YOUTH: I was the baby of the family. The greatest gift my mother gave me was confidence. We were dirt poor—she worked as a short-order cook—but she would say things like, “We’re just like the Kennedys. We’re Catholic and they’re Catholic. We’re Irish and they’re Irish.” It took the mystique out of it.
VULNERABILITY: There is a chasm between the CEO with the perfect education and the person who never finished high school. How does the CEO get the other guy to do what he wants? We talk about management by vulnerability. I talk a lot about growing up poor, working menial jobs, having had bad credit and being divorced—things CEOs don’t usually talk about. When people can identify with you, it breeds loyalty. Our turnover is the lowest in the industry.
GIVING: We have what we call the Potato Soup Foundation. If you [an employee] can’t eat, we’ll feed you. If someone needs emergency dental surgery and can’t afford it, we’ll pay for it. Employees making $11 to $13 an hour will give 25 cents a week from their paychecks because we’ve created a culture of caring for each other. I also tell all my senior executives to ask everyone [we do business with] what they can do for our employees. The hair salon we contract with for our residents, for example, offers $7 haircuts to our people.
HIRING: We’ll bring in 14 people to be interviewed by four people. We’ll divide them into small groups and tell them to choose a leader and ask them to solve a problem. We’re looking for how people interact. Are they collaborative? Then we’ll have people talk about [something emotional] and see who shows compassion. We ask them who they would hire other than themselves. The interviewees become interviewers. You get information you would never get in a formal interview.
EMPLOYEE MEETINGS: Eight years ago, I was watching Oprah [Winfrey] and I realized she was brilliant. She takes people’s basic human needs, then finds the world’s greatest experts to address them. That wins their loyalty. So, for the next employee meeting, we decided to do our own Oprah show. It’s all about improving your life as a human being on the planet. We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and have about one hundred employees and vendors attend. It’s an emotional roller coaster. We’ve had Diane Keaton and Deepak Chopra. It goes on for three days. The people who come are charged with sharing that wisdom with the rest of the company. That has been a game changer for us. The first time I invited people to leave the company to follow their passion, four of my direct reports left. I thought I made a big mistake. But if you are not loving your job, why would I want you here? You are just a drone. And why would you want to be here? Life is too short. We call those meetings EPIC—Empowering People, Inspiring Consciousness.
INNOVATION: We have something called the Black Box Initiative. Not only are suggestions encouraged, they are rewarded. My wife and I scour the world for best practices of health. We’ve met with shamans, herbologists and Chinese medicine men. Once, in South Africa, we were given a special ginger and lemon tea. We felt so renewed, we started serving the hot ginger lemon tea at all our facilities in the winter. We are big believers in alternative medicine.
PRICING: There is a huge need for nursing facilities at the lower end, but how do you pay for it? If you look at the state rates for assisted living, they are the same as what I kennel my two dogs for—like $2,300 a month. You can’t get quality at those rates. What we’ve tried to do to address that issue
is to have communities that reach every bracket. So, a [retirement] home in Bellevue, where a piece of land might cost $10 million, is costlier than the one in Lynnwood, where land is $1.5 million.
FAMILY BUSINESS: I have a 7-year-old grandson who volunteers. My son is general manager of our Marymoor property. My daughter has been on the marketing side but she’s moving into a new position as director of philanthropy. We are a family business in the small sense and in the large sense because that is how we run the business—like a family.
ALZHEIMER’S: My mom was the guiding light of my life. When she was 77, I started to see her condition deteriorate. When we moved her into Aegis, I went from being a CEO to a customer. That gave me a sensitivity to patients, which helped Aegis. It changed our game. It was like a master plan of God. I’m writing a children’s book called Saturdays with Gigi. That’s what the grandkids called my mom. My goal is to teach children about what happens to their parents or their grandparents when they get Alzheimer’s.
SEATTLE: We have facilities in Los Angeles, San Diego and Las Vegas. Since I live here, I want Seattle to have the best senior living option in the United States. We have 12 operating properties in Puget Sound now and plan to have 25 to 27. We’re opening facilities in Marymoor, Madison and Queen Anne. We’ll soon have an all-Chinese and Chinese-American place in Newcastle. We have property in West Seattle, are negotiating sites in Green Lake and Edmonds, and are looking at the U District and Wallingford. We have 129 private investors and have never used any venture or institutional money. We’ve had people who have trusted us. And we’ve never failed.
COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE: Because of economies of scale, I operate differently. I have a brand awareness advantage. I can offer better value. I can have the bread man stop at 20 places. I can run one ad for all our places. A few months ago, we rented the Georgetown Ballroom and had a big- band costume party for our residents. We bought the costumes for people to wear. We will even bring Alzheimer’s people to this.
PEOPLE AND PLACES: The biggest advantage is that we try to dispel everything everybody believes about senior housing. It starts with the people. My CMO was the head of world marketing for Starbucks. My operations guy was at DoubleTree [Hotels]. My CFO was head of a multibillion-dollar hotel company. My chief medical officer ran hospitals. My VP of life enrichment was head of leisure activities for cruises. And our facilities look different. The Madison facility has a man cave with big-screen TV, a wine cellar and a sky lounge with a full bar that overlooks the water.
— Compiled and edited by Leslie Helm