Owner-operator turns childhood interest in the elderly and healthcare services into a lifelong career in seniors housing
By Jeff Shaw
It was pretty clear from the start that Sloan Bentley was destined for a career in seniors housing.
Bentley, now the president and CEO of Des Moines, Iowa-based Lifespace Communities, has been in the industry for 32 years. Raised by her grandparents and interested in pursuing a career in healthcare, she discovered that Bowling Green University offered a gerontology program. She described the discovery as destiny, saying it “wasn’t just happenstance — it was meant to happen.”
She went on to earn a master’s degree in long-term care administration and has spent her entire career in seniors housing, including an 18-year stint working with American Baptist Homes of the West and its Seniority Inc. portfolio.
Now nearly three years into her position as CEO of Lifespace, Bentley oversees 12 continuing care retirement communities totaling 4,052 units in Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska. The company is a nonprofit owner-operator.
Seniors Housing Business sat down with Bentley to discuss her early interest in seniors housing and how it spurred her career in the industry.
Seniors Housing Business: Lifespace was founded by contractor/developer Fred Weitz in Des Moines in 1976 and managed by CCRC operator LCS until 2005, when Lifespace became self-managed. Walk me through the history of Lifespace and its transition into an independent company.
Sloan Bentley: Fred was busy in Iowa. He has a legacy in the seniors housing industry. It’s profound what one person’s influence can really have on a community, though it’s much more than Iowa because LCS and Lifespace are both national companies.
Lifespace has always been a separate nonprofit organization from the rest of Fred’s companies. In 2005 we began the process of becoming self-managed, which took about four years to complete and was finalized in 2009. Since then we’ve added in-house expertise such as legal, IT and risk management to help position Lifespace for growth.
SHB: You were hired in 2014 to replace a retiring Scott Harrison. What were you doing before, and how did you and Lifespace find each other?
Bentley: I’ve been in seniors housing for over 30 years. I was previously the president of Seniority Inc.
I had been with Seniority and its parent company, American Baptist Homes of the West (ABHOW), for 18 years. I was approached by a recruiter about the Lifespace position. I’m going to be honest, I didn’t wake up and think “I’m going to move to Iowa,” but I liked the organization. I understood the mission and the opportunities and the board’s desire to grow. The recruitment process was a fun experience.
Growing within the existing portfolio
SHB: Lifespace completed several expansions in 2016. Is your main strategy to expand and improve existing campuses rather than undertake new ground-up development? If so, why choose that approach over development or acquisitions?
Bentley: It’s certainly incorporated and a basic element of our strategic plan.
Lifespace is poised to grow in the near future. We want to add assisted living and memory care, so we’re looking to redevelop our campuses. We’ll initiate six more redevelopment plans in 2017 that have been approved by the board.
Some of our campuses are 12 years old and some are almost 40 years old. We’ve always invested in capital improvements, but now we’re looking at buildings that may have reached the end of their life. So tear-down-and-replace [projects] or extensive rehabilitation are our main strategies.
We haven’t done a new build in nine years, so we will look at opportunities for new building as well. We are also looking for organizations with similar missions that we might merge with.
SHB: Lifespace hired four new executive directors in 2016 for its various communities. What do you look for in an executive director? What’s your hiring process like?
Bentley: We have restructured our recruitment and selection process. We look for individuals with an excellent business view. We look for people who can interact with and engage our residents and team members.
Executive directors wear a lot of hats, so we need someone able to represent all our initiatives while keeping the personality of the communities strong. There are a lot of ways to streamline the back of the house, but we don’t want our communities to be cookie-cutter. We want them to have their own personality.
We need the passion to keep residents and team members engaged, but with business acumen. That requires finding a unique individual.
SHB: You said you’ve restructured this process. How so?
Bentley: We look at different industries and put in a strong training and mentoring program for those that didn’t come from seniors housing.
For people who haven’t been in senior living before, there’s this perception that it’s a very easy field. However, once you find out how regulated and complex it is, you realize it’s a transition that’s not going to happen overnight.
