Changemakers Series

By on May 20, 2021 in People, Senior Living

With challenges on every horizon, the senior living industry needs leaders who aren’t afraid to channel new ideas — and invoke change. For Les Strech, a recognized Changemaker, being a catalyst for change is second nature.

Through the Yardi-sponsored interview series with Senior Housing News (SHN), leaders are honored for their insightful contributions in senior living. Namely, their ability to pair difficult conditions with forward-thinking strategies and transformative actions. Deemed the second member of the 2021 Changemakers class, Les Strech embodies this fully — having led Thrive Senior Living through various challenges in the last decade.

Journey to Changemaker

Les Strech is president of Thrive Senior Living and a longstanding Yardi client. With extensive experience in senior housing, he’s continued to stand out as a visionary leader who redefines standards and challenges long-held design beliefs. In streamlining operations over the years, Thrive has implemented senior living suite products including RentCafe Senior Living, RENTCafé Senior CRM and Job Cost.

In this excerpt from the SHN interview, Les talks about the various facets of change within senior living today — sharing the steps he’s taken to stay ahead of the curve.

Can you talk about the early days of the company and the growth plans at that point from the perspective of change?

I came into the industry as chief operating officer of a smaller-sized freestanding memory care portfolio. That was my viewpoint, and the heart for me was making a difference for folks with changing cognitive ability. It really became a thirst and a hunger to understand what dementia is and how it impacts people, families and the world.

One of the things that I consistently talk about on leadership is that the biggest difference between you today and you five years from now is the people you meet and the books you read. There were two major influencers on the way that I began to see senior living but also memory care. One was Dr. Bill Thomas, who is well known within the industry, and I read a book of his called What Are Old People For? which is a hilarious title. It was extremely eye-opening. [One of his principles is] people are afraid of what they don’t understand.

He spoke at a conference about six years ago and after his session was over, there was a line of people to go talk to him. As a young pup in the industry, I sat waiting. In his presentation, he was defining the significant change that needs to happen in design, and I had been working on creating a memory care environment with no locks.

I had all of the notes and pictures and drawings in my iPad, and I showed it to him and I said, “I think what you were talking about on stage, I have inside my iPad.” He raised his eyebrows and said, “Let me see it.” [chuckles] I said, “I’m not going to show it to you.” I said, “How about we [get together to talk more.]”

So I flew up, and, man, what a wealth of wisdom to be exposed to the early parts of my career. He really is one of the key industry changemakers. I flew up and spent a couple of days with him and his wife, Jude, and it really helped shape a lot of my thoughts on design. One of the key points on the design side is that we’re not afraid of people who act strange. We’re afraid of strangers who act strangely.

If we can use design and operations to fashion our communities so that strangers who act strangely become known people who may still act strangely, the walls really start to fall down.

Immediately that resonated with me because I had a very close friend who had a child with Down syndrome. When I was first around him I was afraid I would break the kid, and I didn’t want to touch him because I didn’t know how to interact with this person who acted strangely.

I began to know Seth, and if I were to see him today I would scoop him up and give him arms full of hugs and kisses. It’s not weird anymore, because a strange person who acted strangely became a known person who acted strangely. What’s happened inside most memory care environments is, going all the way back, the environment was rooted in really asylum theory; that we have to segregate them and keep them away from society because they act differently.

The second influencer was a guy named Eloy van Hal. Eloy and his partner Yvonne van Amerongen were the founders of this place called The Hogeweyk in Weesp, Netherlands — a “Dementia Village.” I don’t know how much I like that term, but it’s very well known.

Eloy and I have developed a long-standing friendship now over the last six years that blossomed into a refining of each other because I was poking on him saying, “I love what you’ve done. The creativity is incredible. However, those folks with changing cognitive ability are still segregated from the rest of society.” That was birth to a refining of each other’s opinions about how to create a more integrated living atmosphere.

That was the heart for me when I met [Thrive Founder] Jeramy Ragsdale — it was the revolution that’s needed within senior living on the physical design of space, and then pairing it with an operating model of a team of people that believe the same things.

Successful changemakers seem to be able to be far enough ahead of the industry that they’re driving change, but not so far ahead of the market that they fail, because they’re ahead of their time. How do you think about getting that timing right?

Sometimes, in regard to timing, there’s a balance between listening to what the market is saying and pushing for the change anyway. For instance, we’ve been working on a concept with a well known multi-family operator, called multigenerational multifamily. I think we can all acknowledge that there’s a negative stigma around senior living because society may look at it as a place where people go to fade away. Frankly, to move senior living down that spectrum from exclusionary, segregated, integrated, inclusive, we have to create environments that don’t have labels like “senior living” or “active adult.”

We’ve been working on this concept and frankly, we’ve gone through and met with different equity groups for a year and a half and the feedback is, “This is a game-changer, but we have to really beat up this idea if we are going to be the first to invest. We would love to be the second or third.” The market will always give you feedback when you attempt to advance something new; a good idea will have its time eventually. After a year and a half of pushing this we can see we are really close, so we need to continue to push. It’s a great sign when people are saying, “We don’t want to be the first on this unique development but please, please keep us in the loop.”

These are really smart people. We value their opinion, and again, they will be queued up second, third, and fourth. I think just the short answer to your question is, timing is often answered by the response that you hear coming back from the marketplace. You just have to have wisdom and use your own discernment there to say, “Should I just blackball this, or continue to push ahead?”

Read the full interview with Les Strech on SHN.