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The senior living industry has a voice. You can hear it on Bridge the Gap podcast!

Episode 77: Kris Engskov

Aegis President Kris Engskov has a lot to share- and we’re excited to share that with you! 

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Lucas: Welcome to Bridge the Gap Podcast, the senior living podcast with Josh and Lucas. We are at the Senior Living Innovation Forum in Santa Barbara, California, and we have some more excellent thought leadership. We were talking about disruption. We’re talking about other markets. We’re talking about how different ideas can come into the space and challenge the status quo, and we’ve got a perfect guest on today. We have Kris Engskov. He is with Aegis Senior Living out of the West Coast, and we’re really glad that you’re on the program. Welcome.

Kris: Thanks. Thanks for having me. 

Lucas: You have a very diverse background. We’d love to unpack that today. I’m looking at your LinkedIn profile right now. You’re from Arkansas, but you worked in the White House and if we want to talk about that and then you worked for Starbucks for 16 years before you have made this transition into senior living. Please explain.

Kris: I think that is a great question, right? I understand why you would say, “why have you come to senior living now?” I feel lucky. I feel lucky in many ways. My previous experiences have prepared me for this this moment. I grew up in Arkansas. As you said, I grew up, you know, my father had a hardware store down there, and I worked there every day after school, and I became, I had that DNA of customer service. I love that. That was my dad. That was my grandfather. Little town of 1,500 people down there. 

We ended up…Bill Clinton, who was the governor of Arkansas, a very small state. He came in the hardware store every once in a while, and I got to know, our family got to know him and various elections over the years, and I ended up he ran for president in 1991 and I kind of jumped on that train early. I was in my senior year of college and I think maybe there were two of us who thought he could win at the time. Lo and behold, he got elected, and I rode that train to Washington. I got there in May of 1993 and ended up spending, you know, most of my twenties working in the White House doing various things. I work in the press for quite a long time for a woman named Dee Dee Myers and then ultimately ended up as a president’s aid for the last four years I was there. 

It was an unbelievably spectacular experience. I can’t… I can’t say anything other than that. It was the, you know, that world is is one that is not well understood. It’s filled with people that are passionate about what they do. Having come from small-town Arkansas and the University of Arkansas to come to Washington and interact with those calibers of folks suddenly. It was…it really changed my life in a very positive way to have the opportunity to be with people that support that passion. Kind of set me on a path to work of wanting to work with that level of folks. 

In 2000, I ended up moving to Seattle. I joined, very briefly, a finance fund out there at the time and just kind of in the middle of the tech boom and Seattle was just beginning to kind of get its arms around that industry, and then ultimately I ended up at Starbucks, a small coffee company in Seattle, founded in Pike Place Market of Seattle. 

I’d always admired Starbucks. Starbucks, believe it or not, back at that time in 2002 was still on the whole relatively small. I mean we thought it was big at the time but looking back it was pretty small. Today Starbucks has 30,000 stores around the world. So it’s grown considerably, and I was very lucky to get the opportunity to ride, again another fast-moving train over a period of a decade-and-a-half, and just had against a remarkable experiences. 

My family and I lived in Europe where I had responsibly for the European business for a fair bit of time. And I also had responsibility for a US retail state for a period of time, so lots of operational experiences, a little bit of time in tech, and you know all in all a remarkable 16 year journey. And as I got to the end of that journey, I recognized it was the end of that journey. I had perhaps too much coffee over the 16 years. 

As I was telling you all earlier, what I realized was we are looking at shifting demographics, you can imagine. Starbucks is paying a lot of attention to both certainly young people, but we were also paying attention to what was happening in the seniors’ market. A big part of our customer base and a group we need to engage. And I watched that starting about five years ago, and what I recognized was very few people really paid attention to that in a material way, particularly in retail, and across industries. And I thought to myself, at the time I thought that is a, you’ve talked about many times on the podcast, is a remarkable opportunity both from a growth story, from a business opportunity, but maybe most importantly from a purpose standpoint. 

