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196: Dave Keaton

Dave Keaton, President of Retirement Center Management, discusses the opportunities for hotel and hospitality employment to move into senior living and the empathetic leadership required to retain great team members.

Watch Kimberly Varley on BTG Network HERE.

Lucas

Welcome to Bridge the Gap Podcast, the senior living podcast with Josh and Lucas in Houston, talking to some of the best thought leaders in the senior living world. We want to welcome Dave Keaton, he’s the CEO of RCM out of Houston. 

 

Dave

Thank you, glad to be here. 

 

Lucas

We’re very glad that you’re here. We have a very relevant topic. We’re going to be talking about two things: we’re going to talk about recruiting and retention, and how do we do those things, and specifically, how does Dave do those things? Because recently you were a featured speaker at the TALA Conference, and you were talking on empathetic leadership and a variety of different topics. A very close mutual friend of ours, Kimberly, has been on the show as well, and it illustrates something that I see you guys making a pivot in as far as recruiting is concerned in a market where labor is very, very hard to find, you guys have stepped out of the box and found out some creative ways. Let’s discuss.

 

Dave 

Sure. Well, you know, we’ve really been making an effort to recruit hospitality folks. And what I mean by hospitality is people that have been in the hotel industry in particular, restaurant business, what’s interesting is this, this concept of bringing hospitality into senior living actually started quite a few years ago. So even prior to the pandemic we had a focus on bringing a new skill set in, and people that, you know, understood customer service and, you know, the true meaning of hospitality and those folks are trained, you know, through school, you know, either through the University of Houston or Texas Tech and other, you know, Cornell’s another big one that’s out there. And those folks, you know, that they’re drained from the get go on how do you serve people? How do you create an experience? And that’s something that we’ve been really focused on is how to create that customer service experience. Customer service has become kind of cliche, I think, over the years, and everybody, you know, you look up on the wall of every store and hotel and they’ve got their mission statement and “we’re going to take great care of you” and all that type of thing. But something that I’ve really focused in on lately is the idea of the customer experience, meaning from start to finish, not just, you know, one particular aspect, you know, in the dining room or at the front desk, or, you know, with your caregivers and so forth. But, what is it like, you know, from the time they wake up to the time they go to bed, and how has that whole day gone? And that’s where I think the hospitality folks do a really, really great job. So we’ve been doing that for quite a few years. And then of course the pandemic just opened up the floodgates for us. You know, it was hard to actually, to attract people from that industry because, you know, young folks coming out of these hospitality programs, they’re looking at the big fancy Hiltons and the Marriotts and, you know, the Ritz Carltons and Four Seasons and so forth, and like they’re young. And they’re like, you know, that’s where all the parties are and the happening is. So it was, it was a real struggle to get folks coming over to senior living and, so we had to make some concerted efforts and really put together a great sales pitch. And as you mentioned, Kimberly, Kimberly has been going with me now to all the different universities, and we’re getting ready to head up again here shortly just to, to talk to their program up there and you know, try to, to wow people that, so we, we, you know, we’ve put together a really nice, you know, professional video and you know, show all the high rise buildings that we operate and others that operate and, you know, try to get folks to go, okay, well then, okay, that’s really impressive. So, and again, that pandemic just, you know, finally opened the doors for us and said, okay, well now, now that we actually need a job. So they’re like, you know, we’ve got quite a few folks, you know, several more executive directors now are former hotel general managers. Our VP of hospitality, you know, came from the local ZaZa here in the Hilton Post Oak. So it’s really nice to have a kind of a nice, fresh approach.

 

Josh 

So in our industry for a long time prior to the pandemic, recruitment, retention, the turnover rate, has always been something we’ve talked about. So the pandemic brought new challenges, particularly on the recruitment front, you guys have done a great job at being unique and targeting hospitality, bringing in some of those folks, but let’s transition now, how you, how do you keep them? How do you retain, how do you keep that turnover rate lower? So what are some strategies that you guys are doing to, to retain your workers that you’re getting?

