Meet Sean Kelly, CEO of Kendal Corp. out of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. Founded in 1971 on the strength of a $300,000 grant from a Quaker organization in Philadelphia, Kendal quickly established itself as a leading not-for-profit provider of senior living communities, programs and advocacy and empowerment services.
In January of 2016, Kelly took the reins as president and CEO after 11 years with Connecticut-based Retirement Living Services. We sat down with Kelly to learn about the company’s vision for a new kind of senior living partnership, and to hear how his time in construction introduced him to the men and women who arrived on sites in dark cars and dark suits: the developers.
To start, I want to turn the clock back a bit and hear about your background prior to coming to Kendal. Are you from Pennsylvania originally?
I say I am from Philadelphia, and then people say, “What part?” and I say, “Well, I’m from the New Jersey part.” I’m from South Jersey, literally across the river from the city. I grew up there, met my wife there, we got married in the city. Then, shortly after we were married we moved to Connecticut. It was the move to Connecticut that was representative of me shifting from what I was doing down here to this sector — the senior housing, senior living health care, long-term care, whatever-we-call-it-today sector.
I graduated from a local college called Ursinus, about 50 or 60 miles west of the city. After I graduated I had notions of going to medical school, so I was actually taking post-bac courses at Rutgers in Camden. I was working for a construction manager — a big Philadelphia-based one that builds all those skyscrapers and stadiums and all that other jazz.
They were doing a public-private venture in Camden, a dicey place undergoing a renaissance of its own right now. It’s a city with a great history, and the state and others have been trying to bring it back from a major decline that started back in the late 1960s really.
I was working for this construction manager, and I was the assistant to the assistant to the assistant project manager. So many pegs down. If I had an office it would have been subterranean, but it was a huge, huge property being done for, at the time, GE Aerospace. That division was subsequently purchased by several other companies — I think it’s now Lockheed Martin.
They were building a big research campus, a big office building on the waterfront in Camden. We had several hundred people working on the property. We had all sorts of different subcontractors and regulatory approvals and licenses that we needed to maintain in addition to the building. I became the gopher around lots of little things that had nothing to do with building. I was in charge of making sure there were enough portable toilets, for example.
We had a staff of probably around 50 people, just management types on the property. And I would notice like every two weeks or so, dark cars with men, mostly men, and a couple of women in business suits getting out of cars, and I remember the vibration in the office trailers where we were working would change.
I became curious … What’s going on? What’s this all about? Who are these people and what’s the big deal? They were the developers. The developers were the ones who owned the vision. They owned the concept. They owned the money, they brought the tenants in. They made this orchestra make music. They were the conductors, so to speak.
It had never occurred to me that that was a role that even existed. I became enamored with this idea of conducting the orchestra and bringing together all these disparate parties and interests with a mind toward making something happen on purpose. I began to turn my eye away from the sciences and started really thinking about working and getting into that part of the sector that I first saw during this construction gig.
I got involved in research, did some business writing, ended up at a conference in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where I met two gentlemen with whom I ultimately became partners. They had started a company called Retirement Living Services in Connecticut, and there are lots of my colleagues who are around this sector to this day who have come from Retirement Living Services. They were ultimately purchased by Life Care Services back in 2008. I left about a year or so after.
That journey was interesting because, as I’ve said, I was born and bred in the area. I was married, no kids yet, and I met these folks. I was learning a ton about the sector, but really just applying to what I might do here, having met these guys who were pouring information to me, Avery Rockefeller and Doug Power, both pioneers in their own way in the development finance market. After we met serendipitously in Atlantic City and spent some time together, with me learning from them and them telling me how it all worked, they called me about the possibility of going out to visit Retirement Living Services in Connecticut, to explore the office and see what they were doing.
They were in a growth mode, and they made an offer for me to join them, but that would involve moving. I was intrigued. I really liked these guys and they seemed like just good people. They were smart, they were successful. I loved the dynamism of what they were doing. They were doing development in the way that I had understood it, and I really appreciated that. Again, they were assembling and conducting the orchestra, and in some cases even writing the music.
