Changemakers: Torsten Hirche, President & CEO, Transforming Age

Transforming Age recently announced it will be affiliating with SHAG to create the eighth-largest nonprofit senior housing provider in the nation. And this is just the latest changemaking effort during the tenure of Transforming Age President and CEO Torsten Hirche.

Hirche has been a catalyst for change through his leadership of the Seattle-based organization, which now counts 55 communities in the Pacific Northwest and midwestern United States.

In this Changemakers interview, Hirche talks about the steps he has taken to lead Transforming Age to a bright future in senior living. When he became CEO in 2014, the organization was much smaller — only three communities — and struggling. Not only has Transforming Age gained scale quickly, but it has diversified its services through affiliations and partnerships with groups such as Downtown Action to Save Housing (DASH). Transforming Age also expanded its footprint by adding a portfolio in the Twin Cities, and is creating a $150M highrise in Seattle.

In this interview, Hirche talks about the different facets of change the industry is experiencing on social, technological and economic fronts, and how he is navigating them as a leader. He also explains why people are among the most important resources in an organization navigating change, and how technology fits into Transforming Age’s changemaking efforts.

Senior Housing News: To start, how many communities does Transforming Age have now?

Torsten Hirche: We have 55 communities including market rate, rentals and CCRCs, and the rest is affordable housing and employee housing. There’s some multifamily employee-workforce housing in there as well.

What are one or two of the changes that you are most proud of leading at Transforming Age or in the senior living industry at large?

First and foremost is the team. It’s been a hell of a ride and the team has stretched, grown, risen to the task and always showed up. I’m proud of them. That includes both legacy team members and the team members we’ve added.

The people we serve have gone through a lot of changes with us. Open communication played a major role in our success there. Change is hard for the people we serve, especially when it occurs at high velocity.

The repositioning of Parkshore is a change I am proud of. Parkshore is one of our flagship communities, but it was a diamond in the rough. It needed a lot of attention and the residents were extremely accommodating, even at the rapid pace we were moving. We communicated, created a dialogue together and walked through the changes so everyone was on the same page. 

Our governance model also underwent a significant transformation. From day one, the board understood and supported the decision. Together, we made the vision a reality.

Transforming Age has become an integrated network with the holistic mission of serving older adults across the economic spectrum in a variety of ways. The board was involved in early vision conversations that played into rebranding. Every facet of the organization is connected through a common core, a common mission, a common language and a common culture.

Making that vision a reality is the greatest changemaking effort I have led. We’ve made a ton of mistakes along the way and we took detours here and there, but we never lost sight of what we wanted to accomplish. Our team members are an integral part of that.

I am excited to continue building what I believe is the future of senior living. We will create more integrated services, housing, and technology solutions to serve people holistically as we move into the future. It’s not just the sheer numbers. The mission impacts the lives we’re serving. We’re serving 14,000 people and providing $65 million in charity care — I’m proud of how we do it.

We just talked about what you are proud of. Can you talk about a time when you tried to make a change and it didn’t go so well? What did you learn from that situation?

We had to make a lot of changes quickly [when I became CEO]. Getting people up to speed with limited resources was a feat of its own. Leadership didn’t have the expertise that it has today. Now, everyone is experienced, highly skilled and sophisticated.

In the beginning, we had a nine-person corporate office and we didn’t approach things in a sophisticated manner. That had an impact on communication, planning, implementation and even repositioning. While we were successful in the end, we made a ton of mistakes in the process.

We tried to involve residents by incorporating a key resident leadership position into opportunity discussions, then making the decision together. The resident-team member trust that exists today is certainly not perfect, but it shows we’ve made a lot of strides since the beginning.

Changemakers are risk takers. Do you agree with that? How do you describe your own tolerance for risk?

I agree that Changemakers are risk takers. As Teddy Roosevelt said, the credit goes to the “man in the arena.” The person that gets down in the dirt and dust and gets bloody.

That’s one of my favorite quotes because at the end of the day, it’s great to talk high-level strategy, but changemakers are those who are risking their own reputations. They’re risking resources, trust and support. It’s more than just money, it’s about how people view the organization. Changemakers are those who get their hands dirty, leaving no stone unturned.

To that degree, risk is a huge part of change and it has many faces. It’s not just financial risk, it’s planning risk, it’s execution risk, it’s funding risk, it’s reputational risk; all of the above.

