Trendsetters in Senior Living, Several Top Executives Reveal Careers in Serving Seniors

Being a top executive in the senior living business takes more than visionary leadership skills, financial expertise, strategic operational know-how, and a gift for organizational management; it takes passion. And, more often than not, it’s a passion that’s been around for a very long time.

“Very few people just walk into this position,” says Joe Mikalajunas, president of Greensboro, North Carolina-based Bell Senior Living. Most senior living executives “start in the same place-in a community, serving seniors-and then work their way up the corporate ladder.” But here’s the kicker, Mikalajunas adds, “We all have a passion for serving seniors. It’s hard to be successful in this industry if you don’t have that passion.”

Passion is just one of the many characteristics Mikalajunas has in common with the eight other industry leaders-each of whom participated in exclusive interviews with Assisted Living Executive-who have been named Trendsetters in Senior Living for 2009.

Thilo Best

Chairman/CEO

Horizon Bay Retirement Communities

Tampa, FL

Industry debut: Although Best technically entered the industry in 1987, his first experiences (at Prudential Insurance Company of America and Holiday Retirement Corp.) focused on the finance side of the business. The operational side never seemed all that far away, though. “I kept getting pulled in that direction,” says Best, who finally took the plunge in 2001 to manage Horizon Bay Retirement Communities.

Top professional accomplishment: “I’m extremely proud of the culture we’ve built at Horizon Bay,” Best says. “It’s a caring culture, but it’s also a pragmatic culture.” It’s important to maintain a balance between the two, he adds, because “you can’t be so bureaucratic that you forget your day-to-day mission of taking care of your residents, but you also can’t be so focused on customer service that you ignore your margins.”

Greatest industry challenge on the horizon: “I think our biggest challenge will come from new regulations,” Best says. “At both the state and federal level, we seem to be in an era where some people believe more regulation is better than less, and I think they may try to fix the things they believe require more oversight through additional regulation. This could pose a real threat to the industry.”

Outside the c-suite: Although Best enjoys playing tennis, traveling, and reading when he’s not in the office, he says his favorite off-the-clock activity is “spending time with my two daughters. It gives me a wonderful perspective on things, it keeps me humble, and it helps me work on my main weakness: patience.”

Vicki Clark

President

Vintage Senior Living

Newport Beach, CA

Industry debut: Clark has been working in the senior housing space for three decades. In the early ’90s she left the apartment side of the sector to join ARV Assisted Living. A few years later, she joined two of her former colleagues at ARV, Eric Davidson and Brian Flornes, who, established Vintage Senior Living in 1998. “I feel like I’ve always been in the right place at the right time,” Clark says of both transitions.

Favorite part of the job: Because all of Vintage’s properties are within close proximity of each other, “we’re able to bring all of our executive directors together every single month for training and education,” Clark says. “Being able to see each of their faces and hear each of their success stories every month is especially great.” These meetings are structured around a cultural environment that employees learn best when they share experiences, peer to peer. Their purpose is “to help our EDs work through their challenges and struggles by talking with their peers,” she says.

Top professional accomplishment: In 2006, Clark was named the 50+ Housing Council’s Person of the Year, a program of the Building Industry of America. “I’ll never forget standing on that stage, staring out at about 200 of my peers in the audience,” she says. “I do what I do because I love it, but it’s nice to be honored for it, too.” Clark says she remembers the experience whenever she’s feeling overwhelmed. “I look at that award, take a deep breath, and tell myself, ‘You know what? We’ll get through this!'”

Greatest on-the-job challenge: “Hiring and retaining the right teams,” Clark says. The right assessment tool might help her-and her industry cohorts-be more successful at both tasks, she adds, “but right now it seems like we’re all using individual tools.” In the coming years, Clark says she “would like to see everyone come together to find the right [tool] for our industry-one that would point us toward the best executive directors, because finding the right people for those positions is critical not only to the success of a community but to our industry as a whole.”

Outside the c-suite: Like many senior living executives, Clark likes to explore the world when she has the time. “I try to expand my horizons figuratively and literally,” she says. Regarding the former, Clark says she often takes time to “see what senior housing looks like in whatever country I’m visiting. It’s just a blush look and see, really, but it still gives me some insight into the differences and similarities between our models.”

Granger Cobb

President & Co-CEO

Emeritus Senior Living

Seattle, WA

Industry debut: After spending four years early on in his career as the executive director of a board-and-care property in southern California, Cobb convinced his wife that they should sell their home and buy an independent living community a few hours north in the San Francisco Bay area. Thirteen other communities eventually joined the company called Cobbco Inc., which merged with Summerville Senior Living in 1998 (and which, in turn, merged with Emeritus Senior Living in 2007). “I like to say that I’ve been with the same company for 20 years, but it’s had three different names in that time,” Cobb says.

Top professional accomplishment: Cobb says he is most proud of “fostering open and collaborative communication across all disciplines.” He’s also happy that he’s been able to make information and systems available to staff that “allow them to make good decisions.” Both have been “cornerstones of every company I’ve been involved with,” Cobb says. “I focus on them wherever I am.”