I ended up going on this trip, and I was introduced to the first project that RLS had opened: Riverwoods at Exeter in New Hampshire. I went into Riverwoods and walked through the doors. It was the mid to late afternoon on a Tuesday. When I walked through those doors, at the time, they had one, big, giant dining hall. It was exactly what we would never build today. It was this cathedral-like space. It was wicked loud. Everybody got all together all at once.
In that particular case, it was not quite dinner time for most. It was cocktail hour that was bleeding into dinner time. There was something about that time of the day, that room, the kinds of people who were there. There was a din in that space that would remind you of any cool party that you would want to go to. There were people that were chatting up one another. They were debating. They were arguing. They were laughing. It was loud. Flat out loud. It had a buzz about it both in terms of what you could hear and what you could see.
The thing about that for me was that it was exactly the opposite of what I expected. But in it being so opposite, I had an immediate and almost visceral correlation and connection to my own life, my own family, in particular with my grandmother, who was in my view the kindest, gentlest person I’ve ever known. What I saw there, I wanted for her. I also knew that she wasn’t the sort of person that would go out of her way to create that for herself. It was in that moment that I thought, I can help make this happen. That was the light bulb that went off. The next trip to Connecticut was with my wife and a realtor. And off we went.
It sounds like you had interest in health care coming out of college. Was that part of the attraction to senior housing?
It was. And that’s a good point. I didn’t know what I had an interest in. I couldn’t differentiate between what was human interest or professional interest or personal interest. I had doctors in my family. My grandfather was my doctor growing up. I admired him a great deal. I watched how he worked. He remains among the most generous people I’ve ever seen in terms of how he treated other people. He’s one of the last of the small-town docs who did house calls. He literally would receive a dozen eggs and a chicken for giving a penicillin shot and a B-12 shot and the diagnosis on some other thing when folks didn’t have the cash.
He put up patients in his own home for long, long periods of time, which is indicative of so many things. I was around older people through my grandparents, people who were living with them. When I would go there to stay for days at a time or go there for a dinner or whatever, that was all a part of the experience.
It’s funny, I appreciate your asking because it didn’t occur to me, but they had their own little community, small as it was, and in their own way they taught me a lot about what the possibilities might be if your mind could be open to seeing where somebody else is standing and wondering how it is that it might be better.
More from the Leadership Series
You mentioned that your grandfather was sometimes paid with chickens and eggs, and I think that relates to the question about the affordability of senior living, particularly the role of nonprofits. They do a lot of great things, but they also, I think, usually run on the CCRC model which is not inexpensive. What do you think about that challenge of affordability, and any thoughts on how to fix it?
From Kendal’s perspective, my own personal perspective and I think our sector’s perspective, that’s an itch that we’ve been wanting to scratch for a long time. I think there are all sorts of organizations that are across the not-for-profit sector. Even the for-profit sector is increasingly aware of, interested in, and driven by the notion that if we are truly going to be of service to people that are older, there are folks who have the greatest needs that for the most part we’re not nearly touching.
The Kendal culture has always been very generous, and has always been very interested in serving more than just the folks who show up here, whether that means educational opportunities or volunteerism or a sense of advocacy for all manner of things, including those that relate to being socially responsible and driving to a more equitable situation for folks other than the ones who are here. We’ve fallen short over and over and over again. Since I’ve been in Kendal, we’ve had three, that I can think of, and only one very serious foray into affordable housing, by that definition. We have had innumerable initiatives where we’ve raised tons of money to support our own.
We have increasingly found ourselves wanting to subsidize individuals who might not otherwise be able to afford a Kendal but have lived lives of service. Those are all important, admirable things that we do, things that we’re proud of, but again, they fall short. We have this quiet aspiration. It’s not guilt, but I think there’s got to be a better way. Kendal was built on the notion 50 years ago that there was a group of people who said, “We’re getting older, we want to hang together, we’ve got a lot of stuff that we will still do, a lot of stuff that we want to do and the opportunities to do these things well and together exist but they’re not so hot. We’re not ready to live in a boarding home. We’re not ready to live in a giant hotel and bring services in. There has to be a better way.”
