Blake Management Group (BMG) has named Scott Hames as its new COO. The appointment comes off a period of change for the company, including a split with one of its co-founders and the recent departure of its CEO, who joined one of its capital partners.
Hames, who assumed the COO role in August, previously worked as the company’s senior vice president of operations. He first joined the company in 2015 as regional director of operations, and before that spent time at companies including Emeritus Corp., which merged with Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD) in 2014; and Sunrise Senior Living.
As COO, Hames will help guide the third-party management company as it grows. Currently, Blake manages 10 open communities in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina, with six additional development projects lined up in Texas, Arkansas, Florida, and South Carolina. BMG’s project partners include Comvest/LifeCare Properties, AEW Capital Management, Cardinal Ventures and Bridge Senior Living.
Although his first priority is mitigating the impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Hames sees a day in the future when the company can pivot to its people.
“When Covid subsides a little bit, and travel restrictions and regulatory requirements subside a little bit, we can focus on people initiatives that, to me, are at the core of what we do,” Hames told SHN.
Hames takes the COO role at a time of transition for the Jackson, Mississippi-based operator’s C-suite.
BMG’s CEO, Jeremy Cole, left the company about a month ago to become partner and COO at Biloxi-based real estate development company and BMG partner Comvest/LifeCare Properties. And former BMG Chief Strategy Officer Jessica Heck announced just this week she is joining OdessaConnect — previously myFamilyChannel — as chief business development officer.
The company’s management portfolio is also slimmer than in years past. Glenn Barclay — who is one of the co-founders of the Blake brand and also CEO of operator QSL Management — branched off from the company about a year ago, taking a number of Blake communities with him but keeping the Blake name. Today, those communities do business under “Blake by QSL Management.”
“As you continue to grow, you have a certain vision in terms of growth, and in the type of communities you want to build and the services you want to provide,” Hames said. “[We said to Barclay], you’re going in one direction, which is great. BMG is going in a different direction.”
But BMG is not rudderless or on a radically different strategic course than before, as the company still sees itself as a provider of high-end senior living in the U.S. Southeast. The company’s leadership is now more of a group effort, with CFO Stephanie Scott and Hames helping to steer the ship. In the meantime, President John Waits is more closely managing the company’s day-to-day operations, Hames said.
‘Refocus our goals’
What has changed are some of the company’s short- to mid-term priorities. At the start of this year, Hames expected BMG to focus more on the career and leadership development of the company’s employees. The operator had set up focus groups to tackle certain disciplines, such as dining and activities, and had planned to hold bi-weekly calls and quarterly meetings to advance that goal.
Then came the pandemic.
“We all of a sudden said, well, we have to put that on the backburner for now and refocus our goals,” Hames told Senior Housing News. “It’s been a challenge reshuffling those priorities, while at the same time understanding that Covid, of course, takes precedence.”
At the outset of the pandemic, BMG boosted the pay of its department heads and frontline staff by about $1.50 per hour. The company also added an extra week of paid time off for employees in the hopes that they wouldn’t come to work sick, and instituted a grocery program for essential goods. These and other measures have helped the company maintain — and in some markets, even grow — its occupancy. Today, BMG’s average stabilized occupancy lies around 84%.
“We were creative with the advertising, we did virtual tours — we did a lot on the digital side,” Hames said. “And we found that there was still a need there, specifically on the memory care side.”
But doing so wasn’t without some challenges. Like many other operators, BMG ran into elevated expenses in mitigating Covid-19. Instead of adding an extra fee as some operators did, BMG instead ate the costs of dealing with the pandemic. The operator is also clashing with competitors who are implementing aggressive pricing strategies.
“Our biggest challenge right now on the sales front is how we can keep up with competition that seems to be throwing rate out the window,” Hames said. “We’re trying to hold true to rate, and in some communities based on stabilization, trying to push rate. So, those two forces are kind of butting heads.”
The pandemic has also influenced the kind of communities BMG wants to operate, and how it markets them.
Before Covid-19, the company focused more on hospitality offerings. But that has given way to a marketing strategy that emphasizes both high-end lifestyle offerings and medical services.
“Now, it’s more needs-based. There’s a lot more focus on sanitation, and what we’re doing around Covid,” Hames said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve changed our strategy entirely, but we’ve certainly altered it.”
In the recent past, BMG has been successful with its independent living products, particularly in some of its cottage-style offerings. But Hames believes the company also has an opportunity in communities with more blended services, such as independent living, assisted living and memory care on one campus.
“[We are] tweaking that model so that it attracts low-acuity, high-functioning residents, but at the same time getting them to understand that they can age in place and transition over to the main building on the campus, which would be assisted living and memory care,” Hames said.
And once the Covid-19 pandemic subsides, Hames is ready to dive back into his goal to develop BMG’s workforce. His first post-pandemic priority is to start a leadership development program, and the company will spend more time developing its frontline workforce — an area Hames believes can affect the company down to resident outcomes.
“We’re going to do some things that focus on frontline development: training, coaching, mentoring, teaching, and giving them the tools and resources to be successful,” Hames said. “And then everything else will take care of itself.”