In the early days of 2018, Sarabeth Hanson made the jump from Chief Financial Officer to CEO of Harbor Retirement Associates, a senior living operator based in Vero Beach, Florida.
With a 36-community portfolio that spans 14 states, HRA has in recent months made waves with new social media marketing strategies and its Taste of HarborChase campaign which invites the surrounding community to enjoy the fine diving available within a senior living community.
Hanson now reflects on her five years at the helm of HRA and what it means to make change in senior living.
How have you changed as a leader since starting in this industry?
I’ve changed so many ways since starting in the senior living industry, especially since I started in the senior living industry as a recent college graduate who went to school to teach elementary education in the second grade, and found that there was something missing in my fulfillment in that process and stumbled into a therapeutic recreation director position at a not-for-profit skilled nursing assisted living community, where I learned that I was called to serve seniors.
I learned the beauty in seniors and really started to lead immediately following that process because that wasn’t a leadership process. I was a team of one, but quickly learned that you don’t have to be assigned to be a leader to be a natural leader. Quickly found that if I had good ideas and was willing to share them, that I could lead efforts that would really change the lives of seniors.
Obviously, we at SHN think of you as a changemaker, but do you see yourself that way — are you always excited to drive change
I am proud of HRA and the company that we have become because we’re a little disruptive in the industry. I would say that it excites me to make change in a positive way. You know what, if I sat next to you, Nick on an airplane, and you asked me what I did for a living, I would no longer tell you that I’m in senior living. I would tell you that I’m in the hospitality industry serving seniors. The difference there is when I said I’m in senior living, people wrinkle their nose like, “Oh, thanks so much. Oh, what a hard job.” But when I say it the other way around, they say, “Tell me more.”
I want people to know more because we are no longer, at Harbor Retirement Associates, we’re no longer what people think of when they think of retirement living or senior living. We are truly focused on exceptional experiences. That is created through leading with hospitality and not leading with things that are expected like great care and medications given at the right time, but by exceeding their expectations through a hospitality approach and offering choice to our residents in a very safe environment.
What are some ways you think senior living needs to change in the next 5 years?
I think the next five years is going to be pivotal for our industry because we’re going to see those baby boomers start to use our services and partake in that. We know that the baby boomers are the reason we have things like Starbucks, a place where you could go and for a fee, a really high fee, you could order coffee over a million different ways and get it just the way you want it. Those baby boomers are going to expect no less when they go to a senior housing community. They’re going to expect to have senior housing the way that they want it.
They’re bringing the resources with them to be able to afford to do just that, just like they have their entire life.
This is a generation that’s accumulated more wealth than any other generation and they want what they want when they want it. The way we had been doing senior living has to change. We have to be more familiar with being able to pivot, being able to offer choice, being able to offer a variety of services and goods within our communities in order to scratch the itch of the baby boomer that will join us in the next five years.
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?
Covid-19, I think threw a little bit of a monkey wrench into probably some growth because the industry, like everything else got sequestered and had to work through a very high-level clinical model. What we found through that exercise is that we are more clinically capable than we ever thought we were before and that we had ever expected to be. We always were a residential model, not a clinical model. Although when the time came that we had to prove ourselves as a clinical model, we did an exceptional job of keeping our residents safe and well throughout the process of quarantining and very scary, scary times.
I think that will help us grow as an industry. I think there are a lot of change makers or disruptors that got ahead of this. In the next five years, those baby boomers, the clients that we will be serving, will not want a small studio apartment. They’re going to be able to afford more than that. In their assisted living environment, they’re going to want to still have space to move around and an art studio to paint in, and to have plenty of choices and options throughout what they do.
I think we need to continue to evolve and grow. I think technology will play a bigger part in the next several years than it has probably in the past because the boomers are familiar with technology and friendly with technology, and early adopters of technology. I think we’ll see it used more with them than we certainly have with the greatest generation that we’re serving now. I think there’s a lot to come there, but I think that although there was probably a slight setback, there also was a lot of growth during the COVID period.
