Meet Tana Gall, CEO of Portland, Oregon-based Blue Harbor Senior Living. Gall’s 20 year-plus senior living career spans leadership roles with Leisure Care, Merrill Gardens, her own company 2Ten Consulting, and now, Blue Harbor. Launched in 2012 following a portfolio acquisition by Fortress, the company has grown from eight properties upon its founding to 25 today. Under Gall’s leadership, the company continues to grow its national presence.
Spotlight on Technology
Do you think the industry has done a good job investing in technology up to this point?
Not necessarily. There’s the basic stuff, but there are also a lot of great new [tools] out there now. We are piloting in a handful of buildings three different segments of technology, one being resident experience. What kind of technology can we bring to the residents? We’re doing some pilots on engagement with families—how does that communication look? And then in a couple of other buildings we’re rolling out a pilot for Uber, which a lot of people are doing now. How are you getting things on demand? What does that look like? As an operator, I just wish the technology would work together. Technology is about being efficient, and I’m not feeling that yet.
So you want technology to share data better?
When you’re in the building you’ve got 8,000 things going on, so if you have to go look at this monitor to check on blips, and check this system for this, and accounts payable looks totally different, that’s hard. We’ve gotten better at tying our CRM in with our accounting systems, —but there are other great technologies I think we could take advantage of if they would fit in with the systems we’ve got. It’ll happen.
We sat down with Gall to hear about how she personally interviews every single executive director the company hires, why her favorite piece of advice came from a seven year old (her son), and what she sees as some of the greatest challenges and opportunities senior housing faces as an industry in the coming years.
Tell me about how you got into senior living.
I got into the industry by accident—like a lot of us did. I was working at an advertising agency right out of college. A friend of mine who worked at the agency left to sell outdoor advertising. She called on Leisure Care. They told her that they were not going to buy an outdoor, but they were looking for a PR/marketing person. They asked her if she knew anyone from the agency and she called me. I really had no reference to retirement communities or senior living. I, like most people, thought “nursing home.” But, I went and interviewed and fell in love. Within a couple weeks, I reported to work.
So how did they woo you?
They were great people—Chuck and Karen Lytle and Dan Madsen. I was ready to get out of the agency and this seemed like a great opportunity. To be honest, I didn’t think I would stay very long—and 22 years later, I am still doing this!
What I learned when I started as a 27 year old is that if you find something that matters—it’s worth it. It was fulfilling to realize that what I was doing in the office had an effect on people—employees and residents. I wasn’t getting that from the ad agency. What we do matters. I love that!
Did you know what senior living was? What surprised you about it?
I had “nursing home” in my head. My “a-ha” moment was walking into my first community and what I found was like a fine hotel where residents were completely engaged and loving life. It was a turning point for me. I was a PR person so I realized I had these great stories to tell of amazing residents. We need to tell people about this. I’ve been on a mission since that day to change the way people think about senior housing!
How’s that going?
It’s hard! It is a fact that people just don’t want to get old. It was a struggle to get reporters to write about our industry. I did get a story from one of our buildings on the front page of the Seattle Times. We hosted a speed dating event on Valentine’s Day.
Isn’t it funny of all the things, that speed dating gets you on the front page?
It was really cool. We all have those stories in our buildings of residents who actually meet there, fall in love and get married. We were shooting for that. I don’t know if anyone actually did—but the event was fantastic.
After 19 years at Leisure Care, why did you decide to leave?
It was the toughest decision I have made in my career to date. I did not take it lightly because I was raised by Leisure Care. I knew I did not want to get out of the industry. I had the opportunity to work with Bill Pettit at Merrill Gardens. After 19 years, I had the opportunity to try something new and it was time to learn something new and be challenged. Can I do it? All I knew was Leisure Care—and I would not trade that for the world—but I thought that this was the time to try something new.
How long did you spend at Merrill Gardens?
I was at Merrill Gardens for just under two years.
So was this before the Brookdale/Emeritus merger?
Yes. started at Merrill Gardens three months before Merrill Gardens sold 38 of their communities to Emeritus. The Brookdale/Emeritus merger was about eight months after that. I felt bad for our Merrill Gardens communities because they went through two big changes in less than a year.
So how did Bill Pettit sell you on the opportunity?
