Merrill Gardens reinvents itself by moving from timber to retirement communities

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Merrill GardensIn an era when companies are folding as quickly as they are starting, one privately held Seattle business has kept growing by reinventing itself. Merrill Gardens was begun in the 1890s by Richard Dwight (R.D.) Merrill as an environmentally friendly timber operation. Merrill studied the relationship between forests and their environment, replanted seedlings and grew as much as he cut.

Merrill Gardens

Location: Seattle
Employees: 2,570
Website: merrillgardens.com

The firm, the R.D. Merrill Co., also expanded its timberlands, and now owns more than 60,000 acres. Today, the company is led by Charlie Wright III, both chairman and a fourth-generation owner. Remaining true
to his pioneer ancestors, Wright sought to diversify the family’s assets so that its legacy could live long into the future.

“There was a consensus among the family that we had too many eggs in one basket,” he explains. “We were
too focused.”

After trial and error with other businesses, in 1993, Wright acquired the company’s first independent and assisted living community in Seattle.

Called Merrill Gardens to honor the family name, it became an alternative to traditional retirement housing, offering programs to improve residents’ health and fitness. From a small operation with eight employees, Merrill Gardens has grown to a large company with more than 2,500 employees. It operates 56 retirement communities in 10 states. The organization, which can serve up to 7,700 residents, had revenue of $197 million in 2009, up from $179 million in 2008. It is one of the largest privately held owner-operators of senior housing in the United States. Several fifth-generation family members currently work at Merrill Gardens, though there is not a fixed succession plan in place. Wright says they plan to address that issue in the near future.

“Family business is a fantastic thing when it works,” Wright says. “Families tend to have the same long-term interests at their core, but it can be complicated when there is a difference of opinion. It is important for each generation to reassess the alignment of interests.”

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