Several Top Executives Reveal Careers in Serving Seniors

“Very few people just walk into this position,” says Joe Mikalajunas, president of Greensboro, North Carolina-based Bell Senior Living. Most senior living executives “start in the same place-in a community, serving seniors-and then work their way up the corporate ladder.” But here’s the kicker, Mikalajunas adds, “We all have a passion for serving seniors. It’s hard to be successful in this industry if you don’t have that passion.”

Passion is just one of the many characteristics Mikalajunas has in common with the eight other industry leaders-each of whom participated in exclusive interviews with Assisted Living Executive-who have been named Trendsetters in Senior Living for 2009.

Thilo Best
Horizon Bay Retirement Communities
Tampa, FL

Industry debut: Although Best technically entered the industry in 1987, his first experiences (at Prudential Insurance Company of America and Holiday Retirement Corp.) focused on the finance side of the business. The operational side never seemed all that far away, though. “I kept getting pulled in that direction,” says Best, who finally took the plunge in 2001 to manage Horizon Bay Retirement Communities.

Top professional accomplishment: “I’m extremely proud of the culture we’ve built at Horizon Bay,” Best says. “It’s a caring culture, but it’s also a pragmatic culture.” It’s important to maintain a balance between the two, he adds, because “you can’t be so bureaucratic that you forget your day-to-day mission of taking care of your residents, but you also can’t be so focused on customer service that you ignore your margins.”

Greatest industry challenge on the horizon: “I think our biggest challenge will come from new regulations,” Best says. “At both the state and federal level, we seem to be in an era where some people believe more regulation is better than less, and I think they may try to fix the things they believe require more oversight through additional regulation. This could pose a real threat to the industry.”

Outside the c-suite: Although Best enjoys playing tennis, traveling, and reading when he’s not in the office, he says his favorite off-the-clock activity is “spending time with my two daughters. It gives me a wonderful perspective on things, it keeps me humble, and it helps me work on my main weakness: patience.”

Vicki Clark
Vintage Senior Living
Newport Beach, CA

Industry debut: Clark has been working in the senior housing space for three decades. In the early ’90s she left the apartment side of the sector to join ARV Assisted Living. A few years later, she joined two of her former colleagues at ARV, Eric Davidson and Brian Flornes, who, established Vintage Senior Living in 1998. “I feel like I’ve always been in the right place at the right time,” Clark says of both transitions.

Favorite part of the job: Because all of Vintage’s properties are within close proximity of each other, “we’re able to bring all of our executive directors together every single month for training and education,” Clark says. “Being able to see each of their faces and hear each of their success stories every month is especially great.” These meetings are structured around a cultural environment that employees learn best when they share experiences, peer to peer. Their purpose is “to help our EDs work through their challenges and struggles by talking with their peers,” she says.

Top professional accomplishment: In 2006, Clark was named the 50+ Housing Council’s Person of the Year, a program of the Building Industry of America. “I’ll never forget standing on that stage, staring out at about 200 of my peers in the audience,” she says. “I do what I do because I love it, but it’s nice to be honored for it, too.” Clark says she remembers the experience whenever she’s feeling overwhelmed. “I look at that award, take a deep breath, and tell myself, ‘You know what? We’ll get through this!'”

Greatest on-the-job challenge: “Hiring and retaining the right teams,” Clark says. The right assessment tool might help her-and her industry cohorts-be more successful at both tasks, she adds, “but right now it seems like we’re all using individual tools.” In the coming years, Clark says she “would like to see everyone come together to find the right [tool] for our industry-one that would point us toward the best executive directors, because finding the right people for those positions is critical not only to the success of a community but to our industry as a whole.”

Differentiating Yourself From the Competition

When you’re a hotel owner, the details, whether it’s the amenities or how the staff are dressed, set you apart from your competition and impact your business. Particularly when you’re in hospitality, you’re guest centric 24/7 and you know that while every guest is important, some are pickier than others, especially when it comes to details such as hotel supplies. Some people notice the architecture and the character of old world hotels and spa hotels while others pay attention to the details that are the hotel supplies and amenities within their hotel room. From the door to the wall and the floor to the ceiling, the smallest details may be the icing on the cake of a great trip or the last straw on a bad trip.

Being ever mindful of the details is critical as they define your business. In markets where the hotels are aplenty and competition is steep, paying close attention to everything from the hotel supplies in the guest rooms to the water in the pool becomes critical. Triangled toilet paper ends, fan-shaped towels and complimentary toiletries enveloped in wash clothes are just a few creative touches found in many hotels. People choose a hotel from among many hotels because perceived value as well as offered hotel supplies and amenities. When guest rooms look like the pictures and the hotel and the room are well put together, people are generally pleased. Additionally, when everything, including the amenities, is as promised, the traveling public are happy guests.

Many hotels have a signature amenity, service or slogan for which they’re known. These include complimentary room service, personalized bathrobes, fresh baked cookies at check in and curved shower curtain rods and other hotel supplies. The overall goal is to stand out from the competition and create staying power in the minds of consumers. While people may not necessarily choose hotels for the signatures, amenities and hotel supplies, they’re all indications that hotels pay attention to details and truly care about what you, as the valued guest, think. These same hotels tend to pay more attention to their guests’ opinions and work to accommodate requests, wants and needs in the form of amenities.

There are many factors that go into a consumer’s decision when it comes to picking hotels. Location, rate, amenities, service and hotel supplies are weightiest among them. Most people will select an area with a city, the Back Bay in Boston or SoHo in New York, for example and then begin reviewing hotels. People review the details that are important to them, such as dining options, amenities, services and hotel supplies provided. Although some people appreciate being attended to promptly, others will defer to fellow guests while other people still care not about service but are very particular about the hotel supplies and amenities in their room.