Larry Cohen is a legend in the industry. Learn more about his 32-year career on this week’s episode!
Watch this episode here.
Lucas: Welcome to the Bridge the Gap podcast with Josh and Lucas and Sarah today, the one and
only Sarah. She is our producer on the show. It’s a big privilege to have her. But, in addition to
that, we are at the Senior Living 100 Conference with one of the icons in the industry. We want
to welcome Larry Cohen. Welcome.
Larry: Thank you Lucas. I’m happy to be here. And Sarah, thank you very much.
Sarah: It’s great to have you!
Lucas: There’s so much good thought leadership taking place here. Larry, you were on a panel
earlier this morning with some other great, big names in the business and there was a lot that we
can discuss today and there’s a lot that I want to pick your brain about. But, I want to first start
with the human being behind a 32-year-long track record of giving your entire life and career to
senior living. Talk to us about where you come from and what got you into this marketplace.
Larry: I have a very non-traditional start My background is I’m a tax lawyer, have an LLM in taxation. I’m a CPA. I started my career working for two major law firms in Manhattan and then got involved in the large real estate organization. And just fortuitously in 1986, the real estate company, which was one of the largest multifamily and hotel company operators and owners, decided that there was this new product called congregate care and it combined hospitality and multifamily.
Well, maybe 30 years too soon but a great concept. We built four buildings: two in California, two in Arizona. And that was really the start of the true congregate care, what then became independent living of today’s active lifestyle of housing.
I joined Paine Webber in 1989 and running their real estate company. We formed two private rates to finance a real estate company that had a subsidiary dedicated to seniors housing and they are to the person that led the organization was actually a partner of Bill Colson’s back in the 1970s, as you know, from holiday retirement and really the pioneer of this industry and started to develop congregate care properties.
The real estate market was going through a very difficult time at that time with a resolution trust
with SNL scenario and ended up acquiring some congregate care properties that were built in the
late 1980s and as the real estate industry collapsed, this company went bankrupt. So I had to at
Paine Webber, we had to find another operator to come in and take over those assets. And we did
a search. I was very active in various industry organizations. I was on the executive committee of
the National Multifamily Housing Council. I was on the executive board of I’m not sure. (3:27)
And at National Multifamily Housing Council, David Schless, who you know now as the
president of ASHA with a very young join to the organization, I think 1992, where we formed
the NORC and senior housing association.
We did a search and narrowed it down and actually hired the capitalist you know looking to
come in and take over the operations of 13 properties that were originally developed, owned, and
then managed by this company that went into bankruptcy. And Capital just to the fabulous job of
taking these assets, creating tremendous value.
In 1996, when the founders of Capital were thinking about going public, they approached me and
asked if I would join. So I left Paine Webber, joined Capital and, then we went public in October
So, it’s a very different background, but I haven’t been very fortunate to be in an industry that is
so rewarding in every respect. And your comment about people, it’s all about people. And what’s
incredible about 20 years of Capital Senior Living is the group that attracted me, the talent that
was at Capital Senior back in the early 1990s, we worked together for decades and for 88
quarters, I would have a town hall meeting at Capital in the corporate office and recognize years
of service. Every quarter, we’re recognizing 10, 15, 20, 25 years with Capital Senior Living.
Larry: That tenure is so meaningful because at the end of the day when we are serving our
residents and their families and the business is much different today than it was back 32 years
ago, much more complicated, but still our greatest resource for this industry is people, is the
human resource. And as much as people can invest in technology, in physical plan, in systems,
it’s all about the local leadership and the talent at the community level. It’s a very local business
that makes such a difference in the lives of the millions of seniors living in senior living
communities throughout the country.
Lucas: You know, on the panel, one of the things, Sarah, that came up that we heard was talking
about the penetration rate in senior’s housing and where is the biggest opportunity and who are-
what is the competition? I think this is a discussion; it gets batted around. Is it each other? Is it
the home? Is that the adult family? And one of the things that came up is you said that the
penetration rate is really has historically been 5% and then today is really about 5%. Talk to us
Larry: That’s, that is the opportunity and also a very strong message that we’re not connecting
with the consumer and their families. Penetration rate was 5%. It’s interesting. We used, for
for 22 years, we had monthly meetings. We used to have a pad that would track every month
how many leads were generated expecting that 5%- we’d move it. So, that was kind of the metric
used to understand how we get lead generation, how many leads we would need to translate into
movements and then never really, hadn’t never changed.
