Meet Keven Bennema, co-founder, president and CEO of Charter Senior Living, based in Naperville, Illinois. After getting his start as a caregiver, Bennema rose the ranks in senior living operations, working for several large national providers. Now, with his own company under way at 9 properties and counting, he is working to bring his vision for senior living to fruition.
Spotlight on Technology
What are the most important types of technology that you feel need to be invested in?
I think about technology in how it relates to how to improve care. There are many good systems and programs out there that really help identify how you could improve the care of the residents in the building.
Is it Wi-Fi? EHR?
Your communities have to have Wi-Fi; if they don’t, that’s a problem. I know it’s a big expense. EMR is essential technology. I think that’s where everything is headed. EMR is now starting to really pick up pace in assisted living and memory care. Technology that allows you to manage your business every day, teaching your executive director and your teams how to be very efficient while you’re taking care of your residents. We have a lot of fixed costs in our business. We have a lot of variable costs. At the end of the day, rarely do you have such a swing in occupancy unless you’re in lease-up, where your costs fluctuate. Technology that helps you manage the business every day is essential and getting people to understand that, treat it like your own checkbook.
There are some really cool wander-guard and resident monitoring systems. As we’re developing new communities, we’re really looking at technology to help us differentiate.
We sat down with Bennema to hear his take on what drew him to senior living in the first place, why he asks all job candidates one important question, and how one of Richard Nixon’s cabinet members taught him an important lesson in customer service.
You have a brand new company. How you got your start in senior living?
I was introduced to seniors housing in 1993. I was about a year out of college, and a relative was running a non-for-profit, multi-faceted senior housing community in northeast Ohio.
The name of the gentleman is Robert Glenn Harr, and he without a doubt has been the most influential person in my career. He gave me, and my wife, Kim, our start at the age of 23 at Heather Hill Hospital Health and Care Center. I was exposed to things back then that even now I draw back on and say how fortunate I was. Bob basically said, “If you listen to me, I can help teach you about this industry, but you’re going to do it my way. So you need to go through training and become a CNA.” In that year, I enrolled at Cleveland State University in a dual-MBA/Health Care Administration Master’s Degree program, I worked as a caregiver for $9 an hour, got married, and my wife and I had our first child.
It was a busy year!
It was absolutely crazy. Why I’m sitting here today is the fact that something connected with me and I knew this was where I needed to be. I worked about 2,000 hours in caregiving, I worked in dining, I worked in housekeeping, I worked in maintenance. I really learned what the people who do the work in our communities do. I walked in their shoes.
I started as a caregiver and wound up becoming the administrator of the community, running the building. Then in early ‘99, Marriott Senior LIving approached me and offered me the position to run a building down in Naples, Florida. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, in the Beverly area. When you go from the South Side to Cleveland, Ohio and then down to Naples, Florida, where I wound up, it’s pretty amazing.
I learned I needed to ask better questions during my interview, because I walked into an environment that had about 20 active lawsuits.
How old were you?
I was 28 and still wet behind the ears.
Did you know there were 20 lawsuits when you signed on?
No. And my first day on the job I had a 60-unit nursing home in my building and there were 25 family members at dinner every night. It was chaotic. Anyhow, I learned things about trust.
The wife of one of Richard Nixon’s cabinet members lived in my building and I got some pretty amazing insights about professionalism from him, how to handle customer service issues. For about a month, every Monday morning I would come in and there would be two plates of food in front of my door, uneaten.
Three weeks into it, I get a call and it’s this gentleman. He says: “I’m the one who’s leaving that food. Let me just tell you something, my wife is in your nursing home and your food sucks. I wanted you to see it.”
So that was Marriott…
That was Marriott, 1999. Then, a competitor called Summerville Senior Living bought a building about a mile away from me, and a lady named Jayne Sallerson walked into my building and asked for a tour. I toured her around, told her about the great things were doing, and a week later she walks right in the building and asks for another tour. Sure! So I walked her around, showed her the building, and said by the way, just so you know, since you were here last week we’ve added about seven residents. The following weekend she comes in and she brings her boss. In my lobby area, she said, “I want to offer you a job [as an Executive Director].”
