people and for their families,” Kaplan said. ”That’s what keeps me going and keeps me optimistic.”

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