Tana Gall has followed a distinct path in her decades-long senior living career. From rising through the ranks at Leisure Care, she went on to lead Merrill Gardens as the operator’s president. She next became an entrepreneur and founded a senior living consultancy before taking on the CEO position at Blue Harbor, ultimately returning to Merrill Gardens as president in November 2019.
Through the Changemakers series, Gall talks about her departure and return to Merrill Gardens, and the lessons she learned in the interim. She provides insight into her approach of bold but calculated risk-taking, and how that is being applied to the new and growing Truewood by Merrill middle market brand. She also explains what Changemakers can do to help stabilize the industry’s workforce.
Thinking back on your career in senior living, what are some of the changes you’re especially proud of leading?
In the early 2000s, I was able to work with a group on changing our industry messaging. For my first few years in the industry, a lot of the same words were used to describe what we did — respect, integrity, independence. They were generic and didn’t capture what the industry represented, so we took a leap. During my time at Leisure Care, I worked with a very creative group of people to roll out Five Star Fun, and that was our tagline.
Our marketing material looked way different than anyone else’s in the industry. We had ladies in a convertible with their hands in the air, reshaping the way people thought about senior living. Today, when I look at how the industry communicates to different audiences, I still see little pieces of that, and we are continuing that mission with Merrill Gardens.
Then if you fast forward, I could not be more proud of the work we’re doing on Truewood by Merrill and really doing what we can to serve the middle market.
It’s something that’s been tried but not really done completely or done well yet in the industry, and to be able to be a part of really changing who can take advantage of living in our communities is something I’m very, very excited about.
Why, after 27 years in your career, is the time right for this push into the middle market?
NIC [in 2019] had just rolled out their forgotten middle report, which was very timely with the background research that we were doing at Merrill Gardens on how to serve that population. The timing lined up there with the opportunity to buy these [Blue Harbor] buildings that we had at a lower basis, to be able to come in and set that rent a little bit lower.
That’s part one of the how-to, and then it was going back to the drawing board and being creative again on how to operate it.
Obviously, the biggest expense we have in our business is labor. It was working on how to be efficient in labor. We’re really reflecting back on how we did it 25 years ago, almost simplifying the product in some ways. Not lessening it, not making it worse, keeping quality where it was, just providing that service in a different way.
Dining is one of the easier examples. Merrill Gardens’ traditional senior living has Anytime Dining, you can come down whatever you want, get whatever you want, made to order. We have meal times at the Truewood communities, and great quality, just the way it is served looks a little bit different. We did hold onto at least one of our meals. It’s usually our noontime meal. It is still full service, get what you want, table side waitstaff, because we believe that the dining program is more than just dining, it’s very social as well.
The word I’ve used a lot throughout talking about Truewood is partnerships. How do we partner with people to provide care, to provide volunteers in order for us to keep the cost down as much as we can, but still provide an outstanding environment and service package?
It would’ve been pretty easy for us to say, wow, we have been hit with the pandemic, we need to halt these plans because we need to deal with the pandemic, but we boldly walked in and said, “You know what, no, we believe in this. We know what we want to do; yes, there’s a pandemic going on, but we can do both.”
We managed the pandemic. We rolled out Truewood. The challenge we had is that Truewood would’ve looked so different if not everyone in the industry had lowered their rates and changed their service package. I think for Truewood, we’re going to see a great bounce back because as people drive to get rate back, to get revenue back, we can hold onto what we’ve got at Truewood. As people get back to the traditional senior living as we knew it before, Truewood will look different. It will look different in its service delivery, it will look different in its pricing.
Do you think the senior living industry is changing fast enough?
Yes and no. As we recover from the pandemic, we’re finding our stride again and seem to be doing okay. I feel fortunate to have had so much time in the industry and seen how it has evolved, because now groups like active adults are a part of our industry continuum.
Did that happen fast? Well, kind of. There was a lot of good research before these trends developed, but I think we have an opportunity to make decisions more quickly as we move forward. Sometimes change happens in small pockets as opposed to the industry as a whole. While I think we’re changing fast enough, we need to move faster to accommodate new generations’ need for our services in the future.
Talk about a time when you tried to execute a change and it didn’t go according to plan. How did you approach that change and what lessons did you learn?
Truewood didn’t go poorly, but it didn’t go according to plan, either. The interesting thing is we didn’t pivot. It didn’t go according to plan, but we still moved ahead.
Now, what I learned about myself and about being a leader is that it’s okay if not every situation is set up perfectly for change. It may not work out exactly how you thought it would, but if you believe in something and you’ve done the research on it, it can happen anyway. It’s okay to be bold in situations like that.
The pricing should have looked a lot different than our other retirement communities in the markets, but it didn’t. Our service package should have looked a lot different, but it didn’t. We were all serving meals to our residents in their apartments during the pandemic.
Again, it will all work itself out as we move forward, but that was probably the biggest decision I had to make: “Is this the right time to roll out Truewood?” We did not anticipate a pandemic in November of ’19 when we had all of our plans laid out. The operational platform was ready to roll it out. Everything was lined up ready to go. It was that decision of, “Yes, let’s just do it,” and we continued on.