And at the risk of being a little bit too sappy here, I came from a family with lots of dementia and Alzheimer’s. I put two grandmothers in assisted living, assisted living communities over time, and it’s deeply personal to me. I knew that at the time I had those experiences that it could be much better, and as I’ve gotten to know, as I got to know the industry in the market and started to look into it, I recognized that not only was this going to be a business opportunity but is a big opportunity to make a difference. And I say this… I don’t say this lightly that I think this will be one of the seminal challenges of my generation. I look at you guys much younger than I am, but it’ll be the seminal challenge of my generation, of your generation, of my daughter’s generation. 

I have a 9-year-old daughter. I was talking to her the other day. I was looking at her and I was thinking she is going to work in healthcare. She’s absolutely going to because as you look at how the workforce is changing so much of, so much of the workforce is going to shift out of a lot of places that we’ve traditionally counted on for job creation like retail, like manufacturing, and it’s going to shift to healthcare, and that’s great news for us because there are so many people that are so service-oriented, that, that have so much capability and desire to be successful, particularly in the retail business, that we are going to be able to bring them into health. 

Bob said this morning in our panel, “This is not some health care anymore. It’s health.” And I agree with that. It is about making people healthy and keeping them healthy. You know, it was a long story but I’m excited being in senior living. I think this is… I said on my panel this morning that I didn’t want to offend anyone despite the fact that many of those folks in the room today have been doing this for many many years and far many more years than I have, but I feel like I’m getting on the ground floor, and that feels great, and we’re on a rocket ship, and I couldn’t be more excited to innovate for… Innovate and make Aegis living the best in the world at taking care of people at this stage of their lives. 

Josh: Well, it’s super exciting to hear your passion come through and, in your story. Your background is fascinating and how that application to senior housing, how you made the transition. I’m really curious to kind of talk about some of the lessons from the very diverse background you have of how you believe that’s applying directly to what you’ve learned right now from all the way from the White House through the retail business. What are some of those takeaways and how are you applying those now in this new sector?

Kris: That is such a big question. I’ve just started in senior living. I joined Aegis Living about six months ago. And I spent the last five months basically working as a care manager in all of our communities. So, we have 32 communities up and down the west coast of America, and I put on our care manager uniform and I went out and I worked shifts in each of our communities and for someone who… I did that at Starbucks when I started, so it’s not an original idea. I’m sure many have done it but there is no faster way for me to have really understood the core of what we do than to go work with our teams. I mean, we have remarkably talented people who have been doing this for a very long time on the front lines and I’ll just share one story. 

You know, I knew when I got into senior living, I would get incredibly passionate about taking care of older people. I knew I would do that, but the hands-on everyday care, I knew how to make coffee. I didn’t know if I knew how to do that. And as I started this sort of trip up and down the coast to work in each of our communities, I was sitting with my wife one night at dinner right when I was going to do my first shift at our Madison Street Community in Seattle, and I was nervous and very, very honestly being incredibly nervous, because I had a little training but I have never done it, and I walked in that community at six o’clock in the morning and a woman named Helen who is a care manager and is this amazing 28 year old Eritrean women who had only been with ages for six months, and she reached down and grabbed my hand and she had no idea who I was or cared, and she reached out and grabbed my hand and we just started getting up residents. Waking them up, getting into the bathroom, getting them in the shower, walking down the hall, holding their hand walking down the hall to breakfast, and I’m telling you within 30 minutes, I was in love with that job. I’d never seen anything where you can impact someone’s life in such a simple but remarkable way.  

Sometimes…I talk to my daughter. Sometimes our kids, I don’t know if you guys have kids or not, but sometimes they not always as appreciative of everything that I would like them to be. I think that’s just parenting but what I loved about what we do every day is that the smallest things make the biggest difference and that, you know, at Starbucks we talked a lot about changing lives every day and sort of interactions behind the bar, but at the end of the day, this is a business where you literally change lives every day. And I love that we have a culture that looks at it that way. We invest behind that passion and you know, it’s a little bit of a dream come true. I kind of found my calling in some ways. 

