Changemakers: Les Strech, President of Thrive Senior Living

Les Strech is the President of Thrive Senior Living. Les has been a catalyst for change by redefining the standard of senior living, challenging long-held design beliefs and drumming up community support. Les continues to stand out as a visionary leader in senior housing, having led Thrive through some of the most difficult conditions in the last decade.

Through the Changemakers series, Les discusses the steps he has taken to lead Thrive to a bright and lucrative future in senior living. He talks about the different facets of change the industry is experiencing on social, technological, and economical fronts and how he is navigating them as a leader. He also explains why taking risks and failing forward is a critical process in senior living organizations that wish to stay ahead of the curve as the COVID recovery picks up.

Senior Housing News: Can you talk about the early days of the company and the growth plans at that point from the perspective of change?

Les Strech: I came into the industry as chief operating officer of a smaller-sized freestanding memory care portfolio. That was my viewpoint, and the heart for me was making a difference for folks with changing cognitive ability. It really became a thirst and a hunger to understand what dementia is and how it impacts people, families and the world.

One of the things that I consistently talk about on leadership is that the biggest difference between you today and you five years from now is the people you meet and the books you read. There were two major influencers on the way that I began to see senior living but also memory care. One was Dr. Bill Thomas, who is well known within the industry, and I read a book of his called What Are Old People For? which is a hilarious title. It was extremely eye-opening. [One of his principles is] people are afraid of what they don’t understand.

He spoke at a conference about six years ago and after his session was over, there was a line of people to go talk to him. As a young pup in the industry, I sat waiting. In his presentation, he was defining the significant change that needs to happen in design, and I had been working on creating a memory care environment with no locks.

I had all of the notes and pictures and drawings in my iPad, and I showed it to him and I said, “I think what you were talking about on stage, I have inside my iPad.” He raised his eyebrows and said, “Let me see it.” [chuckles] I said, “I’m not going to show it to you.” I said, “How about we [get together to talk more.]”

So I flew up, and, man, what a wealth of wisdom to be exposed to the early parts of my career. He really is one of the key industry changemakers. I flew up and spent a couple of days with him and his wife, Jude, and it really helped shape a lot of my thoughts on design. One of the key points on the design side is that we’re not afraid of people who act strange. We’re afraid of strangers who act strangely.

If we can use design and operations to fashion our communities so that strangers who act strangely become known people who may still act strangely, the walls really start to fall down.

Immediately that resonated with me because I had a very close friend who had a child with Down syndrome. When I was first around him I was afraid I would break the kid, and I didn’t want to touch him because I didn’t know how to interact with this person who acted strangely.

I began to know Seth, and if I were to see him today I would scoop him up and give him arms full of hugs and kisses. It’s not weird anymore, because a strange person who acted strangely became a known person who acted strangely. What’s happened inside most memory care environments is, going all the way back, the environment was rooted in really asylum theory; that we have to segregate them and keep them away from society because they act differently.

The second influencer was a guy named Eloy van Hal. Eloy and his partner Yvonne van Amerongen were the founders of this place called The Hogeweyk in Weesp, Netherlands — a “Dementia Village.” I don’t know how much I like that term, but it’s very well known.

Eloy and I have developed a long-standing friendship now over the last six years that blossomed into a refining of each other because I was poking on him saying, “I love what you’ve done. The creativity is incredible. However, those folks with changing cognitive ability are still segregated from the rest of society.” That was birth to a refining of each other’s opinions about how to create a more integrated living atmosphere.

That was the heart for me when I met [Thrive Founder] Jeramy Ragsdale — it was the revolution that’s needed within senior living on the physical design of space, and then pairing it with an operating model of a team of people that believe the same things.

You’re creating some communities that embody these principles. Can you give a high-level summary of what’s in the works?

Yes, about five years ago I had a bunch of journaling notes … on design. I met with several architects from within the industry, but every time they would come back with, “Oh yes, we built a community like that in this location…let us show you those plans.” I said, “No, I just want you to draw what I’m explaining.” I ended up working with a small architecture firm out of Austin and these guys were infinitely creative, and they listened very well.

They took the concepts that were being presented to them and drew them and came back and said, “Is this what you’re trying to describe?” What it came to is what we call “Burdenlight” living units, and it’s basically securing — instead of the building — the village, in a scalable way, anchored on that small house theory that caused the Green House and The Hogeweyk to be successful. All of those principles are there but at the same time, there are no locks on the front door.

That’s really what’s been missing in America and that’s what we have going on up in the North right now. Eloy had a wonderful quote. He said, “Les, when you make a decision to design differently, what you’ll encounter is that you’ll have to slay the bear.” I said, “I don’t know what slay the bear means.” He said, “There are regulations that will be in place with local government that won’t line up with what needs to change.”

