As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need to Be a Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Patricia Will, founder and CEO of Belmont Village Senior Living.
Patricia Will is the founder and CEO of Belmont Village Senior Living. As a model female CEO, mother, grandmother, and business professional, she is recognized as a true pioneer and innovator in the senior living space. In 1998, the first Belmont Village community was opened in Houston’s West University neighborhood under her tutelage as a budding leader in the seniors housing arena. Today, her company has built, owns, and operates 31 communities in the United States and Mexico, with more on the horizon.
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 New York City and attended Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where I majored in French and Spanish. After a brief stint in my parent’s tourism & travel business based in Houston, I returned to the Northeast to get an MBA from the Harvard Business School, which I graduated from with High Distinction. Between my first and second year at Harvard, I interned for an amazing real estate developer and true titan in the world of finance, Walter Mischer Sr. I eventually joined his firm full time and became a commercial real estate developer with a focus on healthcare. A bit later, his son, Walter Mischer Jr., and I teamed up and founded a medical development company which also invested in health and wellness platforms. It was during this time that my mother-in-law, Josephine, developed early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. While juggling a career and motherhood, I had also found myself becoming a caregiver for someone who was in need of specialized care. I began to do my research and look into options for those who had cognitive disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s. Looking back, care options were so limited — not only for aging individuals with cognitive disorders, but also the wider spectrum of frail elderly seniors.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
It wasn’t funny at the time, but here goes. In order to build the first Belmont Village, I agreed to mortgage 100% of the building for $15,000,000 in 1997. On the eve of the grand opening, I walked all 100,000 feet of the building and was sobbing by the time I exited to the parking lot. Seeing all 154 apartments empty, I realized that I would be broke and bankrupt if no one came to live there. I went back into the building to help staff unpack the kitchen with my poker face on. Happily, it all worked out. But since then, I have never levered a project to more than 60%!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
In my case there are two, both now deceased. The first was my mom. As a careerist and entrepreneur before her time, she taught me that I could be anything I wanted to be. As a girl growing up in the sixties, this was liberating, and it inspired me to think big. The second major influence was my first boss and mentor after business school, Walter Mischer Sr. While I came to work for him fresh out of Harvard, he had never finished high school. You could say he was “old-school,” and judged merit based on one’s ability to achieve success through picking themselves up by their bootstraps, so to speak. This juxtaposition constantly created a tension between being book-smart and being capable, between the value of financial algorithms and back-of-the envelope calculations, between knowing when to stand up and when to back down. Even today, I consider these the most valuable lessons I put to use as a leader.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
My mother-in-law’s development of early-stage dementia sparked my passion for senior living. We had experienced multiple care failures in the home and her need for specialized care was evident, yet we could not imagine her in a place without a great ambiance and first-rate hospitality.
There was only one assisted living community in Houston at the time, and it did not offer memory care for residents. I saw this as an opportunity to provide something different. The vision of Belmont Village Senior Living was born: a focus on providing environments seniors wanted to live in while making the experiences of aging opportunities for them to thrive in their later years. From the get-go, we wanted to be a business that “did well” by “doing good.” It is really special to be able to earn a decent rate of return while making a real difference in people’s lives.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
As soon as the pandemic hit, I knew we had to configure and manage very differently. I called for a “Central Command” type approach, where all seven of our top executives would meet four times a week to attack the challenges of a rapidly changing landscape. I also configured task forces that often skipped the normal hierarchy of our organization. Unlike many executives, we did not have the luxury of managing the crisis via Zoom from our armchairs. We were on the front lines with our line staff to demonstrate confidence in our processes and support. We also placed a large premium on science and technology. Within rapid succession, we provided first rate personal protective equipment, state-of-the-art testing capacity, and a world class telemedicine platform to our communities. When the vaccines finally became available, we worked day and night to reach industry-leading rates of community immunity. When an organization sees its leaders working 24/7 in their behalf, it creates positive energy, even in very tough times.