We incorporated pre-screening testing and panel interviews, for example. It’s a very serious, deliberate structure of selecting individuals and taking our time to find the right one. It’s proven valuable to take the time for that key position.
The affordability conundrum
SHB: What keeps you up at night regarding the current state or future of the seniors housing industry?
Bentley: The biggest issue we have in America is affordability. Because of that, we offer market-rate apartments and we continue to care for our residents that run out of financial resources.
There’s going to be a major wave of seniors who can’t afford market-rate housing but don’t qualify for affordable housing. What do we do as an industry to address this need? Answering this question is a full-time job for providers.
SHB: Are there any good solutions out there?
Bentley: There are creative solutions being tested in the marketplace. One example is being
more economical on the construction end.
It’s not necessarily the housing that’s the problem, it’s the care and services. There are communities being built that are for multiple ages, including seniors, so there’s younger people on site who can assist seniors.
For example, we have a graduate student that lives in one of our communities. There is a lot of research being done on that front.
A lifelong passion for seniors
SHB: Your bachelor’s degree was in gerontology and your master’s was in long-term care administration, so clearly you’ve had an interest in senior living since day one. What drew you to this industry at such a young age?
Bentley: This is not the first chosen career for many individuals. I was raised by my grandparents, and my grandfather was my chief babysitter. Living with him, I got to meet his friends. They were all retired seniors. Many served in the military and many were coal miners in the Ohio Valley. Sitting on their porches, hearing their stories, I grew up with great respect for seniors and their lives.
I was taught to give back, and I wanted to do something in health services. I was very lucky that Bowling Green had a gerontology program. That wasn’t just happenstance — I believe that was meant to happen. It was chosen for me.
They always say if you love your job, you never work a day in your life. That has been my experience in this career. I’ve been in this business 32 years. I really enjoy the field and the purpose and the mission.
SHB: You published a book about senior living in 2011 titled “Believing in Senior Living — Insight and Inspiration for the Future of Our Profession.” What inspired you to do that? What do you hope people learn from reading it?
Bentley: A few years ago I really started doing research on culture and hospitality. We were redeveloping these communities where residents had lived for five to 20 years. We were bringing a new product in for a new generation of seniors, but how do you integrate with seniors who may be 25 years apart in age? The answer for our organization was culture and hospitality.
I did a lot of research and came to understand the best practices of Ritz-Carton, Marriott, Disney and Nordstrom’s. The book highlighted what I learned to be successful in driving hospitality and how it applies to senior housing.
Those companies don’t serve their clients 24/7, but in seniors housing we do. Disney is looking for repeat customers, but we live with our residents. Our team members — it’s part of their home as well.
Our goal is for a life experience rather than a repeat customer. That’s what the book focuses on.
I hope readers found it interesting and inspiring to look at hospitality and culture in a different way.
SHB: What was your main takeaway from the research?
Bentley: It ties into change management, and the time and commitment to put in a culture program.
For example, we had an orientation program here at Lifespace. It ranged from a half-day orientation program to a couple days and focused on getting that team member ready to perform his or her job.
We’ve changed that. Now the first two entire days are only about culture — the expectation of what meeting our mission is about and the team member’s role in that mission. That’s very different than explaining the job.
If the organization doesn’t define culture and hospitality, then culture is defined by the individual team member, meaning we’d have 2,800 different interpretations at 12 locations.
During the recruiting and selection program, we talk about our culture and what it means to us. We also have daily huddles at every community — that’s every site, every day, every shift — regarding our values and what’s important to us.
That’s a major investment by the organization, but I believe it’s critical to have a consistent culture and select individuals that are of a high caliber. We expect every team member to live up to his or her commitment.
It’s not rocket science, but it’s a deliberate process.
SHB: What would people in the industry be surprised to learn about you?
Bentley: You stumped me. I am who I am and I try to be very transparent with our residents and family members. I don’t have this big secret or unknown.
I love to golf. I’m an animal lover. We recently moved to a new office, and it’s pet-friendly.