 

Dave

Sure. Well, I think the most important thing that, you know, again, a lot of people say this, but, you know, communicating with your teams. And so we spent a tremendous amount of time working with all of our communities. We’ve got about 30 locations that we’re working with. And we had to schedule calls with the teams every week, and luckily, you know, Zoom and Microsoft teams and all that kind of came together and allowed us to, you know, do video calls. But we got everybody together and said, okay, where’s everybody at, what’s going on? How are you feeling, how are the teams reacting, you know, everybody. And, and that was one of the topics that I mentioned, that you guys mentioned, that we talked about at TALA, was empathetic leadership. And, you know, that concept of empathetic leadership, is always discussed, but it’s hard to do because you know, a lot of people are very sympathetic and they utilize sympathetic management. And that means hey great, you know, I do, I feel for you, okay. But you don’t really understand what the pandemic did for us, is allowed me and my whole team and everybody else to be an empathetic leader, because guess what, we all rode through this together, you know, we were all fearful of what was happening. We all had no idea what was going to be happening next. You know, when the vaccine started to come out initially and I sat there and I said, oh yeah, I’m going to wait six months at least. I’m going to watch to see what happens to everybody. And, you know, ultimately, after doing a lot of research and so forth, we, our senior leadership team, Jim Gray’s who’s our overall CEO said, hey, you know, let’s, let’s, let’s do this. He was very supportive. I was supportive. You know, and our whole senior team really got behind it. And we filmed a video and showed all of us getting the vaccines. We were the first, as soon as it became available, we were there. And we made a very big point of telling everybody, hey, you know what, we’re going to do this. But what it did is allow us to be empathetic leaders. And again, we could relate to the fears that people have, you know, what, this, is going to harm me? You know, what’s the long-term effects? You know, should I, should I take it, should I not take it? And that’s all the same things that the staff were feeling. And so we could go back and visit with them and say, you know what? I got the same exact feelings. And I think that’s where it helped us because then we would go out to each of the communities and I would talk to all the line staff. And I had some tough meetings. I mean, I had some meetings where people were yelling back at me going, what are you doing? Especially when we went towards the mandate because we thought it was important, but, you know, I mean, people said, hey, look, you’re threatening my job. I don’t want to do this. How can you do this to me and my family? And I went in there yelling and screaming, and we sat there and said, look, I, and that’s where the empathy part came in, which was really helpful for me. It was like, I guess I get it. I get it. You know, I talked to my own wife and my own kids about this and, you know, and ultimately I did a lot of research and I’ve come to the decision that I think is safe and is the best thing for us to do. And quite honestly, a lot of folks really came on board with it at that point. So I, I really do believe in the concept of empathetic leadership. And, but the point is, you’ve got to get from sympathy to empathy, and it’s hard to do when you don’t always have that situation. You know, you know, sometimes people are dealing with cancer or somebody had a car accident or something like that. I may, I may not have a relationship that way. So it’s hard, you know, for myself or any other manager to, you know, you get me, certainly, I guess I can understand, but until you really live it, it’s hard to, hard to deal with. I think focusing that way helped us with turnover. We certainly had turnover, you know, just like always, but I think at least just getting out and talking with folks and closing that back door. You know, the recruitment side: clearly front door. You know, Kimberly and the whole recruitment team is working really hard to get people to come work for us. But you know, it doesn’t do any good if everybody is just leaving, you know, out the back door, just as fast as we’re, we’re bringing them in. And so, I think, again, just talking to folks. You know, we, like a lot of other providers, it wasn’t totally unique, but you know, the hero pay, I think was, was something that was very, very important. We put together food baskets for teams. You know, we tried to be flexible with you know, working at home, especially at our, you know, you can’t work at home, obviously, as a caregiver too much. But certainly in the corporate office and so forth, you know, we shut down the office. Just like a lot of companies did and allowed people to work from home, you know, gave them the necessary computers and so forth to be able to do that. And we’re still being flexible. We still have people that go, you know, what my child’s school is, you know, on and off. And so, okay. You know what, we’re not gonna play hardball here. We’re going to say, okay, let’s, let’s see how we can work it out and flex around those schedules and make sure that you can still get the job done. And, you know, luckily with technology and so forth, a lot of things can, can get done remotely. And so I think having that flexibility has been one of the biggest aspects.

