Bridge the Gap loyal listener turned podcast contributor, Meredith Mills shares how a family business is her way of life.
Lucas: Welcome to Bridge the Gap podcast with Josh and Lucas. We have another exciting guest on today. We are in California, beautiful location and we are surrounded by excellent thought leaders and I grabbed this one out of the hall and I said, you’ve got to sit down with us.
Josh: Well you know I, you were telling me about this great conversation you were having. And I was like, wow, that’s fascinating. And then I found out we were going to be able to have her on the show.
Lucas: So I am honored to have Meredith Mills. She is the COO of Country Meadows out of Pennsylvania. And not only is she a rock star in the industry, she has been a long time listener of Bridge the Gap. And that is incredible. We’re so honored.
Josh: And you’re not just saying that?
Meredith, No! My, my VP of IT was listening to you guys.
Josh: Oh man.
Meredith: And said, you have to listen to this podcast.
Josh: We’re going to blush. No, that’s so sweet. That’s awesome.
Lucas: Yeah, we love that. We love that. And you and I’ve had conversations and you’ve given us a lot of great feedback and so I’m excited to sit down with you and get to let our audience, which you’re a part of, listen to your, kind of, your backstory. So family business, bring us into the fold. Tell us about what’s going on.
Meredith: Sure. So we are a third generation family business and I don’t think any of us ever thought we’d get involved in the family business. I mean, I worked in a completely different industry for Urban Outfitters as an eCommerce manager for several years before my grandfather said, when are you coming back? He really wanted to know that the third generation would be involved and that what he and my grandmother and their children built was going to go into the next generation. And I’m really proud to be a part of it. Not only because I really believe in our mission, but I feel that we can do things differently and better because we don’t have the constraints of investors who aren’t actively involved and don’t understand that this is truly a mission that we’re on.
So I came back to the company about nine years ago. Actually my husband was the one who said, why are you not working for your family? And then when I went to work for my family, he said, you know, I think I’m going to come too. So he also came from a Fortune 500 company, left that. We left Philadelphia, moved back to rural central Pennsylvania and joined the workforce at our Hershey campus right next to our home office. And I started as a marketing director. He started as an associate executive director and over the next five years we both ran campuses and worked alongside our frontline staff and got to know our residents, got to know our customers, our families, you know, dealt with regulatory problems, dealt with cultural problems. Got to experience the joys and the challenges that really are the heart of our business. And when we were asked to come to the corporate level, I think we both had some tears because we know that the true magic happens with our frontline staff and with being with our residents every day and knowing what our customer appreciates and needs.
But we came into roles that allowed us to really be innovative and we’re really lucky that our board, our family allows us to push the boundaries a little bit and take some risks in order to continue to improve in our environment.
Josh: That’s awesome. And says a lot about your family that you can actually work together and you’re still a family.
Josh: We don’t often hear that. So how, I just curious question, I mean, how do you balance the family work life relationship?
Meredith: You know, I think I’m lucky because I grew up in it, so I saw that, you know, you could have tension at work, but you could have Easter Sunday together and everyone still treated each other with respect and just said, you know, we can have differences in opinion. It doesn’t mean we’re not still on the same mission. It doesn’t mean we’re not still family.
And my husband grew up in an entrepreneurial family that had a family business as well. And so I think it was really helpful that he had that basis to come into. Although he’ll still say he’s an outlaw and not an in law.
Josh: I can sympathize with that.
Lucas: Strong culture in this family business; I can, I can tell.
Lucas : A lot of alphas.
Josh: So that’s a long tradition of great family business. And I can only imagine as our industry has evolved through the years, you guys have had to evolve and pivot. Can you take us on kind of that journey on the family journey through this industry?
Meredith: Sure. Well. So originally my grandparents founded a nursing home company. Leader Nursing Home back in the, I’ll say 50 years ago, I think back in the 60s. And when they ended up selling to a larger company that was involved in a takeover, they exited that and they had a noncompete for skilled nursing, but they didn’t have a noncompete for assisted living, which wasn’t really established at the time.
Josh: Sneaky, sneaky.
Meredith: Sneaky, already entrepreneurial. And so my grandfather decided to start Country Meadows and started building pretty aggressively across Pennsylvania. And I didn’t mention though, he was a governor of Pennsylvania in the 1950s.
