West Bay Execs Launch Momentum Senior Living With Eye on Company’s Future

The executives behind West Bay Senior Living are pivoting to a new venture called Momentum Senior Living in a move that will set the stage for the company’s next evolution.

West Bay CEO Jim Biggs and COO Josh Johnson are forging ahead with the new management company but swapping roles, with Biggs as COO and Johnson as CEO. The new operating company is currently involved in four projects under construction in The Golden State, with others on the way. Momentum currently manages The Variel, an upscale senior living community in Woodland Hills, California.

Although the West Bay operating company is not going away and will continue to manage three communities, Momentum represents the company’s current focus — and its future.

“We don’t believe someone chooses a community because of the national brand. We believe that people choose a community because it’s the best community within a five-mile radius,” Johnson told Senior Housing News in a recent Transform podcast interview. “That’s really why we chose the name Momentum, and why we’re excited about it.”

Biggs and Johnson are bringing to the new operating company decades of experience, not only as operators but as professors at the University of Southern California (USC). Biggs even lived for a time at The Carrington, a community West Bay manages in Lincolnwood, Illinois.

Highlights of Ferguson’s podcast interview are below, edited for length and clarity. Subscribe to Transform via Apple Podcasts and SoundCloud.

On the state of West Bay Senior Living in 2022:

Johnson: This has been an incredibly tough year for our industry due to Covid-19. We know with the labor shortages and wage compression that has occurred. Fortunately for us, we’re a very new company so we can move very fast and make changes very fast. We’re very fortunate for our existing community in Chicago that’s been a huge highlight. We’ve hit 95% occupancy and we are very proud of the team there. We’ve been focused on that community because as a new company, it’s very important to us.

Jim, who is the co-founder of West Bay and Momentum, actually lived at The Carrington through Covid. So talk about an essential worker, right? Jim actually lived at one to get him through it. It was an amazing show of leadership and dedication.

Johnson: My favorite part of the I’m going to embarrass Jim with this is that there’s a video out there and I still have it. It’s of all the residents who were isolated in their apartments — this was the beginning of Covid — and Jim carrying around ice cream while a speaker plays the ice cream truck song. He’s delivering ice cream to every single resident. It’s a fantastic video.

Biggs: Ice cream is life for that community. It was a nice touch of home and we continued that tradition of keeping the ice cream coming.

Johnson: Reaching 95% occupancy for that community was an extreme highlight for us for this year. The other highlight I would say is we opened The Variel at Woodland Hills, California. We opened that with triple digit deposits, which was awesome to be able to achieve that during Covid. By the month’s end we will be at 120 units occupied which is great for the first three months of a community opening in today’s society. Ask where Jim is living right now. Jim, where are you living?

Biggs: I live in room 515 at The Variel. We’re trying to forge a West Bay and Momentum culture. And it just helps to be here all the time. And the residents seem to enjoy that.

I think the industry took a black eye with that model that we have these regional, experienced people, and a lot of them weren’t able to get into the individual communities. It was incredibly draining and challenging.

We all did the best we could. We did a satisfaction survey using the exact same tool that we used before Covid, and the scores went up. I think that our response to Covid demonstrated a commitment that, at least in that marketplace, was a little bit of a pleasant surprise for families.

Johnson: When he went to live at The Carrington, they had turned over the average department head about three times. And so during his tenure, they only turned over one department head total.

One thing about our company is that we like to empower the staff and we are not micromanagers. And, people respond to that. We have an executive director there now who started in the industry as a night shift front desk person. He does an incredible job and we’re just very lucky to have him.

Biggs: Our executive directors were everything. I’m an operations guy at heart. Most people do one startup and they never want to do another one. For whatever reason, I’m drawn to them, and I kind of enjoy the environment.

On Momentum Senior Living’s next move, and plans going forward:

Biggs: Momentum is really our future. Our relationships were forged with South Bay partners, now Harbor South Bay Partners out of Dallas, and you have to understand what Josh and I are looking to do. We’re looking for a select few capital partners. We want to work with them with a selective footprint. West Bay, South Bay, you can see the connections with the names.

But we’ve now seen some new activity and potentially some new partners coming in. And so we’re keeping the West Bay name, and when we’re in the office, we’re going to be opening up an office in the South Bay offices in Dallas. So we will have two offices. And Josh, I’ll turn it over to you for momentum. What’s the vision there?

Johnson: We formed West Bay because we came out of South Bay basically for our origin. We have a great partner in South Bay and we relish the opportunities that they’ve given us.

Both Jim and I teach at USC and there’s nothing like learning than teaching, right. Because you have to really understand what you’re teaching, and I do teach a branding course. And really, you have to start with your core values and a positioning statement before you can move on to naming fonts, all of these colors and fun stuff.

For us, we love the name Momentum. We’re not the best at giving speeches, we are better at action.

You look at Jim and what he’s done on the ground level at these communities and what we’ve been able to accomplish in terms of sales and marketing. And it’s all about momentum. It’s just putting in hour-after-hour, idea-after-idea and empowering our staff while being creative.

