Charter President Sallerson: Our Growth in 2023 Hinges on Employee Retention

Charter Senior Living recently bolstered its leadership team, with the company aiming high for the rest of the year on occupancy, margins and solving labor challenges.

With what CEO Keven Bennema calls getting “back to basics,” Charter Senior Living is aiming for key optimization targets including 85% occupancy by June and a 20% reduction in company-wide employee turnover.

Earlier this year, Charter promoted Jayne Sallerson to president, elevating her from her previous role as COO. The Naperville, Illinois-based senior living operator also named Cathy Hampton to the role of vice president of operations, and Leslie Eldridge as regional director of new developments.

Sallerson, who is a veteran of the senior living industry, said her new role will task her more with big-picture planning and strategy. She is in 2023 focusing on leadership development of executive directors companywide, and steering sales teams forward.

“I’m excited about the things that we’re starting to do that are different, that I believe are going to make a huge impact in Charter and help us in terms of retention, which helps everything,” Sallerson said on the latest episode of the Senior Housing News podcast Transform.

By expanding an employee mentoring program with incentives for mentees to building an executive director advisory committee to streamline ideas, Sallerson wants to drill down on culture, accountability and growth across Charter’s portfolio.

Highlights from Sallerson’s podcast appearance are included below edited for length and clarity. You can listen to Transform on Soundcloud and Apple Podcasts.

On her journey in senior living:

I’ve been in the senior living industry since 1998. I literally kind of stepped into it. I was working as a salesperson representing a group purchasing organization, I actually cold-called an assisted living community. I didn’t even really know what it was. I had an opportunity to meet a regional director of operations who happened to be in the community. A few months later, they called me about being a regional sales director. That’s how it all started. I started as a regional for Emeritus way back when, and then became a regional for Summerville Senior Living under Granger Cobb. He was such a great leader and I worked my way up to vice president of sales. I was there for about eight years. And that’s where I met Keven Bennema, the founder of charter, and we were actually in regionals together back in 2000. So we have a long history together. And when Emeritus bought Summerville, I went over to Emeritus, which is interesting, because I came back to the company I originally started at and became the executive vice president of sales and marketing. I was there from when we had 200 buildings to 500 buildings. So I learned a lot over those eight years.

Then the Brookdale [Senior Living (NYSE: BKD) acquisition occurred. I opted not to go to Brookdale, and I had a non-compete for 18 months. So I couldn’t operate. So I helped launch Sherpa, the CRM which was built for senior living. I was the CEO, and was there a couple of years and said, now it’s time for me to get back into the actual operations. I had headed back to the East Coast and was with Benchmark as executive vice president of sales and operations and then Keven and I reconnected again. We always stayed in touch.

Keven and I reconnected, and Keven said, ‘Hey, do you want to come join me?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, as an owner,’ and became a partner in it.That was six years ago. So it’s been an exciting time. And it’s been an exciting time for Charter when I first came on board, we had nine properties. So it has been an interesting journey and an exciting journey.

On how her new role as President and Chief Operating Officer will impact Charter:

I was so involved in the daily operations, where you ended up being taken away from staying focused on your strategic initiatives for the company. So you’re pulled in 100 directions, I had a lot of direct reports. We knew it was time to have a VP of Operations who can really handle the day-to-day of the operations and business and allow me to really focus on our strategic initiatives and to continue and strengthen our employee culture, which is really important to us.

So that’s where I’m going to begin to spend more of my time on looking at our strategic initiatives, and making sure that we’re staying on track and executing my plans are all great. But they’re only good as we execute them. So I’ll be focusing a lot on that, and hopefully, not being so involved in the daily operations.

I think I have a lot of vision that could really help our company. I’m looking forward to actually having the time to do it. I think that’s most exciting for me, I have a sales background. I’ve always been in sales for most of my career. And I have a unique vision of sales versus operations, because I always have the customer in mind. So it’s exciting to me that I can really implement some things and execute some initiatives that will move us to the next level.

On how the recent Charter leadership changes will improve operations:

It’s going to allow me to really hone in on the KPIs that are going to move the needle for us, I can have the time to really hone in on those and say, ‘That’s not working, yes, this is working’ and be able to work through the vice president of operations to make sure that everyone’s kind of marching in the same direction.