We used to think about a CCRC as, “Okay, how many independent living folks can come in? What’s the market going to bear there? How much might they pay?” Depending on how many we might build, that would tell us what our health center and clinic need to look like. Now we’re saying, all that is still very interesting and important and it will drive scale in its own ways, but let’s not think about a clinic and health center that is designed for a captive audience. Let’s think right here, right now, about building on Penn’s existing center for geriatrics, Penn’s existing memory research center that lives at the Ralston Center which is on the campus.
How do we create a center for geriatric health and well-being that becomes the place that looks like adult day, it looks like the gym, it looks like the clinic, it looks like the place where care coordination lives, it looks like a PACE program. I think we have the means to do it. I know we have the means to do it. And I think we have to. It’s part of who we are. It’s part of our mission … I think the market that is evolving is just as interested in culture and purpose as it is in my contract, my place, my finishes and my fee. That is what we see coming into Kendal. These are folks who have a social conscience that is, I think, equal to the organization here. It is wildly important. I think we have an opportunity and obligation to get on with it.
I think other folks are going to do affordable housing. We want room for them. We want to partner with them if we can. There are other reasons and ways to lobby Congress and local authorities, municipalities and so on and so forth to see more access to more people, with more of the right kind of housing for more people. But I think our move into “the affordable space” will want to look more like an amplification — or an evolution and amplification — of the best practices that we’ve seen have such phenomenal impact on the people across Kendal for nearly 50 years.
That model that you might create, say, in partnership with an organization like Penn, I like what you said about it. It looks like a gym. It looks like a health center. It looks like a PACE program. Is the idea that the way it plays into affordability is that someone aging in place in their own home can use that partnership to age in place for longer?
Yes. That’s the idea. Instead of being bound by a structure, we’re bound by a much larger piece of geography. It’s worth mentioning that this is not like some brand new idea. This is Kendal saying, “We have elements of this happening all over the organization.” I’ll put two together. We have Chandler Hall up in Bucks County, in Newtown. They an adult day program. And they have a partnership with the YMCA where the Y is operating on their site. They leverage both of those relationships to create something akin to a component of what I would describe as The Kendal Geriatric Center for Health and Wellbeing.
You take that, and the notion that you’re bringing people in from the greater community who are working in the community as part of this adult day program, on campus. They are provided with transportation. It’s a relatively low cost. There are opportunities for subsidization, stimulation, engagement and so on.
Then you marry that to something else at Kendal. Like, you take the clinic model that exists at Kendal at Hanover, which is relatively unique. They are under the primary care of the on-site clinic. That is a relatively expensive way to do things, to have those practitioners on-site, to have NPs and primary care docs and nurses on call all the time for the senior captive audience. But it’s part of the value proposition that Kendal at Hanover provides to its residents. It’s a huge part of why the residents make a buying choice to go to Kendal at Hanover.
It’s also been studied in terms of outcomes. Where do people die? How do people die? When do they go to the hospital? Under what circumstances? When do they go back? Why do they go back? The outcomes that emerge from that mode of operation, driven by that clinic, are off the charts different than other Kendals and decidedly different from other CCRCs in our sector. Pointing out the importance of upstreaming and primary care, and paying attention, and care coordination and proximity and all that other jazz. We think there are elements of that that can be taken and combined with other kinds of programs so that we can create something that is scalable way beyond, if you will, the four walls of the community.
What can you tell us about Kendal at Home?
Kendal at Home is probably the most conspicuous among the parts that we have to learn from. Kendal at Home by definition provides life care contracts and care coordination and services and community activities and a technology platform on which all the members can interact with one another.
When I talked about that geriatric center for health and wellbeing becoming the hub for the greater connectivity, and you asked, “What about in people’s homes or in affordable housing?” and I said “both” — in my opinion, we get to make that leap because we do have that bridge. Kendal at Home is something that we have experience with, we have the chops for and we believe is a phenomenal way to complement someone who has every instinct not to be in a community but to stay home. Guess what, I expect that’s always going to be most people. It’s always been most people and it will continue to be most people.
