Senior Living Operator Willow Ridge On Track to Hit 25 Communities in 5 Years

Willow Ridge Senior Living is in growth mode with a capital partner fueling its expansion, and, CEO Michael Morris says the company is evaluating its next opportunities for growth in the next 12 months.

In a recent interview with Senior Housing News during the NIC Fall 2023 Conference, Morris outlined how the company intends to keep adding communities with an aim to reach 25 properties in five years. Since March, Willow Ridge has added 168 additional units from two communities in the Rochester, New York metro area in a transition from Atria to Willow Ridge.

In November, Willow Ridge is set to acquire a new independent living (IL) community, bringing the total up to 7 communities.

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“We’re right on track for 25 communities in five years,” Morris told SHN. “In fact, we might outperform that with some of the exciting news we will have to share in the coming months ahead.”

Last spring, Willow Ridge partnered with Boston-based Cougar Capital.The company’s growth since then can be traced back to its close ties with its first capital partner, with the group transitioning capital from multifamily housing to senior housing assets, Morris said.. Cougar has funded four of the company’s acquisitions this year.

“With that capital behind us, we’re able to focus on what we know how to do best, which is operate a smooth operation and provide strong resident care, and we don’t have the financial pressure on our shoulders that owner operators do,” Morris said. “We’re finding a lot of opportunities.”

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Morris said Willow Ridge currently had offers pending on multiple properties, and attributes the company’s growth to its nimble nature in adapting to various demands from owners and market conditions.

“We have no ego,” Morris said. “There’s no reason that we need to keep things a certain way when we’re an open book and we’re flexible and we can adapt to whatever is thrown at us.”

With the development of a comprehensive software infrastructure to support operations, from resident experience to behind the scenes on staffing coordination, Morris said transparency between operations and capital partners is important now more than ever amid a tough inflationary environment. With systems in place, Morris noted how important integration was to make sure operations were running smoothly across the entire portfolio.

“Communication between the systems is not even critical, it’s necessary in today’s environment,” Morris said. 

Two communities in the Willow Ridge platform are wholly-owned properties, and the company will seek out management opportunities along with its acquisition appetite.

“It’s important to make sure to be getting our management fees from a diverse group of ownership groups because if something happens on the capital groups, I don’t want to be in a position where essentially closing down our office because I can’t support operations,” Morris added.

Going forward, Morris said even with additional scale, he wants Willow Ridge to remain nimble and have flexibility to adjust to local market conditions.

“As we grow, that is the core of what I don’t want to lose,” Morris said. “Portfolio optimization has to be at the forefront of every operations mind.

When operators are unable to optimize their portfolios, Morris said, that leaves an operator or manager unable to take on any new agreements. In 2024, it’s more of the same for Willow Ridge on the growth front, aiming to add additional communities and scale operations.

With experience in New York state licensure, Morris sees opportunities to grow the portfolio rapidly in the Empire State and in rate growth, having boosted resident rental rates by 6% in 2024.

“This year has been exciting,” Morris said. “We’re able to provide more resources to the communities that were with us from the ground up and we’ve had our share of growing pains but anyone watching from the sidelines must see that growth and its contagious.”

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