Sevy Petras, is the CEO of Priority Life Care, an Indiana-based senior living provider offering IL, AL and MC services with an emphasis on finding ways to offer affordable living options for all older adults.
With over two decades of senior living and finance experience, Petras set out to build a platform focused on providing an alternative long-term care solution to those on Medicaid programs throughout the US.
Through the Changemakers series, Petras talks about her background in senior living and the ways she believes the senior living industry is evolving to meet the next generation of senior living customers. She discusses the importance of positioning frontline staff to succeed while outlining ways leadership can foster growth and new ideas.
Obviously, we at SHN think of you as a Changemaker, but do you see yourself that way — are you always excited to drive change?
Petras: I always think about that when we as an industry have been talking about, we knew disruption was coming, we knew change was coming, and that if we didn’t start working together and looking internally somebody else was going to do it. We’re that change, right? It has to start with us. I think that all starts with our attitude.
I believe that attitudes are caught, not taught. When we come with an attitude of being willing to pivot, being willing to listen, being willing to not just go with the status quo, is really what makes me excited. I feel that there has been a just swift shift in our industry, I would say post-COVID, that is much more as a result of COVID we had to collaborate, we had to talk together, we had to be in together, we had to support one another. I feel that I’m continuing to see that, so that’s what gets me excited.
It gets me excited that we’re at a time now where there are so many people willing and eager to make changes within our industry that we’re no longer the outliers. I’d like to say I’ve always been a little bit of a rock-the-boat type of a person, maybe not a throw caution to the wind in terms of taking risks, but more calculated and collaborative risk-taking.
What are some ways you think senior living needs to change in the next five years?
Petras: I feel that senior housing right now is in a bit of an enlightenment period. We’ve been around for 40 years now. We’ve been around long enough to have a decent data set. The reason I feel that it’s enlightenment is that we’re really trying to utilize science and automation to figure out how we can take that data and really apply it to be forward-thinking and proactive. Now, whether it’s active adult independent assisted living or in your individual home, the consumer or resident family members are able to decide where they want to have that care delivered to them. That is a swift change. Part of that comes as a result of the fact that our consumer is changing. Those boomers that we’ve been looking for, waiting, know is coming, the silver tsunami, it is truly, truly here. However, the goalpost has shifted. Now utilizing that data and being able to apply it that’s really where I think this enlightenment is coming at.
Back when the iPhone was invented, the problem with the internet was that we did not yet have the catalyst to make it easy to do those things. It wasn’t until 2006 when the iPhone came out, it was the catalyst for us to be able to harness all the power that the internet has. It was like a 10-year lag between all of this being invented and then having the device that made it easy to do it. I feel like we’re a little bit in the same place right now in senior housing, as we have all of these different things, all these new technologies coming out, all this data coming out, but we don’t have our iPhone to harness that information and to really be able to take it.
As you look across the rest of the senior living industry, do you think that it’s changing fast enough to keep up with the times?
Petras: I think we’re doing a great job at trying to bring people together, and have meaningful conversations. You guys are putting on some really amazing conferences, our associations are putting on some really amazing conferences. I think that our industry as a whole is really trying to take this momentum and keep people working together and thinking together and innovating together.
I think where the holdup is right now, if I’m being 100% honest, is every day there’s a new technology coming at us operators for how to harness this information and utilize automation, understanding not everything can be automated because we are a people business. We’re people who take care of people. I think the problem and the holdup in the pace at which we can move faster is the sheer cost. With every technology, there’s another cost to our buildings.
Given the compression of our margins, because labor costs rose faster than we were able to combat with our revenues, we need to be able to find a way to tap into the Medicare and Medicaid system to help us cover these costs where ultimately, the end beneficiary of us doing better at keeping people home and being proactive in their health care is really Medicare. We need to find a way faster to tap into that to help offset these costs because we can’t keep passing it on to the resident and we can’t keep expecting our investors to eat their margins.
I think that it could move faster if that would move at a faster clip, but that is the only thing that I see holding up because I don’t see the holdup being on the terms of the operators and the owners in terms of being willing to try it, being willing to try to implement it, being willing to take that burden of implementation. I really think the holdup right now is cost.
Can you talk about a time when you tried to execute a change and things didn’t go according to plan? How did you pivot, and what did you learn as a leader?
