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Episode 78: Ben Thompson

Ben Thompson shares how to build organizations that will leave a lasting impact on a community in this week’s episode.

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Lucas: Welcome to Bridge the Gap podcast, the senior living podcast with Josh and Lucas. We are in Nashville- NHI’s Music City Symposium, and we have on a great young leader in the business, Ben Thompson of Senior Living Communities out of Charlotte, North Carolina. Welcome, Ben. 

Ben: Thank you.

Josh: Ben, also, great head of hair, my man. Look at that hair. 

Lucas: I’ve got hair envy. 

Josh: So great to have you man. And so we’re going to talk a little bit today about your journey and senior living and we’re going to talk a little bit about what’s happening here at the NHI Music City Symposium. Some great conversation on a panel discussion led by our friend Cameron with NHI. Did a great job and I understand you had really an insider scoop in helping him with some of the outline and then guiding some of the discussion today. So we’re really thankful to have you on the show.

Ben: Glad to be here. 

Lucas: So Ben, let’s dive into it a little bit you guys work in the family business. Tell us this background. We heard Donald, your father, speak on the panel, a lot of great information about how the culture of your organization works. I love following y’all’s information on social media. You guys are actually one of the very few that are very active on social media. So I’m throwing a lot of things at you but why don’t you tell our listeners and our audience you as a young leader coming into the business, talk about your perspective? 

Ben: Sure. Yeah. First, I want to comment on the social media comment. We actually have two dedicated full-time social media individuals at our home office in Charlotte and that’s basically more or less all they do from Facebook and Instagram so on and so forth. 

Josh: That’s a great point. It shows. 

Lucas: That’s all I want to talk about now.

Josh: It really shows and I think it’s so many people, I mean we could go off on a tangent about this but our industry has traditionally been pretty behind the times and I think people don’t realize how much of a tool it can be but how much time and attention it takes to detail. So like you said, it’s a couple people’s full-time job. 

Ben: Yeah, two people’s full-time job, and kind of related to the panel talking about labor and that’s our’s and everyone else’s number one challenge right now. One of the, I think, the undervalued aspects of using social media is not just for families or for marketing to prospects, it’s actually team members. So one of the reasons why we have two dedicated people is because one of those folks actually spends a lot of it around hiring. So we actually post our jobs on Facebook and use Facebook, Instagram to recruit as well and it would actually got pretty good response out of that, so much so that we had a couple communities a year ago when we started doing the essentially job advertising on Facebook and Instagram, they kind of said shut off the valve. We can’t handle this much applicant flow. 

Josh: Wow. That’s awesome. 

Lucas: Industry, are you listening? Please listen to this. 

Josh: Yeah, please listen to that. And I think it does take some strategy, some attention, some effort, and it doesn’t happen overnight. You’ve got to, like, work on it. And so yeah, thank you for sharing that. That was not even part of our discussion today. That’s just an added nugget for our audience. So that’s awesome. So thanks for sharing.

Lucas: So go back to more your perspectives on coming up in, yeah?

Sure. Yeah, so family business. Donald Thompson is our founder and CEO. He started out as a contractor, actually. Kind of got into business as a developer. Kind of that typical story. Fell into it randomly of sorts. Had a family friend who knew of him as a developer and a general contractor, and said, hey, I would like to build this community in Hendersonville, North Carolina, a small town out west North Carolina near Asheville where I was born. That’s how he got into it back in ’88, so 31 years ago and then kind of liked it and saw the opportunity there. 

And so then he started running the Development Division of that company became general partner, got into operations, and he’s been doing it ever since. I was alive at that time but an infant, so my story was slightly different. It’s actually not a situation where I was ever interested in going into the family business. Certainly, grew up around it, had lots of exposure to it, have been to plenty of communities as a child and I probably had no idea what I was even at. I remember telling my friends when I was little that when someone asked what does your dad do, I’d say oh he is a venture capitalist so I didn’t even really know until I was older and then even fast forward into college up until my senior year, still never going to go into senior housing. It wasn’t something I was in.

I kinda had an entrepreneurial mindset. My dad, I inherited that from him and basically was applying for jobs and you know, senior year I had multiple other opportunities but the beauty of a family business and we’re not small, NHI’s largest operator by revenue, but small enough that I saw an opportunity to get to wear a whole bunch of different hats and get a lot of experience right away out of school. And so I jumped on that. I figured it’d be a good way of getting a lot of industry professional experience and my thought was that I would take that somewhere else, but after the first couple years of being in on my ninth year now, I just kind of fell in love and enjoyed it more and more and you know, especially getting to spend time in our communities with the residents and really realize what we do and what we are about and here I am. 

Josh: Yeah. So what’s a day in the life of your shoes like? What are you what are you doing? 

