Editor’s Note: This is a longer version of the “A Few Minutes With” Q&A that was published in the December print issue of McKnight’s Senior Living.

Merrill Gardens President Tana Gall

Tana Gall has returned to Seattle-based Merrill Gardens as president, a role in which she served from 2013 to 2015. With the November announcement of her appointment also came the news that Merrill Gardens would be acquiring Blue Harbor Senior Living, in Portland, OR, where Gall was CEO for the past three years. The acquisition almost doubles the size of Merrill Gardens. As Gall prepared to take the reins from the retiring David Eskenazy, she answered a few questions for McKnight’s Senior Living.

What is your first priority as president of Merrill Gardens?

The first thing is just making sure the teams are doing well. It’s a big change for all of us, and I just want to make sure everyone knows I am excited about our teams and where we are going. We have lot of work in front of us as we start adding communities to the platform, but we are all in this together, and it’s going to be an exciting time for the company.

What are the main ways that Merrill Gardens and Blue Harbor are different, and the main ways that they are similar, culturally and otherwise? What are the biggest challenges and opportunities associated with integrating the two organizations?

The biggest differences are in the histories of the companies. Blue Harbor is a relatively new company that grew through acquisition. As a true third-party operator, the company has a very diverse portfolio, both in terms of physical property and geography. The teams there have had to really focus on finding efficiencies and commonality throughout the portfolio while still allowing flexibility to accentuate the unique attributes of each community.

Merrill Gardens has a track record of long, sustained success. The company is a true leader in the industry and has developed and continues to evolve its platform over the years to meet the changing wants and needs of seniors and, just as importantly, the team members who make it all possible. I have always been impressed with the consistency in Merrill Gardens’ approach to the business while always finding ways to innovate. 

I also think there are some real similarities culturally. Both companies realize the importance of finding and retaining great team members. Merrill Gardens is a true family company. The RD Merrill family and Bill Pettit started the company 26 years ago with a sense of family as a guiding principle and have never lost that focus. 

At Blue Harbor, we have built our team in the home office and in our communities around the concept of being a family. We focus on going the extra mile for the residents we serve and each other, like one would expect from family.

The biggest challenge is also the biggest opportunity. It comes down to how we merge the two organizations — the people, the technology and the day-to-day tasks — without missing a beat. We have a lot of great people at both companies. At the end of the day, I anticipate our platform will be bigger and stronger than ever. 

Can you talk about the new Merrill brand that will be produced for the Blue Harbor communities, and the reasoning behind the effort? Which needs will be catered to by each brand?

I am really excited about the opportunity to create the new brand. Really, it’s more than a brand; it’s a new product offering that will become an exciting brand in our industry. 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. 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.

You’ve worked in senior living for more than two decades. What are the major ways in which the industry has changed in that time?

That’s a good question. There are few major areas of change. First, it’s become a more sophisticated industry. New investors to the space over the past 10 years have brought more focus and higher expectations. It’s definitely forced operators to really sharpen their skillsets.

The industry has broadened. When I started, there were not many people providing care specific to dementia and memory care residents. This has evolved and become such an important part of the senior housing spectrum. The active adult industry has also exploded in the past few years. There are just more options for people overall now.

The resident has changed, too. We talk a lot about how today’s independent living resident is not the same resident we used to serve in assisted living 10 to 15 years ago. We have seen the average age for residents moving to senior living creep up over the years as seniors wait longer to make the move.

Our team members have changed, too. On the positive side, senior housing is something that is finally being taught at major universities. We have young professionals who are looking to get into senior housing now. They see this as a great, growing industry. On the other side, however, we are struggling to find and retain great team members, especially at the community level. With so much development over the past few years, there are so many options for employees, and we have to really create an environment where team members feel valued and see growth opportunity, to help control turnover and best serve residents.

What changes do you believe might be necessary as the industry moves forward?

As an industry, we really need to solve for how we serve a wider range of seniors in regard to product type and affordability. Merrill Gardens created an awesome “town center” concept that has proven very successful. It appeals to a senior who wants to live in a more vibrant, walkable area with services and activities just outside the door. It’s a tremendous value but might be out of reach financially for some seniors. With our new brand, we will be able to offer a completely different experience that is attainable for a larger audience.

I also believe that technology advances will be necessary — for residents, team members and our businesses.

What attracted you to senior living in the first place, and what keeps you in the industry?

A former co-worker of mine actually recommended that I take a meeting with Leisure Care. At the time, I was working in public relations for an advertising company. Leisure Care was looking for a public relations / marketing person.

I wasn’t necessarily looking to change jobs, but I quickly fell in love with the people. There is so much satisfaction in working in an industry that does so much good for so many people. I can’t imagine doing anything else.

Everyone in the industry is familiar with the impending “silver wave” or “age wave.” What other trends are you expecting that will affect or shape senior living in the coming years?

I think the biggest trends will revolve around people. We need to continue to attract new employees to our industry. We need big thinkers. I love watching the talented team members we have brought into our companies really challenge what we have done in the past. We need ideas that keep pushing us forward.

We also need to really embrace the team members in our communities who give so much of themselves to care for others. We need to continue to make our communities rewarding for them and ensure that we are giving them the opportunity to grow.

What do you think is the most common misconception about senior living? How can the industry address it?

I think it’s the same misconception we have battled from the beginning, that senior living communities are places you have to move, not places you want to move.

Our biggest competition remains the home. People don’t want to leave home. They think it’s giving up your freedom and independence and admitting defeat.

I think we need to continue to focus on highlighting the great things that happen in our communities. The experiences, the friendships, the living that takes place.

What has been the biggest surprise to you in your career?

I was in my mid-20s when I started working in senior housing. I didn’t know much about aging. I did not grow up with grandparents. I had never been in a retirement community or nursing home. And I made assumptions about old people — that they like to play bingo and watch TV.

What I have learned through years (and was surprised about) is that age is just a number, and people are people. We are who we are, and we want the same things in our 70s that we had in our 30s and 40s. I strive to provide the environment for our residents to never give up those things that have been important to them their entire lives.

What is the best part of your day?

Just working with my team. I love seeing our teams work together to solve big, complicated, important issues. I love to see our team members create relationships with each other and with our residents and families.

I take such great pride in the work our teams do. It’s really amazing, and it never gets old.