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?
Immediately, I think of when I joined HRA, the company was in its 10th year, we’re currently in our 21st year. We had really wanted to get out and grow through development. We designed this product that was going to have this really super cool trendy grab-and-go bistro with the Panera Starbucks feel and we were going to have a fine dining venue. We were going to have a full-service bar with a full liquor license. We were going to have all of these really cool programmed spaces, virtual gaming, do all of this.
So we built the community, our first community, which was in The Villages here in Florida. We built it, and we opened it, and guess what those residents did. They did exactly what the residents had done in all of our other communities without all these great features.
They are creatures of habit. They went to the same places every morning when they woke up and sat and stayed. They didn’t take part in all of the different restaurants and venues. They didn’t really go to the bar because they had to pay at the bar and they didn’t really want to pay at the bar because at their other senior living communities, it was happy hour was free when they got the jug of wine and passed it around.
What we didn’t do was operationalize our new design concept. We thought, “Hey, if it’s there, they’re just going to take part in it.” We had to go back to the drawing board and figure out, how do we operationalize all of these venues? How do we make them make sense to the consumer? How do we make them make sense to the bottom line? We did that.
We developed a Chef’s Fair Program that expanded out to a Dining Dollars Program included in the rent. It couldn’t stop there because the state said, “Oh, hold on a minute, you can’t give people dollars. You have to provide them with three meals a day and two snacks and hydration. You have to provide that.” We had to go back and educate all of the states that we are operating in at that time or going to operate in and let them know how this, we still were going to do that, because we had certain features on our menu that they could order that would stay within their dining dollars and they would get three square meals and a couple of snacks a day.
What we learned is once we were able to operationalize it and we were able to demonstrate to the residents all of the options they could have without them feeling like, oh, they were going to- -have to pay more because they were worried about, “Oh, I don’t want to spend too much money.” Once we were able to show them that, it got to be where they were making choices for the things that they wanted, which was improving the residents’ independence, which was their biggest struggle at the time. It was also enhancing the family members’ experience because mom and dad were no longer worried about not being able to come to dinner with them because they already paid for dinner at the community.
They would go out to dinner with their family, to their daughters for Sunday dinner and then invite them next Sunday where they could treat and pay for their dinner with their dining dollars. It started out and it was a flop but once we learned, we pivoted and learned how to operationalize it, it’s been a great success.
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?
I’m a believer that our residents, seniors in general, they don’t want what we used to think they wanted. We used to think they wanted to go sit in a pastoral setting in a rocking chair and listening to the birds chirp, but what we have found is seniors, they want what we want. They want to be doing what we’re doing. They want to be active. They want to be participating. Now maybe there’s some physical restrictions and maybe they can’t do everything, but what they want is to at least be able to have new experiences.
The last part of our mission statement says that we create and refine successful senior living communities and we ourselves would envision living. That’s the key part, we ourselves would envision living. We are truly building to the communities where we could see ourselves living. Tim Smick, who is the founder of our company, is in his early 70s and he knows that quite frankly, he would not at all be interested in a studio apartment.
That what his wife would want out of retirement living is different than what he would want, which is how we measure, hey, how can we make sure we’re offering life enrichment and engagement to people at different levels and different varieties? And by the way, how do we do this and make the bottom line work?
That’s always a good measure of, hey, how can we introduce things and still make sure it makes fiscal sense for our communities and for our partners? We’re able to do that through our experience, but also just really by reflecting on our mission statement that says where we would envision living. I don’t want to sit in a pastural setting and rock in the chair, but I absolutely do want to go watch a Broadway show. If we can incorporate the things that we want to do and create a best day for our resident, then we haven’t gone too far.
Changemakers tend to be risk-takers. Do you agree with that statement? How do you describe your own appetite for risk?
I do think you have to be willing to take a little risk to grow and go outside the norm. I think that as long as you are willing to put the research in and understand the risk that you’re taking. Also, when we develop our communities, we’re big believers that people aren’t going to want studio apartments.
