Takeaways & Lasting Impression from the American Senior Housing Association Annual Meeting

February 6, 2018 / News Blog

By Ben Bruns, The Weitz Company Director of Business Development

The American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA) provides industry leaders with a network of resources, access to best practices and advocacy. As a leading senior living community builder, Weitz has been involved with ASHA for nearly a decade.

From January 31 to February 2, colleague Larry Graeve and I attended the ASHA Annual Meeting in Orlando, Fla., with some 400 other senior living community leaders from public policy firms, banks, insurance agencies, senior living communities and development companies. In addition, Daniel Pink (well-known author of six books, including his newest “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing”) and Debra Cafaro (CEO of Ventas, the S&P 500 Real Estate Investment Trust) were there as speakers in a room filled with intelligent minds and diverse perspectives. I felt grateful to be amongst it all.

Over the three-day event, the idea of mentorship kept coming up in speeches and conversations we had during the conference and after hours. It was clear throughout the group, leaders caring for their people and those they served was key to success here.

For me, the highlight of the conference was the inaugural ASHA Senior Living Hall of Fame. Bill Colson of Holiday Retirement Corporation was honored as a man who relentlessly pursued affordable senior living for residents. Though he has passed on, his words “you’ll never go wrong doing the right thing” struck me so profoundly and are undoubtedly a strong influence on those he mentored.

Next, former American Retirement Corporation CEO (and later Brookdale Senior Living CEO) Bill Sheriff spoke about his mentors, Dr. Thomas Frist Sr. and Jack Massey. Both Dr. Frist and Mr. Massey founded American Retirement Corporation and Hospital Corporation of America, the largest private operator of health care facilities in the world. Sheriff shared how blessed he was to find a mentor in his life who reminded him “the credit goes to the people doing good work,” referring to the employees enabling the organization to succeed. After 28 years in the senior living business, Sheriff’s humility is still felt. He built 647 communities in 35 states thanks to his ability to lead and his passion for the people.

Then, Stan Thurston, formerly of Life Care Services, talked about the importance of relationships. He was an advocate of change who worked to make the senior living industry a better place. Thurston sought out to disrupt the industry and change the business model. He collaborated with various legal and regulatory groups to create more opportunities for seniors. He created the 90 percent refundable entrance fee contract for Continuing Care Retirement Communities (a major breakthrough that enabled the market to expand for potential residents); guided legislation that changed the tax code to protect CCRC residents; and solved industry-wide problems. Gratitude and servant leadership were perhaps most apparent in Thurston and Sheriff’s stories.

Both of these men led companies that epitomize the strength of the operator. In this sense, agile business models, the experience and insights of the executive teams, the breadth and depth of industry knowledge and the ability to see the big picture define their strength. Perhaps, most importantly, it means to care for their residents and the staffs that serve them every day. To join the industry leaders, you have to be all of these things and more.

At the succession planning workshop, company owners David Freshwater, Tim Smick and Donald Thompson indicated the importance of thinking ahead. Many senior leaders at companies like theirs are contemplating retirement. Again, the theme of leaving something great behind came forward through their focus on creating opportunities for people already in the organization – with this idea of mentorship in mind. It is evident that Freshwater, Smick and Thompson have become industry leaders because of their servant leadership.

Thanks to the team at ASHA for putting on an informative and collaborative conference, and thanks to the impressive people of an industry I am coming to love – putting seniors and those that serve them first.