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Episode 88: Andy Eby

“When you operate a business of an appropriate scale and you call yourself a family business, there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that.” -Andy Eby

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Lucas: Welcome to Bridge the Gap podcast, the senior living podcast with Josh and Lucas. Josh today we are in Nashville, Tennessee at NHI’s Music City Symposium and we’ve got two awesome guests today. Right now on the show I’d like to welcome Andy Eby and Alan Fairbanks of Bickford Senior Living. Welcome guys.

Alan: Thank you, great to be here. 

Lucas: So there’s a lot going on, everybody that’s listening right now can hear there’s a lot of background noise. This is a very exciting event. We just got off a very rousing speech from the one and only Coach Lou Holtz. Everybody gave him a standing ovation. And so the energies really high. What do you think is the most important reason why you gentlemen are here today? 

Alan: Well for us, I think it’s because we’ve had a great relationship with NHI for going back ten plus years. So great, great bunch of guys. So it’s a good way to continue to cement that relationship with them, and also connect with other operators. And I think this is about just connection, and then being a community with other operators and sharing best practices. And at the end of the day we all want to get better at what we’re doing and what better opportunity then to talk to some of the best operators and the best folks out there. 

Lucas: Absolutely, and you were on a panel discussion earlier today. Josh and I have talked about this many times. I’m constantly fascinated as a partner to the industry, the collaboration that takes place between “competitors” is, it’s unprecedented in any other industry and you really showed that today on the panel. Give us a synopsis of your your takeaways from that.

Andy: Yeah, I’d say there is a lot of collaboration in this industry, partly because it’s a tough business to be in. And the challenge doesn’t lie so much in the ideas of things, as it lies in the execution of these wonderful ideas. And so we really have no no issues sharing our competitive advantage because at the end of day, can you get it done in 63 communities across the country, that’s a whole different story. 

Josh: So there’s several things I specifically want to dive into that you guys specifically touched on. But before that I always find it interesting, so we’re friends of NHI, we get to go to some of their dinners and hang out with guys like you. But you guys have had a really steep growth trajectory, so talk us through kind of the history of Bickford, what started you guys? It’s a really cool story that if our audience hasn’t heard that, they need to hear your story and your why and how NHI has been kind of apart of helping you grow. 

Andy: Sure, absolutely. A little bit about Bickford Senior Living is we got started nearly thirty years ago because of the needs of my grandmother Mary Bickford.  Mary Bickford was my grandmother, she was a long time ago starting to show signs of Alzheimer’s dementia before we as a family or really, a lot of the industry, knew that much about dementia. And so we built our first community for Mary Bickford and she was our first resident. It was a family business from the start. I mowed the first lawn. I got paid $40 to mow the first lawn. And then I went back to school and my dad paid someone a $110 to mow that same lawn. So welcome to the family business.

Josh: I love that. 

Andy: Yeah, gotta love that.  But everything we’ve done from the beginning, was created for someone that we love and someone that meant something to us and so from the way our communities are designed, to the policies and procedures and how we operate our communities, they were designed for what we would do for our own loved ones. So as we’ve grown we’ve tried to find partnerships, financial partnerships, that support us in our purpose so NHI has been a good partner for us over time. You know, it seems like we have a lot of communities, 63 and people are like oh that’s pretty big, well we started thirty years ago. So when you kind of average that out, it doesn’t seem like too much. For us as a family, we don’t care about how big we get, we don’t want to be the biggest. We’re not run by a public institution. We’re not trying to please financial stakeholders and different things like that, at the end of the day we want to care, serve and love people the way we would if it was our own loved one living in there and continue to operate like that today. 

Josh: That is super cool story. Well that kind of rolls into at the beginning, kind of when you were talking about what you guys do and we were talking about labor challenges and things like that, you guys showed a video and I think it was called “the Caregiver Manifesto.” Is that right? So it was a moving video, tell us a little bit about why you produced that and what it’s all about? 

