Vassar Byrd headshot treatment
Kendal CEO Vassar Byrd

In July, Vassar Byrd announced that she was leaving her position as CEO of Rose Villa, a Portland, OR, life plan community where she had been a leader for 17 years. In January, the 2024 McKnight’s Pinnacle Award winner and 2020 McKnight’s Women of Distinction honoree became CEO of Newark, DE-based Kendal Corp., which has 10 operating affiliates, mostly on the East Coast. She recently spent a few minutes with McKnight’s Senior Living discussing her professional roles, her love of dragon boat racing, and how the those two worlds could overlap.

Q: You had been at Rose Villa for 17 years when, in mid-2023, you announced that you would be pursuing other opportunities. Why did you feel it was the right time for something different?

A: I’d spent a long time resuscitating that company. When I got there — it feels like a lifetime ago — it was really, financially, in difficulty. And so there were different stages of my experience there. One was sort of like a rescue operation, and then it was, “Hey, let’s build a really great company.” And then we really became a regional powerhouse, with our redevelopment and a lot of very progressive things that we did, which were incredibly satisfying. That was following a 10-year master plan. And after the miracle of the first bond financing — and I use that word deservedly — it really came together very well and we executed well, and it has been a very great success. And then I thought it was time for some fresh eyes. I think you really shouldn’t stay too long someplace. If it hadn’t been such dramatic stages of development, I would think 17 years is way too long, but it took that long to get it back on its feet. I feel like I left it in a very good place. They’ve hired an excellent new CEO, and I could not be more happy. I felt ready to move onto something different and challenging.

Q: What attracted you to the opportunity at Kendal?

A: Kendal is not as well-known on the West Coast, but I have known of it for a long time. What I liked about it was the federation model. It is unique. There is no other company like it. To me, the point of it is, it recognizes and celebrates the strength of single sites. That’s where I think innovation comes from. I think that’s where all the magic of senior living occurs. It’s not in some corporate structure; it’s providing direct services to each person every day, creating new things, new experiences, and creating a network of support in an environment where it is becoming more and more difficult for single sites to survive.

The last year at Rose Villa was the worst budget year I’ve had in my entire senior living career, with increasing labor costs, inflation and difficult supply chain issues. So what do you do? The only solution, really, is to become a massive single site, 1,500 people, which is soul-crushing, or you join a giant multi-site and lose a lot. I think this model has incredible benefit for the people who live and work in single sites, and I really believe in it.

And then added to that is the Quaker distinctives, and that is so relevant to our place and time right now. It is all about inclusion. It is inviting the stranger to the table, listening to every single person, soliciting everyone’s input. It is inclusion to the max. Could it be more relevant? It makes for better business decisions. It makes a better life.

So all of those things together feel really powerful to me, and I know that we have opportunity for growth there, because it really is a relevant message.

Plus the adventure of moving thousands of miles away. Why not? Let’s try it.

Q: Speaking of location, Rose Villa is in Portland and Kendal is in Newark, DE, with most of, but not all, of its affiliates in the Eastern US. So what was it like switching coasts?

A: My advice: never move in the middle of the winter, because you’re in a new place, and it’s just dark. You have no idea what’s going on. So that was a little bit tough.

But I will say that no one on the West Coast goes to ‘the shore.’ We go to the coast, we go to the beach, we go to the ocean, but we do not use the word shore. And we also never get in the water unless you want to risk hypothermia. So the upside of that on the West Coast is that, at the max, you’ve got 40 people on the beach, so you have it to yourself. I can’t wait to go spend some time on the shore on the East Coast, just to see the difference.

But I think that’s sort of like the manifestation of the difference between East and West. It’s just a different vibe. And I know there’s a lot of cool things that are really close by here that I just have not had a chance to investigate.

I love visiting the affiliates. That has been really awesome.

Q: What are the biggest differences, not just in geography, but also in the organizations as far as culture or other considerations?