My ability to kind of hone in will help the general operations of the company. Also focusing on employee retention, and engagement. Everyone’s talking about how I recruit? And how do I focus on employee engagement? Everyone talks about it a lot, but you have to do something different. I’m excited about the things that we’re starting to do that are different, that I believe are going to make a huge impact in Charter and help us in terms of retention, which helps everything. Better retention, helps better bottom line, better care, less risk, all the things.

So if we can continue to focus on that, I think it’s a win, and not just do the same old same old. Everyone’s talking about the same thing we’ve been talking about for 25 years.

On staff retention, recruitment and general labor challenges:

We became very involved with the apprenticeship program with Argentum. It’s a nice financial piece that pays you to help these employees. It’s been really successful in the first year, we have about 75 people enrolled in it. We’ve had 20 promotions. The way that the program works is at certain periods at a three month period, a six month period, a year period, there’s some financial increases that they get along the way. Plus, it’s a career path for them. So the people that are really engaged in it, they see it as a great tool. So, that has been one thing and we’re going to continue to enhance that there’s a lot of added value for the employees as well. Not only do they get a career path, but there’s also some other funding that they get for emergency services. It’s just a great program all in all.

Second thing, and we all talk about it, is turnover for the first 90 days. That is where it all happens. That’s where your highest turnover is. So we’ve trialed in about five communities a mentorship program. It works the opposite of what other people do. We take a caregiver, or a CNA, or med tech, whoever it is; and they take the role in addition to their job. They take the role as a mentor for new employees. They’re responsible from even pre-hire. When they know someone’s coming in, for orientation, they’re contacting the day before they meet them on day one. And there’s a whole process through which they’re responsible for training them and making them feel like they’re part of the company.

That’s what happens to most of those employees, they quit because they don’t feel connected to people. What we did was we incentivized the mentor, that if that employee stays for 90 days, they get a bonus, if they stay for six months, they get another bonus. And if they stay for 12 months, they get another bonus.

As they mentor more and more people, they really can increase bonuses for themselves. What we have found is that they really love doing it. And they’re the ones that bleed our culture. We pick people who are positive, they already support our culture, they can model our culture, when we first rolled it out, we tested it in a community. And they have only lost one employee in the last year. After 30 or 60 days, she was starting to fail. So they kind of went back and kind of retrained her again. And now the employee is doing great.

I just finalized this: We’re about to launch this throughout the whole company, everyone will have a mentor and will be selected as a mentor in the community. And we’re really trying to embrace when they first come in, in that first 90 days, we’ve also done other touchpoints that we’re doing, we automated some processes. So when a new employee starts it automatically, they automatically get a video from Keven welcoming them to the company.

We’ve automated birthdays and anniversaries, so that it gets texted to them automatically. We don’t have to do anything. It’s all automated. So it’s not just coming from their executive directors, it’s coming from the entire company. We’re about to test surveys that will go out via text, post-seven days of employment, post-30 days of employment and post-90 days of employment. Our goal is to really measure and monitor, how engaged are these employees feeling? Where’s the breakdown, when they start, and we’ll start to identify which communities may be struggling with employee engagement.

We just launched an employee engagement survey. It’s measuring how engaged our employees are. And then we could break it down by department by community. What it’s really going to do is identify where employees are not engaged, which we know we have a culture problem there. And I guarantee you there’s a turnover problem related to that. Specifically, are there specific departments that are really struggling? So I’m really excited to see the results of this survey, because it’s really going to help us get to the next step and measure whether or not we’re getting better. Again, it’s as good as we execute it. It’s as good as us following up on those surveys. And we made it simple. It’s a three minute survey, and we had 500 employees respond the first day. We’re excited about it.

I think labor is getting a little bit better. There’s much more of a challenge of nurses versus caregivers and CNAs which was not the story even six months ago. I still think we have some challenges with that. The wages, we’ve all reset wages. But I think the biggest challenge is the care model. The flexible scheduling is. something that still is kind of a competition to us. As an industry we need to find ways of providing flexibility to our employees and if we don’t do that, we’re going to struggle.