Josh: The small details.
Meredith: Yeah, sorry! I tend to forget that he had a very short political career, but was one of the youngest governors in the history of Pennsylvania. And so while he was governor, he really fought for disenfranchised groups. And he helped establish the nursing board in Pennsylvania and helped to improve mental health and special education, created special education programs that didn’t exist at the time. And so he really has always tried to look out for people who didn’t have a voice. And you know, we’ve had a couple of family members who’ve had disabilities and I think it’s kept us very humble to know that there are people who don’t have all of the gifts and don’t have all the strengths that we might have and we need to remember to speak up for them and protect them. And that includes our older adults. And that’s why I think my family really developed that passion through what my grandfather’s policies were and what his strong beliefs were.
So once they started Country Meadows my uncle had already worked with them at ManorCare firm, or excuse me, with at Leader Nursing home for many years. And my father came, came back from working on wall street to be the CFO there. So I ended up being raised in Hershey alongside my family and my grandparents, learning from them every day.
And you know, in terms of innovation, my grandfather did all kinds of crazy things, but I think he really decided to invest in his product in a way that maybe some providers didn’t. So I was speaking earlier on a panel about how, you know, we have full time fitness directors, we have full time chaplains so we can put on different programs that maybe other companies don’t have the investment to have.
For instance, we really believe that we want to respect our resident’s wishes with interventions towards end of life. And so our chaplains are trained in non-moraley biased talking points on how to have conversations around end of life and at some of our communities, up to 90% of our residents have a DNR in place because we’ve said to them, you know, this is what’s going to happen if you have to have CPR and this is what it’ll look like and this is what will happen then this is what will happen then. Is that really what you want? Because if it is, we will absolutely support it. We’ll provide CPR. But if you don’t want all the things that come along with it, then you know, we want to make sure that you are aware of, you know, all the implications.
And so, you know, we utilize those extra folks for more specialized programs. We have amazing fitness programs. We have Delay the Disease, which is a Parkinson’s based program that uses cognitive and physical training to work the brain in different ways at the same time as the body. We have balance courses. We have all kinds of amazing fitness classes.
But I think more recently with the changes in acuity that we’ve seen, we’ve been forced to innovate and innovate over and over again. And I think what’s best is that whenever we come up with a crazy idea, my uncle, who’s our CEO, will say, well, let’s just try it. Let’s pilot it. And if we fail, then we fail. And if we succeed, then that’s great. And my grandfather always said, if you make six decisions and, or excuse me, if you make 10 decisions and six of them are right, then you’re moving forward. So that’s really our philosophy. You can make mistakes, but you’ll always learn from them and it will always improve your business.
Lucas: Well, that’s a great philosophy. So let’s pivot onto a topic that I know for a fact you’re passionate about, especially being COO. You’re going to be over a lot of different details as far as operations go. Retention, recruiting, culture as far as your staff goes. Talk to us about some of your philosophies there.
Meredith: Well, first of all, when my husband and I were executive directors, I think we really got some pretty shocking stories told to us by our coworkers about their lives and the hardships that they were going through. And yet they still came to work everyday and work through their hearts so passionately and so lovingly. And you know, there was more than one time that I had a coworker tell me she was sleeping in her car and it just broke our hearts to know that, you know, through no fault of their own sometimes, they ended up in situations and still continue to where they’re really struggling. And I think my husband and I both really made a vow at that during those years being really shaped by being around our, our coworkers who were, who are so incredibly special and important to us, that we wanted to do everything we could to continue to raise the living wage for them so that they can build a better life through working for us and because it’s the right thing to do.
And so we’ve pretty aggressively raised our wages over the last 24 months, but we recognize that on top of that, the, you know, obviously the workforce has gotten even more tight. And as we say, we kind of still fishing in the same ponds. Immigration isn’t changing in the foreseeable future. And so we’ve started to look at ways that we can continue to improve our communication, our benefits, and our career paths and education opportunities for our coworkers so that once we get them in the door and they understand our culture, we can retain them in the best possible way.
Josh: I love that.
Lucas: Yeah. And you, we’ve talked about some metrics that you actually have to back that up and maybe before the metrics, can you give some practical examples of how you’re actually accomplishing that?