Greatest on-the-job challenge: “Managing my time and reassessing my priorities,” Cobb answers. “The list of things I have to do on any given day goes on and on, so it can be a challenge to prioritize everything and then find the time to check as many things off that list as possible.” He copes by relying on technology-“my laptop and my iPhone synch up with everything in my office, so I’m connected no matter where I am.”

Outside the c-suite: Cobb lists golf and skiing among the activities he enjoys when he’s not working. “Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to spend much time on either activity the past few years,” he says. “I have two girls who are now in college, but when they were growing up, we all golfed and skied together-along with my wife. I’d like to get back to those activities with them. In the meantime, I run several times a week with my dog.”

Rosemary Esposito

COO

Five Star Senior Living

Newton, MA

Industry debut: “Having provided care to seniors for many years, you could almost say I started working in senior living while I was still working in acute care,” says Esposito, who began her career as a medical surgical nurse before moving into hospital administration. Those experiences are a far cry from the ones she’s become accustomed to since she joined the assisted living industry a dozen years ago. “Today’s seniors have a greater array of health-care and lifestyle alternatives,” she says. “The advent of assisted living has contributed to that in a big way.”

Top professional accomplishment: When Five Star Senior Living was formed in 2000, the goal of its founders was to turn around communities that had just come out of bankruptcy. “We were a newly formed team, but we had a unified objective and strategy,” Esposito recalls. “Not only did we successfully turn those operations around, but we became an independent, publicly traded company by the end of our first year.”

Greatest industry challenge on the horizon: Due to uncertainty in the current economy, many companies will have to make difficult decisions about cost-cutting measures in the months and years ahead, Esposito says. “During this time, it will be more important than ever to maintain focus on our customers’ needs,” while thinking strategically and not acting impulsively. Until the market recovers, we must be able to cope with external pressures by making the most of our expenditures and controlling costs without sacrificing quality or services.”

Outside the c-suite: “I like to do anything that involves the sun and beach: swimming, going on long walks, reading a book, photographing a glorious sunset, or simply collecting seashells,” Esposito says. “For me, even work would be a relaxing activity if I could set up my office on a sunny beach.”

G. Michael Leader

President & CEO

Country Meadows Retirement Communities

Hershey, PA

Industry debut: It isn’t a stretch to say that Leader grew up in the senior living industry, given that his parents started a nursing home company in 1962. “It’s kind of like growing up on a farm: Everyone has a role, even if it’s only to listen to the discussions at the dinner table.” Although Leader helped out as a youngster, he didn’t join the family business full time until 1973. Ten years ago, Leader replaced his retiring father as CEO and today he works alongside his brother, David, and his brother-in-law, Ted Janeczek.

Top professional accomplishment: “One of the things I’m most proud of is that for three straight years, we’ve been named one of the best 100 places to work in Pennsylvania,” Leader says. “These are hard jobs, so it’s encouraging to know that our coworkers-which is what we call our employees-enjoy working here.”

Greatest on-the-job challenge: Leader isn’t alone when he says he considers dealing with the current economic environment to be his greatest challenge. “We want to continue to provide quality and value to our customers, of course, but quality comes at a price and we have to make sure we price our services so they’re affordable to the market we serve,” he explains. “It’s especially important to remember that when people are both practically and psychologically constrained by the economy.”

Greatest industry challenge on the horizon: It’s no secret that the senior living industry is going to be flooded with customers in the coming years, but Leader wonders if there will be enough employees to care for all of them. “We have to find the right people to care for all of those customers,” he says, “but those people have not been available in abundance in recent years.”

Deborah McAneny

COO

Benchmark Assisted Living

Wellesley, MA

Industry debut: Before being enticed by Chairman and CEO Tom Grape to join Benchmark Assisted Living two years ago, McAneny made her living in the investment management industry, making her one of the few executives who are somewhat new to senior living. She didn’t sweat transitioning from one sector to another, though. “I’m a firm believer that leadership is consistent across all asset classes,” McAneny says. “Regardless of which industry you’re in, it’s all about attracting and retaining great talent, being courageous as a manager, and creating a shared vision.”

Favorite part of the job: “I love the challenge and complexity of running and operating a business like this,” McAneny says “A lot of components have to be moving in the same direction for it to work and work well.” The former Arthur Andersen auditor doesn’t spend all her time contemplating the company’s operational present and future from her corner office, though. “I go into the communities whenever possible so I can see the amazing culture we’ve created here in action,” she adds.

Greatest industry challenge on the horizon: “I think there’s a lack of a differentiated customer experience in our industry,” McAneny answers, adding, “I’m not sure our average customer can tell one assisted living provider from another-or can say what makes one provider better than another.” Of course, she says, “that can be both a challenge and an opportunity.”

Outside the c-suite: Along with spending time with her family, McAneny says, “I love to ski, I love to bike, and I love to travel. Basically, I find my peace in the mountains in the winter and I find my peace on the bike path or at the ocean in the summer.”