Josh: I love that. So, you coming in with a totally fresh perspective, you’ve been in your communities learning this business from really the inside out. What are some of the kind of key observations you’ve made? You obviously learned a lot when you guys at Starbucks were studying the aging population, older adults. What are some of the things and strategic opportunities that you see for our space to advance into kind of the next generation? 

Kris: Well, I’ll try to start with the obvious ones. I mean everyone knows that obviously boomers have very different expectations of our business and we know that as the greatest generation. There’s been lots of discussion about that and that’s very true. At Starbucks, we studied boomers very carefully and they do. They have a very distinct view of how they are going to develop their later years as opposed to how we think they may want to develop it. So, I think we need to be listening closely and we know a lot about that group of people. 

What’s true is that we are going to have to change a lot. No doubt and evolve with them. And when I say evolve with them, literally with them because they’re going to want to be part of that design and that’s encouraging. I think when you get, again it’s a Starbucks thing, but when you engage your customer in the solution as opposed to always telling your customer and trying to predict what they want, I think you get a better you get a better product, and the word product interestingly enough is something I was very used to in coffee. I wasn’t used to Senior Living, so I’m going to use the word experience instead, you know, trying to build on your question. 

This is about experiences and you know, we recently at Aegis spent a lot of time thinking about what we do and what we want to be best at and for us it’s about creating an experience. It’s about creating purpose in your life no matter where you are. We are going to do that through any number of a means but those are the two things I think that we are uniquely qualified to try to help our residents and families with and that’s where we’re focused. I think there are many things that we can to a certain extent steal from other businesses that are in the experience business. Things like, a big believer in this, people don’t buy what you sell… they buy why you do it. Aegis has such a special culture. I felt that as I’ve gotten there and understood it, but it’s all about why we are in this business. We are in this business because we think we can have a positive impact and be an advocate for seniors in lots of ways. Of course it’s a business and of course it’s about doing well financially, but we think we’ve got a bigger higher purpose there.  That is what I get up every day excited about.

Lucas: Yeah.

Kris: We just did make a major financial commitment to a group in Seattle called Plymouth Housing. Plymouth Housing is kind of the gold standard of nonprofits as it relates to providing services for people who are chronically homeless, and yes, we did write a significant check to a new capital campaign they’re committing in Seattle but most importantly, and I am so proud of this and this is exactly where, you know, you talk about community engagement and making it work, we committed to provide expertise to helping them with homeless seniors, because not something everybody understands but so many more people now that are homeless are seniors, and they have lots of issues that people who are in their later years have, dementia, Alzheimer’s, a lot of the cognitive challenges that we are all very familiar with and no one’s thinking about that very hard yet, and we think that’s a great place for us to extend our expertise far beyond our communities. And that’s the stuff that excites me. 

Josh: Yeah. So, one of the things that was talked about this morning in one of the early panels was one of the keys to winning in the future is having a winning culture. I think that was like the number one point on someone’s presentation, I think was Bob Kramer’s. And I have to be able to pick your brain and see what you think about that. Because when I think about all your experience, and I think about the brand Starbucks that you were part of, 30,000 Stores, I think or more, there was obviously a very specific culture carried through that brand. What are some of those things that you learned in working for some of these really strong brands of how to carry forth culture? How you think that applies to what you’re doing? 

Kris: Why, I think that’s the million-dollar question because culture is whether we always like to admit it or not because culture is the most difficult differentiator to the build, right? And it generally starts with the earliest days of a company right set then and I think that’s true of Starbucks. It’s true of many great companies. It’s true of Aegis. And it’s difficult to put your finger on everyday, right? It’s hard to describe what your culture is. I mean, that’s again the hardest question anyone ever ask you is, “How do you develop a special culture?” You develop it through the values of the people who work in the culture in the culture is a living breathing thing, right? It changes and evolves, and it changes and evolves because the people that are working in the business, and primarily the people by the way that are working in the bulk of the business. Leadership is important, but only to the extent that they walk the walk alongside the folks that they’re able to recruit with the right set of values, and culture in our business even more important because we are dealing with some of the most, we are we’re caring for some of the most frail people in the country, and that is different than serving coffee, right? The responsibility bar obviously is much much higher and it does take someone really special that has a strong set of values, that believes that you know, if you’re going to spend your time doing something you might as well spend your time doing because we all have to work for a living. I get that. And if you are going to work for a living and you’re going to spend your time, you know, think about how you do it. And are you are you making the most of it? 

