In the early morning one day in mid-March, Atlas Senior Living Principal Scott Goldberg learned that the company’s Birmingham, Alabama headquarters had been burglarized.
“I got a phone call at about 6:30 a.m. from our property manager, who said ‘I think every computer and a lot of our adult beverages in the bar area downstairs are gone,’ Goldberg, who is also Atlas’ co-founder, told Senior Housing News.
Nobody with the senior living operator was present during the crime, and Atlas was able to locate equipment stolen in the burglary. Although the break-in was unfortunate, Goldberg said it gave him some perspective on dealing with impromptu challenges — something the company’s employees in the field must do often.
The burglary was also merely a speed bump on the company’s fast track of growth in 2023. Atlas will open a handful of new communities this year in states from Texas to Florida as the company’s leaders look to capitalize on their ability to scale with funding from family along with close friends and confidants.
Highlights from Goldber’s appearance on Transform are included below edited for length and clarity. You can listen to Transform on Soundcloud and Apple Podcasts.
On the Atlas’ 2023 Plans
Regardless of who you are, the DNA of an acquisition, or ground-up development starts and ends with your capital stack, right? So one thing that we are very unique in is our capital stack.
And what I mean by that is that we are unicorns. For 99% of our acquisitions, and ground-up developments, The capital stack is us – it’s the principles of Atlas and a few other high-net-worth individuals that round off our capital stack.
So, in times like these it’s an advantage, right? We’re not a victim of what I would call almost a complete standstill in the capital markets at the end of 2022 and going into 2023. It’s hard to advance the ball when you’re relying on your traditional private equity or traditional capital sources. We are the complete opposite of that.
It’s generally a great opportunity for us. And we’re definitely being cautious with all the other challenging variables that are facing our industry right now, specifically, the debt market. But, we see our capital stack makeup as an opportunity, and we’re definitely trying to swing the bat and get some smart growth where we see a good fit.
From a deal perspective, we’re really still doing the same blocking and tackling that we’ve always done. But because of the principles of Atlas – the operating company that comes in and operates the communities – we’re also the ones that are underwriting the deals. We’re the ones with significant skin in the game.
Because our capital stack is ourselves and friends and family, it’s a very conservative approach. And that’s what we’ve got to live by because then we’re the ones that have to come in and make everything that we underwrote a reality. And I think that makes us insanely conservative by default. Because you see how the sausage is made.
In the past six months, we’ve gone through our traditional process; but, because of what’s going on in the debt market, deals that were making sense a year ago, specifically within ground-up developments — it’s hard to get a deal.
I couldn’t say a percentage of what I would call deal flow that gets thrown in the garbage, but I can tell you that it’s significant these past six months compared to the previous few years. It’s a challenge.
On the operator’s growth pipeline
We were excited this March to open our 167-unit community in beautiful Venice, Florida, right down the road from Sarasota. We have another deal that we should close as an acquisition assumable agency deal.
So we’re, we’re excited about that and we should close on it mid-April. It will add 82 units to our portfolio and it’s a great fit and great addition to our portfolio.
Next month, in our Trussville, assisted living community we are adding on memory care. And in Hudson, Florida, I think a construction date will be hit for once in the fall of 2023. That’s a 64-unit AL/MC with our joint venture partner, Rimrock [Companies]. They’re been amazing partners. This is our first deal with us. We’re also adding 251 units in Georgetown, Texas.
In addition to that, there is a four-community portfolio in Kentucky which is all that I can say right now. We plan to add that as an acquisition and take over in June.
And we’re very excited about the McDonough, Georgia Market. It’s going to be an 86-unit AL/MC. All the boxes that have to be checked in our universe to greenlight a deal – McDonough has all of that in spades.
It’s a great community –not just the community, but the growth that’s going on it is eye-opening. This is really one of those deals that I see us closing on in 2023 that needed us to sharpen our pencils from an underwriting perspective.
The capital market part of the deal is an advantage for us right now, for all of the reasons I’ve mentioned, but we still had to navigate the much taller mountain which is the debt market. And, we were able to do what we needed to do there. And, hopefully, we’re not making a mistake on paper here.
But, there are a lot of deals that land in the trash can because the parties involved can’t make them make sense because of what’s going on in the debt market. This McDonough deal is not one of those casualties. It’s a great example of one of those deals where you can get comfortable and make it make sense.
While I think there is not a lot of new supply coming on – knock on wood – hopefully, this McDonough community will be a success story.
On getting the McDounough deal done
Without boring everyone by getting into the minutiae of going back and forth with our lender, at the end of the day, I felt like we had to be a little different to get them more comfortable and get them to start thinking creatively; because that’s what happened. The debt market cooperating with us in a creative manner is how this deal got done.