Andy: As our organization continues to grow, the challenge is how do you embed your purpose, your values, the heart of who you are into every single person that interacts with us. And so you have to be very strategic and very intentional about that and that’s something that we’re very passionate about: this is not an investment for us, we’re not doing this for a certain lifestyle. We’re doing it because we believe that Bickford Senior Living best allows us the opportunity to live our purpose here and is the platform in which we engage with that. 

So we created a manifesto to better relate and connect with our caregivers which is a majority of our workforce. So we created a caregiver’s manifesto that really speaks to who are at our core and why do we do what we do? And so as the process of going about building that, and understanding what that message is, we in turn began to identify ourselves as leaders as caregivers. Because at the end of the day, we’re all here made to love and that’s just not the caregivers who are in branch of serving residents, that’s you guys running the podcast, that’s us as leaders in this industry. We’re here to love, and we’re at our best when we’re extending that love in the service of others and we wanted a message that communicated that very clearly, very authentically and very boldly to the world of who we are. 

Josh: So NHI, Cameron who was leading the panel, he kind of framed up before your panel started, how many in the room basically one of your top five problems or things that keep you up at night is dealing with labor challenges. Everybody stayed standing, whittled it down to the top two, everybody still stayed standing. And I thought it was really interesting. You guys are really focused on your story, your why, your culture, the caregiver manifesto, but what I thought was really interesting is how you’re building incentive plans even around how you reward to that. So, I believe you called it the 4951. Can you explain what that is, what it means and the why behind that?

Alan: For us that kind of came out of the idea of this isn’t just about teaching someone how to take care of someone. I mean teaching the skills part of this, anyone can really go out and do that, what we really want that’s really at the end of the day the easy part. The hard part is finding those individuals that share and have those same types of values. So finding individuals that are optimistically warm, that are curious, that have a lot of grit and determination. So we’ve created a platform for us to be able to go out and try to identify those individuals through a list of behavior-based interview questions that we provide all of our leaders within our branches, so they can try to identify not just those individuals that have that resume or that skill-set, but who are those people that really share our heart and our passion for what we do, those 51-percenters. So we provide them that information so we can make sure that we’re doing everything we possibly can to get those types of individuals in our organization. 

Josh: That’s so cool. And you guys actually build your I guess you would call it your employee evaluations and your raises around that is that correct? 

Alan: Absolutely. They’re built into not just the skill side, they’re built into the value side. And it’s all very purposeful and intentional and those conversations are taking place multiple times throughout the year, not just that that annual performance evaluation. They’re taking place two to three times throughout the year as well to make sure that that they know and have an opportunity to grow and become better not just caregivers, better people at the end of the day.

Andy: I would add to that that, not only do we put core values and put them up on a wall and put them up on our website, at the end of the day our annual raises are determined based on that balanced approach of the performance that you have in your job or what we feel is just a little bit more important, that is the way in which you do your job through exhibiting our values. And so fifty one percent of our annual raises, so when you think about an organization that has nearly three thousand employees and the annual increase that goes with that, 51 percent of the annual increase is based upon our values. That’s a big number that we at every year put down on this is how important our values are, but essentially I always say we’re putting our money where our mouth is with that.

Josh: Yeah so that’s huge and talk to us a little bit about, we talked about two different things. So I want to tie in what you’re doing, and I don’t know how far back it was that you really started these specific initiatives, but have you guys seen in your data and as far as your employee turnover, your resident satisfaction, have you seen some improvement in your bottom line or results that you can tie back to this or is it still too early to tell?  