Bill and I had been working together on the Washington State University [senior living management] program. We had spent a lot of time together. We would grab coffee and talk about where the industry was going, specifically discussing technology. I didn’t know it at the time, but I guess he could have been interviewing me along the way. He approached me with his strategic plan for Merrill Gardens and said he thought I would be a good fit. I did it. I took the leap.
You said you implemented five different technology platforms. Was that part of the requirement from day one?
More from the Leadership Series
Yes, it was a part of the strategic plan. A portion of the proceeds from the sale to Emeritus was reinvested into the company for technology. I just got to be a part of it—helping to get things implemented.
What kinds of technologies did you put into place?
Some of them were pretty basic. We implemented Office 365 because our communities and corporate office were having a hard time communicating. We also put in an HRIS system, a group purchasing program and switched our accounting and CRM. The goal was to implement these changes while the company was smaller. It is easier to train with 18 or 20 buildings. With the growth plan that Bill had for Merrill Gardens, it would have been harder to do it later.
That’s a lot of change there in two years. How did you manage that?
I focused on the employees, which is my style. We communicated a lot.
What did you do next?
After Merrill, I started my own company with Jason Childers. We started 2Ten, a retirement housing consulting firm. I loved that! It was different. I tell my kids who are in high school now that they should run their own company while they are young. Everyone should know how to run their own business. Even though we were a small firm, I learned a lot.
What’d you learn?
Paychecks don’t just show up in direct deposit every couple weeks.
So how did Blue Harbor come to be?
I was at a NIC conference and met with New Senior [Investment Group] to see if they had any communities to sell. I met Susan Givens and that is how it started. About six months later, she called and said that she had an opportunity for me. At that time, I didn’t do it. We loved what we were doing and we were in a contract with a client that we did not want to let down. Susan called back a couple months later to gauge my interest again. She asked that I at least go to New York to meet with the team. I think I always knew I was going to get back into management. As a consultant, the communities were not mine. I wanted that hands-on management back.
You missed it?
I did miss it. But then I got back into it for a couple weeks and asked myself, “What exactly did I miss?” I knew I wanted to be back in management. It is something that gets in your system so why leave it? It’s great. I think we were probably going to start our own management company at some point. I think that is what people expected. So, when New Senior gave me this opportunity, I took it. It was important to me to not only get back into management, but to also stay in the Pacific Northwest.
What got you excited about it?
Opportunity! Blue Harbor was a company that grew very fast in its first couple years. The company started with the purchase of eight communities and their management platform. That was the start of Blue Harbor. It was a small company that didn’t have the infrastructure for the type of growth it was experiencing. I was excited about bringing my years of experience to a company that was so new.
Where do you want to go?
The first few months were all about me getting my arms around the team and the communities. With the way the company grew—small portfolio acquisitions—there was very little consistency. My director of finance made a comment that I love because it is so true. “If you have seen one Blue Harbor community, you have seen one Blue Harbor community.” We have no two communities that are the same and we are located all over the country. It is my goal to get to every community within the year. We are working hard on consistency—so that is the first place I want to go. We are getting there!
Now, we are ready to take on more. I am feeling great about where we are. Now it’s about strategic growth. I want to expand out third-party management. I love it. I also want to diversify our portfolio. I want to have five or 10 partners (owners or developers) that we can strategically grow the company with.
How many states are you in right now?
We have 25 communities in 14 states.
Do you get nervous about expanding in this market, now that NIC is starting to show there’s actually some real occupancy pressures on operators?
The occupancy pressures are real. Our portfolio has some real winners with high occupancy, but we have some we are worried about. So, does it make me nervous? Yes, because I have been through these pressures a couple times—1999 and 2008. I don’t think we are there, but I do think about it.
What do you think operators should be doing to get through those times?
Stick to the basics, but don’t be afraid to continue to innovate.
Is it that simple?
Sometimes it is. At times, we overcomplicate things. People who go above and beyond are not going to have as many occupancy problems. And never forget to take care of your employees. If we take care of our employees, they will take care of the residents.
If we take care of our employees, they will take care of the residents.
With all of these new communities coming onto the market it it has become even more important for operators to find what really sets themselves apart. Would you agree?
Absolutely. I never want our industry to become a commodity and sometimes I think that is how people look at us. We have not done a good job of differentiating ourselves. That was what was happening at Blue Harbor. It was a company without a real definition.