Ben: So in my current role, I’m basically in charge of operations for the company so I largely manage the day to day. So with that said, every week’s a little different depending on what what’s going on in our world. Some days putting out fires, in which case, that day varies. Otherwise my big emphasis and what I try to focus a lot of time on the past two years which is how long I’ve been in charge of I guess operations for the company, really trying to focus on culture building which a lot of that ties into what the main panel here is talking about. Labor, because at the end of the day, your culture is really tied to and relates to your labor, and that’s what I try to spend a lot of my my time on you, as well as your typical industry leadership items, managing different departments.

Lucas: Talk to us about the makeup of the acuity levels that you cater to. Is it is it independent, assisted, CCRC?

Ben: Yeah, so pretty much everything we operate is CCRC or life plan community, and we have a couple of kind of one-offs, like a couple might not have skilled nursing, some of them might not have the whole continuum, but for the most part, the bulk part of our portfolio, everything with NHI is basically CCRC or life plan communities, about 60% of our units, 65% are independent living and then another 25-30% is assisted living and memory care and that last 15% is skilled. We kind of consider ourselves specialists of sorts in the continuum. We are very firm believers of that continuum of care. You know a lot of our competitors are stand-alone Assisted Living, Memory Care, stand-alone skilled, or maybe IL/AL/memory care. We really value for the consumer’s sake, the prospects take that continuum it brings. It’s a better product for seniors, of course I am biased but…

Lucas: Which is actually always interesting and I’m not certainly not the expert to speak on this but I do read the articles and there’s seems to be a trend of the past couple years that CCRCs have come up in the headlines about, you know, not a good model going forward but yet we’ve had multiple guests on that talk about this is a really valuable model to the marketplace and to the operator themselves. 

Josh: Yeah.

Ben: I think some of that is driven by well a couple things, especially all we have or operate is all entry fee and the reason some folks might say that is because the entry fee model can be cyclical with the housing market, so there is more risk where if you are purely looking at, I’m going to use the term care services, we don’t actually refer to the license part of our business anymore as healthcare. Just everything we try and do, we try are reiterate that its home. We are not a hospital. We are not a, you know, not a medical office. Yes, we provide health care services, but we call it care services, so I use the term care services.

Josh: Sure. 

Ben: One day maybe the industry will pick it up. We will see. That’s a term we use.

Josh: So there was a wealth of information today. We obviously don’t have time on our show and there’s a huge evening full of great events that we’ve got all get to and we’ve got people like looking at us saying time, time, time. But we want to touch on a few of the things we talked about labor on this panel. Your dad was on the air as CEO talking about a lot of things but take us away. Everything was around recruitment, retention, the atmosphere, and the attention that is being placed on labor. Everybody was standing in the room when they asked a question- how many people this is like on your top two radar of things that keep you up at night or things that you’re focused on. So what are a couple if you could just give us two of the initiatives that you guys are really focued on, centered around labor, recruitment, and retention? 

Ben: Sure. Two of these were more or less touched on earlier as well, so I’d kind of be repeating them, but essentially two things: One being immediacy and to kind of give up a little data point around that. When I say immediacy, let me step back and explain first. When I say immediacy, I mean immediacy of hire. So we’re trying to treat a new hire, a potential employee the same way we would, the same way we would a prospect, where we want to court them. We want to find them quickly, find a lot of them, find a qualified candidate and get them on board. So the same way you want a new resident to move into your community, we want our prospective team member to join our team as quickly as possible. 

So a lot of our initiatives have been around that. How do we do that daily pay and paying them quicker that’s part of that so they can join us. If we can pay them quicker than more likely to join us. What’s interesting and this is bizarre to me in the past year right now our average, on average across all of our communities, some is higher and lower, on average about 15% of our new hires do not show up for their first day of work. What I mean by that is we have pre-screened them, so we have interviewed them, we’ve hired them, they’ve signed. We’ve done a background check. We run for all of our communities ,we run a full drug screen, we run a full federal background check not just state. We’ve done that. On the healthcare side business, we’ve done that the PPD test. We’ve gone through all our pre-screening, spent a bunch of time and money, but 15% so you know out of 10, almost 2 out of 10 employees do not show up for the first day of work and that’s because they’ve already, they got offered by somebody else who was maybe able to start them and/or pay them quicker. So that’s kind of what we’re up against, and what we’ve been combating. 

So we’ve called it Project Immediacy, but it’s there’s no end date on that project. It’s just the way the world is now, and what we continue to plan to do. The other item I’ll talk to, the other item is we feel like we’ve always had best in class benefits, but we’ve kind of had to rethink our compensation strategy, because one of the challenges we found is that, especially at that hourly team member when I said minimum wage, sure, minimum wage is $7.85 or whatever it is. Our minimum wage is $13 an hour more or less. We don’t have any team members that start below that. 

