As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeramy Ragsdale.
As founder and CEO of Thrive Senior Living, Jeramy Ragsdale is a man on a mission to nurture a business with people right at the heart. He is the founder behind Thrive, responsible for business development, strategic management and supporting the company’s leadership team. He’s a frequent speaker and panelist at industry conferences and events across the U.S., Asia and Europe.
Prior to founding Thrive Senior Living in 2007, Jeramy worked in homebuilding, creating infill developments throughout metro Atlanta. Jeramy has a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Samford University and is a member of, and active participant in leading industry organizations, such as ASHA, Argentum and NIC. An Atlanta native, he is a father of four daughters, a private pilot and a marathon man.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was born and raised in Atlanta, and I started building houses while still in college. I loved the creativity and the variety in daily routine. In 2008, I had the opportunity to build a small senior living community as a developer and investor. Through that experience, I was honestly just appalled at what ‘senior living’ looked like (and smelled like), and I spent some time touring other senior living environments. My key takeaway was that none of the ‘principals’ involved (family members, residents, employees) wanted to be there. Twelve years later, I have a clearer perspective on why that was the case: our Elders are often viewed as objects instead of people with intrinsic value. I vowed very early on to “do it differently,” although I had no idea at the time what that would entail.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
After our first community was open and doing well, I knew I wanted this to be my career. I began to search for new locations to build more communities, and I signed up for our industry’s biggest financial conference. I went to that conference with a slide deck outlining my ‘amazing achievement’ of building my one small community, fully expecting to leave the conference with a bag full of capital. It became apparent pretty quickly that I was the only one impressed with grand achievement! I had to go sheepishly explain to a lot of people that it was going to take me quite a bit longer to raise capital than I had originally thought. Eventually I did pull together more capital, but I learned two-important lessons. First, that type of naïve optimism is a must-have trait for an entrepreneur. It’s what allows us to jump off cliffs and build planes on the way down. Second, listening to the wisdom of others who have been down similar roads is crucial. At the very least, they can tell you what type of parts you need to build that plane after you jump.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
While it wasn’t published until long after I started Thrive, Phil Night’s ‘Shoe Dog’ reveals how many missteps and instances of almost pure luck there were in the backstory of what eventually became one of the most visibly successful businesses out there — Nike. As an entrepreneur, it’s easy to take credit for success and absolutely flog yourself for every failure. Stories like ‘Shoe Dog’ help balance that out by revealing (in hindsight) how much of our success or failure is not in our hands. It’s humbling and freeing at the same time.
Just because you started a business that grows doesn’t always mean that you’re the most qualified person on earth to lead the team. I’m learning to play to my own strengths and team up with people who are far better at things that I know I struggle with. Confidence in leading huge groups of people toward a focused outcome is not my strength, but I’ve teamed up with a President (Les Strech) who is better at it than anyone I know. Arranging complex financial transactions requires a far longer attention span than I have, but our CIO Alan Moise is a Jedi master at it. I could fill pages with lists of our team members who are far better at what they do than I could ever be. Building trust with that team and then getting out of their way has been transformational in my life. “Speed of Trust” by Stephen M.R. Covey (son of ‘Seven Habits’ author Stephen Covey) is a great resource.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I laugh when thinking about the ‘purpose’ behind this business in the very beginning. The purpose was to make a living during a downturn and not miss a mortgage payment! Over the years as the business evolved, we’ve had a lot of multi-day retreats to outline our ‘mission, vision, values.’ our ‘hedgehog principle,’ our ‘BHAG’ or our ‘Purpose statement.’ depending on what Jim Collins was writing about that year. Don’t get me wrong, these exercises have been hugely helpful, and we’ll continue to do them. It helps to put a name tag on what we are, but it’s important that it not actually define what our business is. Thrive Senior Livinbg has always been defined by the people that comprise it and by the way we engage with others.
We are very fortunate that the end result of our work is a very noble outcome in and of itself. We care for older adults and create true community where none typically exists. Why is that a noble outcome? I believe that knowing the answer to that is the key to understanding your business. For us, we believe that everyone is created to have intrinsic (God-given) value until their last breath. Therefore, creating community for older adults, even when it seems to some that there is little reciprocal value in return, is noble. It’s a purpose worth getting up for every day.
