“Our most important job now is to look forward.”
These are the words of Brandywine Living Co-Founder, CEO and President Brenda Bacon, spoken last week on the eve of her induction into the American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA) Senior Living Hall of Fame.
Rather than using the occasion to reflect on her decades of accomplishment in senior living, she focused on the challenges and opportunities of the present — particularly the labor crisis. She described how Brandywine recently has streamlined its hiring process, which has supported several months of historically strong sales.
Financial challenges also abound at the moment, with rampant inflation and the costs of labor almost certainly higher on a permanent basis. Bacon does believe that senior living operators can return to pre-pandemic margins, if they can deliver the value that discerning consumers expect and stand out from the competition.
“I’ve always believed this is a revenue business,” Bacon told Senior Housing News. “You need to be able to sell, to close deals … there are a lot of choices out there, so what is it that differentiates you?”
Since its founding in 1996, Brandywine has differentiated itself by helping to define high-end senior living while pursuing operational innovations such as the “Alvin” asset management technology, and Bacon herself has held various leadership positions in the industry. Today, the Mt. Laurel Township, New Jersey-based company operates a portfolio of about 30 communities across seven eastern states.
A new approach to hiring
Unprecedented workforce challenges are forcing the senior living industry — like many sectors — to make overdue changes in labor practices, Bacon said.
For Brandywine, that has included a concerted effort to create a more efficient hiring process.
As the labor crunch became increasingly severe during the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, Bacon reviewed Brandywine’s hiring system and came away convinced that significant improvements could be achieved. She delivered that message to other company leaders.
“We put our heads together and I said, ‘If there’s something that you think will really, really affect the quality of who we’re hiring, we’re not going to [change] that,” she said. “But we can do it faster, more efficient and more user-friendly — in other words, more friendly toward what the employee needs, and what we need.”
Before, the application process was lengthy and involved several interviews, various background checks and full physicals conducted by a particular company. Certain steps — such as criminal background checks — are non-negotiable, but Brandywine found ways to expedite some of these requirements. The interview process also has been consolidated.
Bacon also was “shocked” to learn how many prospective workers started but did not complete an application. She recognized that some of these people might still be interested in working at Brandywine, but were overwhelmed or confused by the application, or they simply became busy and had not gotten around to completing it.
The solution was to proactively reach out to these applicants.
“Why can’t we get on the phone and say, ‘Hi, I’m Brenda, I see you are interested in working for Brandywine, but you haven’t completed the application. So maybe I can complete it for you right now. You just give me the information … let’s get it done, and let’s get you going,’” Bacon explained, of the approach.
Brandywine also deployed staffing “SWAT teams” to communities with urgent needs. The team would “go big” on recruitment efforts, working the phones, Zoom, job fairs and all other avenues “around the clock” until the community was in a comfortable place on staffing.
Through these efforts, Brandywine has brought its use of agency staffing “way down,” Bacon said. This has translated to better bottom line results, considering the high cost of agency labor, and also has safeguarded quality.
Many of these changes could have been made even before the pandemic, but Brandywine never was lacking for quality applicants in the past, Bacon said. It took the current, extreme crisis to prompt a reevaluation of the status quo and implement improvements.
Companies of all sorts have been going through a similar process, Bacon noted. Still, she is “ashamed” that the senior living industry was not more proactive in recognizing the need for certain changes, she said.
Streamlining the hiring process won’t solve the labor problem facing senior living providers in the long-term. Bacon — who worked in state and federal politics before starting Brandywine — believes some larger-scale policy shifts are needed, including on immigration.
But there are some other ways in which senior living providers can and should adapt, she emphasized. HR departments, for example, cannot be primarily disciplinarians but instead must understand the needs and challenges facing employees and collaborate on problem solving.
“I’ve said this over the years, that our team — a lot of times, single mothers and particularly diverse populations — go through a lot more challenges every day by noon than most of us do in a week,” Bacon said.
Helping workers with solutions is not easy, and the scope of labor challenges can be overwhelming, but providers cannot afford to be paralyzed.
“As with everything, you can bemoan that it isn’t like it used to be or that it isn’t going to go back to how it used to be, or you can just analyze the problem and stare at it for a long time — or you can take action and start to do something about it,” Bacon said.
Optimism on occupancy, opportunities
Staffing shortages have forced some senior living providers to slow move-ins, suppressing occupancy growth.
Brandywine has never been in this position, and its sales in September 2021 were the highest in company history. Sales remained strong through the fall and into the new year, Bacon said.
Today’s customer is very attuned to the labor challenges besetting all kinds of businesses, she said, and so Brandywine’s strength on staffing has helped spur move-ins across its markets. Furthermore, the pandemic has driven home the value of social interaction.
So, prospective residents and their families are encouraged by seeing residents mingling and by meeting workers who have significant tenure.
While today’s customer might have slightly different concerns and priorities than those in the past, Bacon holds the same belief today that sales are driven not by amenities and beautiful buildings but by the culture and care within them.
“We all have pretty buildings,” she said. “I say to our team, that’s the canvas on which we paint.”
Margin recovery is lagging occupancy recovery throughout the industry, given elevated expenses. Labor costs likely are permanently higher than in the past, in Bacon’s view. Still, she is confident that pre-pandemic margins are achievable, and is focused on achieving the needed revenue and pivoting operations — as demonstrated by the streamlined approach to hiring — to meet this goal.
“I am constantly thinking about, what is the new normal?” she said. “We’ve learned a lot during this pandemic, and I think once we catch our breath and start to reflect on it, we need to reflect not just on the pain and challenges but what we’ve learned, and how that can make the industry even better and us even better as operators.”
In this effort, she is heartened by what she sees as the collaborative culture of the senior living sector. She recalled being at an Argentum board meeting “many years ago” with former Pegasus Senior Living CEO Steven Vick, who also was inducted into the ASHA Hall of Fame this year.
Vick was just starting to build some new properties at the time, and he wanted Bacon to look at a book with designs of the buildings. She was impressed and happy to collaborate on ideas with him — something she believes does not happen in many other industries.
“We may have different financial partners, we may be competing on the ground in terms of customers and staff, these days … but I think people are very supportive of each other and really share, and that’s always been very unique in our industry,” she said.