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153: Steven Flynt

From his family’s impact of Alzheimer’s disease to a passion for caring for aging adults, Steven Flynt, COO of Solstice Senior Living, uses his coaching, mentoring and optimism to help his teams see the silver lining through a difficult season.

 Lucas: Welcome to Bridge the Gap Podcast. The senior living podcast with Josh and Lucas. Another exciting show today to continue our conversations of thought leadership and leaders in the industry. We want to welcome Steve Flynt, the COO of Solstice Senior Living, welcome to the show.

Steve: Thank you.

Lucas: Absolutely glad to have you. We know that you’re out there in Tennessee, just like Josh is, and we had such a great kind of intro conversation. And one of the things that I wanted to start out with, and point out that I found interesting is your relationship to your father and your grandfathers. It seems like it is the seed that was planted there that then grew into a very long and fruitful career in senior living. Tell us about it.

Steve: Well my father was in the military, lifetime military guy, and I lost that in 2001. But both of my grandfathers on both sides of the family were World War II guys, and just the stories and having the opportunity to have a relationship with each of them. It’s just, I would rather do that than go out and play as a kid. Listening to the stories and it kind of made me a little bit of a history buff. And so if there’s a World War II book, I’d probably read it. One of my granddad’s was a CB, an engineer and built bridges and the other one was a tail gunner on a flying tiger in World War II. My grandmother was a Riveter, built airplanes and they met during the war. So I just loved the generation, loved the people. And I was one of those blessed people that had a relationship with my grandparents on both sides of the family. So my dad, being in the military, came to me when I was 18 and said, you know son are you interested in military service? And the truth is that’s one of the regrets that I have is I wish I would have said yes, I had an opportunity to go run track and play football and I chose to do that. And I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I think my initial major was geology, which is just now I think back and I think, gosh what was I thinking? Uh, I would’ve hated that. Um, and frankly, after a semester I did. But you know, it’s not for everyone. I just, I knew I wanted to be around people. And I ended up taking a job in the country club business and you know enjoyed it, but I just didn’t feel like I was making the impact that I wanted to make. And then my grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s the early or mid eighties. It just really impacted me what was available. And I just thought we could do it better. And I decided I wanted to live in Colorado, so I moved to Denver and lived in a hotel and did staffing and hospital on the overnight shift and went back to school and became a nursing home administrator. I was kind of a crusader, I set out to make the world better for people with Alzheimer’s disease. And I’m still passionate about that and I have had a couple of family members affected, and the industry’s changed so i don’t even want to call it an industry. It’s not rubber, we’re not manufacturing anything, but the business has changed so much over the years. And I think a lot of providers are doing a great job of providing really meaningful relationships and care for seniors that didn’t really exist as much back in the early days. I think there wasn’t a lot of research on how to care for people with cognitive impairment. So you see it in every level; you’ll see it in assisted living, and you’ll see it in independent living. You’ll have people in independent living that have some cognitive impairment and may hire our third party to provide a little bit of assistance. But it’s just something I enjoy, and I just can’t imagine doing something else.

Lucas: You know Josh, these stories in the industry are always fascinating to me. Especially when we get a deeper perspective from a guy like Steve. So this goes to my next question and then I’m sure Josh has some comments too. You know, there’s a lot that has changed coming out of 2020 for various reasons. The senior living industry has been challenged and we believe in, as many have stated that, that the senior living industry has really met that challenge. What are some old ways of doing business that have either died off or shifted and needed to change going into the future for the business from your perspective?

