Meet Anja Rogers, CEO of Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Senior Star. Rogers has been with the company, founded by twin brothers William and Robert Thomas, since its inception in 1989 and has since held leadership roles that have helped take Senior Star from one property to 14—and counting.
Spotlight on Technology
Senior Star has done some cool things with technology like virtual field trips and “BikeAround.” Do you see Senior Star as a data-driven company, and do you think that the industry as a whole has done a good job of embracing technology?
There is enough out there for all of us to do. We don’t have to keep it so close to our chest, and I think on the technology piece, with all these independent providers, if they would be transparent with what they’re doing, then other providers could see it.
Then we really could build on each other, and the outcome for the associates would be so much better, their workload would be so much better. And then for the customer, it would be so much better.
On technology, we’ve got to open up.
Do I think, we, as a company, are going to be that company moving forward? I believe so, but what I will say maybe stronger than that is that we are a company of innovation, and we like to get around the table and talk about a problem and what’s the best way to solve it. If it’s technology, great.
However, innovation’s really important to me. I love to put a lot of people around the table with all different kinds of talent. To make that work, you have to have people who are out for the greater good, for whom it’s not about them, it’s about the customer—whether the customer is the associate or the customer is a resident or the family.
Now spanning properties in six states, Senior Star owns and operates communities that offer independent living, assisted living and memory care with a particular focus on research around the fight against Alzheimer’s disease.
We sat down with Rogers to hear about what makes Senior Star’s culture thrive, why her own health care experience had a strong bearing on leading the company, and her “secret sauce” when it comes to employee retention.
Senior Housing News: You started at Senior Star in 1983, is that right?
Anja Rogers: Yes, there wasn’t a good connection with the multifamily company where I had been working. I decided, “All right, I need to go find something else.” I connected with Bob and Bill [Thomas] and interviewed with them and another individual, and there was a nice strong connection there. I was 23 when I went to work for them. They were a multifamily housing company at the time.
What motivated you to move to Senior Star back then?
We had multifamily housing for about five to six years, and then in 1989, we joined the senior housing space through a court-appointed receivership.
Back in the late ’80s in Oklahoma, oil crashed and everyone was in trouble. People like Bob and Bill, who had a great reputation and integrity, were sought out by banks and other financial institutions as court-appointed receivers. That’s really how we got our name in town. We took on senior housing. We took on storage facilities, the Shangri-La resort, timeshares on Padre Island—you name it, we got it. Then the senior housing came around. It was not too far from the office and we didn’t even know what it was. The bank said, “Hey, would you be interested in doing this?” Bob said, “What do you think?” We thought: “What is that? What is senior housing?”
He said, “Can you do it?”
If you know the three of us, we really don’t know how to say, “I can’t.” That’s not part of our vocabulary. [I went to see it, then went back to Bob.] I remember walking into his office, I was like, “Oh, Bob, you don’t understand what we’re walking into here. Number one, you’ve got to provide meals three times a day.” I mean, I’m not a good cook!
We spent the next 48 hours putting the plan together. We had a canteen get ready in case the cooks walked out; we had nurses on call in case something happened with the home health care agency in the building. We had everything lined up and we took it over. That was the very beginning, 1989. We ended up buying that building and another building in 1991.
It was like, “Wow, okay, we can apply our own business principles to this, and we can build a strong business and change lives.” It didn’t get much better than that. It became what we wanted to do. We sold off our multifamily portfolio in the mid to late ’90s and only had senior housing from that point forward.
Were both of those first two buildings in receivership?
Yes. Both are in Tulsa, located about seven miles from each other. We still own them today.
What was the company called at the time?
It was Gemini Properties when I first joined it. Bob and Bill are identical twins, so their company was named Gemini Properties. We moved to Senior Star Living when we changed out the portfolio and then we dropped the ‘Living’ and just went to Senior Star.
Can you describe the process of coming to embrace senior housing?
Many people didn’t really know what senior housing was. We decided we were just going to apply sound business principles to it. We were going to understand the operation completely and totally. We were going to understand what everything cost, what the customer wants, what the customer needs, and put the whole thing together.
I was on site all the time learning the business and listening a lot, and I think, as a leader, that is where I really began to add value. You don’t have to have all the answers, but you need to have some pretty down-to-earth questions—and then you need to listen to the answers.
I started asking questions of the residents. What were they looking for? Why did they move there?
We learned by rolling up our sleeves. We went in with the attitude of, “Help teach us.”
Then, again, we did apply business to it. That’s the one thing I think that made our company successful: We never lost sight of what the numbers were telling us; we never lost sight that our financial statement is a story. We never lost sight of the customer and how you have to value them, but they’ve got to be willing to value what you do and pay for what you do. Then, last but not least, is the associates and learning how to respect them. Once we started to learn the business, that was the key piece. What makes us different is we live in a continuous improvement world. If you were to come to work for our company, one of the things we would talk about at the very beginning is: How well do you deal with change? We’re looking for constant improvement.