 

Josh 

Well, I like the concept and the conversation that you’ve brought up moving from sympathy to empathy. And while you were mentioning that all of us, I guess the pandemic brought us together in many ways, because we all were kind of in it together. I do think that brings up a valid point that we’ve talked a lot about on this show of we, we each, every single person, all of your large labor force, has unique experiences in life, that are able to touch other people uniquely. You know, yes, I may not have lived through a particular type of cancer, but there’s probably someone on your team that can relate to someone else that’s joining the team. So I think that culture of empathy, if you, if you foster that as a culture point and as a value, you know, that’s going to bring your whole culture tighter together, and I do think that’s a huge retention point, because I think people do want to feel like they’re part of a family, part of a mission that’s moving forward together. So we have this great shift that’s happening in our industry, from the products and services that we have traditionally provided, the physical plants, but also we’re talking now about the labor. So recruitment is changing the tactics. The retention methodology’s emphasis is changing. Are there any specific trends that you’re seeing, you’ve been doing this a really long time, in the recruitment and hiring people and retaining people, with the new labor force that’s coming in, are you seeing any trends in what they’re looking for? Like, is there things that are important to them that maybe is different than the workforce? So 10, 15 years ago?

 

Dave

Well, they’re all getting younger. I can think of this because I’m getting older, but just, you know, I think looking at families in particular, I’ve got some folks in our corporate office, a lot of young families and, you know they’re having children and, you know, it’s something interesting for me because, you know, just, just watching and how to be flexible with that. You know, I, one thing I do think I notice is that you know, even a lot of the dads, you know, or future dads are paying a lot more attention and are asking for time too. That’s always been there, I mean, FMLA has been out there and you could always take time off, but you really didn’t see that very often. You know, a lot of times, you know, moms were burdened with, you know, raising the kids and then coming back and getting back into the career and workforce, but, you know, oftentimes times the dads, you know, they’d only take a day off or two, and that’s what I kinda did. I remember my son was born and I was an ED at the time, and, you know, I, I left the hospital because I got a phone call, you know, fell asleep at the traffic light. I mean, just flat out. I mean, it wasn’t just, you know, you kind of nod off. I mean, I was sleeping because we’d been up all night. But, you know, so I, I am seeing that now that there’s, there’s this need for you know, work/life balance. And, and again, I know that’s thrown around a lot out there, but I think it’s true. I mean, I think people are looking for that. And that’s something that we’re trying to at least pay attention to. There’s still a job to do, and we need people to work hard. But if I can be flexible somewhere then fine, you, you know, you’ll take a few days off, you know, if you need to, if we’ve got some time to do it, yeah. I may ask you to work, you know, until midnight for a week. But you know, in between that, I try to be flexible. And I think the company as a whole, we really worked on that as you know, we understand family, you know, when Harvey hit Houston, you know, we had a lot of staff that were very, very impacted and, you know, lost everything. And the company stepped up and did some, you know, fairly large you know, cash donations to, you know, to these families because they lost their homes. And so I think that’s something that Jim Gray and myself really focus on is, you know, how do we take care of those staff and make them family? That’s why we, you know, we want to stay a fairly small organization. You know what I mean? You know, we don’t want to get into larger than maybe 50 communities, because then you don’t know who works for you anymore. You become more, a little bit of a real estate transaction, you know, when you’re, you know, in the two to three hundred plus building range, you know, there’s no way for a corporate team to know everybody. Now, I don’t know every 1800 employees, but I know certainly a good number of them and, you know, people know me and I think it’s important as you’re going to the communities to, you know, to, to have that relationship. 

