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Voices: Paul Griffin III, CEO and President, Griffin Living

This article is sponsored by Griffin Living. In this Voices interview, Senior Housing News sits down with Griffin Living CEO Paul Griffin III to learn how he is driving growth by leveraging five generations of housing development with a fresh perspective on senior living. A fifth-generation homebuilder who took over the family business at age 36, Griffin breaks down the company’s customer-centric development strategy and discusses the importance of community engagement as projects move through the pipeline.

Senior Housing News: What experiences do you most draw from in your role as CEO and president of Griffin Living?

Paul Griffin: Generally speaking, I believe the failures we come across are the greatest opportunities to grow. One of my favorite leaders is John Wooden. He was the men’s basketball coach at UCLA who won 10 national championships. He started with the small details, focusing on how to put your socks on correctly, then worked all the way up to winning national championships.

One of his sayings that I always took to heart was, “The team that makes the most mistakes will win the game.” You hear a statement like that and think, “How can that be?” Well, if you think about it, they’re so precise because they’re always looking for what might have gone wrong and trying to fix it. They’re continuing to try new things until they find a solution that works.

I follow the same process starting with the desire to fill a need. In housing, we start by identifying the demand we’re trying to meet. That’s always been at our core going back to the shelter housing days — people needed a place to live, so we figured out how to serve that need. That has been the basis of our business for five generations now.

Obviously your family has a long history of building. How did your family enter the home building space?

Griffin: My great- and great-great-grandfathers were building giant houses, several per year. Then, my grandfather came out of World War II. Soldiers boosted by the G.I. Bill were coming back by the thousands from Iowa, or Kansas, or Ohio or what-have-you, and thinking, “My goodness, California is a better place to be. We would like to stay here and raise our families.”

Then we come to my dad’s generation, and he is thinking the same thing: “How do I shelter people? What do they want?” In Dad’s generation, we start to create a bigger community. He wasn’t doing master plans, but he would do 200 or 300 houses in a community and try to have maybe four or five of those in one suburban city. Suburban cities out here in California are anywhere from 100,000 to 250,000 people.

My dad’s volume was about 1,200 to 1,600 houses per year, in tranches of 300 or 400 houses in a community in the different suburban regions around Southern California. He really grew up with Southern California through his part of the business. In 1992 he was 67 years old and ready to retire, and I assumed leadership of the family business at that point.

What are the top two to three most important lessons that your father imparted to you that you use in this business?

Griffin: One of the experiences my father had that my grandfather didn’t was coming to community meetings and finding a solution to a new development project that the local community could support. He was also able to manage from the pro forma or the economic model of the project that we were talking about.

For example, we did a large project in Fillmore (California) comprising about 1,600 houses, a sewer treatment plant, a couple of schools and a retail office. As we worked that process, Griffin Living had about $32 or $33 million fixed into the property before we got our first approval.

We had to return the fixed cost fairly quickly, so we divided our offering into a variety of product lines to keep customers interested. Through this, my dad taught me to find the community that you want to be in and help them realize the future of their community. We want to please them while making the economic model work for the underlying venture that we’re going into.

In all, you have to answer the emotion of the community, you have to answer the need of the community, and you have to have the city council understand what’s really needed and pull them together. This is an art more than a science, and it’s all part of our business — real estate development, approvals, land use and the economic models. I learned all of that from my dad.

What specific changes and new outlooks are you bringing to senior living?

Griffin: We go and build where other people cannot, and we still have to execute and build an excellent architectural building. There are a lot of technical parts in this. The heating and air systems for our buildings are about an extra $2 million, but about every eight minutes, we get fresh air in every room in the building.

We have high-end lighting consultants, giving you the right, natural feeling at different times of the day. We have high-end fragrance machines, the same ones that you would find in Neiman Marcus or Nordstrom. They are engineered so that depending on what season you’re in, or what part of the building you’re in, they change. We also had a sound engineer design the sounds and the way that the sounds come into the buildings in different parts.

The fragrance, the lights, the sound — you won’t put your finger on it, but you’ll walk into one of our buildings and feel good when you step through the door. Our buildings are designed correctly and they live correctly. The way we design and live is what sets us apart in senior housing.

The principles of Griffin Building that have remained constant even in this new direction are a commitment to the customer, the community and the investor. What is the biggest challenge that arose in the past year that impacted your ability to maintain those commitments?

Griffin: In the past year, the fallout of COVID has been the biggest challenge. If we went back 18 months, the biggest challenge would have been to ensure quality resident experiences and care. As it turned out, that concern was answered quickly.

Now, supply chain challenges have taken precedence. We’re trying to get the buildings completed and small part delays are holding up big projects. Those parts are generally coming from Asia, and they’re often months out when they would’ve been weeks out – or stuck in shipping containers outside ports. The supply chain is creating an entire category of issues right now.

What did Griffin do to overcome that challenge?

Griffin: We’re still trying to be proactive, looking at other possible supply chains to fill a product need. We’re much more flexible about what materials we might have, which is influencing design and architectural decisions as well.

We’re working our tails off to try and get the buildings completed. They are getting done. It’s just a day-to-day battle.

What do the principles we mentioned before mean when applied to senior living?

Griffin: We always start with our customer, and to us, the customer is two-fold. It’s the residents themselves plus their primary family. The two of them make the decision and we think it’s about 50/50. The 60-year-old daughter has to come to our site and say, “This is convenient for me and my husband to come by and see my mom.” The 60-year-old daughter also wants to walk into the center and say, “I feel good about this: my mom raised me in a nice home and we had everything we needed. If she’s going to move into senior living, I want it to feel, smell, look, sound and be a place where I’m happy to say, ‘My mom is here.’”

Then, when you get to the resident: how can we have her feel that this isn’t a move to be warehoused until you die? We say that around our company all the time, that’s exactly what we’re not going to do to people. We cannot do that to them. When they move in, is the apartment itself nice? Is it a place they’d be comfortable living? Yes, their needs are smaller, but can we make it both peaceful and vibrant?

The little dining area, the kitchenette that we put it in, the laundry facilities, the bedroom, the place with a sofa and a couple of chairs to watch television or just sit at our bay windows and look outside. The apartment feels like a real apartment. It has everything.

Never offend the hopes and dreams of our customer: the 60-year-old daughter or our resident. We need to give them both what they’re really hoping and dreaming to have at this point in their life, while offering the practical side as well.

Coming into this year, no one knew fully what to expect in the senior living industry. What is the biggest surprise to you in the industry this year, and what impact will that surprise have in 2022?

Griffin: At the start of 2021, we were hoping customers would get more confident about living in senior buildings. Last fall, they started moving back in. Our care staff was still very confident because they’re in health care and are used to the challenges of being around sick people. They have been stellar and courageous about working in the centers to keep them going.

I was also worried about whether our capital investors would feel good about putting major capital tranches into senior housing. It took them a little bit through the fall and into the winter, but they’ve come back. They’re loaning money, they’re building buildings, and they’re learning about what makes a senior building more attractive. Capital is the area I was most concerned about, but it is coming back and learning the lessons we learned very quickly. I’m pleasantly surprised and pleased with the reaction the capital markets have had to COVID and the growing needs for seniors.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Griffin Living collaborates with both community leaders and capital partners in a diverse portfolio of properties. To learn more, visit griffinliving.com/.

The Voices Series is a sponsored content program featuring leading executives discussing trends, topics and more shaping their industry in a question-and-answer format. For more information on Voices, please contact sales@agingmedia.com.

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