I said no, I’m not interested. I just moved my family down from Cleveland; I want a bigger job, I’m not interested in being an ED. The following week, I get a call from the recruiter at Summerville Senior Living and the recruiter says Granger Cobb, the president and CEO wants to meet you. She booked a flight for me, I flew out to Alexandria, Virginia, I met Granger and little did I know that he would be the second most influential person in my life. I’ll never forget the meeting. We had a fantastic interview and the following week he offered me a job to be the regional director of operations for him. I was responsible for everything east of California, essentially.
My first week with Summerville, I went to Alexandria for an orientation and Granger pulled me aside and he said I’m going to have a meeting here and it’s going to be very strange so don’t overreact. We’re in this beautiful office in Alexandria and he pulls 50 people, the Summerville Senior Living crew together, and he gets them in the office and he says, “Okay, I just want to let everyone know that we are closing this office and we’re moving the corporate headquarters to San Ramon, California. Most of you will probably not have your jobs, unless you’re willing to relocate. That was the very first day on the job.
‘This might be a little strange…’
It was a little strange. When I started at Summerville I was the regional director of operations, and my regional sales person was Jayne Sallerson, who is now EVP of operations and sales for Benchmark Senior Living. Jayne and I worked together for about six and a half years. What I learned from her was the importance of the sales process and the importance of the collaboration between operation and sales.
I learned how to really understand data management, sales strategy, strategic planning, and I learned how to really understand how to motivate people and what motivates people. Jayne and I, we were a dynamic duo. We kicked ass.
When I left Summerville, I was a vice president of operations and development, and I was responsible for transitioning all the new acquisitions that we were picking up. We went from 44 buildings to 88 buildings and I was responsible for transitioning all 44 of those communities. I learned a lot about very difficult turnaround operations. Soon, the Emeritus merger started to surface …I wound up having a follow-up discussion with Granger and Justin [Hutchens], the COO at the time, and I said, I’m going to start looking for another opportunity. They said no problem, we understand.
A recruiter friend of mine who helped me place executive directors in my territory, said hey, there’s a company in Chicago called Senior Lifestyle Corporation that’s looking for a COO and they’ve interviewed like 30 or 40 people and the owner is Bill Kaplan. I said what the heck, I’d be happy to sit down. I’ve got nothing to lose. So I interviewed with Bill and thought the interview went horribly wrong. But as soon as we were done, the recruiter called me and said, “Bill wants you to come back.” Bill offered me the job, I started in January of 2007. I was there for nine years, and when I left we had about 190 buildings in about 30 states. We had a number of developments. I’m proud to say, over the course of those nine years, I really learned about how to hire for talent, how to really motivate, incentivize, and really get teams to function together.
Senior Lifestyle’s a fantastic company, but I just started feeling like I need to make a change, I need to do something different.
Going from corporate life to on your own is a big step.
It was an enormous step. I’m pretty goal driven, and one of my main goals was at the age of 45, I wanted to be a president / CEO or own my own company. So I missed it by a year.
More from the Leadership Series
I was 46 when I started Charter. I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew I wanted to develop a company that did a couple things: number one, where we really treated people well. The lifeblood of our industry is those employees that are making between $8 and $12 an hour. Walking in their shoes, many years ago, taught me a lot. Those individuals are at the core of this business. The intimate relationship of taking care of somebody’s grandmother, somebody’s mother, somebody’s sister — I’ve never lost sight of that. It’s such an important perspective I have in everything that I do.
I wanted to start a company that was focused very much on culture. Culture’s a funny thing. Right when you think you have it, it kind of hits you in the back of the head.
I wanted to start a company that was focused very much on culture. Culture’s a funny thing. Right when you think you have it, it kind of hits you in the back of the head.
