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Breathing new life into an aging world: Lilly Donohue

Lilly Donohue CEO Holiday Retirement

CEO Lilly Donohue is busy this morning. She’s sitting down with The CEO Magazine to discuss how Holiday Retirement is reinventing itself from innovative new programs to engage residents to creating a culture where employees have a voice in how to do things differently. It isn’t easy for Lilly to talk about herself. She is focused on her employees, and would much rather spend her time aiding their success, which in turn benefits the company.

“It’s not about me. I’m the coach who spends her time teaching, mentoring and motivating people. It really is the team members who are making the success happen. A CEO can’t make success happen by just shouting out, ‘We want to be a great place to work’. We have to actively engage and make it a great place to work. How are we interacting with each other? Are we problem solving together? Are we able to grow people? Are we communicating well inside our Holiday Retirement communities? I’m definitely helping by fostering and trying to share the importance of it, but my people are the ones doing it.”

Lilly got her start on the finance side, but made her mark in the retirement industry when she was involved with Starcastle in 2011, the first privately owned continuum care retirement community in Shanghai, China. It was a joint venture between Fortress Investment Group, of which she was Managing Director, and Fosun Group. For four and a half years Lilly was CEO of Starcastle

Lilly Donohue CEO Holiday Retirement
Lilly Donohue, CEO of Holiday Retirement

“People thought I was crazy to do it,” she says, adding that China was a very different market to the US. But, with its 250 million retirees, the demand was there and Starcastle was able to provide a service tfhat the elderly in the country welcomed. Watching the response from Chinese consumers was a ‘wow’ moment for Lilly. “That experience of helping build it from a blank piece of paper was my big learning moment, and where I found so much joy. I really felt like ‘my goodness, I’ve found my life’s work’,” she tells The CEO Magazine.

This experience also pointed her towards a new challenge, taking over Holiday Retirement as CEO in January 2016. Lilly says her main focus was on rethinking Holiday Retirement’s business. “We needed to shift from a real estate-based business to a services business where our customers come first. Rather than focus on countertops we had to begin investing in relationships, experiences and people. That required our employees to start thinking differently.”

“It is a pleasure working with Holiday Retirement. They clearly show a passion for the business. I left with a bounce in my step after a recent meeting with their Director of Procurement, Todd Howell, and F&B Buyer, Chris Tuozzo. Their energy is contagious.” – Laura Ledden, National Account Executive, Entegra

With 262 Holiday Retirement communities across the US, it was important for her to put down the corporate manual for a moment, and put up what she calls the “guard rails.” As long as the decision-making done by employees is within those guard rails, they are asked to make that decision and implement the change. This push to allow the staff within Holiday Retirement to act and make decisions by themselves has proven fruitful. In 2018, the company was certified as a Great Place to Work and was included in Fortune’s 50 Best Workplaces for Aging Services list. The company was also ranked highly in a survey of customer satisfaction among the nation’s largest providers of senior living facilities.

Lilly wants that momentum to continue, and for Holiday Retirement to keep innovating. “I like to think of us as the next generation of operators in this industry where we want to be creative, smart, adaptable and not scared to take risks on behalf of our customers. There are a lot of younger people telling older people what they need to do and how to live. If it is going to help an older person live better on their terms, rather than always saying no, we ask ourselves ‘Why not?’ Why can’t we do it? Can we try it?”

“We want to be creative, smart, adaptable and not scared to take risks.”

It’s not just her employees who are playing a crucial role in Holiday Retirement’s success. Lilly says the company’s mutually beneficial relationships with key suppliers are integral to its operations. She prefers to call them ‘partners’ and there are a lot of them, in areas such as technology and furniture, among others. Lilly says these partners often step up to help Holiday Retirement during the more challenging moments.“They understand our mission to help older people live better lives in our communities, and are willing to go above and beyond.” In exchange, Lilly promises to go above and beyond too, especially when it comes to helping the partners get new business.

In 2017, Lilly faced a new challenge, having to move the company’s headquarters from Oregon to Winter Park, Florida. She concedes it was partly for bottom line savings, but adds that it was also because the company needed somewhere it could grow, and that meant finding a service-oriented workforce and having the ability to travel quickly to just about anywhere in the country and the world – two things the area specialized in. She also admits that it already has a great customer base, with a large number of retirees either living in, or flocking to, Florida. Further, the new headquarters has helped Lilly to implement the type of measured risk-taking she is looking for from her employees.

Holiday Retirement’s mission is simple: ‘Helping older people live better’, and it is largely up to the employees to make this a reality. Lilly says the phrase guides everything the company does. “We don’t want to just say it; we want to live and breathe it.”

Lilly Donohue CEO Holiday Retirement
Lilly Donohue, CEO of Holiday Retirement

But how does Holiday Retirement help older people to live better? It starts with the way you look at a senior, Lilly explains. “When you say aging, people think old, declining health, losing mobility or independence, wrinkles, all of the negative stuff associated with it. But if you really think about what a senior’s needs and wants are, they are not that dissimilar to what everyone cares about. They want to feel safe and secure first, and to enjoy life. Those are two things that infants, teenagers, adults and seniors all want.”

There’s no doubt Lilly’s leadership of Holiday Retirement has been a success so far; however, the challenges ahead are daunting for an industry that is likely to see significant growth in the future. There is the purely logistical challenge of being a retirement community.

The company first and foremost is in the real estate business. It owns or leases the properties, builds the housing, and is responsible for renting them out. However, even though the company has a 90% occupancy rate, real estate is not the only business the company is in. It is also in the food service industry, serving more than 37 million meals a year, and in the hospitality and entertainment business, having to continually manage and improve the experiences of its 30,000 residents.

“Ricoh empowers digital workplaces using innovative technologies and services, enabling individuals to work smarter. Holiday Retirement is a pioneer in independent living, and we’re proud of our 15-year relationship, providing them with innovative products and services.” – Patrick Morrissey, Vice President and Managing Director of Sales, Office Solutions, Ricoh USA, Inc.

Finally, Holiday Retirement is in the healthcare business, partnering with third-party home care health providers to tend to residents’ health needs.

Moving forward, Lilly plans to continue to make Holiday Retirement a leader in affordability. She says she wants the company to invest in resident experiences, and to ensure that it continues to innovate with both its people and its offerings. She understands that, at its heart, senior living is a service business, and she wants her customers to always be put first.

“When I see a resident who is having a tough day sitting alone, not really engaged, and I am an employee in that community, do I walk by that person or do I stop for a second, no matter how busy I am, and say ‘Mary/John, what are you thinking about?’ and encourage them to open up to us and find joy in the day.

“It’s a simple yet powerful story to share with you. If I do that repeatedly, I believe I am changing the world in some small way and impacting someone’s life for the better.”

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