I am lucky to have a cabinet, so I don’t make decisions in a bubble. I include other people in that. At some point, you’re simply doing a checklist — what are the pros and cons of doing this? It was making sure that the major stakeholders were in it with me. That would be people like our institutional financial partners and department heads in the company.
We had to look at it like we were transitioning these buildings into the Merrill Gardens platform. The decision was almost, “Let’s just make it Truewood now because if we don’t, we’re going to make a transition to Merrill Gardens, then another transition to Truewood down the road.” Even though it seemed like a pretty big task at that time, I was able to anticipate the long-term payoff.
We had people very excited about it and for the most part, everyone got behind it. Not to say that people didn’t get tired as we transitioned 23 communities to a new operating platform during a pandemic. It was exhausting, but now we’re able to take a look back and say, “Wow, some of our dreams are coming true. Our goals for how we would save in labor are happening. Our goals for how we hire people and get them on a career path, that’s happening.”
That’s easy to reflect on now as I look back, but it was a bit of a leap of faith at the time.
How do you innovate and drive change without getting so far ahead of the curve that the market is not ready for your idea or product?
There is a Merrill Gardens saying that I had nothing to do with, that says, “Try it, fix it, do it.” That whole mantra is a great way to test things. To me, what’s worse than anything is over-analyzing a situation and never doing anything. I would rather make a few little mistakes along the way because I tried it, because you know what, maybe it’ll work.
Next month, we’re putting 17 robots in our communities for dining. We didn’t spend a ton of time on that. Our thought is, “Let’s just try for a month, and if we’re able to fix part of our labor problem in dining, then it was worth doing.” We weigh things out when it comes to timing, but I think we’re pretty bold when it comes to giving things a shot.
Do you agree that Changemakers are risk-takers? How do you describe your own appetite for risk?
If I had to sum myself up as I look at history, I’m a calculated risk-taker. I don’t take risks for the sake of taking risks, but I will take risks for the sake of solving problems. Then I’m not afraid to do it at all. I’ll try all kinds of things. I’ll take calculated risks if I think I can solve a problem or make something better, but I’m not somebody who needs to do it for the sake of doing it.
Do you think it’s easier to be a Changemaker today than in the past, or is it pretty much the same?
It’s different. I don’t think it’s easier or harder. I think it’s just different. We are making more decisions based on data than ever before. There are a lot more stakeholders today, which slows things down, but our ability to make change based on real-time information is important because we can be more selective in what we do and how we do it.
What changes do you think need to be made to achieve a more stable workforce?
Some things are already happening, but I think appropriate wages are important. Our team members want to see career paths and understand where the industry is headed. They want to see better scheduling and more work-life balance.
We need to get clear on what flexibility means to the young workforce and figure out how to give them some of that. I think the benefit we have is that a lot of the folks joining the workforce today are driven more by mission than say my generation was, and so we’re lucky in our business. The work we do matters and people can see that on day one of their jobs.
How are you approaching diversity, equity and inclusion in Merrill Gardens and the industry at large?
I am hopeful. We are so fortunate that in our industry, we already have so much diversity within our organization. We are focused on expanding the diversity within our organization and ensuring that their career path leads to all levels of our organization.
We’re working at a community level and organizationally. We add accessibility as DEIA, because that’s important to what we do as well. This is not an overnight fix. This is something that I hope my kids will continue in their journey and their careers, but it’s just the way we do business. It’s who we are as an organization, and who we are as a sector, so I’m optimistic about it.
What was it like to leave as the leader of Merrill Gardens and come back to the same organization?
It was probably one of the best things that could have happened in my career, because I changed drastically. I don’t think Merrill Gardens changed all that much by the time I returned. Merrill Gardens is still the stable company that I was coming home to. Merrill’s just done it right for a lot of years. I saw fewer changes in Merrill than what I saw in myself.
Leisure Care raised me, and gave me the foundation on which I’ve been able to accomplish so much with Merrill. When I left Merrill initially, I started my own company and was able to consult with other providers. I worked with some other excellent operators out there that I would’ve never had that kind of experience with. I was able to look at the industry from a different lens, not as the operator, but more with a strategic lens, and learn a lot from a handful of other really great operators.
In the next experience, I was able to take an infant management company, Blue Harbor, and make it into something great. Again, it wasn’t many years, but it was a trying few years, and I’m extremely proud of what we built there.
In a short amount of time, we created an incredible culture. The 100% True Blue [approach] was a real thing for those years. It was a company that didn’t have a lot of consistency. Communities operated in different ways, and so I was able to take a company that was a bit disorganized and take away that chaos and create a functioning management company that had value to Merrill Gardens.
The other change I experienced was my exposure to private equity. I was able to work in a public company setting, which I think toughened me up a little bit. I learned a lot.
I was never fully away from Merrill Gardens. My allegiance to the company never changed. My admiration and respect for the company never changed. My relationships never changed. When the time came to make a change with Blue Harbor, Merrill Gardens is who I looked to. Yes, I changed in a short amount of time, but I was able to do a lot and I think it made me more valuable to Merrill Gardens. It made me more valuable to the industry that I love so much.
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