And, in my opinion, getting them to the site, really opening our underwriting books, and hearing some real-time assumptions that we made, was huge. Because they’re digging in more than ever, right? They’re looking at everything, their loan committee is more involved than ever. So all those factors that have always existed, they’re just enhanced now. And so the more you can get in this case on the debt side, the better.
We really waited until we got into February to show our rent increases. So when their committee was kind of pessimistic, we hit the pause button for a second and said, ‘Don’t listen to us tell you what we think is going to happen, we’ll open our books, we’ll share our rent roll, we’ll share everything with our existing portfolio and you can use that as a comp as much as you like and balance what we’re saying.’
Look, everyone in senior housing is getting these rate increases. And, for this specific bank, who’s not a big player in the senior space, to see that theory become a reality in our portfolio, they bought in quickly to where we were heading. And in return, that helped them get more creative on what we needed to do.
On the advantages of having mixed units
Assisted living or any needs-based level of care is way more attractive and safe for us than a want-based product. I think they all have an application. People always ask, ‘do you like one level more than the other?’ Absolutely not. I think it’s market specific, I think it’s community-specific, and I think it’s company-specific.
We are a big believer that, in certain markets, bringing a shiny new assisted living community at about 60 to 80 units [with] memory care is the right fit for us in that specific market. We also feel like the future – and not just the future, but the present – in certain markets that fit what we do well is bringing in a much larger independent living product type with the smaller assisted living and even smaller memory care so that community is recognized as an independent living community.
But if you need assisted living, or if you need memory care, that’s there as well. Our philosophy is, if you have that answer, or if you’re dead set on that answer, you may be opening yourself up for a mistake versus what’s the right fit for that market. And does that fit your company? Does that fit Atlas? I think that’s the first question. And that’s how you should go about it, in my opinion. The funnel should somewhat be turned upside down.
You read all of the demographic trends that show that by 2030, every boomer will be 65-plus years of age; one American turns 73 every second, et cetera. I mean, you can go on and on and on, and defend all the metrics on how the demographics are going.All I can tell you is that we see this huge growth of the boomer population, and the best is yet to come.
We’re just now getting into the meat and potatoes of this huge silver tsunami. So you can make a case for it all. I just feel like you’ve got to kind of turn the funnel upside down and stick to your own company’s knitting, which is what does the market need?
Regarding active adult, you see the mad dash; and for some companies, you see the pivot in trying to have a foot in the active adult world. And we’re watching it – we’ve got a close eye on it. We have not quite jumped in yet because of everything I just said. We have to make sure it’s the right fit. We’re just kind of learning and watching. But I get it. I think there’s an application.
On the importance of local leadership in senior living
When we look back at the birth of Atlas and where we were heading and wanting to grow as a company, we knew that success would start and end with the operations.
So, leadership is, first and foremost, the most important piece. I think that empowering your executive director, which is the most important position in our company, corporate office included. So, giving those individuals the support and tools to allow them, to make real-time decisions, to give them the autonomy to make good decisions and bad decisions, right? You have to give the same support for both types of decisions.
I hate to be cliche, but I mean, we put so much time and energy into trying to do the best we can do at the community level, hiring that executive director and empowering them, they’re there. They’re the captains of the ship.
We need to hire the right people, the right leaders that want to truly not just talk about it, but but but the captain on the ship.
From a leadership standpoint, our goal and our mission is not to show up to a community and tell people what they’re doing right or wrong. Our goal is really to go in there and offer support. A visit from us should be viewed as a positive or a good thing at the community level. No ‘Oh my God, it’s another one of these people from the corporate office.’ Community leaders should be excited that we’re there.
We’ve got to make sure that, at the corporate level, we’re doing our job to empower those leaders. And again, it’s not something you say, it’s something you do.
On lessons learned during the pandemic
I’d say the biggest thing that I’ve learned through this is that you think you’ve got this great culture,and I know we do. And it’s great that you’re attracting the right people, you think and you’re empowering them, but the truth is, you don’t always get it right.
And what I mean by that is, this role is not for everyone. So when you don’t have the right seats on the bus, per se, you get exposed quickly. Some people need to come into their office and open up that playbook that says at eight o’clock, you should be doing X and at nine o’clock, you should be doing Y. So the biggest thing that I’ve learned is everybody says that they want autonomy, everybody says they want to be the captain of the ship — they just want to be supported.
But not everybody has the skillset nor the character traits to pull that off. And as gatekeepers of the company, you have got to own that and response and react to that quickly. So, to answer your question, I’d say that’s one of the biggest things we’ve learned because when you have the wrong people and if you don’t respond and react quickly, using our culture and our process, mistakes get magnified quickly.