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ORCA Leadership Series – Doug MacLatchy

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Meet Doug MacLatchy, CEO of Amica Senior Lifestyles. MacLatchy is a force in the sector, a leader who thinks creatively and thoughtfully about the future of senior living.

More than that, MacLatchy has been leading his company through a global pandemic, one that has tragically targeted seniors more than any other group. How he effectively managed through this crisis is a testament to his leadership.

As part of the ORCACON 2020 program, Jane Taber, former journalist, sat down with MacLatchy for a wide-ranging conversation about leadership, the pandemic, and the winding path that brought him to Amica. Refreshingly candid and reflective, you will be surprised and delighted by MacLatchy’s observations and opinions.

ORCA Leadership Series with Doug MacClatchy featuring Jane Taber – filmed as part of ORCA CON 2020, presented September 17, 2020.

Conversation with Doug MacLatchy

Note: This interview transcript has been edited for content and length.
ORCA: Before we get into sort of the meat of your inspiration as a leader and your leadership style, I want to hear how you got into this sector. Tell us about that.

I had an undergraduate in Chemistry (yes, I’m a nerd), I got my MBA in Finance, and then sort of went through a series of real estate and finance roles, two major banks, several real estate companies, where I was working on the combination of real estate operating companies and finance.

My work took me to the U.S., and I ended up working for Sunrise Senior Living, and that’s really where I got involved in the senior living business.

In 2010, jointly with Robert Easer, my partner, we started a company called Baybridge Senior Living, which ultimately acquired Amica and we took on the Amica name back in 2015.

ORCA: Have you been able to take that education that you had and apply it to what you’re doing now?

I think as a company we are, probably more than most, metrics driven and metrics verified, we use that expression around here a lot. So using benchmarks, we set goals for ourselves, try and adhere to them, and measure each other on the basis of those metrics.

ORCA: I want to know about the difference between a long-term care facility and a retirement home. We’re hearing a lot about this in the news lately so let’s just get that straight before we continue on.

Sure. We operate a private-pay retirement home model. We accept no funding from any level of government for any of our revenues. We supply all the labour and all the expenses to supply people with their style of life, their living quarters, their food. So everything that we do is on a private-pay basis. The long-term care environment relies on funding for certain amounts of revenues that the operators utilize in order to provide the life for seniors in those residences.

One is a public-funded model and one is a private-funding model. We’re in the private side.

ORCA: So given that, what makes you passionate about what you do, and about being the CEO of Amica?

I would have to go back to grassroots and say I really think of the senior living industry as 1900 to the hotel industry.

If you arrived on a train in Toronto in 1900, you might have three or four hotels you could choose from. And now you’ve got 100 or probably 200 hotels or 500 hotels that are various price points, various service offerings, and we all as customers and consumers know basically what the differences are and we’re prepared to pay for some of those difference or not.

The senior living industry is right at that 1900 point in my mind. We are just starting out offering various services and price-point offerings and I think seniors are starting to recognize those differences and are prepared to choose one over the other.

ORCA: And how many retirement residences does Amica have across the country and where are they?

We’re in three provinces: we’re in Ontario principally, last year in BC and in Alberta.

We have 32 operating properties. We have another five under construction and another five about to start construction. So we’ve got a big program on. We’ve got about 32,000 team members and about 4,000 residents.

ORCA: Wow. And so when you started this company, which was back in 2010 under a different name, how many residents did you start with, what did it look like when you started?

Well, day one was Robert and I going to a store to buy papers and pencils because there was nothing there. So it was a complete startup.

ORCA: And then by the next year, what was it? Had you just, magically grown, or?

Well, not as much as either one of us, or any one of us had thought. We thought we would have been knocking the doors down, and at the end of year one we only had one property. But a few years later we were up in the range of 20-30 properties.

ORCA: You must have had a vision when you started out. As a leader, how do you stick to that vision??

We have probably had, over the 10 or so years that we’ve been in operation, 10 or so changes in vision, changes in focus. One of those big ones was when we acquired the public company, Amica Mature Lifestyles in 2015. That caused us to reevaluate what our brand was, what our focus was, what our strategy was.

And that resulted in us selling off $1B worth of real estate and refocusing our efforts on something that we thought was consistent and brand-additive. We really wanted to create a great environment for seniors, offer them as much care as they wanted to have provided by us, in a wonderful environment.

ORCA: Tell us a bit about the balance between your vision of caring for seniors and the care you take for employees.

Probably one of the most personally rewarding things that I’ve had a pleasure to be involved in is the creation of the culture that we operate in. It is, and has been, wonderful. We’ve had employees that have worked for us since day one. Some of the employees here in the office still know what employee number they are—six, seven, eight—they have stayed with us and it’s been a very rewarding thing. As we have developed or acquired properties, we have taken people with us and moved them to other properties, elevated their job content.

That whole part of the people side of things, watching people grow, has been really rewarding.

ORCA: Thinking back over the last 10 years, is there something you’d like to do differently now?

You know we probably waited for about three years before we created our own operating company, meaning we wouldn’t use third-party managers once we acquired a property. And it took us about three years to get enough bulk to warrant having our own operating company. In hindsight I probably should have embarked on that earlier. And now it’s been seven years and I think we’ve got a great team since then, but I probably should have done that sooner.