You are still a bit under the radar.
We are totally under the radar! Blue Harbor grew very quickly in its first couple years through numerous acquisitions. With each acquisition would come all different kinds of systems. So, there was really no differentiation—no Blue Harbor way of doing business. We are working on getting consistent now. I think we are getting there.
In my first four months, it was important for me to understand Blue Harbor in its current state. We asked a lot of questions. I met every executive director and sales person. I met numerous residents and family members. We held meetings with the home office and the regional team. In order to define Blue Harbor and give the company a brand, these meetings were critical.
We now have a brochure that tells the Blue Harbor story. So, we don’t plan to be under the radar much longer.
What would you like people to think about Blue Harbor?
We are a company that takes that extra step and we are dedicated to family. That was what came through so clearly in our meetings. We feel like the employees in the communities are like family, and we really embrace those who move in with us—they become a part of our extended family.
We feel like the employees in the communities are like family, and we really embrace those who move in with us—they become a part of our extended family.
If you had a senior living executive dashboard that you could look at every morning, what would be on it?
I actually have a daily dashboard report that shows up in my inbox every morning. It includes occupancy data, lead conversion information, pricing, financial highlights. I have a separate report that shows me how we are doing with employees—recruitment, retention, and other relevant information. I personally interview every executive director.
Why do you want to interview every executive director you hire?
The ED is the most important position in the company. And, I can interview every potential ED because we only have 25 communities. They are the ones who make things happen. I want them to know how important they are to me.
What are you looking for?
I am looking for a fit with our culture. By the time I am interviewing, the technical part of the job has already been covered. I get the opportunity to talk about the vision of Blue Harbor. We are a boutique management company that is still relatively new with a lot of growth opportunities. I am looking for people who are excited about building a team. The community becomes a reflection of the executive director.
So is your job as a leader to get them excited about it?
Yes—when I interview them, I can see how excited they are. I think energy and enthusiasm are two very important traits to have in an executive director. And, it doesn’t stop there. It is my job to keep EDs excited.
If you grow, can you continue to be boutique?
Yes. As we grow, I would like to fill in markets that make sense with our current portfolio. Being boutique to me means that I know the executive directors and department heads as well as a lot of the residents. That happens with slow, steady growth through acquisitions and development. Also, I want to be selective about who we work with. Providing outstanding customer service to my partners is critical to me. Those are important relationships. I love those relationships. Those don’t end.
One of the things we’ve been hearing more about is the personalized approach to each resident. What are the challenges to deliver on that?
One of the challenges we face is turnover. Our team members get to know residents really well and they have relationships and become attached. When a caregiver or activity director gets promoted or leaves, the personalized approach is challenged. That is the hardest part. Other than that, I think we do a very good job. Our signature program is called “Tailored Preferences.” A tailored preference coordinator gets to know every resident and helps deliver a plan to keep them engaged. They also help coordinate our “Wow Moments.” We make sure we deliver at least one activity to every single resident that they have always wanted to do. The stories are amazing. That is a personalized approach.
Is the answer that you really need technology as the backbone of everything that you’re doing?
That would make it easier, definitely.
When we hear about people and technology, everyone waves a flag saying, “We have W-Fi!” But the industry’s not small. It should be an expectation.
Yes, it is becoming an expectation. And in new developments, we are seeing wi-fi throughout the community. But, we operate all kinds of buildings that make having wi-fi challenging. I hate to say it, but part of it is financial. We are trying to get there and find what feels right for us. That is why we are piloting a few different programs.
As an investment partner, does Fortress understand the importance of technology?
Absolutely. Technology and innovation. They continue to push for us to find the right technologies to make our operations more efficient, help our employees do their jobs better and create more resident engagement.
Shouldn’t Wi-Fi just be table stakes?
Yes, it should be. Everything we are building today has wi-fi throughout. It’s fast and it’s good. But, I operate communities that are 50 years old. That is more challenging. One of our properties, in New Hampshire, used to be a barn. We at least have wi-fi in common spaces, but not usually in apartments at this point.
You’ve inherited some interesting properties.
I have. Some of those communities are not easy to go back and retrofit.
I’ve never heard “that used to be a barn.” I’d love to see a picture.
It’s a very charming community in New Hampshire with a rich history.
What’s your definition of leadership?