I’ll tell you how good your culture is: Just look at your turnover rates with your employees, look at your residents who are moving out because of dissatisfaction. Look at how much people are enjoying what they’re doing. Those are key signs of how strong a culture is in a company. As an executive leader, if you’re not focused on improving and impacting and developing culture, I can’t imagine there’s anything more important in an organization, because people will want to work for you when they know that culture is strong. The age old adage: People care what you know, when they know that you care. It’s very hard to achieve.
What was your favorite job that you had throughout the course of your experience?
Honest to goodness, I think my start as a caregiver was probably my favorite job. I connected at so many levels with people who did so many special things for people, and the rewards that I got from that personally and professionally, it’s immeasurable.
We’ve started to see some occupancy pressure on operators through recent data reports. How do you think operators get through this rough patch, and what’s your experience of dealing with it?
We all talk about how wonderful our buildings are and how wonderfully we think we’re doing, and I think the way we get through these times is as leaders, we need to look in the mirror and say, “Why do we believe we’re doing such a great job?” When I walk into one of my competitors’ buildings, there’s not a lot of difference. It’s the people that really make our buildings special. Ultimately, your occupancy issues can be directly correlated to how you’re leading your people at your communities. Occupancy is hugely important for us. Our goal at Charter Senior Living is when we get them in our building, that’s when we know we’re going to close them because we’re going to convince them they don’t need to make another decision, they don’t need to go anywhere else.
My mother lives in an Assisted Living, I’ve been her caregiver for several years. Therefore, I get great perspective leading my company because I’m a customer of the very service we provide to other residents and families.
What sets you apart?
I think people genuinely see and feel like they’ve arrived, they’re back home. People say hello, people are engaged, people look great, people are smiling — and they don’t look like they’re faking it. We have heard it a number of times when we ask people: Why did you choose Charter? It just felt like where Mom needs to be. It feels like where Dad needs to be. There’s some mojo that you guys have going on that’s just a little different, and we’re proud to say that many of our referrals are coming from our own families and our residents. When you get to that point, that’s your best advertising. We treat our employees well, we pay our employees well, we respect our employees, and ultimately I think the success story is how you treat your people translates into how they take care of your residents. It’s very basic but it’s so hard to do.
Within the first 30 days if your employees don’t feel at home, they’re going to leave. They’re going to go somewhere else and they’re going somewhere else for 10 or 20 cents more per hour and so that’s kind of how we focus on people that come into contact with us. We immediately engage and make people feel at home. I wish I could be more sophisticated with an explanation as to how we can solve our occupancy issues but I really think that’s it, that’s how you do it.
Do you think the industry has done a good job of investing in technology up to this point?
I think the industry has done a very good job investing in technology. The issue with technology is getting buy-in. A lot of very smart people develop this technology. The problem is, they don’t include the actual end users in the technology. They don’t include the staff, they don’t include the residents, they don’t include the people that are going to have to buy into this technology to really make it work. There’s tremendous technology in this industry, although it will never take place of the intimate contact between the caregiver and the resident.
If you had an executive dashboard that you looked at every Monday morning, what data points would be on it?
I’d want to know what’s going on in my lead base. I want to see what’s happening with the hot leads. I want to know the last interaction, what’s the creative next step, what are we doing to manage them to the point where they’re going to make the decision.
I’m very interested about where our spending is, up until that day. We have a daily business tracker, based on occupancy. Every day we plug our census in and it tells us where our spending needs to be based on our occupancy. That is an enormously important tool and we talk about that in our stand up meetings every day!
Many times people forget about the fact that hey guys, we still have $50,000 sitting out there, call people up and ask for the money. We don’t do a good job, I think, as an industry because we’re so benevolent it’s like we’re afraid to say hey, can you pay us? I’ve heard “The check’s in the mail” way more times than I care to hear. Really knowing where your sales are coming from, managing your business daily, and making sure you’re getting paid.
Any statistics related to incidents and risk management, resident falls, resident outcomes, just managing the care on a day-to-day basis. There’s some good technologies that kind of show how people are doing every day. I think that’s very important.
What’s your definition of leadership?