So, what has happened is this question of competition. I don’t look at other senior living
providers as competitors. I look at this that we all succeed and fail together because it at the end
of the day, it’s the reputation we have as an industry. It’s the quality of service and the lifestyle
that we offer residents that make a difference.
It’s amazing how many families and residents who move into a community say, I only wish I did
this sooner. But for six months, they resisted the move. And we need as an industry to be a little
disruptive and really understand and ask the questions and listen to what families are saying
about the need and get people comfortable about making the move and excited about the move.
People look at as end of life, that they’re losing their independence, but they’re coming from is
usually living alone. There’s so many issues that happen in health and wellness, in emotion
because of that loneliness and they all, they move into a community and have friends. They have
romance. They have activities (for) their wellness. There’s fitness.
So, we just need, I think, to really as hard as people are working as a business is progressing into
more of a care model, we can’t forget about the lifestyle and we can’t forget about the incredible
outcomes, but most importantly, the high level of satisfaction.
You know, when I was at Capital, we would conduct a restaurant satisfaction survey every year and we score 95% every year. You would think a business that has 95% satisfied customers could penetrate more than 5% of the market. So there’s a disconnect there and that also creates tremendous opportunity.
Lucas: Yeah, absolutely.
Sarah: It’s pretty clear to me and hopefully to Lucas and everyone listening that you have a very
service-minded perspective, not only on the leadership side is you were saying in these monthly meetings with your teams, but also serving residents and the families of the residents. What would you say in those team meetings or what would you say to someone coming into the industry about the unique perspective of really serving those families? Because I would say that that’s probably a majority of your success is just having this, this spirit of serving everyone.
Larry: It’s interesting. When we have these quarterly meetings at the corporate office, which
everyone in the corporate office is supporting the onsite staff. And that’s been very clear. That’s
been the philosophy of Capital Senior Living. I say just look around this. We do it in the lobby
here, though. And we had the reception right there. Is there a cash register here? There is no
revenue being generated at the corporate office. Okay, and what everyone’s mission is and we
talk about as a family. It really is amazing. But the mission is to provide the best tools, the best
resources, the best for support to the onsite staff to provide the best experience, lifestyle and
wellness to our residents and their families.
I travel to properties a lot of times by myself. Go in unannounced. Five times I’ll travel with regionals and I am so incredibly satisfied when I see regionals have in their cell phones the cell phone numbers of the children of our residents, at some of the regionals. And they call the families and they talk about their mom or their dad and their issues and they’re solving problems. It’s fabulous. It really is.
I was, we did an investor day, about eight, 10 years ago in New Jersey. And we went to visit a property that we have in northern New Jersey. And as I’m walking out, a resident walks up to our CFO, and says, who’s in charge- points to me. She says, I want to tell you, I’ve lived here, I moved in eight years ago. I thought I’d be here for a month. Your staff is fantastic.
And over the years we get some complaints, but the vast majority of the letters, the emails, the communications I received was just spouting about how fabulous the caregivers, the residents or staff- I could go for hours talking about stories. It really is all about the people and the culture that you can cultivate in this industry. And as we’re seeing the challenges of labor, attracting good labor, retaining good labor, there’s such an opportunity for this industry to be champions of the experience that the staff shares with the family and the residents that make it so special.
You know, it’s great to see the two of you kind of young future leaders of this industry. So passionate about the business. It can be fun. People have to understand it’s really about improving lives. It’s improving life, extending lives. And being in an industry where we’re all one big family that is connecting 24/7 with our residents because we’re living with them and it’s a very unusual experience.
Actually American Senior Housing Association is now working on, as you know, they have whereyoulivematters.org as a consume awareness program. They’re now working on an employee awareness program called whereyouworkmatters.org. And it’s a great message because people should go to work to enjoy themselves. And there’s so much that is rewarding in this business, both financially, spiritually, emotionally.
There’s a lot of talent that doesn’t even know we exist and to the extent that we can really start to attract the next generation of leaders and thought leaders of this industry, it’s going to be needed. I mean, you just look at the demographic that’s coming, that silver tsunami and we don’t have the caregivers, we don’t have the numbers. But we have something very special in an industry that really does such a good job of making such a difference every day in the lives of our residents and our families.
