Marc Vorkapich, Principal and CEO, Watercrest Senior Living

Marc Vorkapich was volunteering in residential care in 1991, when an older woman he “adored” told him: “All of my life I have been the life of the party, here I am invisible.”

“My heart was broken,” Vorkapich says. “During the following weeks, declining health quieted her voice and, for a moment, my own.”

But Vorkapich found his voice, and his calling. After more than 20 years in health care, he co-founded Watercrest Senior Living in 2012 — and the Vero Beach, Florida-based company has been driving change ever since.

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From the start, Vorkapich wanted to dismantle the typical, “hierarchical” approach to operations. Doing so has not always been easy, but the commitment to nurturing strong leaders has helped Watercrest differentiate itself in its markets and in the industry, as an innovator in development, design and operations.

With Covid-19 besetting the nation, Vorkapich says the strong leaders and collaborative spirit of Watercrest enable the company to keep clearing the highest bars for care and hospitality, while continuing to expand the portfolio. The company’s portfolio numbers 16 properties in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia, with more under development.

Can you describe one or two changemaking efforts you’ve led that you’re especially proud of?

When we started Watercrest, our focus was to build a platform from which our family of associates are valued for their God-given talents and recognized for their contributions to our collective cause. We were deliberate in identifying not as a management company, but rather as a leadership development organization purposeful in our efforts to grow servant leaders.

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More than words, this required changes in the way operations management is taught, as well as addressing and shifting the prevailing hierarchical mindsets toward a collaborative leadership practice.

Developing trusting relationships by celebrating character and competence has been paramount to realizing a true distinction in our company’s DNA. The results have been significant, including attracting and retaining best-in-class talent, developing cross-community operational efficiencies, eliminating internal politics through improved communication and transparency, and personalizing the Watercrest experience for residents, their families and our associates.

Can you provide an example of how Watercrest does things differently than a typical, “hierarchical” senior living provider?

For example, at Watercrest we approach the annual budgeting process as an educational exercise to learn from our associates. More than often, it is the first time in their career these experts were given a seat at the table and asked to contribute to business planning. Actively listening to those closest to our customers, meaningful best practices are identified.

This collaboration is one example of many we deploy that unite people toward a shared purpose. By contrast, hierarchical companies are wired to create community budgets at corporate and deliver them to the communities with minimal input from community personnel. Rather than create a climate in which leaders can exercise, learn and grow in their current job, hierarchical companies tend to manage things, people and careers into existence. We’ve found that, regardless of title or tenure, the best and brightest leaders will always seek to contribute. Serving them requires us to create a climate of inclusion and collaboration.

As another example, we have completely reimagined the annual performance reviews. Shifting the experience toward meaningful conversation, learning and accountability, toward building trust across the organization. Partnering with Franklin Covey, we have adopted the core components of Trust (Integrity, Intent, Capabilities, Results) as the fundamentals for our review tool, which has led to purposeful dialogue as well as clarity regarding our intentions as a company, [as a] group of people. This practice, along with each associate selecting and celebrating their own core value as a badge of honor on their nametag, ensures we are opening the doors to meaningful conversation about who we are and why we chose to serve together.

Describe a time when you tried to create change and it didn’t go well. What did you learn?

My modus operandi has always been to engage teams in identifying needs for change. Working collaboratively, we are able to overcome barriers to the successful implementation of change, such as siloed behavior and/or a lack of buy in. However, at times, even the most experienced and knowledgeable team members unconsciously thwart progress to maintain normalcy.

Through multiple experiences I have learned many lessons. One, creating a climate for and encouraging healthy debate amongst team members is critical to developing a cohesive leadership team. Another is that alignment of messaging and communication throughout the organization is paramount. As one more example, consistent follow up communication and transparent accounting of activities stewarding change should be coupled with recognition at all levels of the organization.

Can you share an example of siloed behavior or lack of buy-in?