Meredith: Sure. So I would say number one is education. Education has always been a huge component of who we are as a company and we actually own an educational company that solely provides products to assisted living companies. It’s called Senior Living You. And so we create all of our own educational content and we share it and sell it with other people as well. But we’re really passionate about creating great education so that our coworkers feel not only that they can be competent in their role, but also that they can continue in improving themselves and in educating themselves to do a better job.
So along with that, for almost every position in our company, there’s a career path and as you complete certain trainings, you get a pay raise. And you know, for a lot of our coworkers that has allowed them to continue to push themselves but also offered a reward with each step. In addition, we offer LPN and RN scholarships at full coverage if you qualify and you’ve been with us for a year. And we offer a lot of ongoing customized career paths based on our management roles.
Aside from education, communication is really a huge challenge of a 24/7 workforce. So we, I mentioned to you guys early, earlier, people always get a kick out of this, but one of my uncles develop the stupid rules email several years ago. Stupid firstname.lastname@example.org. Very easy to set up. Anybody can do it. But we had recognized that, you know, sometimes we did a really good job of communicating to our coworkers, but we didn’t do a good job of back or providing a venue for them to communicate back to us. And quite frankly, I can’t solve all the challenges at our campuses, but my coworkers definitely can. And whenever a coworker comes to me with a challenge, I say, well, can you please come to me with at least one suggestion about how we can solve this?
Because I don’t know your daily work life well enough to solve this challenge, but you do. And so we have gotten countless submissions through stupid rules that can either be anonymous or they can put their name on it. And we’ve gotten a lot of amazing suggestions for rules that we had that people were like, yeah, this just makes me feel less loyal and I don’t want to feel less loyal. So could we change this rule? And there’s nothing they love more than when we change the rule. Let me tell you.
So we’ve spent a lot of time really looking over some of our policies that were more stringent and saying, you know, is this really accomplishing anything that we really need? Or can we just get rid of this policy or can we loosen this policy? And so that’s really been helpful in terms of developing better communication and showing them that we respond.
We did the Fortune Great Places to Work survey and got a lot of incredible data from that. And we also use that to respond to our coworkers in many different ways throughout the year. I mean, just a little thing. We used to always give out Christmas hams and you know, a lot of our coworkers, myself included, are vegetarian or Muslim or just don’t like ham for their family, right?
Josh: Who doesn’t like him? Come on, who doesn’t like ham?
Meredith: I’ll send you on next year.
Josh: Please. I’ll be on that list.
Lucas Whoever didn’t want to just send it to Josh.
Josh: Please do and follow me on Twitter too.
Meredith: But so this year we give them a little, a little gift card shaped like a piggy to their grocery store and said, you know what, we want you to feel that, that we’re giving you person-centered care as well, so we want you to do whatever’s best for your family, for your holiday meal. And they really liked that they were touched by the fact that we listened and it wasn’t about like what we thought they wanted. It was about what can they provide to their family that they can personalize in whichever way they want.
So communication. We also just created with a developer, a communication app where we can post and they can reply back and it’s basically like a digital bulletin board, which will allow them to see things 24/7 no matter where they are.
Josh: That is amazing.
Lucas: That’s a lot of stuff.
Meredith: And then benefits. We’re exploring a lot of creative benefits too
Josh: Well, what I hear through all of that is a very intentional focus on your team. And I think that’s what a lot of people are starting to talk about, starting to realize you guys have kind of led in the cutting edge of that and I can really appreciate that as a fellow operator I do have to ask a question just because I’m sitting here dying. I can only imagine the stupid rules that log get brought up. Like, hey, this is a stupid rule. Can you give us an example of something that that was changed because it was the ultimate stupid rule?
Meredith: Well, I can give you an example of things that were changed. I’ll also tell you that more often than not, we keep getting asked for additional scrub colors in our uniform store.
Josh: Oh, wow.
Meredith: They already have 10 scrub colors that they can choose from, but they will never stop asking for more. So if you can find a, or like a Miss Piggy printed scrub top, let me know and we’ll, we’ll put that in there.
Josh: You gotta wear one everyday.