Petras: My job as the CEO, especially when we were a newer company, was to really be the visionary to go out, and I still do this, to try to go out and understand what is the newest thing going on, what is working for other operators so that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. One of those things is procurement and utilizing a platform that makes it very easy and simple for our communities to know exactly what they can order when they can order it, where they can order it from, and track it along the way.
We tried to implement one of the programs. This was five years ago and it just failed miserably. We had terrible compliance from the buildings, it was poorly executed from the corporate perspective, so we just threw our hands up in the air like, “We’ve got to go back to the old way of doing this. This just isn’t going to work. This is costing too much time and money. It’s just a failed exercise.”
We try it another time and it does not work. We’re like, “We know we need this, we know we need this.” The third time we looked and we said, “Okay, what did we do the first two times and what are we going to do differently?”
This happened also when we were a little ahead of the game in trying to put in a life enrichment platform that was going to help engage our residents. This was way pre-COVID. It felt like we had the best company.
The problem was nobody was there to really drive it. Nobody from our company drove it, and nobody from their company was able to drive it. If you’ve got somebody on the vendor side that’s really trying to drive it but you don’t have somebody on the company side that’s really taking ownership of it, you can’t just put it on the buildings to implement it. Somebody has to really own it.
At that point, we moved Ryan Person into the chief strategic officer position. What that position specifically does for us is that he takes ownership of any new initiative that is circulating, permeating throughout Priority Life Care. That includes onboarding and offboarding communities because that happens. Buildings get sold, management changes, we come in, we go out. The ability to onboard a program well and successfully is just as important when you offboard something, whether that is a building and you’re doing a pass-off, or it is a system.
It doesn’t matter how great the idea is, it doesn’t matter if it’s free, it’s going to fail if somebody’s not taking ownership and driving that compliance every single day. Trust me, as a leader, it was a very big lesson for me to learn because we think we’re being so helpful in passing this stuff along and we’re really just creating all this extra work.
How do you think about timing, so that your company can innovate without getting so far ahead of the market that a new idea doesn’t work?
Petras: The funny thing about it is I like to believe that it is a science but it’s really an art. Some of it is also luck in terms of coming up with the timing. For us as a leader, as Type A personalities, of course, we want everything done ASAP, “Why is this taking so long?” Having watched projects fail because they were pushed through too quickly, my rational brain has had to understand that there is a process.
Part of our team’s job is really managing expectations of that timing. Not taking off more than we can chew. It’s a common theme, I think, throughout our industry. That goes also with digesting new buildings; taking on new buildings. It’s a constant concern from capital partners. I think there is a calculated way to approach timing. I think part of that has to do with the team that you’re working with. I think it also has to do with what it is that you’re implementing or digesting. Some of that timing also has to do with the market that you’re in and just the general landscape that you’re operating in. As I said, it’s a little bit more of an art than a science.
Changemakers tend to be risk-takers. Do you agree with that statement? How do you describe your own appetite for risk?
Petras: Sure. What’s the quote, well-behaved women rarely make history? I always think of that. I do think that changemakers are risk-takers. For myself, I’m not throwing caution to the wind risk taker. I am what I would consider to be a calculated risk taker. I’m a bit of a neurotic pre-planner. I’m going to run through every possible scenario that could ever come from taking whatever risk. Part of that is probably the banker in me. You can take the girl out of the bank, but you can’t take the banker out of the girl.
Everything is always weighted and calculated. There’s always a scenario where there could be a failure, but in certain circumstances, I think given the DNA that I come from, my family, as a Petras and a small-town Midwestern girl, in some situations and scenarios, there’s just no room for failure. Success could look differently, and learning from failures is I think part of being a risk-taker and part of being a change-maker. Part of being a business owner. Part of being a participant in life, you’re going to have things that don’t work.
It means that when you learn from that, that’s where I think that you become a calculated risk-taker.
That comes from experience. It comes from failures. It comes from trying things that don’t work. I am a big proponent of having mentors and reaching out to people who have tried, failed, and succeeded before me. I don’t need to reinvent the wheel. I like to come up with better ways to make the wheel more efficient.
If you could change one thing about the senior living industry, what would it be?
Petras: If a magic wand appeared, it would help make it so that Medicare was helping to cover some of these costs that we’re carrying. Because if we could do that, that means we could make senior housing that option for every single senior, regardless of where they live, regardless of their income level, we could make the option affordable for them. One of my biggest passions is finding ways to make assisted living affordable for every single person that is an option for them.