Josh

Yeah. Well, you know, one of the things I’m hearing, kind of the undertones of when you’re talking about the work-life balance, as you mentioned, it is just flexibility. I think people are looking for flexibility with their employers, with their homes, you know, more than ever even. I don’t consider myself that old, but I mean, even when I was young in the workforce, there wasn’t as many mom and dads, both working. There was a lot more one or the other staying at home, and now you’re seeing everybody pretty taxed, you know, and everybody’s looking for flexibilities and schedules. I know we’re opening a community now, and that’s one of, you touched on one of the number one things is, they want to work and they want to be all in when they’re there, but sometimes the twelve hour shift is not right for everybody. Sometimes the eight hour shift is not right and they’d rather have twelve. And then we’re even seeing sometimes they’re like, I really need a consistent four or six hour shift. Traditionally, I would have said, no, you’ve got to fit into this. And it’s like, man, you’ve got to really learn to, in many ways, going back to your original thing, be empathetic of what people are going through, the demands of their life. And, and really, when you really boil it down to it, I think most of the time, as long as we get the hours covered, why can’t we be a little bit more flexible? And so we’ve been doing that as well. So I think that’s a valid point. Lucas, you get to work with a lot of different operators because being involved in renovations, is this something, even in your line of work with working with contractors, you’re seeing as well?

 

Lucas

Not with contractors, you just work 24 hours a day, two shifts, 12 hours. No, but I think one of the things, and a theme that continues to come up, hearkening back to the point you made is, I think that there’s this power in regional operations that has always been talked about, but never really fully realized until after this big shift through COVID. It seems to be that the big you know, five hundred thousand communities nationwide becomes a bit of a challenge. And so we’ve been at this in Houston, been talking to a lot of regional players and the power in that. What are you seeing as far as a shift in some of these larger portfolios? Either with REITs or private equity, and I’m not sure, maybe you guys own or operate some as well.

 

Dave

We do both. 

 

Lucas

Okay, you do both. So you have experience in both. So what are you seeing there, like if you’re going up against an operator that has three hundred communities, four hundred communities, five hundred communities, do you feel like now more than ever you have the upper hand?

 

Dave

Certainly. And there’s been a lot of articles written about this and you know, you, you see it all the time, but I think what the, you know, investment community is looking for is experts in a particular region, you know, and I think when you get real large, you know, you know, you’re, you’re kind of trying to meet the needs of, you know, nationally, and so, you know, you may not know your market as well. You may not know, you know, market from, both from residents and from staffing, and just, you know, what, what are the dynamics, you know. So for us, you know, we’re primarily based here in Houston, and so we know Houston very, very well. You know, the majority of our folks are here. You know, our teams live here, our corporate team lives here and, you know, so we know what people are looking for, we know the difference between being north of 59 and south of 59, you know, or in the loop or out of the loop, and every region has that, every city has some sort of geographic definition.

 

Lucas

And Houston is unique.

 

Dave

Yeah. I mean, you know, so you know, the regional providers know that kind of thing, and it’s difficult for somebody that’s sitting in a corporate office, that’s got that national presence to say, oh yeah, well, okay, if you cross this particular street, all of a sudden, you know, that’s not the market that we’re looking for. I mean, you know, for example, our River Oaks and our Southampton communities, you know, basically you can see the communities from the top of each building. But a completely different group of folks, you know, from, you know, the folks, obviously in the Southampton area are a part of Rice Village and the med center, and, you know, so you have a lot of physicians and you know, medical staff and researchers and so forth that are down there. And then you go to River Oaks and that’s all your oil and gas folks, and, you know you know, they just, and they don’t want to cross that, that barrier. So I think that’s where the regional really comes in handy is that you know your markets. Again from staffing, as well as your residents and, and, and also you can get in your buildings. I mentioned that before is you know, I go out and I visit all the buildings and they all know me and I know what’s going on. And, you know, I can see, you know, what’s the first impression of the place. I do a first impression tour every year where I make sure I go to every single community. And I do, you know, a half day training with, you know, all their teams, and then we go through and we look at the building and say, okay, why is it important? But, you know that gets me out there and I know, hey, how’s the carpet, look, how’s the paint look, you know, what’s this landscaping look like. You know, and you just can’t do that when you’re running hundreds and thousands of communities. 

 

Josh

Absolutely.

 

Lucas

Good point. So a topic of conversation that has come up over and over again, and a lot of the conversations that we’ve had is this kind of power of regional operators. Which it’s not a new conversation, I just think coming out of this kind of COVID era seems to be a shift with a lot of these portfolios, whether it be private equity or REITs, to these more regional type players. Obviously that’s the position that you are in, right now here in Houston, do you feel like you are in a better position now talking to these different owners and land?