I’m sure you’ve read this book. If you haven’t you should. I just finished David Brooks’ new book called Second Mountain and he’s a New York Times columnist who has written a book about his journey and understanding his calling. I mean there many books like this but it was impactful to me as I become one of those people that Bob Kramer this morning call the young-old. I think he’s right before being a boomer, someone who is really actively engaged in their career and working and wants to do stuff, but is not 20 anymore, and you know at this point in your career you get to decide to a certain extent how you want to spend your time, and I feel very privileged to have had opportunities to get to that spot. And that is what I’m doing. I am choosing to join a business that I feel very passionate about. I always have. I haven’t always had the time or the inclination or the moment to kind of join it, but it’s now and I couldn’t be more excited.

Lucas: One of the things, that is a great parley, Josh and I, when Josh actually came up with the name Bridge The Gap that all resonated with our team here. You know we talk about yeah there are gaps, but more importantly that creates an opportunity to be a bridge, which is a part of being a culture and this is an industry where you have the opportunity to have a career where you are a connection point from one to another place, where you are able to be a bridge there. With your diverse background, not only just nationally but globally, Josh and I have talked about this many times is that platform where our industry can be able to elevate the love stories of the business, because we’re in it. We know exactly what you’re talking about now that you’ve basically you drink the Kool-Aid, you got the bug which really resonates with me. It’s creates that passion for wanting to make an impact of older adults. The narrative in the headline of the newspaper does not tell that story. The story that that is the beauty of what’s taking place. What has been the biggest thing that you’ve seen a change from coming in and not really until you’ve gotten your hands dirty now, the hands and feet doing the caregiving, what do you think that the industry can do to help change the narrative to what’s actually taken place?

Kris: So this is a very big, big topic, right? And one that I am excited about. So first of all I think that it’s your right. We don’t with the headlines not right yet and we’ve got it we’ve got to write that headline and we got to write the story below to support it and then get the right people to help promote it all the time. I mean it’s like it’s marketing, right? But I think there’s some things on our side. 

So first of all, I think the millennial generation is more interested in purpose than any other generation in very long time, maybe since the greatest generation, and I think that’s very encouraging because we’re going to have some some tailwinds. I think we’re going to be surprised at the strength of those tailwinds. I think young people the kinds of people that we would target to be care managers in an Aegis community, the kinds of people that share the values that we have. I think they’re going to be attracted this business and I think part of it is, yes, purpose, because again if we can get you in and show you what we do you are going to get it really quickly. 

And back to that book, Second Mountain, struggle is an important part of life, right? Nothing is going to get handed to you. Every job is hard. I don’t care if you’re serving coffee or taking care of people. It is about how you approach it and for me there are going to be a number of ways that we’re going to, we’re going to sell those opportunities. One is purpose. One is, you know, the opportunities for changed lives day to day. But let’s get to the practical application here. If I was sitting here 20 years ago, I would have been saying the exact same, and I was, saying the exact same thing about the retail business. If you told me that opportunities to get more responsibility more quickly, I mean 20 years ago, you know, you got I was a young gun ready to go taking on more responsibility and someone directed me to retail, and I luckily took advantage of that. 

But if I was a young person today, and I was just coming out of school or thinking about where I want to take my career, if you’re not thinking about healthcare right now, you’re not paying attention. I mean, this is a place that and I just said this about retail, you know, 20 years ago was very true for retail. It was one of those places that you could get in work your way up. If you were good and diligent and smart, you could get responsibility far quicker than you could in lots of other places, and I think healthcare is a little bit like that today, a lot like it actually, and particularly in our business. If you come into this business, you get in there and on the ground, learn it from the ground up, you are going to have unlimited career opportunities because clearly the market itself is growing but we are getting more sophisticated as operators. We couldn’t possibly find enough talent. 