A: I’ve only been here for a few months, so I am no expert, but my observation at this point is that the East Coast is much more conservative than the West Coast, and more formal.

Every once in a while, I worry that I’m looked at as some wild-eyed crazy person just because I’m extremely frank. I’m really honest. I say what I think. My mother raised me well, but you just lay it out there and get things done, and I am realizing that that’s not how everyone speaks here.

And the other thing that I feel at this point is that, while there’s much more racial diversity on the East Coast, and that’s really obvious to me and excellent, there’s less other kinds of diversity. 

The LGBTQ community on the West Coast is very visible, very active. I’m not really seeing a lot of that here, and that’s partly because I’m not in a big city. I get that. It’s more small-town East Coast.

But in general, I’d say the East Coast seems to take itself a little more seriously than the West Coast. And I don’t mean that in a mean way, but it is an interesting adjustment.

At the same time, it still gives me a thrill to see ‘New York City’ on a freeway sign. I am right here in the middle of all the big things.

Q: As you mentioned, Rose Villa is known as an innovative, forward-looking community. What are you most proud of as far as your time there?

A: That’s a hard question. We did so many things.

I guess the very large, visible LGBTQ community of staff and residents is something that I don’t take for granted anymore. I just assumed that’s just how you live, with all kinds of people, and everyone wants to be in the group that makes them comfortable and they have everything to add to the bigger group. I think the super positive, creative, collaborative feeling of the communities at Rose Villa is really important, and we did that on purpose.

I had kind of a transformative experience back in 2009. We had two women who moved into Rose Villa, and I met with everyone as they moved in because they needed to know who I am and where to find me and I wanted to know who they were. So we’re talking, and I asked them, as I do everyone, “Why did you choose Rose Villa?”

And they said, “Well, we really didn’t. We chose another community in a more rural location in Oregon, and when we got there to tour, the marketing director told us that we would have more success and we moved in as sisters or roommates.” I almost fell off my chair. [It was] 2009! And I just said, “That’s completely unacceptable.” 

We were open and welcoming, but we had to be really obvious. We had to start trumpeting it. We had to be really clear, because I just didn’t realize that sort of bigotry was still so commonly available. Shame on me. But I came back to the staff meeting that I had the next day and said, “Just being friendly isn’t enough. We need to be proactive.” And so we sought out the opportunity for some interviews. We got actually picked up by Oregon Public Broadcasting, which got transmitted everywhere.

Then we started getting applicants from Georgia, from Ohio, and they said, “We wouldn’t feel safe anyplace else.” It was like, “That’s a big problem.”

So for me, that feels like a big deal, that we have a large, safe community that everybody knows. I think that most of the Kendal communities are safe, too, but that same level of “out there,” I think would be helpful. So I think that’s a big deal for me.

And then the other thing is the huge leaps forward in sustainable building and the way that we created our campus — the first net zero energy neighborhoods in senior living, and then the last chunk of building, we added a gray water reclamation system for a huge part of our campus. 

Everybody has to build that way going forward. Everyone does. It’s so scary to do something new. You think it’s going to be too expensive, and it’s hard to figure it out. I feel that part of our job as an operator is to demonstrate how to do these new things. How does it work? How does it return capital back?

Seniors are really the vanguard of social change in a lot of ways. They have perspective that no one else has. They value things that are longer-lasting. And so the most resonant thing I have found at the Kendal system so far is a focus on sustainability, on understanding all kinds of energy resilience. Everyone’s mapping their carbon footprint in every community. It is awesome to see that. And it helps that we’re populated by a bunch of engineers and planners and people who really care and have the expertise to know what they’re talking about. So that’s exciting to me.

So I think that those two legacies at Rose Villa are things that will last for a long time and are meaningful. And there’s lots of other cool things that we did.

I feel the sustainability part translates very well into what Kendal’s already doing.