Sarah: You used a term a moment ago that we’ve used on Bridge the Gap and that’s disruptive,
being a disruptor. How would you say that you and your teams are disrupting the industry? What
are you doing that’s different? What are doing that’s, maybe, questionable to some, but intriguing
to others? So what are those things?
Larry: I’m not sure anyone yet has been a disruptor. Okay, I’ll be honest.
Sarah: Well, we’re trying!
Larry: And that’s where we get to this penetration saturation. I think part of the challenge is that a lot of this industry, a lot of the practices, a lot of the physical plan, a lot of the services really haven’t changed much in 20 years. It’s great to see some of the new products of the new ideas. I think that we have to really think outside the box and understand that our consumer today is different than the consumer we served 10 and 20 years ago.
You know, this industry thrived, serving the greatest generation. World War II veterans, seniors that grew up in the depression era. They worked for companies that had pensions. A lot of people don’t even know what pension is today. So, they had fixed income that was able to pay their rent. We’ve now moved to a silent generation and eventually we’ll have the baby boomers coming in. And as a result, we’re seeing some challenges on the affordability.
But also I think that people are, they want more choices. They want to be able to be in more
control of their lives. So I think what we need to really think about is peeling back the hall
service package and the programming that we provide to understand how we better meet
individual needs. It’s challenging. The operators will give you a lot of pushback because they’re
concerned about staffing ratios, margins, how do we do this? But I do think it creates a
tremendous opportunity when we can refocus on lifestyle with care, very important, but still the
lifestyle being the prominent feature and giving people choices and being able to price the
product, price the services, price our apartments in the way that meet needs to widen the funnel
of seniors that can actually afford the surfaces.
Lucas: Sure. Well, we sat down with one of your good friends, Bob Kramer, recently, an
excellent podcast. One of the things he talked about was high tech and high touch. What do you
think? What role does data play in everything that you just said?
Larry: Data plays a very important role. In a high touch place, an even more important role. We
need, as an industry, it’s already a very fragmented business, and as a result a lot of the providers
don’t have the financial resources to invest in technology, to invest in systems to collect the data.
We’re starting to collect data. Question is what are we doing with the data? And I think again as
we think about disruption is how we can better use predictive analytics and use this data to
enhance the wellness, to anticipate falls or other issues affecting our residents and use the data in
a way to really better serve our residents, keep them well (and) healthy longer, but also have
data that allows this industry industry to play a more important role in the post acute continuum.
This is an industry that still is very affordable compared to other settings. The average cost of a
hospital stay is $1,500 a day. Skilled nursing is $500 a day. Assisted living is less than $150 a
day and independent living could be $80 a day. So there’s real value and we’re seeing good
outcomes and the data does show that we are reducing falls, that we’re extending length of stays.
Things are happening where we’re improving wellness and the socialization is something that’s
probably not as measurable but clearly very, very important.
Part of the reason that this industry has not had a seat at the table with the other participants is we
don’t have the data. And Bob has been a champion for years on this, this exact issue. It’s funny,
when we formed ASHA in 1992, there were eight of us at a National Multifamily Housing
Council meeting. And we said the same things. If you look at transparency for real estate asset
classes going back for decades, people know every hotel rate, they know office, they know retail,
they know multifamily, not so much housing.
So, part of the initiative when we formed ASHA was to provide data and information that would allow the capital markets, the financial markets, consumers to understand the product. And 25 years later, we still are not-
Lucas: -getting to understand the product?
Larry- get the information across. We’re not doing a very good job of that. So, clearly, we definitely have much better data as it relates to care. You know, about NIC providing better data. But even there, unless we get real financial information, a lot of the information coming out is not as accurate as it could be. So, it’s hard to gauge what is there.
So, one of the opportunities, clearly, is to improve the data, but more importantly is what we do with that data to be able to provide better settings, safer settings for our residences and have better data to drive down costs of labor, better data to understand how we can better price our products, how we can become more affordable and how we can provide a product that matches both the desires and needs of the consumer and provide the financial returns to attract capital in a smart fashion.