So that’s why it’s confusing to me sometimes why they’re not more people clamoring to get in the business. I think part of it is our sales pitch. We absolutely have to we have to hone that and focus it but I think again as I said in the beginning we got lots of tailwinds coming our way, and I think we’re going to be pleasantly surprised at the talent coming into this business that is really aligned with the values that that we have an Aegis in many other operators have.

Josh: I totally agree with that. We’ve actually talked about that a lot. The comment you made and the point you made about the millenials, the younger generation. I think the way you phrased it was maybe they’re the most driven towards purpose and purposeful ways of making a living since the greatest generation, which is really cool because now we’re at this pivot point of moving from serving the greatest generation to the next generation and going to be relying a lot on the millennial generation. So, what a great bridge that we have an opportunity to serve right there. I want to digress back in the conversation…

Kris: Can I say one other thing?

Josh: Yeah, please.

Kris: -that I think is really relevant here. Because I’m kind of health nut, have been for a long time, quit eating meat two years ago and kind of signed up for the whole…

Josh: And I was eating beef jerky when you saw me when you came on. I feel terrible.

Kris: The point is that another way to engage I think young people in this is this health rate right where we are, you know, there are paying attention to what their parents and their grandparents are doing. They are more focused on health than they’ve ever been. We got more evidence than we ever have about diet, exercise, sleep, community engagement. All these things are wholistic, preventative measures that millennials are, I think, they’re paying a lot of attention to. Certainly, the young-old as Bob says. I’m paying attention to it, and I think that’s another way to engage them. They recognize that their grandparents, their parents lives in their later years are going to be better if they are, you know paying attention these these these health outcomes, you know through some pretty basic behavioral changes. I think that the other book Being Mortal, you know changed a lot of a lot of folks view about you know, how modern medicine works and how no really making sure that we are pulling in some of this holistic view of health and preventive health particularly can make life so much better no matter what age you are at. 

Josh: Well, I want to go back too and talk about something you made a comment when you were talking about the younger generation and attracting a workforce and the culture about and changing kind of the narrative of our industry that if we can get people in and they can sense or they can, they can learn about it, they’re going to be sold, but going back to the way that you have been learning. I love that where you became a care manager and you’ve been going around all these communities. I can sympathize with that. I knew nothing about our space until I was in it. And the first thing I was tasked do I didn’t think of this myself I had to live in a community and work every position, and I fell in love with it instantly, and I had no idea that I would and so thankfully I did that. Is that something that was that you thought up or is that something that everyone has to go through that’s in a leadership position in your organization where they have to actually go out and work some of those positions to really learn the industry, learn the space?

Kris: We do that a fair bit. Dwayne Clark, who is the Founder and CEO of Aegis Living, that was his idea. If anyone knows him, which many people in this industry do, that won’t surprise them. His tenacity and his desire to make sure that anybody he bring on the team understands at the ground level what we do and  particularly how we do it at Aegis, because it is really based on purpose and delivery experience is not just care. So it was his idea and I can’t be more thankful for that because honestly looking back 6 months, I don’t know that if I could have figured things out as well as I did had I not had that opportunity to do that and it’s a luxury, right? Because it’s a luxury because you have the time as a new leader to come in and you’ve been… I had that transition to transition with Judy who was previously in the role, she gave me the opportunity to do that and it also gave me a great opportunity to get to know the people, and get to know the team in every building in every community and it just gave me a head start.

Is it something we do with everybody? Not everyone but we do it with lots of people. We’ve got one of the longest training programs of GM’s and marketing directors of any business in this business. We think over-investing pays off over time in training and preparation, you know, in really being at the starting line ready to go when you get to take on your role.

Josh: Sure. 

Lucas: Your founder has been, had some amazing articles in the news. I’ve never had the opportunity to meet him, but did you have a relationship with him? Is that a catalyst to getting you in this position? 