For years I felt ‘ashamed’ that I wasn’t more thoughtful or purposeful about direction in the early days of the business. I don’t have a framed napkin on the wall where I jotted down our purpose on day one. But there was definitely an underlying sense of where it was heading, and today we have the perspective and benefit of hindsight to better clarify it. For someone starting a new venture today, there may be value in rigidly determining your vision and purpose and then never deviating. But don’t be afraid to focus on what your gut and your heart tell you is the next right thing to do, and build guardrails and formality around it down the road.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Specifically, regarding the ‘ups and downs’ of being an entrepreneur, it’s crucial that your identity is not fully tied to your work. You’ll eat, sleep, and breathe the business. You’ll celebrate wins and grieve losses, but the business cannot define your value. Knowing that my value is defined elsewhere is the only thing that lets me sleep at night during tough seasons and keeps me humble after a big win.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
As a whole, I think that our family challenges are similar to others’, perhaps with a small twist. Like everyone else, we are dealing with becoming involuntary home school parents, learning to spend way more time together than usual, and realizing how much we really hate to cook! In my work, I am asking over 1,000 team members to show up every day and work ‘on the front lines,’ and I continue to feel that I need to be willing to work alongside them. I’ve worked multiple shifts now in our communities, including interacting directly with COVID-positive residents. While incredibly rewarding, it’s led to some conversations about how to manage risk with the family after that work. Do I quarantine alone for days until I have two consecutive negative tests? Do I just get one test? These discussions have made us think hard about how we deal with risk as a family. Whether it’s debating a trip to Home Depot or whether or not to dine-in at a restaurant, everyone will be having those conversations very soon.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
In our industry (senior living), it’s assumed that COVID and preventing its spread is the biggest battle we are fighting. While in some ways this is true, there is another battle that is far more widespread and can be every bit as deadly. A recent American Cancer Society study showed that isolation is the highest correlated risk factor for death, especially among older adults. The entire idea behind our communities is just that … community. Early in this pandemic, we made the tough decision to shut our communities to all visitors to limit dining in our restaurants and curtail group activities — among many other restrictions. While this was and is the right thing to do, it’s incredibly difficult for our older adults and their families.
Our entire leadership team publishes our email addresses on our website, and we appreciate the feedback we get. In early April, I received an email praising our decisions on safety, but begging us to come up with a solution so that families could see their loved ones. I didn’t sleep well that night, and the next morning I started sketching out an idea. We created a homemade Plexiglas panel on wheels that was custom fitted to the front door size at each of our communities. My dad has a workshop, so I rented a giant delivery truck and made a significant investment at Home Depot. After days of work, we had created 10 of these panels. We sourced some wireless ‘phones’ that could be used to communicate “across the glass,” and we named them the “Clear Connection Panels.” Our President, Chief Operating Officer, and I set off on a 1,500-mile road trip to deliver these panels to 10 of our communities across four states.
We opened the front doors of our communities, rolled the panel into place, and created a venue with a small table, chair, and phone on both sides where families could visit. After sanitizing everything and providing both the resident and the family with masks, the visits began. We witnessed the most heartwarming moments I’ve seen in the 11 years since Thrive’s inception. A gentleman at one community lives with us in an independent living cottage, while his bride (they’ve been married 70+ years) lives with us in our Memory Care neighborhood. Pre-COVID, they spent most days together, but hadn’t seen each other in 16 days. We were able to watch them re-unite using this panel, and I don’t think there was a dry eye anywhere in sight. It’s moments like those that bring ‘weight’ to the small things that we do and continue to convince me that it takes far less than you might think to make a significant positive difference in someone’s life. We have made the plans to those panels available on our website and we are now seeing other senior living operators implement them as well, which is truly heart-warming to see.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the corona virus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Humans are incredibly creative, gritty, generous, and adaptable. Having ‘freak out’ moments and even a bad day is perfectly fine, but don’t stay there. This will pass, and the other side might look different, but massive change always brings massive opportunity for those who are looking for it.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
I’ve been furiously working on a vaccine in my basement (just kidding, please report me to the FDA)! I think that people are amazingly resilient and will want to continue to do the things that they love — they’ll just want to find safe and responsible ways to do them. Someone will build a great business helping us figure out how to enjoy live music, sports, travel, and dining out in a safer way. Smart entrepreneurs are analyzing how business are going to have to change and thinking through the tools they’ll need to do so. I would expect to see some pretty creative patents filed in the next few years.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I’m a bit of a skeptic, and I think that our collective memory is pretty short. I’m sure that this will have an impact for years, but at some point, I do believe that we’ll all be sitting shoulder-to-shoulder at soccer games and concerts again and riding public transportation.
I mentioned Les Strech earlier. He and our amazing Chief Experience Officer Tammy Marshall have been boldly saying that “Social distancing will kill us all.” Think about that for a moment. It’s “Physical Distancing” that is needed because we were created to live in community. I believe that we as humans will find a way to live in community again very quickly — we are hard-wired to make that happen.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We are extremely fortunate to be in a business that is poised to come out of this season very strong, with opportunities to grow even stronger. Because our business is young, the majority of our communities are ‘brand new’ and the building science is modern and well thought-through. We have flexible spaces, negatively pressurized resident apartments, and many other elements that will be nearly impossible to replicate in older buildings without significant investment. What I’m personally most excited about is that there is a wealth of new talent available in the market. There are lots of gritty, intelligent, driven people that I cannot wait to see in a Thrive jersey.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Come to work with Thrive! In all seriousness, there will be a lot of businesses and perhaps even some entire industries that will not survive this season. Be willing to be brutally honest with yourself about your situation and get ahead of it by starting or joining something that will flourish in this new economy.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have a plaque on my wall that my Dad gave me when I started Thrive. It says, “A good name is better to be had than great riches.” It happens to come from Proverbs, but regardless of your religious beliefs, that statement holds the wisdom of generations.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I’m on all the usual social media outlets, and with a unique name spelling like mine I’m not hard to find.
@jarrags on Instagram and Twitter, and Jeramy Ragsdale on Facebook and LinkedIn.
Thrive is at @Thrivesl on Instagram and Twitter, and Thrive Senior Living on Facebook.