Leadership for me is surrounding yourself with people that are smarter than you and having a clear vision about where you want to go. It’s not really magical. I think leadership is innate. It is not something that is easy to teach. It is something that’s within. My leadership style is to be with my team. I don’t think of myself actually leading them, we are all just going together in the same direction.
During your senior housing career, what’s the biggest personal challenge you’ve faced?
Work-life balance. I try to do it all. This is a 365-day-a-year industry. We are always open. And, I travel a lot. I want to be in a lot of places at the same time. I am missing my son’s track meet this week—I don’t like missing events like that. And, I usually don’t miss those things. We all want what is best for our families, because we are about family.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career?
Making the move from Leisure Care after 19 years to do something a little different.
Why’d you want to do it?
I wanted that risk. There was a big part of me that wanted to see if I could do it. I grew up with Leisure Care. Dan Madsen is a dynamic leader. There is really no one like him. I wanted to know if I could do it and the right opportunity came along.
Did you ever doubt whether you could do it?
Sure. I would be lying if I said I didn’t doubt it. That is what keeps me humble.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career?
When my son was young—first or second grade—he told me to BE HAPPY. I must have come home after a rough day at work and he was a little worried about me. He made me a little card that I keep on my desk that says, “Be Happy.” I think that was probably the best advice anyone—and he was a seven year old—ever gave me. To be happy. I took that to heart. If you are not doing something that makes you happy, it can be hard. Our work is hard, but at the end of the day, I feel accomplished and happy. Other than that, I would say the best advice I received was to surround yourself with outstanding people—then it doesn’t feel like work.
…surround yourself with outstanding people—then it doesn’t feel like work.
Who do you consider to be your mentor, and how have they helped your career?
Because of his work ethic and what he taught me from that. I am a farm girl from Eastern Washington and I watched him work tirelessly for us. I never considered not working. When you grow up on a farm, you start working when you are young. I was driving a wheat truck by 14. He was the person who always believed in me. He never had a doubt. Those two traits—work ethic and someone who believes in you always—have helped me become the person I am today.
In the work world, it would be hard to say just one person. I feel blessed that I worked with Dan and Bill. I have spent time with Loren Shook, who inspires me. I remember when I was opening a community in Oceanside, I met Sue Farrow. I don’t know if she would even remember this—it was probably 17 years ago. I didn’t know the market all that well. She took me out to coffee and helped me understand the market—and so much more. This is a special industry. Everyone brings something different to the table that has shaped me.
Say I’m about to graduate college. What would your pitch be to me for senior living?
I’ve actually had the opportunity to pitch college graduates on senior living. I had the opportunity to teach at Washington State University. I told the students in the hospitality school that they still have a lot to learn, but by the time they are 40 the baby boomers will be moving into our communities. So, at that point, if you invest in the industry now, you will have all kinds of opportunities in 15 to 20 years.
Do you think the industry does a good job of taking people from the front lines and giving them a path to succeed?
I think we do a good job. I encourage our managers to seek out the superstars working on the front lines and help them see where their career can go. Some of the most successful executives I have worked with started in the dining room or started as a caregiver.
What about at the caregiver level?
We are working hard on that issue in Argentum’s workforce development committee. We are finding creative ways to work with trade schools. We are reaching out to high school career counselors. We need to continue to be creative in finding the right people.
Let’s be honest, it’s not going to be that fine and rosy.
Our job is to find out what will keep someone. We must pay better. Our benefit offerings are important. I am looking at our PTO policy now. What is important to my generation is different than what is important to millennials. I believe this generation will be better at the work-life balance. I want to find ways that I can make sure that my housekeeper can get to her son’s t-ball game. I know there isn’t a silver bullet, but I am bound and determined to find out what these little things are and create an environment that people want to be a part of.
What’s the biggest challenge the industry faces?
Right now, I think there are two things—one, employees finding great ones and keeping them. The other is saturated markets. I think we have some markets that are over built.
What’s the future of senior living look like?
It’s bright. There are so many people coming our way. And, there are a lot of creative people working on making the industry desirable. We are not going to do the same thing we have been doing, just making it prettier and nicer. We must dig into what the baby boomers will want and need. They are demanding and they didn’t save their money like the prior generation. We need to create environments and living situations that will work for them. They are independent and strong. Exciting times are ahead.