Transforming Age also has a strong stance on technology, so how does technology fit into your changemaking efforts?

When senior living organizations talk about technology, it often comes to back-end business enablement and resident UX solutions. We believe it goes beyond that. The organization essentially has to morph into a technology organization. We’ve had strong results in our digital transformation.

Technology is not a means to an end, it’s part of who you are as an organization and how you serve people in the field. As a sector, we are still well behind the curve on that front. Technology is not something that gets bolted on, technology is an integral part of the strategy and vision of an organization.

Do you think the senior living industry is changing fast enough to keep up with the times?

I don’t think so. Because of the historical growth of senior living, we need to embrace the real estate component. Then, we have to overlay that with a technological approach that best serves the customer.

I’m also curious to know about serving different parts of the market. Do you think the industry is changing fast enough there?

It’s a two-pronged answer. We have to be able to serve a broader market with senior living solutions. Also, I believe a more customized approach to market-rate senior living solutions is equally important. The one-size-fits-all approach does not appeal to baby boomers or Gen Xers, so we have to meet that need. Because of technology and accessibility of services, there needs to be a mindset shift in our industry.

The biggest piece of news hanging over our conversation today is the affiliation between SHAG and Transforming Age. Can you talk about how that affiliation will bring about change both for your organizations and the wider industry?

First off, SHAG is an amazing organization that has pioneered how we provide affordable housing and then overlaid it with services. Integrating housing services and technologies with the care continuum is key to success. Regardless of income, you can actually create very customer-focused services for people in the middle market and affordable low-income communities, and they’ve pioneered that really well.

There are a lot of conversations around social determinants of health that you’re probably familiar with, so providing solutions to address those social determinants in a holistic, customized way is a big step forward.

We’re essentially providing the canvas for people to paint their own story and create their own aging journey, and that is critical to the future delivery model. That is why we’re looking at Transforming Age as a network. At the network level, we have various affiliates integrated through a common core, common language and common DNA, connected to the one customer journey through technology.

It provides an intimate understanding of the people we serve, regardless of the community type. We will be able to travel alongside with them on their aging journey, gathering insights into services, solutions and products they may need so we can deploy them at the optimal time.

You can only do that kind of stuff at scale, which is why we’re so proud of our affiliation with SHAG, DASH and all the other affiliates that have joined us. There’s strength in numbers, and you can’t create that kind of environment and integrated approach as a small organization.

How do you think COVID-19 is going to change the senior living industry, and what changes are you making to prepare for that?

The team has done a phenomenal job responding to it. We’ve been fortunate to have strong team members at the health services and community levels to implement our pandemic response toolkits and engage residents.

There’s heightened sensitivity around high-quality resident and client experience. Going forward, I believe there will be a mix of virtual and real-life experiences in a more customized fashion. We’re looking at solutions that can serve each customer’s wants and create a community of support, and we’ve seen amazing results so far.

In addition, we are responsible for changing the narrative and telling our story better. We have to create awareness around what senior living is and what it isn’t, building stronger brands resonant of customer experience. We can’t look at everything through a real estate lens in times like these.

I think the other thing that’s come out of this is diversity, especially how it is reflected in the communities. More diversity is important and Transforming Age is doing everything in its power to facilitate that.

Another big one is UX for our team members, the people who serve our customers. I believe as an industry, we’re way behind in how we interface with our team members and how they experience us. That includes learning, development, career growth opportunities, compensation and sharing successes as well as failures as organizations.

We’re not competing with each other for talent, we’re competing with big tech and sexy startups. We need to stray from the myopic view of our own awesomeness and adjust to be successful based on who we’re actually competing with.

Innovation is a big part of that, and creating environments where innovation is not just okay, but encouraged, is the key to success. One of our big success factors is the Culture of Excellence we created. Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” We are creating a strong culture around that common vision — a culture that attracts strong talent and rallies everyone behind a unified purpose.

On the for-profit side, you will see people pursuing a business model that works. I think we have ways to go to be innovative. Linus Pauling said, “If you want to have good ideas, you must have many ideas.” It’s not good enough to just say, “Hey, let’s come up with our mid-market model,” because that idea’s been around for years now. It’s about saying, “Let’s create many different ideas, talk with the customer, work with the customer and see what actually works.”

This is not an old folks home. This is an organization that is a technology company, a services company and a user experience company. Changing that narrative is imperative to our success in the future.