The best leaders don’t see themselves as leaders. The best leaders see themselves as helping, mentoring, supporting, providing feedback. When you can help somebody make better decisions, that’s leadership. Better decisions that translate into helping that person grow professionally and improve the lives of our residents is leadership. It’s not about you giving direction so much as it is about explaining to somebody why they need to do something this particular way. So many times, we’re in such a rush to make snap decisions, we don’t slow down to say: How do I really understand how this person thinks to help them make better decisions? And, by the way, we also hold our leaders accountable, as we are a business. A business of taking care of our residents and employees every day.
The best leaders don’t see themselves as leaders. The best leaders see themselves as helping, mentoring, supporting, providing feedback. When you can help somebody make better decisions, that’s leadership.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career?
Walk in people’s shoes before you make a decision. Understand who they are. Once you do that, that’s actually the success for filling a building.
Who would you consider to be your mentor? How has that person helped you?
I think the two biggest mentors in my life were Bob Harr at Heather Hill Hospital and Granger Cobb. Just the insights — it’s immeasurable the things I’ve learned from them. Genuinely good people who wanted to do good things for employees and residents.
What are your strengths and weaknesses as a leader?
I’ve got a ton of weaknesses… I think my strengths are that I’m a good listener. I really want to understand people and issues, and I want to understand through listening. I think once you slow yourself down you have a chance of making the right decision. I think I’m very good at hiring talent. I’m pretty good at interviewing. My gut instinct is right about 90% of the time.
What’s your favorite interview question?
This is a question directed at culture: If you worked in a company that treated people very fairly, that did the right thing for employees and residents and families, were good to their customers, would you agree or disagree that people get hired for what they know and they get fired for who they are?
What’s the correct answer?
People are hired for their talents, but organizationally they may not be the right fit. When you’re interviewing, you’re putting on your game face. I’ve met and been burned by many people who are good interviewees, and I’ve learned how to be pretty good at interviews, too. I’m able to cover up weaknesses, and I’m very quick to answer things. There’s some things that I probably have no business even saying I’m good at, but I’m good at that. How many times have you hired somebody, then 30 days later you’re like: Holy Crap! that was not who I interviewed! Who is that person?!
Another thing I ask is: After 90 days of employment with Charter Senior LIving, when I’m touring with you through our community, what am I going to see that has your signature on it? What am I going to see that’s unsolicited? What’s going to be painfully obvious of the impact you’ve had over the last 90 days?
Say I’m about to graduate college, what would your pitch be to me on why I should pursue senior living as a career path?
There’s no more of a growth industry right now than the senior living industry. We are rolling out a new program called “A Day in the life” for college graduates. People coming out of college need to really kick the tires. They need to start out in an hourly position, start out as a caregiver, start out in a dining position, or in a housekeeping position. I will be having students starting internships in my company that are literally getting their CNA license, and they’re working for a month across each shift to understand how important the caregiver role is. If you can’t understand what the heck really goes on, it’s never going to work.
There’s no more of a growth industry right now than the senior living industry.
How does “Day in the Life” work?
Typically for about three to six months, we’ll pay you, and you come in and you work in every department. The people who want to take it to the next step, they get their certification to become a CNA; it’s about a two-week course. Then we ask those individuals to work at least a month, maybe two, as a caregiver.
Do you think the industry’s doing more poaching of talent than developing right now?
We talk the talk with developing people. We always say things like: Let’s just find some good managers and we’ll develop them. That sounds great but it’s rarely true.
A statistic I heard recently was, in order to keep up with the eventual demand that we’re going to get, we need to build like 100 communities each year over the next 10 years to keep up with the population. Who is going to lead? Who’s going to run these buildings? That and affordability are my biggest concerns.
What is Charter doing to develop those leaders?
We’re hiring for talent and we want to help people be successful. I have five people on my core management team, and basically my pitch to them was: Think about all the times in your job when you said to yourself, if I was the boss, here’s what I’d do. Well, you know what? Now you’re the boss. That’s very scary and empowering. Even my best managers still struggle with that a little bit because they sometimes want me to tell them what to do.