Q: Along the same lines, are there lessons you learned at Rose Villa that you have or are hoping to implement or share with Kendal and its affiliates?

A: My goal is to share every lesson I’ve ever learned, but it’s difficult for me, not being an operator in direct relationship with residents. So visiting the communities is great for me personally. It just fills me up in a way that I can’t even explain.

It’s very important that we stay resident-focused, that we stay focused on helping every affiliate do what they do best. It’s really not about The Kendal Corp. at all. We should be a silent, supportive partner.

Harnessing the power of the residents is probably the key thing going forward. It’s a new generation of residents. In many of our communities, they’re retiring younger. The newer communities have younger residents. They’re full of energy. They have a lot of contacts. They have a lot of expertise.

Some decisions are not made by residents, but there are touch points for meaningful impact for residents to work with staff on solving problems and moving the needle.

Q: You’ve been at Kendal since the beginning of the year. What has made the biggest impression on you so far?

A: First, Kendal apparently never built anywhere that wasn’t gorgeous. All of the communities are in these unbelievable locations, so I’m grateful for that.

And there is a high level of dedication to the Kendal mission. It’s really incredible, and people understand it differently. There are some communities that feel more and less Quaker-oriented, for instance. But everyone gets Kendal. They get that we stand for aging together and that it’s not a separate thing between staff and residents. We really are together, and I think that’s very powerful.

Q: Could you talk about the importance of resident involvement in communities and organizations, on boards and in other ways?

A: I think residents have to be involved in imagining the community they want to live in. And, as I said before, we have the new generation that’s way more hands-on. Thank heavens. They’re very active.

I think one of the things that Kendal does really well is integrate the resident partnership into every aspect of community life. And I think the new generation has been at the table their entire lives, and they’re certainly not going to step away now.

So it’s important to recognize that we’re all on the same road, that it’s a partnership for everybody, including the staff — we get a lot out of it. And I think it’s foolish not to take advantage of the experience and the passion of the residents whom you get to work with.

Q: While at Rose Villa, you spearheaded a comprehensive campus redevelopment. Are there big projects in the works or that you would like to see at Kendal or any of its affiliates undertake, knowing that you’re, as you said, in more of a supportive role?

A: I think almost every affiliate is looking at repositioning, redevelopment, expansion. Our goal is to help them do all of their projects in the best possible way and to make the most out of their own communities.

Similarly, I think that Kendal itself is looking at what the best affiliations might be for us and where we might want to expand, because we have a unique offering for single sites that want more but don’t want to join a chain.

Q: You were involved with dragon boat racing in Oregon. Are there any dragon boat opportunities on the East Coast?

A: The largest dragon boat communities in the country are in Portland, OR, and Philadelphia. I’ve gotten some recommendations from my coach on the West Coast for some teams I should look into in Philadelphia, and I will as soon as work and travel get a little more predictable.

I need time. I take it really seriously, and you can’t just dip into a practice. You’ve got to really commit.

I’m sorry to say that I was on the boat for Wasabi, which is my club in Portland, and last summer, we won the ability to go to race in Italy in the summer, and I will not be with them because I can’t devote the time to it.

It’s a big deal. I miss being on the water and being outside on a regular basis. And the relationships that you form on a team are pretty intense.

Q: Do you foresee any kind of relationship with Kendal and dragon boats?

A: Why not? I like big challenges, and so I would love to have some dragon boat teams at Kendal affiliates. And there’s an across-the-country bike relay race that I think we can do as a system in a couple years. So I’ve got my eye on some really fun things.

Q: Is there anything else you think is important to mention that we haven’t touched on?

A: I believe strongly in the not-for-profit approach to senior living. No shade on my for-profit colleagues, but the transparency of the finances alone just gives you a different position. I think it’s important that we strengthen the non-profit sector, and I think that Kendal’s approach is one way to do it.

An abbreviated version of this interview appeared in the June print issue of McKnight’s Senior Living.