We did build in a default mechanism if you will, where our two-bedroom apartment could quickly become a semi-private kind of studio type shared apartment. If the economy turned or if something drastically changed, we would be able to offer a more affordable version of the product that we currently are offering as a high-end luxury product.
A lot of that continues throughout our design and our operations. We don’t really build any one space within our community that only serves one purpose. We no longer are building let’s say theaters, movie theaters in our communities because A, we believe that our residents and certainly our future residents have Netflix and all other streaming apps available to them on their telephone. They’re accustomed to using that. Who wouldn’t rather sit in their cozy confines at home and watch a movie versus sitting in a theater watching a movie?
We do have a place where we can gather and watch the Kentucky Derby, but that same place could then be shifted later on and be overflow for our happy hour coming from our lounge and it’s just not locked in.
We work hard to make sure all of our spaces have multiple uses and that although our philosophy is that we don’t believe that the next generation, they’re going to want larger spaces, they’re always measuring risk. You always have to look back and say, “But what if and how do we pivot and adjust to that?” So that’s exactly what we do.
What is a word of advice for managing resistance to change?
Yes. When you’re being disruptive or you’re making change, you have to be– what I would say is the best advice is to be able to invest the time to tell the story as to the why behind the change and the outcome that they should expect with the change.
If I’m mentoring somebody and they’re wanting to make a change and they’re confident in it, you’ve got to understand the why behind the change and the expected outcome. You also have to be willing to explain to them that there might be a level of failure in that challenge or that change, but if you build yourself a safety net at some level, that you should feel confident to go ahead and pursue that change.
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?
I think our industry, senior housing has always included a lot of diversity, equity and inclusion. Our industry has had female leaders for a very, very long time by nature because it started as a medical caregiving model. You found women drawn to the business and then you found women who were drawn to the business that thought, “Hey, I can do this a little bit better than it was being done before.”
I think inclusion, we’re serving all different races and religions throughout our communities. We’re in a market that might be a strong preference to a particular race or religion. Those people, the associates that are serving the residents are also diverse backgrounds.
We work hard at opening communication and allowing voices throughout our associates and that equates to inclusion. Our associates have strong voices. They have the best ideas, they have formed our best practices. Often those ideas are- -coming from people that didn’t expect to help us make change. They came in just to do a job and then they found that, “You know what, I could help this company get better and there’s somebody willing to listen.” For our company, it’s really about paying attention.
We are currently, our C-suite is actually out in the field right now touching each of our communities. We’ve divided and conquered to have a culture chat and a mission chat with our associates. We’re not just meeting with our executive directors. We’re meeting with line associates, we’re meeting with mid-level management, we’re meeting with back of the house and front of the house folks, and we’re asking the question.
First, we’re telling our why, because it’s important that they know our why and why we’re doing this or why are we a little different. Then also having them tell their why and their whys, having them tell us what we could do better. Just having that time where we break bread at a table together, 12 people, it has really brought to life some incredible ideas.
But it’s really also just been a format where I have heard that somebody who hadn’t mentioned it before in that format decided they wanted to tell me, “I want to grow in this organization. I want to take the next step. Can you help me get to the next step? What is the next step?” It’s all-inclusive in that way.
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?
2023 has started out to be a unique year, like you said, kind of unprecedented. We’re rolling out of a time in 2022 where we saw labor issues, we saw wage pressures, we saw inflation. We did see growing occupancy, which was at least helpful. In 2023, we’re really focusing on getting back to the basics. We’re remembering our whys like I talked about earlier, and making sure we’re living our whys and we’re living those whys for our residents.
For us, it’s really about bringing all of our experiences to life. We’re working hard to make those experiences felt their impact stronger. Now that obviously, our communities are wide open and we’re able to have guests in, and in most cases we’re not masked or having any type of restrictions, we are able to really bring to life multiple different destructive dining venues and do that in a way that brings profit to our bottom line.