Sarah: So exciting. And you have, obviously you’ve played a lot of roles on boards and
leadership councils and that portion of your resume is probably very, very long and we don’t
have time to go over all of it. But will you give us a snapshot of how you’ve been able to
influence this industry on these boards and with ASHA and different colleagues and other
industry professionals that you’ve been able to work with?
Larry: It’s been a real treat. I’ve gotten to know and be very good friends with some very talented
people in this industry that we’ve served together. This is a mission oriented business and as
such, it’s incredible to see the collaboration that occurs within this industry to help one another.
And too, because we all want one another to succeed. At the end of the day, selfishly, it’s that
success that will improve the reputation of this industry, will actually enhance penetration rates
and it also minimizes the risk of negative news that could impact our businesses.
But, the business industry has attracted fabulous people. They’re very smart, very talented, very
committed to what they do and is given to us as an industry that chance to really be very
thoughtful of understanding what’s happening at the local level and what we need to do to adjust
to those changes, at a very fast pace, to be able to be more futuristic, if you will, about what is
needed to see this industry now only thrive, but really well actually it is to thrive. Not to succeed,
but really to thrive. You get to a higher level, because as I said there’s 90% plus of the potential
residents aren’t living in our communities.
Lucas: Right. Well, I’m so glad that Sarah asked that question because, as a leader in the
space, CEO of a publicly traded company, when I look at you and your career, I see most at the
forefront your volunteer leadership on these boards of NIC, ASHA and coming to all these
events to promote thought leadership and you’re giving up your time to do that.
So, it’s a perfect transition into a couple of our final questions as we round out the show. Looking
forward, so we’re not gonna put you in the hot seat to ask what your next move is, but it is an
opportunity that we talked about on the phone earlier is that you’ve had a few months to
travel with your grandkids, to kind of step back and look at a long, successful career. Talk to us
about some of the things that have hit your mind’s whiteboard when you’ve had a chance to sit
Larry: I’ve been breathing a lot.
Larry: Which is great. And listening a lot and meeting a lot. I do have a whiteboard and it’s been
very exciting to kind of reflect over 32 years of things that work well (and) things that didn’t
work well and really understanding, you know, hopefully to, you know as I think about my next
chapter and find people that I really enjoy working with and respect of creating something very
special that has a long tenure way beyond the tenure I’ve already had for this industry. I think the
biggest change, and I think going forward is we have to think beyond the three year cycle. You
know, in business you have a business plan, you have a strategic plan and it’s very hard to
anticipate what’s going to be out three to five years. Oh, we need to. And maybe five to 10 years.
And we have to be able to adapt our products, our services, our care plans not only to what will meet the needs today, but also communicate with the children of our residents.
And the industry is trying to do that. But to really understand what is coming and not be reactive, but be proactive in providing a package that is not only attractive. Because don’t forget the decision makers today very often are the adult children. So, what resonates with the adult child, not just the prospect that can get them excited about the future and that clearly will help the decision-making process as it affects their parent today.
Lucas: So, as you’ve had a chance to sit back, I think that there, even though you may be
quote-unquote retired, you’re far from gone. So, that term to me, I don’t think that’s a good
definition of what your status is today, even though it might be the right answer for your
transition out of Capital.
But there are a number of CEOs and leaders in the business that candidly are moving on to a next
chapter in their career of a 20, 30, and 40 year long career. What do you think, what would be
your admonition to the next phase of future leaders that 20,30 years from now, the guy or girl
that’s going to be the CEO of Capital Senior Living or something else? What, what do you think
that they’re going to have to do differently than maybe what you guys did in the 90s?
Larry: Well, those of us who formed this industry, the 90s, really came from the real estate
Larry: The business back then was much more of a social model. It’s really focused on lifestyle.
Although today you see the active lifestyles coming back again.
Larry: I think that 20, 30 years from now, thinking about the future leaders, they’re going to have to understand how to weave that wellness, that care with the lifestyle. And I think what’s happened to this industry, maybe we move too quickly to worry about care.
Larry: And maybe we kind of forgot a little bit about lifestyle, worry about the care. And as a result, it’s not attractive to the prospects. So I think that it’s going to be a multidisciplined approach. I think it will always be about the touch and the people. And that’s the most important. And culture. I think that if there’s anything that I would suggest to any new entrants into industry or to future leaders for this industry, is what you need to do to create a culture with people that is so apparent to the onsite staff and to families and to residents that you become top of mind of where people want to live. And that is combining the fun of the industry, the lifestyle that is there, the socialization but the best care. And again, there’s such an opportunity when you think about the price point to provide a really fabulous value proposition of quality living, quality lifestyle and wellness at an affordable price.