Who are your mentors?
More from the Leadership Series
I had great mentors in Bob and Bill. Bob would never let me forget the importance of gratitude and a thank you. Bill, he’s all about numbers. “Anja, what does this number mean? What does that number mean?” Well, with my personality, I don’t like not having the answer. I’ll be very transparent if you ask me a question and I don’t have the answer. I have no problem with saying, “Sorry, I don’t know.” When I get home, if it’s something I believe I should have known, then I’m going to seek the answer.
With Bill, I learned that every number in a financial statement has meaning. If you really understand the business inside and out, then the financial statement carries a story for you. That story translates into continuous improvement if you allow the facts to guide you. I think emotional intelligence is critical as well, but in our industry sometimes, you can be pushed one way or the other. Either you [lean toward] the facts or you [lean toward] the heart.
I learned that every number in a financial statement has meaning. If you really understand the business inside and out, then the financial statement carries a story for you. That story translates into continuous improvement if you allow the facts to guide you.
But I believe you can’t only be about the facts and the numbers, and you can’t only be about the heart. There’s a fine line in the middle. I believe my mentors helped me with this: I operate with head and heart.
As long as you can keep that in balance, then I think you’ll be pretty successful in life, period, but definitely in our industry.
What do you consider some of your greatest professional accomplishments?
I challenged our entire organization to achieve ‘the impossible’: CARF accreditation of all 12 communities in one year; we achieved the maximum three-year accreditation at each building in 2016. I love making the impossible possible.
I was also instrumental in the design and creation of programming for our Memory Support Developments and Acquisitions. Our design won awards, but most importantly, our design creates the opportunity for residents to be independent and purposeful in the moment while creating opportunities for families to continue to make positive memories, as well as assisting our caregivers to be able to provide care excellence for all of those they serve.
Personally, my most significant professional accomplishment was learning that accountability begins and ends with me; transparency creates a sense of ownership and buy-in that is invaluable. You must balance your head and heart to achieve upper quartile results, and when your team chooses to dance for you, well, you’ve done a few things right.
When you joined the company, you were 23 and had already worked in multifamily. What was your skill set coming in?
My skill set coming in was marketing. My dad was an Air Force pilot and my mom was in real estate. I believe being raised with a military background is probably a lot of who I am. I like things to be in their place. I want things to be … structured, with a plan of action.
It sounds like taking over the receivership of those first communities was a watershed moment, and then there was the moment of going all-in on senior living. Then, later, a major investment partnership with Welltower. Are there other turning points for you in the growth of the company over the years?
It was 1999 when we realized that we were ready to go into multiple states. When you can touch your properties, you can run out to them in a 10-minute drive. But how can we ensure that a property in Dublin, Ohio is going to uphold what’s important to us? That it’s going to respect its employees, is going to honor every customer that walks through the door? In 1999, we [established] vision and values. Every leader in the company at all of our properties came together and we wrote our mission, our vision and our values, and our goals so that we could stay aligned in all states. We still have the same values today.
Were there any mishaps along the way?
I went in [to a community] purposely on third shift to tell an associate thank you, and see how things were going. She said everything was okay, but an independent living resident had run out of toilet paper the previous day. I said, “So, what do you do?” She said, “Well, I called the resident’s daughter.”
I didn’t use the word “empowerment,” but I thought “Wow, we’ve got to give these associates better answers. Everything’s not going to be a written policy.”
I thought it over and went back to her: “Okay, here’s what I want you to do. The next time something like that happens and you don’t know what to do, let’s not call the daughter first.”
I said, “Ask yourself: If that were your parent or your grandparent, what should you do? If you would have asked yourself that question, what would you have done?”
She said, “I’d have gotten another roll of toilet paper, but I don’t have a key to the supply closet.” And I said, “Now, she still needs the roll of toilet paper. What do you do?”
“I would have taken it out of the employee bathroom,” she said.
“Perfect. Do that, and then tomorrow, let the daughter know or leave a note for the front desk to let the daughter know that her mom ran out of toilet paper.”
That story became part of our culture. Now, with 1,400 associates, whatever happens, [I know they’ll think of] a better way to do it.
That seems like a good lesson.
So, there’s that story. Now, another other mishap was a bit more personal and that was in the fall of 2015. I was diagnosed with cancer. So, not what anyone expected to happen. I would always joke: “OK, if I get hit by the bread truck, don’t forget this or don’t forget that … get this in a policy whatever.” But the bread truck did come this time and with a great big C on it.
[In the fall of 2015] I was diagnosed with cancer. So, not what anyone expected to happen. I would always joke: “OK, if I get hit by the bread truck, don’t forget this or don’t forget that … get this in a policy whatever.” But the bread truck did come this time and with a great big C on it.