Most people fall into this industry. We want to take that caregiver, who may even be from another country and is wicked smart and promote them. We want them to be the next executive director, the next regional director of operations. This is such a unique industry in that respect that we can provide those promotional opportunities for people and so our name Momentum really reflects that.

We did not want to go through a name change or a licensing change and that was fine. It gives us an opportunity.

For California, it’s going to be Momentum. We’re not one of those companies that puts the name on the wall. We are in the background and we like doing that with every community that has its own flavor, its own name, its own set of core values and its own branding element.

We don’t believe someone chooses a community because of the national brand. We believe that people choose a community because it’s the best community within a five-mile radius. And so that’s really why we chose the name Momentum, and why we’re excited about it.

We typically work with South Bay Partners and we work with Columbia Pacific. These are terrific partners and we’re building Class A buildings that, in my opinion, have very few rivals in this industry. Momentum depicts that type of class for us. We are not looking to take over a building that does not resonate with the same type of buildings that we’re building right now.

On the big challenges and opportunities ahead for senior living operators:

Biggs: Obviously, labor and staffing. I listen to this podcast and I know that’s a common theme.

It’s a little bit that way with food. LA fast food workers go up to $22 an hour next year. The water bill for The Variel, we just opened it up and it’s $79,000. Inflationary effects will continue to pop up and into our market basket, but we are somewhat fortunate that we’re able to work with some investors with long-term range.

So we obviously need to protect the margins, but we need to fill the building first. We’re really looking at this in nonconventional areas both for revenue and with cost containment, as well.

We are big fans of K4Connect and we are looking to leverage that. We’re taking a look at where other vendors are making money in our properties. We have beautiful, high-end properties — some in terrific markets — asking how we can do these things ourselves. So we’ve been through similar problems with inflation before and some hard times where it helps to have been around for a long time.

And unlike a lot of other companies, I think our investors like us, as we’re not doing it to boost our own pockets but we are doing it to help meet those goals for the communities. It’s a much longer-term perspective for us and those relationships are important.

We do [resident spend-downs] right now at The Variel but we’re interested in doing it with health care as well. Seniors pay a disproportionate amount of their income towards that health care and if we can capture some of that stream by giving them that personal health care experience in IL, that’s something we’re exploring right now with a few different partners.

On teaching at USC:

Johnson: We teach within the School of Gerontology. There are four different masters programs at USC. You do have the hospitality program that has a relationship with Cornell for their school of hospitality and that’s kind of a unique program. But there’s also the Master of Arts and Gerontology Master of Science in Gerontology, and one in Administration, as well. Our classes kind of blend some of the different requirements of each masters level degree. I teach branding and I teach sales and marketing.

Biggs: I teach trends in aging services as well as leadership and management.

Johnson: We’ve also taught a technology class. I began in 2011 teaching legal and regulatory issues in long-term care. I have much more fun teaching sales and marketing. The school has been so beneficial to us. I don’t want to steal Jim’s thunder because really he was the brainchild for this, but can you talk about what we are doing at The Variel?

Biggs: We have three people who are currently embedded in The Variel who are actively working and doing a terrific job. They ultimately will become that next generation of leaders. One of them was at The Carrington at Lincolnwood last week working with some of the community and they’re beginning to cross-train. This is the advantage. Even though we’re not quite owners of all these properties, our equity partners understand this is important to their long-term development as well and they’re embracing this.

Generally there are two types of students that I find at least that are attending my classes. A majority of them are from overseas with a particular focus on China. Having spent that time there, I can share with you it’s that same enthusiasm probably Bill Gates and some of those others felt prior to the tech revolution in the late 1980s and 1990s. I think these students all see the future in China, the needs of senior housing and that opportunity to get accredited with a degree from a prestigious university. They’re ready to hit the ground running.

I get asked most frequently how long students should work in the U.S. and I tell people generally get a year or two in but the quicker you get back to China, the quicker you’ll have those opportunities presented to you.

The other type, and we get a lot of essentially young executive directors, people who have found their way into this field. Their degree may or may not have come from a senior housing perspective. And those are the ones that are attending both in class and online. I think the value they feel is probably the same value that 25 years ago, people were jumping into the MBA pool and the need to have a Masters of Business Administration to be in senior housing.

On what comes next for 2023:

Jim: We’re always preaching about looking around corners. So internally within the company, we’ve got not just executive directors, but logistics, financial people, marketing people. We need to multiply the team and we hope to firmly establish both The Variel and The Carrington as bonafide sites where people can come in and do their training. It becomes an orientation to the business, and then we can find opportunities for them within our company.

We’ve talked about possibly getting a third capital partner. Over the course of my career and Josh’s career, we’ve seen a lot more successes than we have failures. We recognize that focus and that time and attention and we already have one additional opportunity that has been presented to us from Columbia Pacific.

I think as long as we continue to do well, there may be enough from those two that to keep us happy.

I have a lot of old friends in this industry that I think would love an opportunity to slow down from the grind of being a regional. That was me, I used to spend 21 days on the road a month, and it takes its toll. If you can have an opportunity to give all that up and get a similar or maybe even higher salary at one of these high-end communities — that’s the type of opportunities we’re going to be offering.

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