 

Dave

I certainly do. I mean, you know, again, they’re, they’re looking for expertise in particular markets. So again, you know, from your specific resident market, you know, what are people looking for? What type of communities, do you want urban, do you need suburban? And we certainly have some of both, but, you know, we know, you know, what Spring, Texas is like, we know what downtown Houston is like, we know the difference between River Oaks and Tanglewood and West University. And I think sometimes, you know, larger providers, they just can’t know that, but there’s no way for them to know that, and they may have regional VPs and so forth that know are more knowledgeable, but you know, the home office, I think just doesn’t have that ability because they’re not there. I mean, I drive these streets all the time and, you know, I shop in these areas and so I know where things are and I know what people are looking for. And, you know, it was interesting. We actually had put in a call center at one time, you know, cause we thought it was a great idea, you know? I mean, we’ll have somebody nice answer the phone all the time. Well they were based out of Colorado. And I remember Jim Gray, our, our president calls in one day and, you know, I think he was testing to see you know, what he thought of this whole concept that, you know, we’d put in place. And he asked for some directions and although they had general guidelines at the call center they really didn’t know. And so he very specifically said, well, how do I get from Westheimer over to, you know, Shepherd. And somebody local would know that and you know, they couldn’t answer it. They said, oh, well let me, let me pass it back to, you know, somebody at the local level. But then by that time you’re on hold and then you get transferred to somebody else and the conversation is disjointed. And so it really made it clear to us that the local knowledge makes a big difference. And so I think you know, our investment partners are looking for the same thing. You know, we’ve got very strong relationships with them and I, you know, and they’re down here this week, you know, visiting and, you know, we’re touring them around and they know that, you know, we can get them to all the locations and, you know, the locations know who we are. And so I think it makes for a better experience for them. And they, they kind of feel like, okay, you’ve got, you’ve got ahold of the ball, you know, and you understand what’s happening. So I think that regional just allows you to do that, whereas when you’re large, you know, it’s just logistically impossible. 

 

Lucas

Sure. 

 

Josh

Well, I think one of the things, and it touches on all the points that you just mentioned, which I think are so valid is, the pandemic exposed some weak areas that had been brewing for years. And, you know, I kind of break it down in my mind between, I think probably a lot of the inventory, a lot of the community, a lot of the beds in our industry, were really being more asset managed. Meaning that you had large providers or large portfolio managers that quite frankly just were not set up to do a lot more than financial management, visiting the properties occasionally to give a quick, you know, capital expenditure look through to review financials, maybe to paper whip the executive directors a little bit as I would refer to it. And, but there was not a lot of support. And to your point that you were also making, we are in the people business, whether it’s recruiting and being empathetic to our team members, whether it’s doing the same in attracting residents and that trust they give us, those families to take care of those residents, that’s at a very local level. And if you’re not familiar with the dynamics, with the culture that exists in these communities, I’m with you, it’s, it’s it’s really amazing that in every market, no matter where you go in the country, every community has its uniqueness, its psychological barriers, and it’s very interesting. I know in Knoxville it’s the same way north, south, east, and west. Even though you’re in the same town within a 30 minute drive radius, you can touch each one of those. The people on the west side of town, they shop differently. They live a little bit differently. They hang out with different people in different crowds. So a regional group that is focused, that can have the principals in the business involved in those communities. Whether it be on their recruitment and retention, or whether it be on the resident care side, I think we’re seeing a move from asset management to quality of care. Quality outcomes management, in our industry. I actually think that’s a good thing. So I’m excited about it. It’s really awesome to see what you guys are doing. Thank you for your leadership in the space. I know our audience is probably going to want to connect with you. We’ve had a couple of your team members on; Kimberly is a big friend of ours. We’ve had her on, and so kudos to everything you guys are doing. 

 

Dave

Well, thank you very much. Appreciate it. I’m glad to be here to chat with you guys this morning. 

 

Lucas

Absolutely. Great time, great conversation, Dave. We really appreciate your time. And so for our listeners, we’ll put all of this information in our show notes. You can go to btgvoice.com, you can download the transcript, you can connect with us on social, send us a message, and we’d love to see you there. Thanks for listening to another great episode of Bridge the Gap.

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196: Dave Keaton