I take a lot of pride in this company. We don’t do everything perfectly but we do strive for perfection, and I believe many people in the industry recognize this. People come in our buildings and say: “Wow, how do you do this? How does it feel this way?” I just call it “the magic,” but it’s not the magic of Anja and it’s not the magic of Bob and Bill. It’s just our values being lived.
I would have said to you the culture of the company is excellent. Will it be able to weather this storm of cancer? Absolutely. However, when I left unexpectedly for a little over a year on and off, it was really hard for me to watch. I saw our company not delivering excellent results. It was 2016 and yes, the landscape was harder, but this was not us.
I came to a conclusion: It was culture. Not that if you had walked into one of our buildings you wouldn’t have been impressed, but culture from the standpoint of the associates in the company: Did they feel valued? Did they feel respected? Were they as engaged as they needed to be with just this influx of new leaders and me out?
I decided this culture had to become my driving force. I had to beat cancer for a couple of reasons. I had to beat it for my family, because they really weren’t ready for me to go yet, and I had to beat it for the company.
For the company, it was really about how I could make a difference immediately. I started asking questions. What did all the associates tell me when I was out in the field? Why do you love your job at X,Y, Z property? Well, 90% of the time I received the response: “The residents.”
I thought to myself, “Okay. I need to turn that around. Senior Star associates need to love their job first because of Senior Star and then because of the residents.” They can go love residents anywhere. But if they love those that they work with first, then they won’t leave and they will feel valued and will be more engaged.
That became the pivotal point. I decided when I got back to the office, I was going to meet with the associates again. I wasn’t going to let this culture only reside with me; it was going to reside with everyone.
When I got healthy, I went out to all of our communities with a goal of meeting with 80% of the associates, and we asked them, “How do you feel about your role at this community? Is your supervisor living the values of the company? What can we do to change your job and make it a bit easier for you?”
What I learned about that whole process is how different we all are but yet how similar we are. I heard people wanted to be valued, and they wanted to be heard. It’s that simple. So many people spoke to me who had two jobs. One told me, “Anja, I’ve been a nurse for 20 years. I’ve never met anyone at your level at the hospital I work at and no one would come and meet with me at 2 a.m. as you have. Help me understand why you did that.”
I said, “Because you’re more important than I am.” That’s the truth. I’m the one who’s going to sleep at 2 a.m. and I’m sleeping well because of you.
I told them I’d be back within six months and we’d talk about what they had to say. Were we at the same place? Are we a little bit better? Have we slid back? Keep that open dialogue. That was good, but also I got to roll out the new mission and the vision and the promise.
I think that speaks to my desire. When I came back, I said: I’m going to reconnect with these associates. I’m going to help them understand that they are this company. I am not the company.
That’s the mishap of: We have a good culture but thinking it was sustainable in the unexpected absence of a leader. Backing up and helping people recognize that sustainability, that succession plan, and that culture has to come from within everyone, not just from within some key leaders. It has to be within everyone.
Let’s talk about Senior Star’s relationship with Welltower. It seems like that was another key moment in the history of the company. Can you elaborate on the decision to partner with Welltower and how that’s changed things?
That decision was a decision based on growth. We saw Welltower as a great partner of values. We also saw Welltower as kind of a springboard to growing our company, and so we formed a joint venture.
Relationships are critically important to all of us. We want to partner with the best.
What are the growth plans now for new development versus acquisitions, and generally on portfolio size?
We know from experience, opportunities exist to establish niches in the senior housing market. We’ve seen industries respond to the needs of diverse populations and are looking in the future to branch into further niche sectors.
On the memory care side, are you looking at a standalone memory care or do you like it as part of a campus or continuum?
For all of our current buildings, we desire to have at least three levels of care. But I have this passion for building larger memory care buildings. We have a large one in Romeoville, Illinois. It’s two floors, and that really does work well.
The AL/memory care component allows us to touch a broader market. So, I think you’ll see us in that sector, but you’ll also see us in all three.
How much growth do you anticipate?
We actually would like to double in size by 2025 through a combination of development and acquisition. We’re not going to expand beyond our template of the Midwest or Southwest. We feel like we have a design that is the best in class, and we feel like we have an operation that is best in class. We’re also very influential advocates of this fight against Alzheimer’s.
We raised $600,000 for the Alzheimer’s Association last year. We’re just bound and determined to find a cure for this. When we do find that cure, what’s going to happen in those buildings? But we still believe that those buildings will have another niche.
I would like to see us continue to expand our footprint the way we are right now. We’re not just growing to grow; it has to make good business sense for us to do it, and it also has to make sense culture-wise.
Are there areas where you are planning to invest in technology or types of technology that you think are promising to changing the status quo?