Meredith: But, but really, a legitimate one was a young lady who had been with us for over 10 years but had gone PRN as needed at a certain point. We previously had said, well when you lose your tenure with us and when you have tenure with us, you get certain things, you get a nice bonus that every five years you get to come to our annual coworker anniversary dinners where we celebrate all of our five year plus coworkers and many other benefits. And so she just kinda said, you know, I work more for you than a lot of your part-time coworkers. This woman works three, 12-hour shifts every single weekend. Wouldn’t you die for a coworker like that? Every single weekend. So she said, it just kinda hurts me that I’ve been with the company 12 years, but my hire date only reflects that I’ve been with you for four. And we sort of thought about it and said, you know, the whole economy is turning more towards flexibility in the gig economy. So how many people are we driving away that, that didn’t even speak up about this?
And so it was really, my honor the really big thing at 10 years is that we knight you into the Dinosaur Club and this is something that my, my dad, who was our CFO actually started because when his one of one of his coworkers was about to turn 10 years, she said, gosh, I just feel like such a dinosaur. So he has this whole ceremony that he does around the dinosaur club and you get knighted in at the anniversary dinner and it’s such a big deal and you get a little dinosaur to take home. And so I am now doing the dinosaur knightings at a lot of dinners. And it was really an honor at the dinner this year because we reverse this stupid rule that I was able to bring this young lady who works so hard for us into the dinosaur club once and for all.
Josh: Ham-eating dinosaurs. I love it. Yes. That’s what I got from all that. No, that was really, really super awesome. And I love what you are doing with culture.
Do we have time here to talk about, I heard just like I couldn’t even piece it all together. Some really fascinating things relating to workforce that you all were talking about. That I just caught a piece of, can y’all dive into that? I thought it was fascinating.
Lucas: Yeah, explain it. I mean, it’s kinda like a shadow workforce here.
Meredith: Yeah. So I don’t know that most people know about this.
Josh: I did not. Never heard of it. And I didn’t until it was presented to us through a local friend. But there are over 65,000 foreign doctors in the United States who are not working in a clinical profession here. In fact, a lot of them are working minimum wage jobs, warehouses, fast food, you know, industries that have nothing to do with their skillset and it really is wasted talent. One large subset of those doctors is Cuban medical professionals, and I won’t get into the whole thing, but essentially if you look up the Cuban medical asylum program, you can see that the United States deemed what Cuba was doing with their medical professionals as indentured servitude and offered them asylum in the U.S. and a fast track to citizenship. And so there are over 10,000 of them here in the U S wow. They were resettled in 11 different cities and one of them happens to be in one of our markets in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
And so this retired doctor had been working with them to get them back into medical professions. And my CEO heard about his program at the rotary club and said, you know, I wonder if it would be meaningful for these folks to come work for us. And we interviewed them and they are just the most compassionate, hardworking, incredible people. So resilient. So kind. And they have a natural affinity for older adults. They love their grandparents. Their grandparents were the last people who really knew life before the way Cuba is now. And so they just have a love for them. And we were able to hire several of them in various capacities in meaningful work and competitive wages and many of them are gonna go and get their RNs now under our support. And so we’re really, really excited about the opportunities.
I’m now in touch with a Polish-born doctor who practiced in Germany and a Russian-born doctor and they’re just coming out of the woodwork. And you know, if you just give them a path towards improving themselves, they’re so incredibly grateful and they’ll work so hard and so loyalty for you. And I think that for anybody out there, and not just around Lancaster, Pennsylvania, but if you connect with the literacy councils in your counties, you may find that a lot of these proposed professionals are already in your communities and are just unpacking boxes at the grocery store or you know, packing boxes at a warehouse or you know, doing something that doesn’t require a lot of English. And if you can help them to advance their English skills, they can contribute so much more to our society.
Josh: So you mentioned the literacy workforce cause I have to imagine a lot of eyebrows will raise and people, the light bulbs will come on like, hey, I haven’t heard of this either. This is interesting. Is that the best outlet to find these people?
Meredith: So a lot of different counties have a literacy council and it helps people who want to improve their English and improve their ability to make their way up in the workforce. And I know in Pennsylvania and Maryland we have one for almost every county. And so I would say if you Google the literacy council in your area, you’ll likely find something that offers ESL courses and connects refugees or immigrants with opportunities for improvement here. And you may be able to go and speak with those nonprofit corporations about, you know, have you seen these types of individuals coming through your doors? And I think more often than not, you’ll find that they’re way more out there than we realize.
