Meet Mary Leary, president and CEO of Mather LifeWays. In addition to overseeing Mather LifeWays’ communities, Mary also spearheads the Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging, focused on wellness, aging, trends in senior living, and successful aging service innovations. We sat down with Mary at The Mather, a Life Plan Community in Evanston, Illinois, to learn about leading one of the best places to work in Chicago, what’s next for Mather LifeWays, and her crusade to rebrand the CCRC.
How long have you been here at The Mather?
In 2016, I’ll have been with Mather LifeWays for 14 years, and Mather LifeWays will also be celebrating its 75th anniversary.
When you came to Mather LifeWays, what were your initial goals?
When I interviewed for my role, Mather LifeWays’ board chair told me that the board wasn’t sure it wanted to remain in the senior living business. Mather LifeWays Communities were aging and not as competitive in the marketplace, so an initial goal for me was to make the case for senior living being a great investment opportunity and to provide a plan for how Mather could become a market leader. Within four months of joining the organization, the board reconsidered its viewpoint and approved pursuit of a new CCRC in Arizona. This was huge for the organization, because it was the first time we’d ventured out of Illinois, and it was a for-profit joint venture.
A couple of other initial goals were to grow the other divisions of Mather LifeWays, including community initiatives and Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging, to increase our visibility and achieve national recognition.
Sounds like you pretty much hit the majority of your goals when you started. Is that fair?
I think that’s fair. We now serve more than 40,000 older adults each year, but we’re never ones to rest on our laurels. We’re actually looking to double or triple that number in the years ahead. We’re looking at digital social media as a strategy to help accomplish this, and we’re currently working with Northwestern University to explore it further.
Was Splendido [in Arizona] the first community you were responsible for?
Yes, that was the first one, and the second was the redevelopment of The Mather. We also developed a long-range plan and made the decision to sell our freestanding nursing home, Mather Pavillion, which we did last year, and we’re in the process of transforming Mather Place of Wilmette, our rental community.
You guys have kind of danced around a little bit in regard to strategies. You have the rental community, obviously a different strategy from The Mather.
Originally, it was part of one CCRC that included all four of our communities in Evanston and Wilmette. After we redeveloped The Mather, Wilmette and Mather Pavilion became kind of one. We are transforming Mather Place of Wilmette, so it’s more of a freestanding model at this point.
Are you happy with it?
Very happy, and the residents are very happy. We are 100% sold at the Mather with a 130-plus person wait list, and at the Wilmette we have as many priority reservation deposits as apartment homes in our expansion, which will be completed next year.
Since you took over, you have made a lot of progress. Was there a point where you saw things start to get better?
Chicago was particularly hard hit during the recession, as was Arizona, and there were a dozen CCRCs (now called ‘Life Plan Communities’) that were under development, and a couple never achieved the presales needed to be able to move ahead, and several fell into bankruptcy. A number of communities failed to meet certain loan covenants.
We worked very, very hard, and The Mather has been very successful, really since the beginning. As a result of that focus, we were able to eliminate sales and occupancy loan covenants because we were so far ahead that the lender felt they weren’t necessary anymore. We also paid off our construction financing two years ahead of schedule, and the limited financial incentives that we offered prospective residents, our lender called a ‘rounding error.’ So we were very, very pleased, and that has given us a desire to want to continue to expand and develop new Life Plan Communities.
Can you give us a hint where those are going to be?
We have one where we have executed a purchase agreement to build. We have a second where we’ve executed a letter of intent on a site on the East Coast, and we’re shortlisted for a third opportunity, so fingers crossed.
When do you think you’ll be able to tell us about those?
That’s exciting. So for the first 13 years, what has been the biggest challenge the organization faced, and how did you overcome it?
I think it was dealing with the Great Recession. The Mather, which was in the process of pre-sales, construction and fill-up during that period of time, had intense focus to help ensure our success. We implemented a number of different programs. People say, ‘Don’t let a good recession or crisis go to waste.’ So I think it really fueled innovation for us.
You said you put in a couple of initiatives. What does that mean?
Well, we implemented the first-of-its-kind refund program—a Refundable Apartment Home Upgrade program. We’ve seen that if prospective residents don’t invest in upgrades, it often may be a sign that they’re on the fence about moving in, and we wanted to encourage them to feel more comfortable and to upgrade their homes in a way they like. So we implemented a refund program that we felt would stand the test of time and still be very marketable in coming years. That resulted in many more prospective residents doing upgrades, which benefited them as well as the community.
More from the Leadership Series
What kind of upgrades?
Wood floors, upgraded appliances, upgraded countertops, things like that.
We also had what we called a “repriorment”—our word for retirement—program, where we helped incentivize depositors to take the steps needed to be able to move in. I think depositors were very surprised to see that by going through the steps they were able to sell their homes more quickly for a price that was better than they expected. We looked to innovate within the community, and we were the first restaurant in all of Chicago to have a computerized wine bar. So we should have met over there!