Nobody wants to do it in our industry. We are one of the few groups that really is focused on. That’s the difference, too, Austin, our industry, a lot of times, believes that active adult or independent living is the affordable option. It is up to a point. When we’re talking about true care, true care, that, 100%, it is very, very limited. I think that there is a misconception in the industry as well as throughout our consumer base and family base that home health is the answer.
It is an answer to a point, and then it abruptly stops. That is really where we have to get our collective brains together and figure it out. Government, public, and private, we all got to work together to figure this out because it is a big, massive storm brewing, heading our way. It’s going to be a real problem.
What is a word of advice for managing resistance to change?
Petras: My advice is to embrace it and line up with other like minds to be the forerunners in it. We have to be the people who are making these changes because we’re the change that we seek. We have the answers. We have the consumers. We have employees. We have all the people that we need and all the information and the data that we need to create this change to make our industry better. By better, I mean really having true satisfaction between our teams on-site, managing and working with our residents, and the residents and the families. Part of that change I think that needs to come that we as an industry really need to look at and approach is that we need to reset the expectations that we’re selling because they’re not realistic and they’re not attainable.
Once we have what I would consider to be industry-wide deliverables versus pitting each other against one another, as a general rule, I think everybody will have a better experience.
Can you talk about how you see the need for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the industry, and what you are doing to drive change in this regard?
Petras: I think it’s interesting when you’re looking at the composition of leaders at our building level, it’s extremely diverse and inclusive. It’s primarily led by women and it is mostly composed of women of minorities. When you look at the leadership from even within our own organization, if I’m being honest, we didn’t intentionally try to make it diverse. We just hired the people that were the best people for the jobs.
I’ve been in the industry for about 20 years, starting in the banking world, predominantly male-dominated. The banking world landscape has changed dramatically. I’m proud to see and to know that, but really when it comes to C-suite, ownership, and board positions within our industry, it’s evolving and it’s changing.
I’m proud to know and see that, but we’ve got to do better and more to make opportunities for the women and the minority that are working at our buildings to see a path for where they could become an owner, to see a path how they can become a C-suite, to see a path where they can take that experience at the buildings and articulate that into a true career path.
To have that opportunity for women to collaborate, to meet each other, to celebrate our differences is important. I think a lot of times too, unfortunately, women can have the sharpest elbows when it comes to climbing the ladder, promoting and fostering and showing good behavior is a big piece of as a leader and a change maker that is important to me, is to say, “Don’t just hear me say this. This is what I’m going to do, and here are the ways that I’m going to try to do it.”
We try to do it at Priority Life Care, and then I try to do it within our industry to help create opportunities and mentorships and friendships, and good business practices by including and bringing other women up to the table.
2023 is shaping up to be a year of growth and evolution for many senior living operators. In what way is your organization/company changing for the times?
Petras: We’re doubling down on our people. We have a Pathways to Promotion program, which is something that came out of the pandemic and something that we realized that with our coworkers, we needed to help the individuals, not just at the buildings but at our corporate level, to understand, “Hey, what do you really want to do? Where do you want to be? How do you want to let us help you get there?” We’ve really spent a lot of time putting the Pathways to Promotion together, fostering it, educating our teams about it, how to use it.
Even if their pathway to promotion is just that they want to stay in their position and they just want to grow and learn, great, we want to help you do that too. The other piece is that we’ve really invested time, resources, and people in what we call our PLC University. That is ongoing, continuous training.
We went so far as to hire a former college professor to head up the program for us. That entails all the different types of leaders at the buildings, every type of department who spend some time coming into Fort Wayne, Indiana doing training outside of the building, and then ongoing training at the building.
We really found that during COVID it was really tough to keep that going. I really believe in trust, but verify. Everybody’s education shouldn’t just stop once they’re hired and they go through their two-week training.
Really, my job as the CEO is to find ways to create more opportunities for our people. Our job is to have 60% of the open positions, including the leadership positions, filled by people within our organization. That includes eventually somebody replacing me. I would expect that that is going to come from somebody internally. Including my brother’s position. We already got somebody who knows he wants that job.
Because culture is such a big piece of who and what we do, and our culture isn’t for everybody. What we’re really focused on, 2023 and going forward, is having the gunpowder within our organization to have the ability to continue to grow when our capital partners that we have relationships with or our new ones that come about think that we can bring the right resources to provide solutions to their communities and to their investments. I feel that when we focus on our people and we help them find the right opportunities, everybody wins.