Steve: Well, I think there’s been a lot of lessons learned in the last year or so, but I think there’s always been this thought that you need to spend, regionals need to spend more time in the communities. And I think, although I think it’s important, they need to be meaningful visits with a plan. You know, what is the plan based on the analysis I’ve done in the office? What can I help with, what can I train, support, look into what problem can I solve when I’m in the community? Because I think, and I’m gonna paint this to a broad brush, but I think a lot of visits happen over the years that were stop in and say hi. You know, maybe take some cookies to the staff. And although that’s important, I think we were doing business in such a more meaningful way now. We’ve had statistics, we’ve had data to focus on the business for a long time, but frankly, that the problem was always finding the time to use the data. Now that we are not standing in line at the airport all the time or waiting on a rental car bus, you can touch a lot more communities in that period of time and still have that face-to-face interaction and have a very planned considerate visit. I mean, we are even doing a virtual. And I think most companies probably are virtual site visits so that we can keep up with where we can’t go into a community because there in the red phase. We’ll have them go around with the webcam and we’ll literally look at the kitchen, we’ll look at the corridors, we’ll look at what the lighting looks like, is the lobby clean? What’s the parking lot look like, what capex needs do we need to address based on the virtual tour of the property? So we’re doing both virtual tours where we’re also matching that with some visits, face-to-face visits, which is still important. But I think using the data has been a real silver lining for us. And we’ve got a lot of reports, a lot of ways to look at the business, a lot of comments and surveys that we do at the residence. And I’m something I’m really proud of is this year our associates satisfaction scores from highest ever this year, our resident and family satisfaction scores, which we just received, highest ever. Through a pandemic, through residents being irritated because they’re locked down and can’t have activities in the activity room or can’t meet in the dining rooms, providing meal service to all of your residents, every meal delivered. We had to meet a lot of challenges this year. In particular, I think in independent living, because you’re not independent living is generally not staffed to do 120 room trips. I don’t care what your title is, you’re probably helping deliver food. But the teamwork has been fantastic, but I think that the biggest takeaway for me is, and frankly we were even changing the way we look at it moving forward, is it really productive to be out visiting communities all the time? Or should we give them some room to operate their community, empower them to operate their communities because the executive director position, and we talked about this before we started the show, is just so critical. The executive director will make or break a community, the right leadership in the community is contagious. And if an ED loves coming to work, there’s to ask them, I love coming to work. If they have a relationship with the residents and families, your staff’s going to have a relationship with residents and families. And I don’t think most executive directors need us hovering over their shoulder all the time or in their community all the time. I think they need us to do our homework, determine where we can help based on the data and then have a conversation.

And then when you do go and have an actual site visit, face-to-face, you can spend time shaking hands and talking to people and really thanking them for the job that they’re doing, you know bring in lunch, celebrate what they’re working on. Those things I think are all important to keep morale, but given the challenge that this industry faced this year, I think we all have something to be really proud of. A job that’s already a difficult job, became a lot more difficult in this last year. And I think most providers met that challenge. So I’m really proud of what we’re doing.

Josh; You know, I so agree with you Steve, and appreciate the, I think you phrased it before we got on the air. We were talking about, you said about every challenge there’s always kind of this opportunity on the other side and you outlining some of that I think is affirming to a lot of our listeners. We have a very diverse group of listeners and Lucas and I later on this week, you’re going to have the opportunity to talk to kind of a panel. And one of the questions I thought I would pose to you and you’ve kind of answered it, I think. But I’ll ask it in a different way, is with all of the challenges, many of which the senior housing industry has really rallied, used teamwork, and overcome so many. We’re not quite out of the woods yet, and we’re doing business a little bit different. What is your team’s outlook? Are you feeling very positive about this year? What is the forecast, do you feel more positive than negative about everything that’s happening? Where, where do you guys sit in that equation?

Steve: No, I’m a pretty optimistic guy anyway. So, I think we take the lessons learned and we look at, you know, Horst Schulze in a book Excellence Wins I read a couple of years ago. It talked about looking at your realities and then making your adjustments. I think we look at our realities and say, the truth of the matter is we’re not going to have normal business for a little while. That’s unfortunate because you know, like most companies, we start budgeting in like August. Not having a crystal ball and not knowing how things were going to play out with the pandemic we budgeted a little softer in Q1. Uh, so we’ve got it, we’ll have a little grace. But my belief is there’s pent up demand, I think a lot of people in particular in states that have really been locked down; California, Washington. Where the people hunkered down and said, you know, it’s independent living, I don’t need to make a decision today. So I think that a lot of people delayed their decision and frankly we’re still moving people in at a pretty big clip. Our movements really are tracking about where we would want them to for this time of year. Now our move outs are a little higher based on what’s happened with the pandemic. But I think the demand’s out there, I think we’re offering a good product and I think we learned so much on how to be more effective that I’m very optimistic about the future. I think for example, we’re a middle-market product in our building, some of them are a little older and well-kept but a little older communities. We need to be putting capital into. Well you know, there was a period of time where we couldn’t have vendors in, so it delayed some of the capital. So we’ve got some pretty big plans for capital and some renovations this year that we’re excited about. That’s good for the residents, that’s good for the staff. It’s that mindset of, okay we’re getting past something where the momentum is moving forward, but you know, it’s a long answer to your question. But I’m very optimistic about the future just because I think we spent some time building the right talent in the last year. One, it gave us a little bit of time to do that and then when you see how your people perform under pressure and under difficult circumstances and if you’re proud of that and I am, that gives me a lot of hope for the future. Because when they’re not under such a difficult circumstance I think you’re going to see leaders lead. So I’m very excited about that.

