By Steve Moran

Tana Gall is one of my heroes. She was one of a handful of significant leaders who were willing to take the time to talk to me for a story when I first started and was “who is that weird guy, Steve Moran” (an actual quote from someone back then, though it may be no less true now).

The conversation and story were great but most importantly for me at that time was her lending me her credibility, which ultimately has allowed Senior Living Foresight to be a force in helping senior living leaders increase occupancy, reduce turnover, and create culture. Since that day we have, maybe once a year, had the chance to sit and chat over food or coffee about senior living . . . really dream about what senior living can be.

Each of those conversations has ended because time ran out before the conversation ran out.

With that as Background

On Friday, November 1, I got an email with this headline, “Merrill Gardens Names New President and Purchases Blue Harbor”. I was delighted when I opened it to see that the new president was my friend Tana. I was also pretty interested in hearing the story since this is Tana’s second time at Merrill. I have come to really respect the way Merrill does business and really like and respect Bill Pettit. But, it was also puzzling because it does not fit the Merrill pattern of developing new buildings and then, when the portfolio gets to a certain size, selling the older assets and starting the cycle over again.

I also knew that Blue Harbor was a pure management company owning no assets. Time for a conversation with Tana.

This is Pretty Cool

Here is what she had to say about what is going on. Blue Harbor as a management company became this tiny little asset on the books of Fortress, a massive private equity organization, which is pulling away from senior living. It seemed to Tana that at some point Blue Harbor would become less relevant and less interesting.

She approached them about purchasing Blue Harbor and they said yes, which put Tana in the position of saying, “Now what?” Short version is that after discussions with Bill Pettit it seemed like the time was right for Merrill to tackle the middle market with a new way of operating and a new brand.

What Will It Look Like?

While the details are still being figured out this is Tana’s current thinking:

    • It will be a relatively easy transition since she and a number of her leaders have already worked under the Merrill brand. For a good number, it will be a kind of coming home.


    • They already have operating systems in place that will at least initially stay with Blue Harbor.


    • The goal is to figure out how to operate serious middle-market senior living. This will mean figuring out different ways of doing things and setting different expectations. It might mean a radically different dining experience or a resident-driven activity program (my words, not hers).


    • While it might sound downscale, maybe not. Or rather it will likely appeal to a different kind of elder. There are those who could afford JW Marriott but would prefer Hampton Inn because of the experience as much or more than the price. There are others who can afford Hampton Inn all day long but never JW Marriott, it will work for them perfectly.


    • They will not stop being a 3rd-party management company but will begin to acquire properties. They do not expect to build new, but there are a lot of senior living communities out there that would seem to be at “end of life”, that could be revitalized. (Think in terms of urban redevelopment areas where old buildings are turned into something amazing.)


    • They do expect to have a new brand name, it might be Blue Harbor or it might be something else.

Every time I get to hear and write about stories like this it makes me feel proud of the senior living sector, Senior Living Foresight fans, and creative leaders like Tana Gall and Bill Petitt.