By Steve Moran
While at the Senior Living Innovation Forum in Napa, I had the chance to spend some time chatting with the incredible co-founders of the Northbridge Companies, Wendy Nowokunski, president, and Jim Coughlin, CEO — located in Burlington, Massachusetts. You should care because they have built an incredible organization where their portfolio of 25-plus managed communities has an average occupancy of 93%, while the industry average is 84.4%. They also did 20 turnarounds last year.
Here are some highlights from that conversation.
A Unique Partnership
Theirs is a unique relationship that merges two very different sets of talents and skills. Wendy is an operational and marketing powerhouse, and Jim is a powerhouse on the financial side. One of the things that is unique and a big part of what makes it all work is that they are 50/50 owners, something that is generally considered to be a terrible idea since there’s no tiebreaker.
They have a single clear vision of what they want to be and where they want to go.
Growth in Northbridge
Because of their alignment, there is a clear picture of what career growth looks like for team members in the organization. Because the company is relatively small, growing in it may mean leaving for a while to gain new skills and experience, but you are always part of the family, and there is room and opportunity to come back.
This has worked very well for them. Something like 65% of their executive directors started out in other positions and have grown into that role.
Listen and Learn
A big part of what they do is something they call “listen and learn.” Jim and Wendy will talk with the team about what they are trying to accomplish for the company, the residents, and the team members. They then sit back and listen to the team members talk about what would make their jobs better, their communities better. This creates a close-knit team that is focused on a common goal.
The bond between the team members is so strong because they know and truly care for the residents. They collectively work hard to keep agencies out of their communities, because they don’t feel they are part of the family and they are just in it for the money.
One of the early decisions they made was to not go the traditional funding route, working with REITs and other institutional capital. The majority of their investors are high net worth individuals, and family offices who share their philosophy of doing good while doing well. This means they can be very selective about what investors they work with. They are very willing to walk away from investors rather than compromise on doing what’s right for the residents, associates, families, and communities they serve.
The problem is that some institutional capital companies have short-term investment horizons, making it difficult to invest in building communities and teams for the long-term benefit of the residents. They recognize that over the long term, not squeezing every last dollar out of salaries and expenses keeps residents happier, team members happier, buildings fuller, and the long-term cash flow sustainable.
They staff very differently than many organizations … and I love this so much. They staff to the care needs of the individual, not just a staff-to-resident ratio. In addition, they schedule their caregivers’ time so that 70% to 75% of it is providing direct care. This gives caregivers time to make meaningful connections with residents and family members. It also allows time for things to go wrong.
- A development company that does ground up development for their own portfolio and for third party organizations.
- A management company that manages their own portfolio of communities, plus they do some third party management — though even in those situations they typically have some economic interest in the community. They are specifically focused on the New England market because it is much easier to manage and because they know the marketplace well.
- An asset management company that creates funding vehicles that are largely development focused. At their peak they were working with 175 families. These are groups that are looking for long-term (10-year) stable returns. They have also used this entity to make strategic investments in distressed properties, in one case acquiring a dozen properties during the COVID epidemic.
- An advisory business. This part operates on a national scope. They work with capital partners that have communities that are underperforming, and they are looking for ways to get involved with the operators in a way that is supportive to the operators and will improve returns on their investment. The companies they work with also to buy into the idea of doing good while doing well. These capital providers have tried swapping operators and found they still didn’t get the result they wanted. They are working with Northbridge because they want something better for their assets.
When they go into a distressed situation, the problem always falls into one of three categories: management, the marketplace, or the product itself. But in something like 80% of the cases, it is a management problem. This looks different in each case. Marketplace is probably the toughest of the three to fix.
So much of fixing problem assets is making sure you have the right people in the right roles, and that the product is positioned in the right way. Often, it is lots of little things that need to be noticed and fixed.
When things go wrong, it inevitably means the capital provider and operator are in conflict. Often what they end up doing is acting as a kind of marriage counselor, helping the operator and capital provider to realign.
There was so much more to the conversation that I wish I had space to share. But …
If you have a struggling asset, you should be talking to Wendy and Jim.