The reason you aren’t seeing advancement is most people are designing based on current regulations rather than saying, “What is the right thing to do?” and then very gently goading those regulations that may have been effective 20 years ago, bringing them back to the surface and trying to raise awareness out there.

In the Northeast right now we’re in front of several townships and they’ve looked at the design and said, “What is this? This isn’t senior living.” That response validated that we were on the right track. It’s very slowly moving forward, but we’re in the process of presenting in the next month what we call Living Beyond the Locks.

Is that the same shift taking place at the new Thrive community being developed in Montvale, New Jersey?

Montvale is really more of a step-change instead of a seat change.

If you were to strip down the majority of buildings in senior living in America today …you have a traditional H-shape or a traditional donut, and there hasn’t been any significant change in what’s being built.

They’re anchored on congregate dining and interior circulation hallways, so what you’re seeing at Montvale really is an incorporation of more porosity as a central design feature, meaning that it’s very normal for us to live inside and outside, and not move in and never leave hallways again. That’s a key part of the design theory, which is why we’ve got a football field-size interior social court, so people can come and go inside and outside as they please.

Another component of that project we’ve talked about is the integration of the greater community and things like a coffee shop or the salon. Can you talk about that connection and intergenerational vision?

You’re hearing this buzzword within senior living of “unbundling.” It’s been around for a while; unbundling of pricing and unbundling of amenities. Frankly, what that looked like has been a sad excuse. Basically, we were moving the amenities to the walls of the building and then hanging a sign on the outside without a whole lot of intentionality. We started with each of the components that someone that’s considering a more social setting would want to participate in, but also considering the local community. What are the things that would cause them to want to go to those?

We built our forward-facing design theory around the things society already builds community around. One of those things is coffee and another one of those things is great memories around a barbershop or a salon. Another one of those things would be community playgrounds.

If you just threw the concept of senior living to the wind and actually created amenities for the local community, and then positioned them in such an appealing way that anyone of any age would want to participate, now you’ve got something really special.

Our industry over the last year has been faced with challenges that we would never have imagined. Some of them are long-term intentional paradigm shifts but others have been in-the-moment decisions that need to happen in the next 24 to 48 hours.

Two of those changes that arose immediately were the inability for families to interact with their loved ones because of the unknowns around COVID; and second, the inability for our teams to go out and interact with people who normally would refer us business.

Our new coffee shops are called Convivium Coffee Company and we brought in a creative agency for the brand and the logo, for example.

Well, when COVID hit, best ideas like our new coffee concept can get sunk with changing economic environments, and so we thought, “Well, how can we build awareness around this?” We called the investors and said, “Hey, we want to buy a coffee truck. One, to promote that we’re going to have an intergenerational moment inside of our development. Two, we believe that we can go serve the health care workers that are working long days and also be able to see them face-to-face with a warm drink.” Man, it’s made all the difference.

Do you think senior living is changing fast enough?

It was so fascinating when I came into the industry because what I saw was the fundamental economic component that when demand is high and supply is low, the price is high and you don’t have to be a great operation. You don’t have to deliver a great product because you have a need that must get met.

With all the development in the early 2000s and late 2010s, there wasn’t a mandate to think differently about design. There wasn’t a mandate to operate in a way that saw people as humans with their own dreams and goals and desires, regardless of age or ability. There wasn’t a demand to do that; it was heads in beds. It was easy just to count the money that was coming in, but it’s a different landscape that we live in today.

Right now we’re seeing small mergers starting to happen and the scooping up of properties, but you’re only going to be able to put lipstick on things that are there for a short amount of time. That’s actually why we started the second brand. The second brand is The Social, The Social is traditional hardware with Thrive software, if that makes sense.

So, The Social is another brand, that brings Thrive’s operating model, or “software,” into existing buildings, or “hardware”?

Yes, it’s a new brand that we stood up two years ago.

Thrive has been traditionally a ground-up developer, it’s what we’ve been known for. We’ve never built the same building twice. We take great pride in that. One of the reasons we take great pride is, over the last three years, every new development that we’ve done, before we ever break ground, we start with focus groups with the local community. We tour the local architecture so we can honor it with the development, but also through menu selection, amenities, life engagement, activities that they’re involved in, places they like to go — all of that really creates the fabric of the physical environment that we build.

Honestly, we had some hesitation on the acquisition front, but if you look over the last two or three years, construction prices are on the rise, and that’s always what we’ve done. We wanted to know: “Will Thrive software work inside of traditional hardware?”

That started our process of dipping our toe in the pool, so we engaged with a couple of groups that were looking to acquire, that had fallen in love with our intrapreneurial people working within our organization’s operating model I mentioned. They agreed the industry needed to operate out of a more decentralized setting. From there, it turned into this brand called The Social.