I recall working with an executive team charged with turning around a portfolio of underperforming communities. As expected, we had all hands on deck to accomplish our goals. Each functional discipline was very well represented including ownership, clinical, finance, operations, development, life enrichment, sales and marketing. Interestingly, the most significant barriers to achieving our goals derived from executive team members acting as members of their respective functional team above all else, rather than as members of an executive team united toward a shared purpose. Silos built upon each team member’s unique expertise ensured perspectives remained narrow and familiar. Underlying protectionism of the teams they represent and/or ideas and practices deployed in their discipline further pulled the air out of a room desperately needing a spark for change.

Dismantling these behaviors required meaningful dialogue based on data. Although at times very difficult to do, the exercise of challenging the results, digging deeper, and asking more probing questions revealed opportunities and needs substantiated by measurable outcomes.

Collaborating to develop our business plan moving forward brought with it an expectation of continued communication of the progress and results across all disciplines. A shared purpose and the roles we all played in that purpose unified our efforts, and even more importantly, the effectiveness of our leadership.

Do you see Covid-19 changing the senior living industry in lasting ways? If yes, how?

One thing is certain, there is an increased awareness and understanding of the importance of having a highly competent operations management team laser-focused on the resident, family and associate experience.

Stressful times like these are likely to further polarize offerings and levels of service due to management’s ability or inability to cost contain while improving the personalization and warmth of service delivery. Even more so today, as a result of isolation, fostering a sense of family within the community should be a top priority.

Can you explain what you mean by “polarize offerings”?

Yes, some providers will have to cut back on what they offer if they can’t get a handle on cost containment, while others will be able to continue to offer a more complete service package.

For example, Watercrest’s service model includes nurses on site 24/7, exceptional caregiver ratios, dining servers, as well as separate programming leadership and specialists in every community. For many communities, increased needs due to the pandemic could result in dramatic cost increases that are unsustainable or the reduction of services deemed less essential.

Any initiatives currently underway at Watercrest to innovate or change things up?

Our priority is the well-being of our residents and staff during this pandemic. As is the nature of our organization, we are constantly collaborating and have multiple initiatives underway both internally and externally that we believe will continue to answer a call for service excellence in senior living.

Without disclosing efforts under NDA, I can say we are blessed to collaborate with leaders in architecture, development, operations as well as senior living focused financial leadership in efforts to drive meaningful progress for our industry.

Watercrest is continuing to expand, including a recent groundbreaking in Myrtle Beach. Any aspects of the design or planned programming of that community that you would highlight?

Due to our vertical structure we are nimble in operations, development and design which allows for ongoing collaboration and connection between design, function and service.

Our wellness program continues to expand with the addition our Halo (Salt) Therapy experience as well as LYT Therapies in which residents enjoy an immersive healing bath of sound and light, helping to shed stress, calm anxiety and reduce sleeplessness, all while restoring energy.

Building upon our Live Exhilarated program as the framework to deliver the extraordinary, Watercrest signature offerings include our curated small plates program, namely Aprons and Appetizers, and most recently we’ve introduced into our communities Artful Expressions, a series of imaginative classes and experiences. Additionally, supported by educational and resident engagement activities designed to stimulate the brain, Mindful Choices offers chef-curated meals based on clinical research.

Bogey’s Cigar and Scotch Lounge offers premium cigars and scotch whiskey pairings. We house your “vintage sticks and spirits” in private humidors and cabinets.

In follow up to the tremendous success we’ve had in increasing family participation in our Market Street model, and our interest in creating a multigenerational environment, we have added Creative Kids spaces to newer communities.

Changemakers are risk takers. Agree or disagree? How do you describe your own risk tolerance?

I would agree often that is the case. However, when a call for change derives from a desire to serve something greater than ourselves, any sense of risk is far outweighed by the depth of purpose. My risk tolerance is high, as my entire career over 27 years has developed by having faith that I and others surrounding me have been equipped for what lies ahead.

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