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Episode 56: Eric Mendelsohn

Industry CEO Panel Takes on Hot Topics in Senior Living with Eric Mendelsohn

Lucas: Welcome to Bridge the Gap podcast with Josh and Lucas. We have the one and only Eric Medelsohn back on our show today. Welcome, Eric.

Eric: Accept no substitutes.

Lucas: And today, since we’ve already dived into your background in the last show, today, we are at ASHA here in California, just outside of L.A. and one of the most beautiful places that I’ve ever seen in my life.

Eric: It’s beautiful out there.

Josh: Even in the rain, it’s beautiful. Yesterday was spectacular weather- whale watching. We had so much fun networking. You didn’t get to go on that did you?

Eric: I networked with the whales.

Josh: Oh, you did? Okay, we had a great event. Today we have the rain but it’s still beautiful.

Lucas: It’s okay. They talked about spouting off with the whales and all I can think about is you buddy.

Josh: Spouting? Yeah, I do a little bit of spouting occasionally, yeah.

Eric: There’s some good puns there

Josh: Yeah, we probably ought to keep this G-rated, PG-rated at least.

Lucas: There were plenty of whale jokes going on, but I figured that we were not in the most appropriate environment to go through that. Anyway, we digress.

You just moderated one of the most fiery CEO panels that I’ve listened to in a long time. There was such great content. You talked about culture, you talked about succession planning, you talked about third-party referrals, you talked about affordability- a lot of different things. One of the things that Michael Grust said in the intro is he said, we invented senior living and we’re still inventing it. You thoughts on that comment?

Eric: I love that because just like the home of the future, it’s before your time, but when I was a little boy in school, they showed us what the future would look like and it involved home computers. It involved self-driving cars. It involved transportation by jetpacks; I’m still waiting for that. But, I think that the home for seniors still needs to evolve and as the next generations come up like yourselves, you will add your own ideas about what home and place means for you.

Josh: You know, so I wasn’t in- I didn’t get to sit in on the panel. So, I’m interested in this discussion because I’m kind of learning here and I’ve heard all the commotion about how great it was. So I’m looking forward to it.

But, to your point I was actually talking with a developer and an owner-operator last night at dinner and we were, basically the same thing you said, I was using the illustration of the movie Back to the Future- how when I was young all of those Back to the Future concepts in that movie were like, oh that could never happen. It’s like now several of the things are everyday technology. And to your point it’s the same kind of thinking for senior housing. Next generation senior operators, I think we are putting out a lot of visions and things that are people are thinking, oh,  that’s too crazy. That can’t happen. How do you fund that? You know, how do you manage that? How do you bring old and young together to live and work and all those kind of things? But, it’s got to start with a vision.

So, that was part of the discussion in there it sounds like.

Eric: It does and sometimes a little bit of vision goes a long way. I’ll give you an example. In Seattle, where I used to live, there is a Merrill Gardens project near the University of Washington and half of the building is senior housing and the other half is student housing.

Josh: Interesting.

Eric: And on the bottom are restaurants and other retail. And no introductions were made. Nothing had to be done. Those two populations have naturally embraced each other. They’ve adopted each other. They do programs together. They play cards. They babysit. They go for walks. They work out. They become friends and it just happened organically because someone had the vision to put those two uses together.

Josh: Yeah, well, so, one of the things I love being able to talk with you about every single time we get together, Eric, is you have the pulse of a very broad sector and get to see a lot of things that we don’t get to see. And every time we talk you have some cool stories that you’ve actually started seeing some of this happen and prove out that I think the industry- we’re not talking about those success stories enough that kind of gives the young generation, the next generation the courage to do some more of that. So, it’s great. I think we need to talk more about those love stories.

Lucas: That’s a great transition. Love stories was a huge topic on the panel. Did you anticipate that being a part of what they said?

Eric: I didn’t. Who knew? We’re close to Valentine’s Day.

Josh: So, fill me in. I wasn’t in there. Tell me a little bit about the topic.

Lucas: Yeah, well Eric teed up a bunch of different topics and then it started to get into a culture which we’ll dive into in a minute. They mentioned just the ability to attract people into the industry and that the industry has this opportunity to tell their love stories.