Joe Mikalajunas

President

Bell Senior Living

Greensboro, NC

Industry debut: “I’ve always had a passion for helping people,” Mikalajunas says. After a stint as a mental health professional, he transitioned into the senior living business when he joined Sunrise Senior Living’s Executive Associate Program in 1996. Later, while working at Harbor Retirement Associates, Mikalajunas met with Steven Bell about an opening at Bell Senior Living. “I wasn’t looking. I was happy where I was,” Mikalajunas recalls. He eventually agreed to the interview, “expecting nothing more than to add some new friends to my Rolodex. Instead I came away impressed. I knew it was a place I could call home.”

Favorite part of the job: “I like seeing the look on someone’s face when they do something they thought they couldn’t do- that look of serendipitous surprise when they realize, ‘Wow, I really did it!'” he says. Mikalajunas laments not being able to get into the communities more these days, but enjoys building the teams that do. “I don’t get to spend as much time with the residents as I use to when I was in a community. However, at least I’m still able to do that through my teams. That’s what it’s all about at this level-building the teams that go out there and make a difference in people’s lives.”

Greatest on-the-job challenge: “Not allowing complacency to set in,” Mikalajunas answers. “I think getting people excited about doing the same thing today that they did yesterday, and to a higher level of excellence, is the most difficult thing you have to do in this position.” How does he accomplish that? “I get them to look past the task at hand to look at the bigger picture, which is to care for people and make a difference in their lives,” Mikalajunas says.

Outside the c-suite: “I’ve received more ridicule for this than anything else in my career, but I’m going to fess up to it anyway: I’m an avid online gamer,” Mikalajunas says. He started playing games like World of Warcraft years ago as a way to connect with his children while he was on the road for work. “I could sit in a hotel room 1,000 miles from home and still spend time with them,” Mikalajunas says. He keeps at it today because “it helps me clear my mind. I can go into a game and not have any responsibilities. I can just have fun.”

Mark Ordan

CEO

Sunrise Senior Living

McLean, VA

Industry debut: A tour of Sunrise Senior Living’s community in McLean, Virginia, was all it took to convince Mark Ordan to say goodbye to his 25-year career in the retail industry. “It was the first time I’d ever been in an assisted living community, and I was amazed by what I saw,” says the former founder and CEO of Fresh Fields Markets Inc., a chain of natural foods stores he eventually sold to Whole Foods. “I saw a level of care and devotion that I had never before seen in a business setting.”

Favorite part of the job: “This is the first time in my career that I’ve been able to lead a company that at its core is all about service to others. I’ve never been part of something quite like this,” Ordan says. “I’m guessing a lot of people who have been in this industry for a long time have almost gotten used to that by now, but I still feel like pinching myself.”

Greatest on-the-job challenge: “My biggest challenge is figuring out a way to steer this company through a very difficult economic environment while also finding a way to take us to even greater levels of care and service.” The latter can’t suffer at the expense of the former, he adds, since “the reason Sunrise exists is to serve seniors. We can’t forget that even when we’re going through tough times like we are now.”

Outside the c-suite: When he’s not working, Ordan trades his land legs for his sea legs. “I love boating,” he says. “I guess you could say being on the water takes me away.” He doesn’t get to feel the wind in his hair as often as he’d like these days, but that’s OK. “I’m so grateful to be where I am,” Ordan says. “After 25 years of running a wide range of businesses, it’s nice to find myself at one with such an amazing core sense of purpose.”

Bill Sheriff

CEO

Brookdale Senior Living

Brentwood, TN

Industry debut: Although founders Thomas Frist Sr. and Jack Massey convinced him to join American Retirement Corp. (which merged into Brookdale Senior Living in 2006) back in 1984, “I’ll never know exactly why they thought [the senior living industry] would be a good fit for me,” says Sheriff, who previously worked for Ryder System Inc. “I’m glad they did, though. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the last 25 years.”

Favorite part of the job: “I love the people- serving-people aspect of the senior living industry,” Sheriff says. “That’s what drew me to it in the first place and that’s what I’ve enjoyed about it ever since.” Another positive: “In this business, it’s not hard to feel like you’re making a difference in people’s lives every day, because that’s exactly what you’re doing. That’s incredibly rewarding.”

Greatest industry challenge on the horizon: Sheriff believes a challenge that has long been an issue for the senior living business will continue to be a challenge well into the future. “We have to continue to refresh our product,” he says. “We have to continue to take an older asset and make it consistent with the evolving expectations of our customer-and we have to do it while also continuing to introduce innovation into our market.”

Greatest on-the-job challenge: “We’re facing unprecedented times and conditions,” Sheriff says of the world’s economic woes. “It is now and will continue to be extremely challenging for people in this and every other industry to deal with what’s going on, but I think if we can stay focused on our mission like we are now, we will do well in the long run. The opportunities that come out on the other side will be significant.”

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