Have you heard of Jibo? Jibo is a little personal robot. I ended up buying one.
There is an opportunity there and we’re in our office brainstorming on this right now. The care partners are busy popping into resident units, and giving information about music or about the weather or other nuts and bolts. If technology can help a particular resident with agitation or wherever they’re at, I think there’s huge value versus staff having to sit down and get someone re-engaged.
If you had a CEO dashboard that you could look at every Monday morning, what are a few of the data points that you would want to see?
When you say risk, what does that look like?
For me, risk would be just any potential risk exposures, such as a worker’s injury. A cost per day would be really helpful as well, and associate engagement is probably on the top of my chart.
Senior Star has great leadership retention with employees of 20 years, 18 years … What’s the secret sauce?
I believe the secret sauce is that we really respect each other. We try to have everyone feel comfortable in using their voice. Yet, I like to be transparent. A lot of people won’t have the tough conversations.
For me, it’s those kinds of conversations—crucial conversations—that’s a way of business every day.
I have terminated more than I’d like to admit, but I can honestly say, for most of my terminations, the people have hugged me and they weren’t blindsided. They knew it was coming.
In some cases, they’re so successful doing something totally different from senior housing. It was like I just helped them find what they needed to find by having those conversations.
Sometimes, you want to hear it, and sometimes, you don’t, but at the end of the day, you’re better because of it, and I’m better because I delivered it to you. So, I know that I have a responsibility to make you successful. It doesn’t matter who you are in this company, that is my number one job—to make other people successful. I think people rally around that and appreciate that.
Can you talk a little bit about the process of taking on the CEO role? You’ve been open about the “CEO tours” you’ve done to get into all of the communities.
For me, finding the right team has been the biggest challenge. I just hired a COO. I brought her on the “CEO tour” with me during the last six days. She worked for another operator for 10 and a half years and oversaw 80 communities.
Here, she saw an opportunity to be mentored and she saw an opportunity to be in a culture fit. I’m really excited about growing others in the organization by taking on this role. It allows me to do what brings me joy, and that is to mentor other people.
For the company as a whole though, it’s about getting everyone to believe and execute. You can have all these great plans, but you have to also execute with a sense of purpose.
With the CEO tours, so much has come from them, but most importantly, [was] the associate experience. That is my biggest focus right now: mentoring leaders in our organization and the associate experience, whether it’s associates currently in the workforce or getting in new people.
How do you define leadership?
Personal accountability and transparency. You have to be purposeful in what you’re doing. You have to connect with people, and you have to know the business. You’ve got to be willing to do what it takes to be successful, and if you’re in a community and they’re struggling to do that because two servers called in sick, I have no problem with pouring coffee.
I know there’s a fine line as a CEO for what you’re supposed to do, but at the end of the day, it’s still about that associate and the customer. As a leader, you can never get too distant from what’s happening.
You have to be purposeful in what you’re doing. You have to connect with people and you have to know the business. You’ve got to be willing to do what it takes to be successful and if you’re in a community and they’re struggling to do that because two servers called in sick, I have no problem with pouring coffee.
I know there’s a fine line as a CEO for what you’re supposed to do, but at the end of the day, it’s still about that associate and the customer. As a leader, you can never get too distant from what’s happening.
With oversupply and new competition, how do those factors impact your growth plans?
There are definitely some over-saturated markets. There’s no question there. We opened our building in Dublin, Ohio right around multiple buildings opening, but I believe that if you focus on what you’re good at and what differentiates yourself, you can weather it decently.
Now, I wouldn’t go into [certain areas] where there are just too many others. I honestly think that pretty quickly, there’s going to be some products that we’re going to benefit from because people aren’t going to be successful. Sorry about that, but they’re just not. So, we’ll go into those markets and acquire them.
What’s keeping you up at night from a business perspective and on the flip side, what’s a big opportunity that you you’re really eager to grab?
If you had asked me that question four years ago, “What was keeping me up at night,” I would’ve said care, to make sure that all the residents are receiving great care. But we do that really well.
What keeps me up at night right now honestly is Alzheimer’s—that disease, having to find a cure. I’d like to see that happen.
Probably the other thing that keeps me up at night right now is the shortage of care partners. I feel like we have a pathway as a company to be something very special to them, but there’s still a shortage. That’s definitely on my mind.
As far as what excites me: our mission, our vision, our promise excites me because it’s a way that the line staff can communicate easily.
I’m also excited about our company and the opportunities for growth because I feel like we have so much more to give and I feel like we’re now properly aligned with our teams to give that.
We say we want to make a difference in people’s lives. We’ve always said that—come enjoy the Senior Star difference. It’s been like that for 15 years, but today, I hope something I’ve said today has touched you beyond this. If we all look at life that way, no matter what our time in this world is, it’s a meaningful time and, for us, being a difference maker is something that resonates.