Eric: That’s right and we need to do more of that. You need to tell a story about A: why it’s important to work in senior housing and care for seniors and be why it’s important to live in senior housing and put your loved ones in senior housing so that you can benefit from the sense of community and fellowship that develops. That’s always over and over again an unexpected benefit of living in senior housing is the fellowship that develops among the caregivers and the residents and the residents themselves.

Josh: Well, I know in your communities, you probably get to see a lot of that. We were speaking a couple weeks ago and we asked one of our partners, NRC, to provide us some data about the perception from the public about our industry. I was shocked that there’s only 24% now, this is according to their national research panel, only 24% of the general public that was surveyed when asked about their perception of senior living, only 24% trusted senior living. And on a big list, the only group that was worse than us as an industry as far as public perception, was the government.

And so that should be a wake-up call that we don’t do a really good job at telling these love stories. The flip side of that and the good news is just what you were touching on, Eric, is it was like 95% of the surveys that they did across the country in senior living communities with the families that  actually have their loved ones, it was all positive. They had great experience and they had great trust and they completely trusted those communities. But it seems like, you know, it’s that one bad story or that second bad story that you hear that pops up somewhere very isolated and that’s what gets told. So, that was interesting.

Eric: That reminds me of congressmen. A lot of people don’t trust Congress, but they love their local congressmen.

Josh: That’s right. It’s very, very similar. So, what else did you guys talk about?

Lucas: Let’s transition into culture. On the panel, you said culture is the secret sauce. Unpack that for us.

Eric: Senior housing is real estate; you’re in construction and development, we’ve all seen an empty building. So, to make an empty building come to life, to have a personality, to have a culture take some doing. You don’t just run a want ad and hire people willy-nilly and give them some training manuals or give them a webpage login to read some training manuals and then hope that a culture develops. You have to you have to bring that to the table. You have to train people about what your expectations are. And because of staff turnover, this has to be done constantly. You can’t just do it once a year. It should be done almost monthly.

I have one client, Bickford, they have stand-up meetings every Monday morning and they read from a book that talks about their culture and caring for residents. So, today on the panel we talked about how Sunrise and Juniper and some of the other providers ingrain that culture in their new hires, their existing hires and how that trickles down into a good resident experience that retains employees and retains residents.

Josh: I love that. Well, you hit on it, there is so much turnover in our industry. But even without turn over we all have to be reminded, right? I mean, you can easily lose focus of the culture and the mission just through the everyday grind, so, I’m a firm believer in that, a firm believer in that.

So, you guys are hitting on a lot of topics here. It sounds like a pretty diverse panel. Can you share a little bit about the group in the panel itself?

Josh: I’ll kick that back to Eric.

Eric: Sure, sure. So, we had to Michael Grust from SRG; he was the CEO there. Lynn Katzman, she’s the CEO at Juniper Communities. We had Joel Nelson who’s the CEO at LCS and we had John Cochrane or Johnny Cochrane as he said. If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit- easy to remember his name – from HumanGood. So, you know, we had- oh, and I’m sorry Chris Winkle  from Sunrise. Let’s not forget him.

Josh: Wow, that’s power packed.

Eric: We had a heavy-hitting panel and I had to get out of the way a couple of times because there were some dust-ups about third-party referral sources and other topics.

Josh: Well, I’m sure that was a hot topic. That’s something that gets people feathers riled up these days, the third-party referral sources. What were some takeaways in discussion around that? Eric: Well, generally, there was acknowledgement that at least now, they’re a necessary evil and that there are outliers like Michael Grust who are doing it on their own. I have some clients, like senior living communities, they’re doing it on their own. They’re doing their own search engine marketing, search engine optimization. They buy words on Google and Yahoo, and other search engines and they do the work. They have dedicated staff that does internet marketing and they track it using online tools to see if they’re making progress and they do.

Josh: Well, that’s a perfect example of our industry kind of getting current. Because other industries have done the digital marketing really well for years and I’m starting to see more and more operators understand, hey, we gotta get with the times. No longer can we have this stagnant online brochure and expect that to be able to drive traffic.

