In late 2019, when Tana Gall returned to Seattle-based Merrill Gardens as president, a role in which she previously had served from 2013 to 2015, the company announced that it was planning to launch a new brand for middle-income older adults.
“The goal is to really focus on a more moderately priced senior living product. It’s a market that is underserved and one that we have been talking about for years,” Gall told McKnight’s Senior Living at the time. “Now we have the opportunity to really figure it out. We want to offer a product that can serve a larger audience of seniors, something that offers flexibility and affordability without sacrificing quality care and service.”
Now, that new brand, Truewood by Merrill, has been launched and is gradually rolling out to 23 communities in 13 of the 20 states in which the company operates.
The name reflects the R.D. Merrill Company’s founding as a timber company more than 100 years ago and also “represents fresh-cut wood” and “an important reminder to keep taking that fresh look at what can be different,” said Gall, a 2021 McKnight’s Women of Distinction honoree.
Her return to Merrill Gardens came as the company acquired Portland, OR-based senior living management company Blue Harbor Senior Living, where Gall had been the CEO for the previous three years. Around the same time, it was announced that Merrill Gardens had entered into a joint venture with an affiliate of ReNew REIT to purchase more than two dozen assisted living and memory care communities from New Senior Investment Group, more than half of which were Blue Harbor communities.
Most of the newly branded Truewood communities are former Blue Harbor communities that recently had been operating under the Merrill Gardens name.
“They had been built in the 1980s and 1990s and, great portfolio, but a little different than the traditional Merrill Gardens community,” Gall said this week.
Some of the newly branded Truewood communities, however, were Merrill Gardens communities that didn’t quite fit with that brand because they were older and didn’t have “all the bells and whistles as our new developments do,” she said.
The Truewood brand, then, helps clarify the identity of the longstanding Merrill Gardens brand in the minds of consumers while creating opportunities in senior living to serve middle-income individuals, Gall said. “They’re teachers, nurses, firemen, policemen, my neighbors, who deserve a great product, but it’s really not out there for them,” she added.
The price point, Gall said, is in the $3,000 to $3,500 per unit per month range, although the exact dollar amount will vary by market.
Differentiating the brands
Brand specifics were developed after focus groups held by Washington State University and Merrill Gardens and will be honed as needed, she said, adding that both brands offer residents dining options, housekeeping, transportation and wellness services, although they may be executed differently.
Merrill Gardens communities, for instance, offer restaurant-style dining all day. Truewood communities, on the other hand, will offer one meal (either lunch or dinner, depending on the community — focus groups revealed that residents often want lunch to be their main meal, Gall said) that is restaurant-style, and the other two will allow residents to “grab and go” or “grab and stay” in the dining room, she said. The company also is testing a service wherein residents complete grocery lists of breakfast items for a week, the community does the shopping and delivers the food, and then the resident can eat breakfast in his or her apartment.
“In the focus groups, there were a lot of people who said, ‘You know what? I just don’t really want to get up, get dressed, look good and go down for a light breakfast. I just want to have tea and toast in my apartment,” Gall said. “And so this program allows for that. We’ll see how that does in popularity … but I like the fact that we’ve got a lot of flexibility built into breakfast.”
The pandemic should make the dining options even more popular than they would have been otherwise, she said.
“In some ways, I think, as we come out of the pandemic and we re-introduce a new dining program, it’s going to help us, because right now, people are getting three meals a day served in their apartments,” she said. “So everything we do now is going to be new and fun and different.”
Creating efficiencies and career paths
Another area that will differentiate Truewood communities from Merrill Gardens communities, Gall said, is in labor. Truewood has universal workers called Truewood reps, a “resident experience partner who kind of floats throughout the community taking care of all different kinds of aspects of the job,” she said. Although Merrill Gardens employs universal workers, the Truewood rep position is “something new and different that I haven’t seen out there anywhere,” she said.
“It gives a career path to team members. You can come in as a server, and if you just want to be a server, that’s fine,” Gall said. “But what we’ll encourage you to do is be a server and then learn to do activities, maybe be an activities assistant, or answer the phone at the front desk and greet people at the front desk.”
The more skills a worker is willing to learn, the more he or she will be paid, she said, “because we’ll be able to use you more.”
The company will monitor the approach’s success but hopes it will reduce turnover and create growth opportunities, she said.
“As we’re looking to create more leaders in this industry, to me, that is a great way to expose people to the whole operation, versus getting so pigeonholed into one [area],” Gall said.
If having such a position creates efficiencies, she added, then it will help keep prices lower for residents, too.
What the future holds
Over time, Gall said, Merrill expects that the Truewood brand will encompass additional communities.
“There’s going to continue to be a need for this type of operation, this type of price-point community,” she said. “And so we will be on the lookout to grow that business. We just want to make sure what we do this year, we do right and not get too far over our skis.”
Three or four new Merrill Gardens communities will open this year, Gall said, adding that the Merrill Gardens brand will continue to grow as well.
“And then I think we’ll look for other acquisitions that would fit nicely into Truewood,” she said.