Frankly, the reason people move into older communities that are dated and 20 and 30 years old is, they’re not moving in for the new amenities. They could go down the street and get that. Really, what they’re moving in for is the software they experience and the belief structure of the people who work there … It starts with a resident-led redesign. This resident-led redesign starts with focus groups.

If you think about it, it’s the most arrogant way possible that the industry has been doing renovations. It’s like me coming to your home and saying, “I’m going to have you move out for three months, and when you come back you’re going to love what I’ve done to your home.” That’s exactly what we’ve done with renovations in senior living. We’ve been worried about guarding occupancy through the renovation. Well, what we found is the best way to guard occupancy is ask the people that live there what they want. It creates stickiness through the renovations.

We run a series of focus groups, with the key being that we find out who the influencers are in the community, pull them together … We have some of the sweetest, most incredible moments that we [otherwise] would have miserably failed and missed. An example was down in our Savannah community, The Social of Savannah. We went through the initial renovation plans, we came back, and we were so proud. We showed the residents some of the renderings and saw a smile turned immediately to a frown.

We were like, “What’s wrong?” They said, “That side of the building takes full sun. That beautiful patio, don’t build it there, build it on the back side of the building. We love to sit on the back side.” We said “Back by the Dumpster?” They said, “Yes, it’s beautiful back there. There’s good shade.” We’re thinking, “Oh, my gosh. How arrogant would we have been?” That led us to go back and say, “Hey, let’s just start clean. What do you want?” It was simple things, change the brown blinds to all white, very inexpensive things.

Now residents take pride, which helps occupancy. They’re telling their friends with their chests puffed up to say, “I was one of the leading designers of the renovation of my community,” and they’re never going to move out. Now they’re recruiting friends.

We have three communities under that Social brand now and we’re slowly looking at acquisitions in certain regions of the country where you’re seeing some softening of pricing.

Changemakers are risk-takers. Do you agree with that, and how do you describe your own appetite and approach to risk-taking?

Great question. Absolutely you cannot change without taking risks. I agree and I believe that most changemakers, if you look back over the course of human history, have been people that were willing to take a risk.

There’s a tension that you have to hold, and the tension is between two things. One is, there’s a weight that comes when you know that thousands of people’s lives depend on you making the right decision.

If you focus too much on that, what you’ll end up doing is never doing anything risky. because you want to preserve and protect the people, because you love them dearly. The weight of knowing that your poor decision could cause someone to lose their job or their opportunity, you have the downsides. They’re weighty. I think that side requires significant discernment and wisdom. We’re trained from grade school to run from risk. It’s 401(k), and Store N Save, and get a job and keep it for 20 years. There’s this paradigm, it’s like risk is bad. You hold the tension of that with a belief that the juice in life happens when you take measured risk. To experience the joys of succeeding and the pain of failure, that’s the emotion that causes life to be enjoyable.

I think the responsible way to approach it is to make sure that you’ve done everything possible to measure the risk, fully knowing that any risk worth taking, you will not have all the facts. I think the changemakers that really get along are the ones that boldly take measured risk, and from the outset say, “Come hell or high water, we’re going to see this through.” At the same time, you’re maintaining that you have to have the humility to know when you’ve pushed long enough, and the risk is not going to come to fruition.

That’s the tension that you hold and man, that’s where life is, that’s where joy is found in business. Most people that say business is bad, and they’re living for Friday. I think it’s the worst mentality in the world. I think they stopped taking risks and they’re just checking the box that works.

Successful changemakers seem to be able to be far enough ahead of the industry that they’re driving change, but not so far ahead of the market that they fail, because they’re ahead of their time. How do you think about getting that timing right?

Sometimes, in regard to timing, there’s a balance between listening to what the market is saying and pushing for the change anyway. For instance, we’ve been working on a concept with a well known multi-family operator, called multigenerational multifamily. I think we can all acknowledge that there’s a negative stigma around senior living because society may look at it as a place where people go to fade away. Frankly, to move senior living down that spectrum from exclusionary, segregated, integrated, inclusive, we have to create environments that don’t have labels like “senior living” or “active adult.”

We’ve been working on this concept and frankly, we’ve gone through and met with different equity groups for a year and a half and the feedback is, “This is a game-changer, but we have to really beat up this idea if we are going to be the first to invest. We would love to be the second or third.” The market will always give you feedback when you attempt to advance something new; a good idea will have its time eventually. After a year and a half of pushing this we can see we are really close, so we need to continue to push. It’s a great sign when people are saying, “We don’t want to be the first on this unique development but please, please keep us in the loop.”

These are really smart people. We value their opinion, and again, they will be queued up second, third, and fourth. I think just the short answer to your question is, timing is often answered by the response that you hear coming back from the marketplace. You just have to have wisdom and use your own discernment there to say, “Should I just blackball this, or continue to push ahead?”