How do you define leadership?
To me, it’s something that lives among us. I think leadership has a lot to do with creating an environment where people can genuinely come into the space and actually know that they’ve got a voice, that they are empowered, that they are contributing to something bigger than themselves, that what they do matters a lot and that through collaboration we’ll get to a much better place than if we leave “leadership” or a big decision or any decision to one individual.
I think leadership is not something that you take, it’s something that you earn. I think when it’s real, people offer it to you. People are compelled to go along if one is able earn the respect. And I also think leadership is vulnerable. It has to feel okay not to have any of the answers let alone all the answers.
With all that being said, you have to build or have the confidence to make the call sometimes. We all express degrees of leadership and followership in doing this work, and in doing any work for that matter.
Since you’ve been at Kendal in a leadership role, can you point out one or two successes that you are proud of, and one or two things where you knew, that was a lesson learned the hard way?
Kendal is a pretty unique place in that we’re this relatively large organization, but we’re stitched together in this federal-style model where everybody on the bottom is accountable to their own boards and their own place and yet is still accountable to the bigger Kendal in different ways. I think saying out loud that this federal model that we have here is the one that we want, but we can make it better and stronger together, was a pretty good call.
I don’t make any calls by myself. I’m happy to be responsible for all of them, but the reality is that we work pretty hard around here to try and get varied perspectives around every big decision and many not-so-big decisions.
I think being able to notice and ultimately attract the folks who are coming to us right now is indicative of something and I couldn’t be more proud of the people that I work among. That’s the biggest thing.
What is keeping you up at night right now in terms of business challenges?
Speaking of people, it’s no secret. We’re investing a lot of resources to try to understand what our culture is and live up to the reputation Kendal has earned in the last 50 years. Because we recognize that an authentic, vibrant culture — that really does show up as everybody being involved, engaged and empowered — is one that will provide for better outcomes over time and provide for a greater degree of job satisfaction, work satisfaction and life satisfaction.
We first of all have to make sure that the culture is alive and well on our best days and that we’re really living up to the standards that we set for ourselves or those that were set for us, frankly. That is something that doesn’t keep me up at night but I recognize it is a huge part of responsibility that we have here. I think that one of the things that the Kendal Corporation has to carry on with for the benefit of the larger system is that we have to walk the walk. We all do.
We are probably about three-quarters of the way down the road to launching the program that we call BetterWays. I mentioned that Kendal was really founded on the notion that “There’s got to be a better way.” We’re actually building, with a software partner called IdeaScale, a program that is intended to engage every single person within the organization from every facet. Resident, staff, board.
The point of this program is to say, “There’s a lot of good stuff that is going on here and may go on here.” There are more people than we realized who are responsible for it. We want to be able to call those things out. Whether it’s how to keep a meal hot or a better way to transfer somebody from bed to a chair, a better way to save money on water, electric, whatever, a better way to build a unit —whatever it might be. We will have folks that will write white papers and we will have folks that will take Snapchat stories on what a better way might be.
It’s the sort of thing that we need to be doing in order to show up the way that we say we should. That keeps me up at night.
If you could have a CEO dashboard that you saw every Monday or once a month, what are some of the data points you’d want to flash before your eyes?
Census is a driver always, but we get our hands on that all the time. What I would be most interested in is what I’ll call satisfaction. Degrees of delight. I would want to understand, if you will, degrees of delight from the CEOs and executive directors that are working here, from the residents that are with them, from my colleagues. And as those degrees go up or down, I would feel compelled to understand why, and does it matter, and if it does matter, what are we going to do to address it?
The other thing that I wouldn’t mind seeing is degrees in engagement. What are residents and staff members doing together and/or individually among themselves or within the community that is worthy of telling a story? So my dashboard would be far more qualitative than quantitative.
I think degrees of delight really speaks to what I’m most interested in and most of my interactions probably would reflect a keen interest in that. The point of the matter is to be engaged enough with ourselves and with our work and with the people who surround us to know when one or the other is required.