Kris: We did not. I knew of him obviously living in Seattle for a long time. Aegis is very well known and and has a remarkable reputation for care. So that for the first time I had a very positive view of Aegis before I ever talked to Dwayne for the first time, but we were connected through a member of the board. That’s how Dwayne and I met. Over a period of several months, we had a number of conversations and Dwayne let me know very early on that he was going to get to know me at a level of detail I never anticipated and I understand that right? It’s, it’s a… these are big decision as you decide to hire people at senior levels, and you need to make sure you know, I think Dwayne did a very good job of just, you know, spending the first couple of conversations making sure we were in the same solar system on values, because you know, if you don’t get that right in such a values-based, culture-based, people-first organization, it’s not going to work and I appreciated that. In fact, you know, those conversations really drove me to do, want to learn more and whether he designed it that way or not. That’s the way it worked out and you know by the end it wasn’t you know, it wasn’t it was clear that for me this was an opportunity I wanted to get, and I was going to work hard for it and you know, I’m grateful that he’s given me the responsibility in the end the opportunity in and the trust. I mean, you know, the trust to look after this business with the responsibility that we have every day. 

Lucas: So what’s on the horizon over the next three to five, ten years for Aegis? 

Kris: Well Aegis has today 32 communities across Washington, California, and Nevada. We have nine communities in development as we speak – one opening on Mercer Island, Washington, a beautiful new lodge probably the most beautiful property I’ve seen anywhere. I’ve actually traveled recently. Opening on Mercer Island in Washington in just a couple of weeks. That will be our next project and you know, you’re going to see us stay very focused on the states we’re operating in particular Washington and California, and honestly, if I, if I think hard about it, you know, California is a big opportunity for us. We have, you know, a very good and growing business in Northern California and the Los Angeles area, but we will absolutely be looking for opportunities to to smartly grow the business in those areas and of course in Seattle many of the new projects that we have underway, new communities under way are in that area and you know, we’re going from strength-to-strength. So, I think it’s going to be a very exciting new chapter for Aegis as we think about the coming 10 years, and the team is we we’ve got it an unbelievably talented group of people that Dwayne has brought together from any number brands many outside of senior living: Nordstrom, Amazon, Disney, you know, experienced brands to bring a focus to the experience for residents that hopefully has never been seen.

Josh: That’s so exciting. That’s awesome. Well we talk about that a lot how so many outside influences now are needed with fresh eyes, fresh perspectives for this pivot point in our, in our space. So thanks for joining us today. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. It’s exciting to have your knowledge base being applied to senior housing. Very new to the space, but already a thought leader in the space here at the Senior Living Innovation Forum sharing with us today. Thanks for spending time at the conference. Thanks for spending time with us. We are going to make sure we connect our audience to you, and Lucas will share more about that. 

Lucas: Sure. Sure.

Kris: I should also say that I am really glad to be with people who have got the right accent. That’s all I’m going to say. 

Josh: We appreciate that shared southern accent. 

Lucas: That’s exactly right. Well and thank you, also, a little kind of offline to give our listeners a little bit of backstory. We had met you before mainly because you’re the new kid on the block, but you had talked about the podcast, so really grateful that you’ve been listening. Not exactly sure how you got connected.

Kris: It’s funny. I know the podcast because when I first started considering this I found you online, you know new to the business, new to the industry and I listen to the podcast and that’s how I know you because I got my early education on how to think about some of these issues, so I’m thankful for you two as well because you help me get a little bit of a head start in the business.

Lucas: Wonderful. 

Josh: That’s super cool to hear. It’s been an interesting journey for Lucas and myself. Just a little over a year in and honestly, we didn’t really know much about a podcast. We just felt the passion to do it, and thank you for sharing that. That means a lot. 

Lucas: It gives us an opportunity to meet guys like you. Calling a million workers. Let’s bring a million workers into the space over the next couple of years. And let’s use BTGvoice as a platform to ring the bell and sound the alarms to this industry to bring good people in so they can have purpose and passion in caring for older adults. What a great opportunity this is and thank you so much for listening to another great episode of Bridge the Gap.

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

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Episode 77: Kris Engskov