Josh; Well, I love that, I love your positive outlook. You’ve mentioned the team a couple of times now that I love your approach to really investing in that. You know, one of the things that we really focus on is trying to change the perception of our industry, mainly to the folks that are outside of our industry that don’t understand how awesome it is. You know, we’re in it, so we know how awesome it is. You mentioned talent and attracting talent. Have you found over the last 12 months, has attracting talent been more difficult for you guys? Have you had to change your strategy or messaging throughout this process? Or has it been just kind of the norm for you?

Steve: Yeah, I think it’s highly dependent on the market, you know which market we’re talking about, and we’re from Maine to California. I think in my mindset and I’ve tried to help the team make a shift to say, let’s don’t just look for people with experience in senior living. Hospitality for my business, for independent living, hospitality translates very, very well. And it’s also a talent pool right now that there’s people looking for work. There’s a lot of great lodging managers that are looking for work right now. And again, it translates so well. So you’ve heard the saying, hire for culture, train for skill. I’m all about that. It’s all about finding somebody who’s passionate about being in this business. We can train them how to be a senior living operator, but it’s tougher to train culture. You either have that mindset or you don’t. And you know, I know culture is probably an overused word, but if you can’t. We have 12 culture keepers you guys may be familiar with. And when they started the company, they got some executive directors together, which again, I think is also key because executive director is where the rubber hits the road, in my opinion. And ask them what’s important, what’s the most important thing in setting this company on the right track. And they came up with 12 things and it’s just a rock that we’re built on. It’s things like working smarter, not harder and having passion for what you do. And it’s simple things, but there are things that are either ingrained in your personality and you live them every day. And every time you make a decision, you think about how it fits in those culture keepers, or you don’t and it’s hard to fake culture. We want to bring people in that love the business and want to be part of a team. And I stress the word team, we’re only as good as our weakest link and we do a lot of things. I don’t have all the answers, I built a career on hiring people smarter than me to make me look good. So, that’s the answer to prayers there.

Josh; One final question for me, I’m stealing all the thunder here getting to pick your brain, but we don’t have a lot of time with you, so thanks for enduring all my questions. But on the resident side, I’m very encouraged to hear about the census. And a lot of people are asking us that are not in communities every day, is everybody afraid to move in, is it harder to get residents? So I was very encouraged to hear that you guys are about where you thought you would be, about where you need to be on your move-ins and things like that. Has much of that changed as much of your conversations with the residents and their families changes. Are you getting asked a lot of different types of questions? What does it look like in Q1 of this year versus a year ago the kind of things that you’re getting asked?

Steve: Well, I think a couple of things; one, like everybody we went backwards in occupancy a little bit. Frankly, I feel really good about the small percentage that we did go backwards, given the circumstance. When at some point 50% of your buildings can’t move anybody in because of where their red status is. And we’re testing so much, inevitably you take two steps forward and one step back, two steps forward, one step back, because somebody is going to test positive, even though they may be asymptomatic. But if they test positive, we go back to square one. I think the conversation that we’re having is there’s probably no safer place than moving in with us. We have a temperature scanner in every building. I mean, we have spared no expense from a safety perspective, the needle point filtration we put in all the HPAC systems. We’ve got the electrostatic sprayers where we’re sanitizing everything. I mean, if there’s a product out there that helps us keep residents safe, we purchased it, so we are all over that. And so we’ve put out some safety videos and some things showing that the things that we’re doing, and when your meals are being provided, the staff’s all being screened and tested, residents are being tested, and then it also moves you towards the front for vaccine clinics. We just held one in one of our Washington communities last week, it’s state by state and county by county in some States. But one, if residents want a vaccine faster, being in senior living is a good way to get that to happen. And then two, you’re not going out to the grocery store. You’re not out interacting with people that you don’t know have they been tested? Have they been screened? So I think I would counter anyone that felt like that was a concern to say, gosh there’s probably no safer place to be than one of our communities because of all the precautions that we’ve been taking.

Josh: Well, I think those are great talking points Steve. And Lucas we’ve just talked about this so much that we agree. What a better place could there be then with the hands of the professionals and senior living and teams, like Steve’s out there that are working around the clock to keep them safe and healthy. I know our audience appreciates the work that you’re doing, Steve, and appreciate your time with us today, for sure.

Steve: Thank you.

Lucas: Absolutely, and for those that are listening that want to learn a little bit more or connect with Steve and Solstice, we’ll connect with them in our show notes, you can always go to BTGvoice.com and access all of our shows, including our Contributor Wednesday series for more thought leadership in the business, where we educate, inform and influence. Steve, thank you for your time today.
Steve: Thank you, gentlemen. It’s a pleasure.
Lucas: And thanks for everybody for listening to another great episode of Bridge the Gap.

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153: Steven Flynt