It is pretty cool. It’s where you take your card and swipe it? You were really the first restaurant?
We were! Other restaurants will tell you they were first. We saw [them] in the Tribune and other newspapers, and were like, ‘Wait a minute! We opened ours before they did!’
Of all the things you could do, why computerized wine?
We were looking to develop a community that would appeal to the current and next generation of older adults, and their adult children. So we looked to implement things that I would love to have in my home.
You have a diverse board; I like that. It’s everyone from the Tribune’s former publisher as well as people from different hospitals, right?
Yes, the former Chief Marketing Officer of United Airlines, and Walgreens. We have a great group of directors.
You guys were the driving force behind the name change of the CCRC. It’s been a long time coming.
It has been a long time in the making. My desire to rename the CCRC dates back 10 years when we were beginning to market The Mather. I wanted to describe The Mather differently than using the CCRC name, to appeal to a younger market.
The bad news is we were way out ahead. We tried to explain the concept here in a variety of ways without using the word ‘CCRC,’ so then our customers would look at us and say, ‘So are you a CCRC?’ We realized that we were not going to be able to change the name without bringing the industry along with us.
We continued to conduct research into the public’s perceptions about the name, and we found that ‘continuing care’ has a very strong negative connotation, because it focuses on the end of the continuum versus the active and vibrant lifestyle, which I think ‘Life Plan Communities’ can uniquely provide. We asked LeadingAge to partner with us, and we also invited some of the best marketing minds in the business to help identify a new name, and so Life Plan Communities it is!
Everyone calls tissue paper Kleenex. So how do you rename Kleenex?
Well, you can’t do it alone, but when other CCRCs start calling themselves by that name, it’s going to catch on, and it already is catching on. There are already radio ads in Chicago, marketing a Life Plan Community on the South Side, and on the West Coast, there is a new Life Plan Community that is talking about it being a Life Plan Community on its Facebook page.
Is that a cool feeling for you?
It is, because this was a pretty big thing that we wanted to do.
Also kind of personal?
It is, it is. This is the second time that I’ve done this.
Back in the mid-80s, NASLI was in existence—the National Association for Senior Living Industries. It was one of the first trade associations that was more focused on the for-profit side, and there was a lot of swirl about what assisted living should be called. It wasn’t called assisted living then; it was called a lot of different things, primarily personal care.
I remember late on a Friday night talking with a couple of industry leaders, and we were like, ‘Well, what should we call this?’ We said, ‘We think we should call it assisted living.’ And here we are today.
We asked LeadingAge to work with us because the majority of Life Plan Communities are members of LeadingAge.
Tough question: If the name doesn’t catch on, do you consider the initiative a failure?
I think it’s already successful!
The next generation of senior living leaders
Say I’m about to graduate college. What is your pitch on why I should look into senior living?
The possibilities are endless. We often say, ‘The answer is yes but the question is how?” I traveled to India with one of my nieces a couple of years ago, and I said that to her. She thought it was the coolest thing, and she has never forgotten it. That’s truly how we operate at Mather LifeWays.
We’re looking for smart graduates to help us figure out the question of ‘how?’
A career in senior living provides a sense of purpose that’s often bigger than oneself, and I know that our employees find meaning in their work. It’s more than just a job.
“A career in senior living provides a sense of purpose that’s often bigger than oneself, and I know that our employees find meaning in their work. It’s more than just a job.” – Mary Leary
Senior living is a complex business that intersects multiple sectors. People have the opportunity to learn about multiple sectors while working in just one and can also have the opportunity to work with people and develop skills and functional disciplines. Senior living is going to experience exponential growth, which will provide incredible career opportunities.
Do you guys compete with people looking to get into the hospitality industry?
Hospitality and healthcare, definitely.
Have you seen a shift as far as attractiveness of senior living in the past?
I think it’s because of the growth that we’re seeing more people becoming interested, and it’s great that a number of colleges and universities have implemented programs to help educate and grow more people.
During a previous interview, you said you left the corporate office to take a direct sales role?
I had served in various VP roles in a corporate office setting with Oxford Development Corporation, back in Washington, D.C. They were the second largest multi-housing developer in the country and had gotten into senior living early on, so I served in a couple of VP roles there. Then I left to go out on my own.
I took Hyatt as one of my clients, and they ultimately asked me if I would join the company. I gave it a lot of thought, because I felt it would be beneficial to gain field experience since I had never done that. I did realize that some might not have seen this as progressing my career, but I feel that I gained an amazing understanding on how hard it is to work in a community setting, and I’d like to believe that it has enabled me to better support people out in the field. I love the fact that this story has seemed to inspire people at a community level, because they see they can learn and grow and advance in the field.
Do you think you’ve become a better leader as a result of that sales experience in the community?
I would like to think so. I believe my team sees me as still always wearing my sales hat and my marketing hat in everything that I do.
How did your role with Classic Residence prepare you for The Mather?
I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to work directly for [Classic Residence by Hyatt Founder] Penny Pritzker for 10 years. I’m not sure everyone can say that. She was a great role model. She taught me a number of things including developing long-term relationships, seeking differences of opinion, and valuing employees.