So, you know, one of the challenges, Eric, that I’ve found as an operator and I know your group is struggling with that as well, I’m sure at times because we often as the operators, when we go out and look at partnering with a third-party service that’s a digital marketing platform, so often they don’t they don’t understand our industry. They don’t speak the language and it’s still you’ve got the technology, but you’ve got to match it with the content. Contents’s key.

So, we as the operators continue to still have to bear the brunt of the work. So, to your point, it’s interesting to hear you affirm the beliefs that I have had. I’ve seen that more and more of your management company is your operating platforms and ownership groups are starting to invest in digital marketing platforms because they realize they’re already doing that work anyways, why not invest in themselves and take ownership of that?

That’s encouraging to me and I think that will be one of the key things as we get more involved in digital media and that’s how stories are told these days through the social media, through the websites, the blogs, the e-books and things like that, it helps to paint a better picture. We did learn also from NCA that 85% of the consumers nowadays are first hearing about our services through a digital platform. So, you know, they ask us to question, what story are we telling? What kind of curb appeal do we have? What does our culture say about us at that front door, which is the digital platform. So that’s great that that was a good topic today.

Eric: If I were a younger person today, I would start up an advertising company and I would specialize in that because I think that’s a real niche that our space needs.

Lucas: Yes, absolutely.

Josh: Well, if our audience is out there listening. So we have had Eric, you know, we have had an amazing group of people, an audience for a podcast, that is not from our industry, that was surprising to us and it’s very rewarding that I think through the podcast medium, we’re starting to attract some people that had never heard about senior housing before and their eyes are starting to open and they’re asking, how do I use that finance degree or that accounting degree? How do I use that marketing degree or a digital marketing platform sales and apply that to aging services to senior housing?

And so it’s great to have some thought leaders like yourself that can breathe that kind of through the podcast platform. I think that will be one of the keys to attracting a better labor market or a diversified labor market. So, that’s been cool.

Lucas: And that’s a great way to round out the show. Let’s talk about and finish on the topic of recruiting and retention. It was a big topic. Chris went into very detailed numbers. I was- it was like drinking from a firehose.

Eric: I had to take notes.

Lucas: I saw all the math brains up there just going, going, going. So, let’s just talk about that. I know it’s something that’s close to your heart as well. And one of the reasons why you’ve partnered with a podcast, which we’re so grateful for.

Eric: Well, today’s topics that we covered, one was retention of existing staff and talent and that’s so important because when someone leaves, that’s especially on a top performer, often you can replace them, but the institutional knowledge, the attitude, the familiarity- you lose all of that and you have to start over. I think the best possible scenario is loose someone to another opportunity in your organization. And an organization like Sunrise is so big they have multiple locations. You can be an executive director in one state and move across the country and be a regional director. So, that’s something they’re trying to encourage.

And I think back to your point, recruiting new apostles to our cause and having them become evangelists is important. Converting someone from a line worker to a regional to an executive is a progression that I think is easier in senior housing than any other industry. If you just show up with a good attitude and do a good job, I’ve seen it over and over again, you can do a lot.

Josh: Well, I believe too, Lucas and I have talked about this a lot. We have a a big shiny token in senior living that I don’t think we’ve put on the table very often and it’s that is we have such a strong purpose and a strong mission behind what we do every day regardless of the community type. I mean you’re dealing with humankind, with people’s lives. And so it’s a very, very worthy cause and what I’m finding in conversations with the younger generation in particular is while they may be a little bit different ways of communicating with them and they don’t communicate in the same fashions is at the generation that’s working often right now and has been. They are extremely mission-focused. They want to be part of something that they feel they can feel good about at the end of the day. So that’s a big token that I think when we start talking about recruitment putting that on the table and showing people those career pathways, which I think you were alluding to, you can you can go just about anywhere in senior living. So, fascinating.

Eric: The sky is the limit.

Josh: It really is.

Lucas: Well, Eric, your time is in demand here at the show. Thank you for being on that panel and you did a great job. I took a ton of notes, and this is a huge value back to the audience. We will connect with Eric in the show notes. He’s also one of our Season 2 partner at NHI. Thank you so much for doing that and thank you for listening to another great episode of Bridge the Gap.

Eric: Thanks, guys.

Thank you to our supporting partners NHI, RCare, NRC Health, TSOLife, ERDMAN and Sherpa.

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Episode 56: Eric Mendelsohn