Most senior living operators have an office for a headquarters. Not Charter Senior Living.
Instead of working out of a location with a fixed address and a cushy corner office, CEO Keven Bennema prefers to lead the company from a 40-foot recreational vehicle nearly the size of a semi truck. And along with his wife and partner in the operator, Kim Bennema, he is on the road a collective four or five months out of the year, traveling from community to community in the company’s current 43-property portfolio.
The job takes the Bennemas across the country. On any given day, they might be visiting a community in the Nashville, Tennessee area. Days later, they might be in Bowling Green Kentucky, or Huntsville, Alabama.
But while life on the road brings its own unique challenges, Bennema would not have it any other way. In fact, he believes that it helps exemplify the company’s hands-on, supportive culture — and, that it gives Naperville, Illinois-based Charter a leg up over other operators.
“I’ll put my RV up this: There are no other CEOs or owners as visible in communities the way my wife and I are,” Bennema told Senior Housing News.
King of the road
Keven and Kim Bennema are usually on the road during the warmer months of the year. All of the operator’s communities lie East of the Mississippi river, ranging from Florida up to Connecticut and as far west as Sioux City, Iowa.
As such, the Bennemas spend a good amount of time driving. In fact, they don’t go back to their permanent residences in the Chicago area and southwest Florida during the months-long trips.
To cut down on driving time, the Bennemas plan out their trips so they are on the road no more than five to eight hours at a time, and visit regions where they can visit many different communities in one trip.
For example, the company has 16 communities throughout the Nashville area, and it is typical that the Bennemas spend about three weeks visiting each via RV.
“We’ll either visit one community a day or two communities a day, depending on the proximity,” Bennema said.
The arrival of the RV is somewhat of an event at Charter communities, he added.
“When we pull into the parking lot, everybody wants to check the rig out,” Bennema said. “We absolutely show folks inside of it.”
The decision to have a mobile headquarters was years in the making. When Bennema launched Charter in 2016, he said he vowed to “not be anything like your traditional corporation.”
As a leader in the senior living industry, Bennema was already boarding planes, booking rental cars and staying in hotels many nights of the year. But that life soon got old, especially with all of the challenges that Covid brought.
“When my wife became a partner in the business, she said … ‘I’m not overly enthusiastic about getting on planes anymore,” Bennema said.
At the same time, she had taken RV trips as a child with her family, and thought that could be a way to travel to Charter communities without all of the hassle she wanted to leave behind.
So, the Bennemas in 2020 decided to purchase a Tiffin luxury RV, which range from about $700,000 to $800,000 apiece and come with features that include a full kitchen and spacious sleeping areas. Bennema’s is also equipped with a small office area.
The manufacturer delivered the RV in April of last year. Initially, Bennema said he had some questions about the RV lifestyle. For example, some businesses, including Wal-Mart and the restaurant chain Cracker Barrel, allow RV owners to park in their lots overnight.
“When we first started, my wife would say, ‘We could stay at a Cracker Barrel or a Walmart,’” he said. “And I’d be like, ‘What do you mean, stay? You mean, like an overnight stay?”
While filling up the 90-gallon diesel fuel tank costs around $450 these days — and climbing — the Bennemas also save money on airfare, lodging and food. When visiting a Charter community, Bennema said he will park the RV in the parking lot and stay overnight.
“The cost of my travel has gone down by at least 50%,” he added.
Of course, there have been some bumps along the way. Not long ago, Bennema was approached by a police officer while staying in the parking lot of a Charter community in Baltimore for the first time.
“He said, ‘Who are you?’” Bennema recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, we are the owners of this building.”
So far, the Bennemas have racked up about 25,000 miles on the RV since purchasing it last year, with more trips planned. While he is not rushing to buy another RV, he does foresee an upgrade in the future.
“Once we get that rig up to about 50,000 miles, we’ll probably trade it in and maybe get something even a little bit nicer, with a little more creature comforts,” he said.