Knowing that we would have to support our communities 24/7, we tested every process in our corporate office to make sure we could carry out every function remotely. When an unprecedented arctic storm hit Houston in February, I opened up my generator-backed home to my colleagues and their families so that they would have a place to live and work. Through it all, we never missed a beat, and we also developed a special comradery that will forever be part of our culture.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Honestly, I only came close to giving up once. During that time in our early years, our major capital provider was unable to make its commitments to the business. The challenge of raising a lot of capital ($75 million) for a fledgling, unproven business was overwhelming. All the while, on the home front, I was raising two adolescent boys who were quick to point out every time I missed a soccer goal or a touchdown. Happily, before I gave up the business or went over the cliff, I got therapy. To this day, I routinely refresh that process and continue to speak about it openly. There are many ways to learn to manage stress, but they are rarely self-taught.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
During tough times, a leader is like a ringmaster. It’s crucial to have the attention span to manage lots of spinning cups at the same time. Equally important is the ability to be open to different ideas while being decisive. It is paramount to be highly visible. Finally, you must have the ability to listen to others — not just to your direct reports. In challenging times, leaders need to hear from team members at every level in the organization. It’s very useful to bring in trusted experts from outside the organization to bolster your team’s knowledge base.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
In tough times, it’s even more critical to be highly visible. It’s also important to show emotion. Throughout this pandemic, I have cried with our teammates over tragedies and have celebrated with them over our successes.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I am a strong believer in overcommunicating. At the onset of the pandemic, we communicated in writing daily with our residents, our family members, and our staff. We were fully transparent about every COVID-19 case, regardless of the outcome. We set up a “Heartline” at every community to answer calls day and night from worried family members. We met staff at every change of shift to share facts about COVID-19, every new protocol, and lessons learned from every challenge. In short, we were and are completely transparent.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I think it’s really important to have an informed outlook about the long-term. Throughout this crisis, I never once wavered about the long-term prospects of our Company. With a 25-year history, terrific partners, and minimal debt, I knew we were strong enough to weather the economic hit of this crisis. So, all of our planning centered around when the pivot would occur, meaning the time when we could re-open our communities to new customers and resume somewhat normal operations. We fully expected diminished operating results for as long as we lost occupancy and experienced very high COVID-related costs. Happily, the vaccines were available faster than expected, and our residents and employees were prioritized to receive them first. With the advent of community immunity, we were able to begin the process of growing our business again. The plan was there all the while. The issue was how soon we could execute it.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Never duck and count the cash!
Can you share some of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid them?
1. Shedding staff. People are our most prized asset. Throughout the pandemic, we had no layoffs at Belmont Village, even with the significant decreases in occupancy felt throughout the industry. We took some hard decisions on raises and bonuses, but I am proud to say that we kept everyone on board. Our people turned out to be very adaptable and willing to work in roles outside their normal job descriptions. In the end, keeping everyone was a very worthwhile cost of doing business.
2. Making rosy predictions. At the onset of the pandemic, we saw a number of CEO’s come out with a lot of happy talk. Truth be told, there was nothing to be happy about. It’s fine to be a cheerleader when your pronouncements are true. A lot of leaders spoke out too soon, and, in doing so, lost credibility.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
During the crisis, our investment and development teams were very active. We didn’t ask for this, but as the pandemic wore on, we knew that we (in senior living) would be able to more easily acquire sites for new development. This was particularly true for sites that had been slated for retail or hospitality uses. As a result, we will come out of the pandemic with the best sites for development in company history.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Have a strong bench. Without a strong cadre of leaders, who, in turn, also have a strong bench, the demands of leadership may be simply too great. At the onset of COVID-19, we tasked every leader in the company with new areas to master, often being outside of the scope of their normal day jobs. My Chief Investment Officer launched our search for a national telemedicine provider. My Chief Development Officer ran our global supply chain for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). My Chief Operating Officer quickly gained mastery in all forms of testing. We all knew that all of us were also at risk of illness. The pandemic brought new meaning to the importance of succession planning.
2. Meet often and prepare to make decisions dynamically. Our “Central Command” configuration, which entailed seven Company leaders meeting four times weekly for at least an hour-long session, allowed us to make tough decisions that could be implemented quickly.
3. Communicate often and personalize your communication. Company-wide statements are fine, but with COVID-19, the circumstances in each of our markets varied a lot at any point in time. We chose to create unique communication pieces for every resident, family member, and staff member — literally thousands of informative emails for each community every week, sometimes every night. We got a lot of credit for that.
4. Be prepared to be wrong. In retrospect, we made some calls that were questionable. For example, we shut the front door to new move-ins for perhaps longer than necessary. We are feeling the economic effects of that now, but, at the time, we wanted to direct all our energy towards getting it right for residents on the inside.
5. Maintain low leverage. In times of crisis, you never want to have to choose between feeding seniors and paying the lender. Since our Company’s founding, there have been three economic recessions and a pandemic. Our operating company still has no debt, and we maintain low leverage at our communities. This offers us “sleep insurance” when times get tough.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Learn how to be good to you.” That was a lesson I learned from experiences early on in the formation of Belmont Village that I consider to be one of the toughest moments in my career.
In the late nineties, our primary equity investor went public. Like most companies after 2001, their stock tanked. This left our fledgling and unproven company without adequate capital to sustain ourselves, much less grow. I felt an immense responsibility for the livelihoods of the men and women who took a chance in coming to work at Belmont Village. I was doing my best to keep my team’s spirits and morale high, as if everything was easy. Inside, I was scared and frazzled. I also suffered from trying to be the perfect Mom. I would push myself to do day trips to California so that I could arrive in time to make breakfast for my kids. It was all taking a toll. Thankfully, I was able to get professional help. The first thing the therapist asked me to do was to make a list of ten things I would do on a “perfect day.” I laughed, but took the assignment seriously. The back door taught me to be good to myself, which I still consider to be my life’s enduring lesson.
Drawing inspiration from my “perfect day” list, I learned to skip a business dinner in favor of a massage, to quit reading documents and skip out to the Getty, and to store my work in the overhead so I could read a 900-page novel.
Even brief moments of “me time” have proven to keep me sane through the years.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Individuals interested in my work and the work of all the incredible people at Belmont Village can visit https://www.belmontvillage.com/