Andy: You know, I’d say there’s so much that goes into turnover. It is not a simple formula in this business. Ultimately, people join companies and leave managers. We very much believe in that. and so our approach to retention, recruitment, annual conversations is all part of a larger picture of a relationship between a manager and the individual who works there. And so we aggressively pursue multiple strategies, probably the largest being leadership development of our of our leaders and our managers. This industry has so many responsibilities and so many services that we provide residents that there’s tons of skill-based training. How to effectively run dining services for the residents every day, how to do payroll, how to do billing, how to do marketing and things like that. But what gets lacked we believe in this industry is the opportunity to grow leaders, grow better human beings that are better able to relate and build genuine authentic relationships that ultimately lead to care and services provided for our residents. 

Josh: There was some talk also, and I’m not sure if it was you that brought it up and I’ll probably butcher the way that you guys said it, but we were talking about how difficult and how aggressive you have to be with creating an experience for the potential recruit, that potential employee, the environment that they’re coming into, just the same kind of emphasis as we put on the tour for the resident or the family member so talk us through a little bit of your approach and your philosophy on that, what you guys are doing to create that experience?

Alan: I think one of the main things that we’re doing right now is we’re trying to create the same sort of purpose and intention behind that, that we have with the marketing aspect of the tour process and the potential residents and families when they come in. We’re putting the same metrics behind that as it relates to our hiring. So how many applications are we getting, what’s the applicant flow? How many interviews have we done, how many offers have we made? How many acceptance do we have, what’s the training component look like for all these individuals? So it really is about just making sure that you have a purpose and intention behind everything that you do to make sure that you’re following through on those expectations.  As Andy indicated, it’s really about execution at the end of the day and making sure you’re executing on those systems that you have in place. So what we’re in the process of putting in place is those sorts of metrics and those sorts of expectations when we have applicant flow start to happen within our system. So making sure you’re welcoming the potential applicant, you’re warm, you’re giving them an opportunity and place to do the application and having the tour process set up for them as well. The shadowing aspect, the offer letter, just making sure that everything is intentional about the way our approach is going to be with that individual.

Josh: I love that. So practically speaking, you guys I know you think maybe you’re not that large but that’s a lot of communities. That’s a lot of potential applicants. What does an applicant tracking system look like for you guys? I mean what are some systems you put into place to kind of keep track of this process to hold hiring managers accountable and to really hire towards your culture because you guys are are really focused on the culture.

Andy: I would say that the same process that we would manage our leads is the same process in which we’re getting ready to manage our applicants and it is something that is a new initiative for the organization. I think if you look historically at this industry when my father and mother first started this business, they didn’t do any advertising, sales training, all this stuff man. They were basically the first assisted living in the state of Kansas. My dad was helping write the regulations for the state of Kansas because the industry didn’t exist. They didn’t have to do any of that stuff, but as the market has matured and more people have entered there, you have to be a lot more strategic and intentional about what you’re doing. And I think over the last several years the employment side of the business has been significantly becoming greater, greater and greater challenged and I think a lot of our industry has been a little bit slow to respond to that. You know we kind of, I think I industry-wide, just kind of post an ad and pray that you get applicants, and then when they come, you know, you’ll call and when you get to it, you know the game now is different. There’s more at stake and it’s a higher calling for more what we would call conscious leadership, to where every moment matters that you have as a leader. You can’t take for granted a lead that comes in. You can’t take for granted an applicant that comes in. You can’t take for granted an employment complaint because you’re going to have a hole. When it gets more competitive, more challenging, your rise of conscious leadership has to grow.

Josh: So cool. So we’ll start rounding out the conversation here a little bit because we know you guys have to go, you’ve already finished a glass of wine. We’ve got to refill that wine, but talk to us a little bit about the family reunion. I thought that was kind of cool. It’s kind of a cool twist on what could be a very potentially not looked forward to time of the year in most companies but for you guys, it’s a family reunions.So tell us about your culture there.

Andy: Well if you guys want to experience it next time first hand you guys are invited to experience it, and you  can do one of these podcasts to interview our people.  

Josh: Yes, that’s awesome. 

Andy: I promise you, you’ve never experienced a corporate meeting like this. The two of you guys; you’ll cry, you’ll be emotional, you’ll be sharing intimate details about your life to a complete stranger.