ORCA: Ten years is a long time, in fact you’ve been in the sector for even longer than that, so what keeps you getting up in the morning, what gets you going?

The emails, conversations, and phone calls that I have with the seniors, and their families, has been just so rewarding. It really, really motivates me and I think the whole team here. You know, we get a phone call from a resident’s daughter that says “thank you so much for making my mom not only comfortable, but happy, and feel like life is great again.” I find that hugely rewarding.

ORCA: Have you seen the industry change over the last ten years? Is there a unique lens that Amica brings?

One of the areas where Amica has differentiated itself is through the provision of care. So, not only are we private pay, where people rent suites from us and receive three meals a day, weekly cleaning, and a few other services that we provide, but we also provide private pay care for residents. I would say that has probably differentiated us from some of the other operators.

We’ve gone in the direction of providing more care, not less, and I think some of the other operators have retreated from that, and that has caused us to put in a whole regime from a risk perspective to oversee that care and I think that has really benefitted us especially as we’ve gone into COVID.

ORCA: So as a result of the Baby Boomers aging, are there more demands? Have things changed? Are people asking for different things?

The generation of seniors that is with us right now—the average age in our residences is 89—is still The Silent Generation. There are people that, while they’re well off and have saved money their entire career, they may have been through a war, or two, and they tend not to be too demanding.

I think the next generation coming through will have different expectations. We’re experimenting in some of our newer properties to try and see whether we’re going to be able to hit that right.

ORCA: Is there one offering you can think of that the Baby Boomer types are demanding?

So, let me give you an example: we’re just about to start construction on a property where those individuals who sign up early can actually choose the finishes in their suite, just like you do in a condominium.

I think that could be a really cool thing for people to look forward to. Designing their own suite, making it home when they walk in the front door, and go “Yep, this is exactly what I chose, and I feel like home right from day one.”

ORCA: Wow. What did you see back then that prepared you? Was there something you knew that maybe the general public didn’t?

Part of that war room mentality was to set up a coronavirus task force. That task force was armed with the best medical people that we had in our house. And they put together a strategy of how to protect, not only our residents, but our team members as well.

That strategy encompassed everything from protocols at the front door to how you’re going to wear, put on and take off PPE to what we needed to look out for in terms of symptoms when monitoring our residents. It was very comprehensive, and the task force was a leg up from some other operators in the industry.

Not only were we, like all other retirement home operators, prepared for influenza or respiratory outbreaks, but we were also delivering way more care in any individual residence than some of our competitors were. So we had that whole risk system all set up. For us to expand our risk analysis to a COVID analysis was lateral thinking. It wasn’t a whole new metric for us. It wasn’t a whole new regime. It just was an expansion of what we were doing already.

ORCA: We’ve heard so much too about the frontline workers. How did you handle that in your retirement homes?

During COVID we actually hired 700 people, if you can imagine that. We had to set up a whole regime of how we were going to hire, assess, interview, and then train and onboard those people, really quickly. Again, the coronavirus task force helped us in that regard. Our whole HR world was thrown on its head.

But we did have a few advantages going in. We had a culture of trust, and culture in our industry is really important. That allowed us to lean on our team members and allowed us to execute teachings and learnings and protocols with great outcomes.

ORCA: In terms of leadership, is there something that you’ve learned from this, and some behaviour that’s going to change or something that you’re going to take forward as a result of this pandemic?

You know, I started the conversation with those three attributes of recognition, planning, and execution. I would say our ability to learn something one day and change quickly was really important. I think that the benefit of acting quickly is something that’s going to stay with us forever.

ORCA: Let’s get into a little rapid fire about leadership. In one word, define what your leadership style is.

Probably “action.” If you ask my senior leadership team about me, I probably have a propensity to engage my team to execute on things that we all think is the right thing to do.

ORCA: What does it mean to you to be a leader?

You know the right HR answer of that is you are striking out on a vision, you are setting your course, you are making sure that your team is aligned with you. And I think we do all of those things pretty well.

The cool thing is that when we believe our strategy has changed or should change, our team is very adaptable in saying to one another, “Okay, let’s all lock arms now that we’ve made this decision, and let’s go, and let’s execute.”

ORCA: Was there someone who inspired you? Did you have a mentor?

I actually didn’t even really hear about the concept of a mentor in my business career until probably a decade ago. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have people that I admired. But I think in virtually every company that I worked for, and there were quite a few of them, there was always somebody that taught me something, whether it was how to negotiate, whether it was how to strategize, whether it was how to be action-oriented. I had a little bit that I kind of grabbed from each one of those people.

ORCA: What do you think are some of the greatest challenges that are facing seniors living in Canada today? 

You know, the private-pay industry for seniors in Canada caters to a senior that can afford not only their residence but also the care. There has to be some way that, through some kind of a public funding mechanism, that the care piece can be funded by the province.

I think that is the key to unlocking a good life as they retire and go off onto their own. There’s been a discussion probably for 20 years about some kind of a care wallet that would provide money to seniors to pay for their care. I think that it’s almost inevitable that that comes and the sooner it comes, the better.

ORCA: Thank you very much, Doug MacLatchy, CEO Amica. We really appreciate your time and your insights and it was great to hear about your leadership style. Thanks a lot!

Thanks very much. Appreciate the time.

Dynamic. Smart. Energetic. Committed.

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