Lucas: Yeah. And it is fun to create that culture, to bring in people like Sarah who doesn’t come
from the senior living industry, right?
Lucas: That’s what’s been attractive to bringing you in?
Sarah: It is. And you know, it’s so interesting when you were talking about just having joy and
having fun in this industry and in your job, it’s so true for me. I did not have a background in
senior housing and now it’s what I’ve fallen in love with and it’s because of people like Josh and
Lucas and like you, Larry, that have opened my eyes to so many opportunities that there
really are fun and enjoyable.
Larry: Well, don’t ever change because it is that passion and love for what you do that will help
you succeed. They’re always gonna be challenges.
Larry: And you have bad days, but it’s always great to wake up in the morning, excited to go to
work. And I’ve always said that what really probably I enjoyed most about my career is I’ve
always felt I’ve learned something new every day. And that’s exciting too. That just makes you
better every day what you do. And the other thing is surround yourself with great people.
Larry: Always surround yourself with great people that you can trust, that have the same vision,
have integrity, same type of a culture, if you will and that will also create a fabulous work
Lucas: Well, you just teed up my final questions and I’m going to bundle them. Talking about
those good people, is there someone or a couple of people that you look back on 30 plus years in
the business? Is there a person or two that you could name, say, that person really invested in me
to help me get to where I am? And then my final question, as I bundle this, is that if you could
look back on at the beginning of your career, what would you go back and tell yourself today?
Larry: I think the person that had the most influence in my career with Keith Johannesson. Keith
was president and chief operating officer of Capital Senior Living for about 25, 26 years until
Unfortunately, he passed away in 2016.
I met Keith when I was looking to hire an operator for the portfolio that we had at Paine Webber
at the time. I just learned so many lessons from Keith about how to, really, it’s a combination of
tough love to really be a good operator and, you know, gain respect and really understand the
nuts and bolts of the business. And it’s a very much nuts and bolts business. It’s where, you
know, saving nickels make a difference, okay. But also has that the heart in this industry to really,
really thrive and he was a great partner and a great leader and someone that also, I think I was
fortunate to learn a lot from over the years.
Larry: Going back to kind of what I would tell myself back at the beginning, it goes quickly. So,
you really have to think far out when you think about plans, because everything that is working
well only does so for a short period of time. And you’ve got to anticipate change and you have to
even go beyond the near term change. But even further out being much more futuristic and it’s
really important to listen. I think so often, and quite frankly, even some of the sales leaders in
this industry will tell you to really understand and solve issues. You have to be a very good
listener as opposed to just someone that likes to talk all the time. So it’s good to sit back and
listen to what people have to say as well.
Sarah: That’s great advice.
Lucas: What a value this is. This is so wonderful. This is the fun that we’re talking about.
Sarah: It is, and I can’t wait to share this episode because you’re so open. You’re so insightful and
it’s so real and so raw. It’s such advice that we can take and literally anyone in any position in the
industry and outside of the industry needs to hear this advice.
Lucas: Yeah, yeah. Well Sarah, tell our listeners about our website and how to connect.
Sarah: Absolutely. So all of this episode and all of our others will at btgvoice.com. You can hear
from Larry and many other guests there and also on social media. We’re Linkedin, Facebook,
Instagram and Twitter and YouTube. And the list goes on and on! Bridge the Gap, senior living
Lucas: That’s right. There’s no excuses. And Larry, you’ll be fascinated to know this is that our
audience, they love listening to these shows and they give us a lot of feedback and we really
encourage that. We’re always trying to figure out ways to connect to our audience on a deeper
level because we want to give them what they want to hear. And so we encourage our listeners
when they’re out walking their dog, or they’re on a plane, they’re traveling, listening to the
podcast or watching the videos on YouTube or Facebook that you guys can go to btgvoice.com,
write us a message. Write us a note and tell us how this interview went with Larry. Give us your
thoughts and we’ll make sure that we forward hopefully those love letters onto Larry that he’s
gotten for so many years. And it’s just been a lot of fun and thank you one and all for listening to
another great episode of Bridge the Gap.