Josh: Wow, I feel vulnerable. 

Lucas: That’s a typical Tuesday on the podcast, internal meetings. 

Andy: But when you operate a business of an appropriate scale and you call yourself a family business, there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that. For some companies that may be empty words, for us it’s something that we were very intentional about creating that connection and that feeling. Because what is that sense of family, its connection, that feeling. And so family reunions is our opportunity to create that for our people. Over the course of time it’s grown from skill-based training, to a really a spiritual and leadership conference and it’s something pretty magical and we’re proud about. It is a core element of our culture. 

Josh: That’s so cool. So now location, do you guys do that at center location at the corporate headquarters, do you do it at a retreat center, what do you do? 

Andy: Well, if we hit a certain occupancy we’re going to do it at Disney World.

Josh: Oh, I’m headed there tomorrow.  

Andy: So, but we haven’t hit that occupancy so- 

Alan: -And this is the marketing guy talking, so what are we waiting on? Let’s go, come on.

Andy: 95%. That’s what we’re waiting on. No, but, we do it in Kansas City, and that gives an opportunity for our people at branch support which we call our corporate office, they have the ability to engage and they are just as an active participant in these interactions of vulnerability, of leadership development and it gives them a real good connection and relationship with our field so that we remember at Kansas City our Branch support, that we’re here to serve the branches, they are not here to serve us.

Alan: For me one of the coolest things that comes out of the family reunions is you have is these people, many times they are complete strangers, you know, they work for us but some of them have been recently hired, maybe they’re branch support, and they walk away and they keep that connection going after the family reunion. We have individuals that, we call our corporate office branch support, we have members of the branch support that continue to stay in regular non-business conversations with directors, with nurses in our locations because of the vulnerability that takes place in the community, that takes place within that family reunions and that community continues to grow and it continues to expand even after the family reunion ends. 

Josh: This is fascinating. Lucas, I love this, you know, it is a beautiful experience to be able to be in a room full of what a lot of people would consider competitors, right? 

Lucas: Yeah.

Josh: And you guys were up there with a host of other people that have huge growing organizations and you’re just sharing the nitty-gritty of what you’re doing and your secret recipe, and your secret sauce that makes Bickford tick. And so we so appreciate your honesty and transparency. That’s the kind of stuff that we when we started Bridge the Gap, we wanted to be able to have a platform that just communicates that because it adds value to the whole industry and raises everyone. So we appreciate you being on our show today and taking time away from this really exciting event we’re at today. 

Lucas: Yes, the energy is still high and Andy and Alan, you guys are awesome. Andy, you’re a big dude, man. I’ve heard through the grapevine, you’re talking a lot of touchy feely stuff with love and hand holding, but I hear you were a pro football player.

Andy: That’s why I was excited about Coach Holtz being here today, giving his pep talk because my offensive line coach played at Green Bay and the St. Louis Rams. He got my Green Bay offensive lineman coach, he taught him how to be an offensive line coach. And so we had a good connection and a great share. But interesting story is I actually chose to after my third year in the NFL, I  actually chose to leave the NFL. Not out of the NFL left me, but because I wanted to pursue more meaning in my life and is the best decision I ever made. When I made it a lot of people said I would regret that, but this industry has given me and our business has given me such a great platform to live what I believe to be my purpose and I’m very grateful for this. 

Josh: That’s so cool man.  

Lucas: And I believe you, it’s very believable. And this is the love stories that we continue to talk about, and we’re so grateful to you guys, you gentlemen. And the fun doesn’t end after we put the mics down because we’ve got more events tonight. So we’ll make sure that we connect with you guys on social media because our audience is going to want to know more about this secret sauce and all these details were talking about. We’ll connect with Bickford in the show notes and you can connect with us. Anybody that’s on LinkedIn, message us. Go to and thank you 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 88: Andy Eby