Additionally, working for Hyatt, you can’t help but live the brand. We’ve worked hard at Mather LifeWays to hone our brand, and people often say that it’s palpable when they go into a Mather LifeWays location, just like you were hoping for a treat today! It’s part of The Mather experience.
Do the details matter that much to residents? Is that hard to implement?
It is hard to implement, and we’ve spent a lot of time on having employees at the local level help guide us in terms of what they feel the experiences should be, and so they also have ownership in that.
Do you think the industry does a good job as a whole to attract people on the front lines, giving them a path where they can actually move up?
In recent years, industry trade associations have done a great job of developing leadership development programs. The need is so great that Mather LifeWays developed its own ‘Ways to Lead Well program.’ There is also a great need for first time supervisor and manager training programs so that people can be successful in their current roles and then grow from there.
You have your own program? Who is that for?
Great question. We’ve developed that for high potential people across our organization. It includes people from each of our three areas of service: community initiatives, our Institute on Aging, and senior living. It includes people from our connections teams, otherwise known as sales, to our other experience centers.
What makes you recognize somebody? Is it just something special about that person?
They need to apply to the program. We have a very succinct one-page form telling us why they would like to participate in the program, and we make our decisions based on that.
How many people do you have?
We had 12 in the inaugural program, and we have about that many in the second class that’s going through the program now. We’ve started a third program that has been open to certain industry participants; I’m pretty excited about this one. I’d like to tell you a little bit about Novare.
There’s a lot of focus in the industry right now about affiliation as a growth strategy, and while we’re also exploring affiliation opportunities, we’ve approached it in a somewhat unique way, and that is through the development of Novare, which means ‘to make new’ or ‘to change.’ It’s a latin derivative. We’re a founding member, and I chair Novare, which is a consortium of high quality single-site and small system Life Plan Community organizations in noncompetitive markets across the country. We founded Novare four years ago, and it’s now equivalent in size to the fifth largest multisite Life Plan Community provider in the nation. Got all that? [Laughs] So we’ve got a lot of great brainpower and capacity to develop next practices.
Interesting. So what made you want to create that? You’re creating a lot here—you must be busy!
I love creating! I had that idea for quite a few years, and it took a little while to get off of the ground. While we serve more than 40,000 adults per year, Mather LifeWays is a relatively small organization in terms of number of senior living communities we have, and I realized that other single-site or small systems could benefit from collaborating with like-minded providers. I saw it as benefiting Mather LifeWays as well as other organizations. I actually hired someone to take the lead on identifying what types of organizations might be good to approach initially, and I guess the rest is history!
Do you hold meetings?
We do. The CEOs had been meeting annually, but now two meetings per year.
So people must like it, then.
They do. We also have a leadership exchange program where people from various functional disciplines come together to meet and exchange ideas, so we’ve had a home and community-based services exchange where people from each organization came together. We’re planning a culinary exchange in the first quarter of 2015, and we have other programs planned and then have this Ways to Lead program for Novare members that we’ve implemented.
Is this just the start?
Yes. Through Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging we’ve had a 15-year focus on workforce issues and wellness opportunities, and we have developed a number of different programs that have benefited staff at Mather LifeWays, but also the industry as a whole.
The industry struggles with high turnover, but from 2010 to 2015, you guys were named one of the best places to work in Chicago—congratulations!
Tell me the process behind achieving something like that.
Mather LifeWays has always had a very positive workplace culture, but we worked very hard to define the experiences we want to create for older adults as well as the impressions that we want people to take with them when they leave a Mather LifeWays location. We have developed a number of programs to help support staff in creating those experiences. For example, we’ve trained managers in intrinsic coaching to help employees draw out the best in people—whether it’s themselves, their coworkers, or older adults that we work with. We also created experience teams to help implement experiences that would help transform those we serve. We decided to participate in the Tribune survey to develop a benchmark for how we were doing, and we were thrilled to learn that we were a top workplace.
Did you not think you’d be named one of the best?
No, not at all. We didn’t even really think about it. We were very, very surprised.
Just looking for an outside perspective?
Yes. We were very pleased to be recognized for four consecutive years, but again, we always want to keep moving the needle forward. So we decided to pursue a different benchmark. We’ve also worked very hard on creating a culture of wellness, for employees and residents, and we pursued a survey and were named Illinois’s healthiest mid-sized employer for the last two consecutive years.
If another CEO came to you and said they’re having a hard time with turnover, what’s one area you would tell them to focus on as far as staff goes?
Well, I would first make sure that they’ve conducted an employee satisfaction survey, and then take a very close look at what it says and respond to concerns that employees may raise. I think every organization is different, but that’s really the way to start down the road.
Have you been surprised at anything that your employees have found to be most important as far as the workplace that you’ve focused on?
They say that it’s more than just a job and is meaningful work to them. That shouldn’t be a surprise, but it rates really high on every survey we do.