Josh: Wow. So, how has the acceptance of your, from your residents and your other team members been towards the injection of people from another country coming in that maybe don’t have the same action or the same cultural background?
Meredith: So I have to let my political feelings out a little bit publicly here and, and I think I stand for most of our organization and my family when I say that we are so incredibly proud that the top rating that we got out of the Best Places to Work survey was acceptance of diversity in gender and race at our company. And that’s something that in the way our culture is today in the U.S. is our way of fighting against hate in our own little corner of the world in some way. And I think our coworkers know that our coworkers appreciate that and they feel that we are a safe place to come to work no matter what their gender, sex, creed, whatever. They know that they can come to work and feel that they are accepted as a part of our family.
And so they have accepted these people with open arms and our residents have even wanted to start learning Spanish from them wanting, you know, extra alone time with them. One on one, one of the one of the gentlemen is a former physical therapist and he is now a restorative coordinator in our restorative program. And he kind of said, well, I’ve found my life again. You know, I, he said, you know, his, his mentor who really helped develop the program, said, what more do you want to do after this? You know, do you want to go get your RN? Do you want to try to be a CRNP? What, where do you want to go from here? And he said, I feel whole. Again, just being back in restorative physical care. And I think that because of these folks’ work ethics and their gratitude for being accepted into a community that says, you know, you don’t have to just exist here. You can thrive here in America and we’re here to support you and be your family that you didn’t have. You know, they react to that just like any normal human being would and, and we rally around them.
Josh: That’s so awesome to hear. And thank you for sharing that with our listeners. Thank you for sharing your story, your personal story, your family’s story and what an awesome culture you guys have developed there. So kudos for that.
Lucas: Yeah, and that’s the reason why we needed to have you on the show, Meredith. It’s, it’s you are a great thought leader and a young thought leader in the business. So as we round out the show, I don’t want to miss the opportunity for you to speak to that younger kind of millennial workforce that are trying to find their way in the world and either are trying to step into senior living and can’t quite figure it out. Maybe they’ve worked in other industries that seemed a little bit more I dunno, cooler-
Lucas: -Flexible. But they love the, the, the feeling and the mission behind it. Or maybe just some people that are listening and are just learning about the senior living industry. Can you speak to them?
Meredith: You know, I think I was part of the edge of the millennial generation that just barely grew up without cell phones and you know, didn’t have social media until the end of my college time and wasn’t bombarded with all of this information and all of these images of what life should be and what we should aspire to. And it’s really all about money and material things. And it I often feel like I need to take a break from social media because it is so much of just things, things, things.
And I think what, you know, both for me being a parent and for me working with older adults brings that I hope other young people will see is a break from that dose of non-reality and a moment to step back into what is truly important about our time here. We only get one life. We only get one time here. And if we can put our heads on our pillows at night. And know that we’ve made even a small difference in someone’s life and to make a difference in somebody’s life when they’re going through such challenging times or they’re great bookend at the end of life, I don’t think there’s any greater calling or any more honorable role to have in this world.
And I get so excited when other young people are engaged or even open to what we’re doing because I think it truly is a mission that’s bigger than just you. You can be a part of something that is so loving and so giving and so human and I’m not sure what other occupation could provide that for you.
Josh: Well, we feel the same way and thanks for sharing your passion and you know, I think just talking about it our hopes is even that through the podcast it’d be able to reach more people to be able to share what quite honestly are the love stories of our industry as we talk about you’ve shared some of those y’alls love stories from your company. And so that’s really, I think what helps the, the, the wildfire spread and get people more engaged around purposeful living, purposeful work mission-driven work. And it’s such an exciting, rewarding industry to be part of. For sure.
Meredith: Well, thank you for helping to spread the word.
Josh: Yeah, well it’s, it’s our honor and our pleasure and thanks for spending time with us today and sharing your story.
Lucas: Meredith Mills on Bridge that Gap. This has been a great conversation. Thank you so much and thank you for listening to the show. You’ve been an advocate of us, you’ve shared it with your friends and colleagues. And we really do appreciate that.
Meredith: Thank you.
Lucas: So we’ll make sure that we connect to you and your organization in our show notes so that people can send you a message and, and get to know more about you. Go to btg.com to listen to all of our episodes and connect with us on social media. And thanks for listening to another great episode of Bridge the Gap.