One of our challenges is how do we get them to value some of the benefits we provide, because we specifically have some phenomenal programs in particular, our paid time off program, industry-leading, really much better than most employers outside of our industry as well. Our frontline staff actually gets 21 days of paid time off in the first year. They start accruing that right out of the gates. One of the things that we did, we call it flexible paid time off. We actually let our team members cash that, point being if they’ve worked for us for a few months they now have 5-10 days, whatever it is in the bank, they can request it and we’ll cash it out for them to them. It’s theirs. They own it.

Josh: So they keep working. So they don’t take the time off. They just take the cash for it.

Ben: They just take the cash.

Josh: Okay. 

Ben: Yeah, that, so let’s say they got 10 days or 80 hours of PTO and that’s worth whatever it is, for easy math’s sake, say it is $10 an hour, and so they got $800 in the bank, they want to take it as cash, we’ll cut it to them in a check. Because they earned it. We’ve accrued it on our books. It’s a liability. It’s their money. But a lot of employers don’t do that, and we essentially are already paying for it anyway, so why not give it to them. And kind of another interesting thing with part of this, we’ve done the cash out for quite some time, but additionally we actually, we call it flexible PTO we’ll actually let them choose how much they accrue. I mean first year team ever gets 21 days, but they want to accrue just let’s say 5 days of PTO, the cash value over a year of that, we will actually put into their hourly rates so tey can actually choose to increase their hourly rate and decrease their PTO accrual, because either way they are getting paid that money and that something else unique to us.

Josh: That’s fascinating. So is there any negatives you’ve seen of that so far? It’s like for example, I mean immediately my first thought was okay. Do you have any groups that are like taking the cash, but then calling in sick or you know, like is there is there anything that you’ve seen as a result has been counterproductive right now? 

Ben: No. The only negative would be you know, I’m of the opinion obviously, there’s value in having some paid time off stored in the event of a family emergency, and this is one of the reasons why we give so much. That way folks want to take a vacation, maybe one of their loved one to get sick, and then they take care of that person instead of taking care of our residents, at least for a week or two weeks, whatever it is. There is value in having that much paid time off in the bank. If our team members quit us. There’s a little golden parachute of sorts. We cash that out as team members leave. 

So the negative is that if they are not if they’re not letting it accrue, they don’t have that safety blanket to fall back on but as was stated earlier, you know the realities in our industry, 80% less of the team members are hourly and work realistically paycheck-to-paycheck. So they want as much take-home pay as they can. They don’t really value PTO the way that (others do). 

Josh: Yeah fascinating. So thank you for sharing that with us in in a very short concise way. There is a lot more to that discussion I can, I can tell you, so any other as we start to wrap up this conversation, any other closing things that have been really impactful to you guys at recruiting and being able to attract outside of that. 

Ben: Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, somewhat was talked about in here and then I’ll start on what I’ve talked about it kind of policy type items and certainly beneficial if you go to our website, you look at our careers page, we have all those things listed. We do daily pay, same day payday, and all this but at the end of the day and there’s an age-old saying, you know people don’t, you know, leave organizations, they leave people or people to join organizations, the join people. So I think there’s not necessarily a system or process that can resolve, some of what was talked about earlier is really about company culture and I think some of these programs speak to our culture but at the end of the day, a lot of it’s just people. Happy people. You’ve got to hire for attitude. You want happy people, smiling people. You keep smiling. That’s great. 

We tell our concierge you know when they are answering the phones or we tell the individuals in our community and the HR directors for hiring concierges, look when they talk to someone on the phone, with that first point of contact for prospect or team member, they need to feel the smile through the phone, because at the end of the day that attitude and positivity is really what sells are community, and we have very nice communities. We are typically the top of market everywhere in rate and the product and everything else, but pretty buildings are pretty buildings. They don’t mean anything much without people. So, what you’ve seen in the past, not in our industry but certainly the country as a whole but the past 5-10 years, there’s a real emphasis on people ‘cause there’s a shortage of them, especially good ones, so just trying to figure out how you track and retain those folks and be creative about it. 

Lucas: This is a great conversation that continues to be had in our industry and we’re so thankful for you Ben that you’ve been here and are a part of it and you know, you were using your talents and your time to benefit the older adults are living in your communities in the industry. So thank you for what you’re doing. Thanks for having a robust social media platform in your business. We will make sure that we connect to all of those things the show notes so that our listeners can connect with you and follow what you guys are doing and maybe join your team. 

Ben: That’d be great. 

Josh: Awesome. 

Lucas: Thank you so much. And thanks everyone 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 78: Ben Thompson