On achieving Charter’s three goals of increasing occupancy to 85%, reducing employee turnover by 20% and optimizing operations in 2023:

The occupancy gains are going to be the quickest. We just closed outMarch, and it has been probably our best month. We had a really strong quarter. We’re seeing KPIs, leads and tours at even greater than pre-pandemic levels. The demand is out there.

Keven was saying, let’s get back to the basics. It’s the same thing from a sales side, right? How do you get back to the basics, making sure that we’re doing the things that we need to do and, you know, we’re a big proponent of our sales philosophy is prospect-centered selling, the goal is where you were, you spend more time with less leads, and you get higher conversions.

What happens is, they can never build relationships because they’re trying to build relationships with 400 people. So we know if we spend time doing home visits and create follow ups and planning, we know we can convert higher and we really stick to that philosophy. As we stick to our basics and sales, I think we can get to our goal.

We have a tracking system right now, every community has a goal of where they need to be by June. We’re hoping that if one doesn’t make it, someone else will help cover for it. I think that’s going to happen. Back to the basics, and just getting back to fundamentals, that’s just staying on top of it. It’s very easy.

People put out fires all day, and they lose sight that I’m running a business here. Executive directors, they need to understand they don’t have to put out every fire. That’s why they have department heads around them so that they can focus on the levers that are going to impact their bottom line.

There are different levers. It’s not always occupancy, sometimes it’s expenses. It could be level of care, but are you managing all those levers to drive your NOI?

We have an executive director dashboard that pulls data from all different platforms, and all the KPIs are on one screen. So hopefully, they’re looking at the screen, and being able to easily see what we’re, what’s up, what’s down. We’re going to continue to enhance our ED dashboard. So it’s there for them. Everyone knows about a 20% reduction in turnover, and back to the basics. I think people got complacent a little bit.

On the state of operations at Charter in 2023:

I would say we’re earning a ‘B’ right now. I think there are buildings that are ‘A’s’ and I always look at buildings as being on a bell curve. You have your 20% buildings that just crank it out no matter what you do and you’ve got great executive directors in there. You’ve got your middle of the line, those are your ‘B+’ people and how do you get them to be an ‘A-‘ or to get them to be ‘A’s’. That’s what puts you to the next level.

Then you’re going to have your stragglers at the other end and those are the ones that usually are your time-suckers. They’re the ones that everyone ends up going to and you have to learn when to cut bait. I’ve learned that over the years you tried to give people the benefit of the doubt, but usually, there’s just red flags in front of you. A bad ED can just kill a building. Focusing on the executive directors is really key. I’m going to develop an ED advisory board to allow EDs to really share an opportunity to say what’s not working, what is working and then just listen to them and how we can better grow their communities. We didn’t ever want the corporate office to be a barrier. That’s why we never opened a corporate office. We turned the paradigm around and we said we’re going to invest in the field and we’re going to be out in the field. I really want to get the executive directors involved, because I think that also helps with tenure.

How do we drive the margins? How do we drive margins on with expense creep going up? And we all know, food went up and utilities went up and wages went up. So the challenge is going to be how do we get margins for our partners, at the same time, not out-price ourselves in the marketplace? That’s the balance.

We’re just trying to simply find ways of controlling expenses that are controllable. By leveraging our size and standardization can be significant cost savings for you, because buildings are buying what they want to buy. By standardizing some of that, you’re making sure that they’re buying the products that are cost effective for us. So there are ways of doing those things to help mitigate some of the additional expenses that we can’t control.

On opportunities for Charter in the remainder of 2023:

It’s really just getting us to the next level.

I’ve surrounded myself with some good people. I think we have a good basis of culture, which helps us be able to attract employees that don’t want to work for the big guys any more. They want to work for a company that cares about them. So I’m really excited about our culture. We’ve got some developments that are going to be opening in the next six months. So there’s nothing better than the shiny new penny to open up some new buildings.

That’s really exciting. And I think the future is really bright for Charter. We’ve built some good relationships. We’ve had some very good successes, which has allowed us to grow, that people had confidence in us, people thought we were nuts, that we didn’t have a corporate office at the beginning, they really thought we were crazy. And then when the pandemic hit, everyone thought we were geniuses. So, we’re excited.

Companies featured in this article: