JEA Names New CEO, Eyes Expanding Beyond Memory Care

Memory care specialist JEA Senior Living has a new CEO and is embarking on a targeted growth strategy that will include expanding its brick-and-mortar footprint, as well as launching ancillary services to provide care for seniors beyond its communities.

The Vancouver, Washington-based operator on Wednesday announced the appointment of  Christopher Belford as its new CEO. A 30-year industry veteran, Belford was most recently executive vice president of asset management at American Health Investors (AHI), where he was responsible for the management of the company’s portfolio of 140 senior housing, skilled nursing and hospital assets throughout the United States and the United Kingdom. Prior to that, he held leadership roles with Emeritus Corp. and Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD).

Belford joins an operator with a relatively new owner at the helm. Access Industries, a New York-based investment firm, acquired a majority stake in JEA in September 2019.

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Access invested in the operator as part of a strategy to expand its ownership and management of senior housing across the country, and Belford believes his experience at AHI will prove essential to that end. During his tenure there, the firm launched a non-traded real estate investment trust, Griffin-American Healthcare REIT, with Griffin Capital to amass a portfolio of health care assets.

Through the REIT, Belford gained a better understanding of the role equity plays in real estate transactions, and AHI’s health care portfolio nearly doubled in size in the six years he was with the firm, he told Senior Housing News.

“That skill set that I bring to JEA will be huge for us, as we grow our own platform,” he said.

Exploring expansion

When Belford assumes his new duties on November 1, he will be responsible for creating and executing a strategic growth plan that will expand JEA’s footprint, as well as extend its reach beyond memory care. JEA’s current portfolio includes 56 freestanding memory care facilities in 23 states, primarily in secondary and tertiary markets adjacent to major metropolitan areas.

The operator and Access are exploring adding assisted living care to future developments and strategic acquisitions – either in its existing markets or in new markets, depending on what makes sense from an investment perspective.

“We’re not only looking for product lines that we’re interested in. We’re also looking at it strategically where it makes sense in our current footprint to grow,” he said.

Before executing on the expansion strategy, however, Belford wants to ensure there is a sound operational structure in place to deliver care for residents and ensure that employees have the necessary resources to provide that care; he is keen to hold off “Covid-19 fatigue” after nearly eight months of restrictions and operational changes which have taxed the entire industry.

Belford is impressed by JEA’s response to the pandemic to date, and looks to make tweaks to its response where needed.

“The industry as a whole has learned a lot since March and April,” he said. “JEA has done as well as anyone in keeping our residents and employees safe in the [current] environment.”

Exploring ancillary services

JEA’s future growth may look beyond brick-and-mortar communities, as more seniors require care but may not be ready to transition to senior living.

The operator is researching launching ancillary services in its markets that complement the care it already provides, such as home health care and pharmacy services. This would most likely involve entering into joint ventures with partners to provide these services. The research is in its infancy, Belford said.

If it pursues ancillary services, JEA would add further fuel to a trend already underway in senior living.

The new home health Medicare payment framework known as the patient-driven groupings model (PDGM), which took effect last January, may open senior living providers to opportunities to acquire home health agencies at attractive prices as these agencies are overwhelmed by the new payment model.

As the pandemic continues, more senior living providers are launching new service lines which will diversify operations, add new revenue streams and, in the case of continuing care retirement communities, mitigate operating pressures to higher care segments stemming from Covid-19.

Notably, Ohio Living realized growth in its home health and hospice arms during the pandemic, and is launching a new physicians services line. Another nonprofit provider, Immanuel Lutheran Communities, is developing a home health care segment to provide services for seniors who are not ready, or unable, to transition to senior housing.

When a final plan is in place for JEA, it will have the full blessing from Access Industries, a diversified investment firm with interests in hospitality, biotechnology, natural resources, media and entertainment, in addition to real estate.

“[Access] wants to do the right thing in the health care space,” Belford said. “They’re up front about wanting to grow JEA, as well as to deliver the best care.”

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