The senior living industry is in a truly new era, and operators can either adapt and help shape it or risk falling behind.
That is how Senior Star CEO Anja Rogers sees the future, and she is busy preparing the company for its coming growth and evolution through that lens.
As she looks ahead, she has aspirations to help grow and shape the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based operator into what she sees as “Senior Star 3.0.” In order to achieve that, the operator first needed to slim down, going to just eight communities in 2022. She also has endeavored this year to boost the company’s occupancy and margins.
But scale and operations are just two parts of the company’s ongoing transformation. Another big piece is being a supportive company for the people who work there, and that commitment is evidenced by the operator’s repeat inclusions on the annual Best Workplaces in Aging Services list.
Senior Star this month opened the doors on a newly renovated headquarters. The opening represented both a growth milestone and a symbol that, while the operator is a truly “different company,” it is also laser-focused on improving for the future, Rogers said.
“I really wanted that space and the environment to be one of inclusion, collaboration and innovation,” she added.
Building Senior Star 3.0
Rogers in 2019 envisioned a growth plan that required the company to get smaller before it got larger.
So, Senior Star got to work identifying communities to shed. Last year, the company offloaded two communities, with another two departing the portfolio in 2022. Today, the company’s portfolio consists of eight communities in Iowa, Missouri, Ohio and Oklahoma.
“Separating from the communities that really don’t enable that vision to come alive has been something that we’ve really focused on in the last several years,” Rogers said.
With a leaner operating platform, Rogers is now turning her focus to taking the company to its next iteration. Senior Star 3.0 will see the operator focus on larger IL, Al and/or memory care communities that have a minimum of 200 units, with a “sweet spot” around 250.
Another big piece of the 3.0 iteration are margins, which have compressed with cost inflation and other headwinds in 2022. Though Rogers said the company doesn’t “have the healthiest margins like we had pre-pandemic,” that is not the case for every one of its communities.
For instance, Rogers said one Senior Star community’s independent living building is carrying a margin north of 55%, with campus-wide margins including assisted living and memory care above 40%. And the company is holding to the margins it assumed it would see in 2022.
“We feel like we are moving in the right direction,” Rogers said. “It’s not as simple as leasing more units, it’s leasing more units at a higher price point, and it’s also leasing more units with less expenses.”
Part of Rogers’ philosophy regarding increasing margins is adapting to the industry’s new challenges two and a half years after the start of the pandemic. She sees a “silver lining” of Covid-19, as terrible as it has been, in the industry’s hard-won experience in the face of that adversity.
“We learned a lot about our business — what we’re really good at, and where our gaps are,” Rogers said. “And that’s where our focus ought to be instead of trying to go back and do business the old way, because the customer is not going back.”
Innovation is a key part of that strategy. The operator in the last 30 days began deploying two Servi robots per community. The robots, which can ferry food from the kitchen to residents’ tables, are aimed at giving associates more time with residents.
Senior Star also raised resident rates by 6.4% on average throughout its portfolio last year, and expects an average increase near 10% this year — including increases at some communities pushing into the low teens.
She expects little or no fallout from increasing the rates, and the organization has spend the better part of the year conversing with residents about it.
“At the end of the day, if they’re happy right now and enjoying the services they receive, then they understand there is a price difference to that,” Rogers said.
One way Senior Star is not evolving is through taking on more active adult communities, which has been a focus for some other operators this year.
With one active adult community in Kenwood, Ohio, Rogers sees the product type as more closely aligned with multifamily properties.
Fresh HQ facelift
Senior Star’s headquarter renovation project took a little more than a year and opened fully to the team this September. The new-look campus will enable the corporate team members to thrive in a hybrid in-office/work-from-home model, Rogers told Senior Housing News.
But the new HQ will do more than provide a welcoming place for the company’s corporate team members; it will guide the operator’s improvement plans for its portfolio.
Rogers is a staunch believer in fostering diversity and inclusion throughout the industry.Specifically, she wants to open more doors for women and other people who might not always be represented in the industry’s leadership ranks.
“I believe that you have to be able to see somebody doing the job that you aspire to have in order for that to happen,” Rogers said.“And in our industry, you don’t.”
Senior Star’s executive leadership is composed of three women, two of whom are Black, and only one man. And Rogers added that her aim is to prioritize diversity at a deeper level across the organization.
“Can I have diversity of thought? Can I have diversity of background?” she said.
This is also an issue that hits close to home for Rogers, who is the mother of two women, one of whom is a pilot.
“She lives in a very male-dominated field,” Rogers said.
But she added: “We are in a different world, and we need to be represented in our industry that way — and that diversity will make us all better.
Senior Star has earned spots on multiple “Best Workplaces” lists. The annual list ranks Great Place to Work-certified senior care companies based on satisfaction scores from staff, among other measures. Last year, Senior Star ranked no. 5 on the list.
Nearly a third of the operator’s communities landed on the first-ever “Best Senior Living Communities” list published by U.S. News and World Report. But this year, Rogers has a goal to get at least 75% of the portfolio recognized as being among the best in senior living.
“It’s not just about being on the list,” Rogers said. “It’s about understanding what the customers are looking for … unless you’ve heard directly from their voices — and enough of their voices — you really don’t know what they’re looking for.”
Rogers isn’t satisfied just knowing what residents want and think, she wants to know what her team sees and wants. So, the company has prioritized thoroughly digesting the survey data collected by Activated Insights in its Great Place to Work list.
And what workers want and need is flexibility, according to Rogers. “That’s the new work, right?” she said.
Just 3% of the positions at Senior Star are unfilled, and the operator is using agency-sourced labor in just one of its buildings.
Rogers points to the company’s alignment with executive directors as a reason that recruitment and retention are trending in the right direction. And, if leaders at Senior Star are not on-board with the new era of employee flexibility, Rogers doesn’t think they are long for the company.
The change from scheduling eight- or 12-hour shifts to four-hour shifts is something some leaders grapple with, but “if somebody just wants to work four hours a day and still pick up their children from school, we should make that happen,” said Rogers.
“I think we push the envelope,” she said. “And if you’re not a leader that believes in this … it means you’re not going to be successful in this organization.”