“Very few people just walk into this position,” says Joe Mikalajunas, president of Greensboro, North Carolina-based Bell Senior Living. Most senior living executives “start in the same place-in a community, serving seniors-and then work their way up the corporate ladder.” But here’s the kicker, Mikalajunas adds, “We all have a passion for serving seniors. It’s hard to be successful in this industry if you don’t have that passion.”
Passion is just one of the many characteristics Mikalajunas has in common with the eight other industry leaders-each of whom participated in exclusive interviews with Assisted Living Executive-who have been named Trendsetters in Senior Living for 2009.
Horizon Bay Retirement Communities
Industry debut: Although Best technically entered the industry in 1987, his first experiences (at Prudential Insurance Company of America and Holiday Retirement Corp.) focused on the finance side of the business. The operational side never seemed all that far away, though. “I kept getting pulled in that direction,” says Best, who finally took the plunge in 2001 to manage Horizon Bay Retirement Communities.
Top professional accomplishment: “I’m extremely proud of the culture we’ve built at Horizon Bay,” Best says. “It’s a caring culture, but it’s also a pragmatic culture.” It’s important to maintain a balance between the two, he adds, because “you can’t be so bureaucratic that you forget your day-to-day mission of taking care of your residents, but you also can’t be so focused on customer service that you ignore your margins.”
Greatest industry challenge on the horizon: “I think our biggest challenge will come from new regulations,” Best says. “At both the state and federal level, we seem to be in an era where some people believe more regulation is better than less, and I think they may try to fix the things they believe require more oversight through additional regulation. This could pose a real threat to the industry.”
Outside the c-suite: Although Best enjoys playing tennis, traveling, and reading when he’s not in the office, he says his favorite off-the-clock activity is “spending time with my two daughters. It gives me a wonderful perspective on things, it keeps me humble, and it helps me work on my main weakness: patience.”
Vintage Senior Living
Newport Beach, CA
Industry debut: Clark has been working in the senior housing space for three decades. In the early ’90s she left the apartment side of the sector to join ARV Assisted Living. A few years later, she joined two of her former colleagues at ARV, Eric Davidson and Brian Flornes, who, established Vintage Senior Living in 1998. “I feel like I’ve always been in the right place at the right time,” Clark says of both transitions.
Favorite part of the job: Because all of Vintage’s properties are within close proximity of each other, “we’re able to bring all of our executive directors together every single month for training and education,” Clark says. “Being able to see each of their faces and hear each of their success stories every month is especially great.” These meetings are structured around a cultural environment that employees learn best when they share experiences, peer to peer. Their purpose is “to help our EDs work through their challenges and struggles by talking with their peers,” she says.
Top professional accomplishment: In 2006, Clark was named the 50+ Housing Council’s Person of the Year, a program of the Building Industry of America. “I’ll never forget standing on that stage, staring out at about 200 of my peers in the audience,” she says. “I do what I do because I love it, but it’s nice to be honored for it, too.” Clark says she remembers the experience whenever she’s feeling overwhelmed. “I look at that award, take a deep breath, and tell myself, ‘You know what? We’ll get through this!'”
Greatest on-the-job challenge: “Hiring and retaining the right teams,” Clark says. The right assessment tool might help her-and her industry cohorts-be more successful at both tasks, she adds, “but right now it seems like we’re all using individual tools.” In the coming years, Clark says she “would like to see everyone come together to find the right [tool] for our industry-one that would point us toward the best executive directors, because finding the right people for those positions is critical not only to the success of a community but to our industry as a whole.”