Of all the members in the Senior Lifestyle Corporation family to be regularly referred to as “senior,” Justin Robins is certainly one of the youngest. After earning his business degree, the retirement/assisted-living-community corporation’s senior VP of business solutions immediately returned to the place where he interned at age sixteen—and he hasn’t left. Robins sits down with AHL to retrace his steps.
Senior Lifestyle will soon unveil its annual “Heart of Caring” award. What was the thought behind it?
Justin Robins: As we grew the portfolio, we found there were always amazing stories to share, and we always want to try to find ways to relate to the entire company’s population. Whether it’s the residents or the staff, what does the mission mean within the everyday life of the company? We thought the Heart of Caring award would be a great way to exemplify or represent what Senior Lifestyle stands for. We connect with every community and try to find, through a nomination process, family or staff members nominating one another, ways that the specific individuals of that community embody the vision and the mission of Senior Lifestyle.
On social media, we have the hashtag #100DaysofHeartofCaring, where every day leading up to us revealing the national winner, we do an exposé on our blog of a specific nominee. It’s a great way to remind everyone on an annual basis what it’s all about: caring for the residents, caring for one another, showing that every day, and getting a real-life example, whether it’s a caregiver, dining service director, housekeeper. You can find those stories at every level.
“Everyone was very genuine, and I always felt important, even when I was just working on spreadsheets.”
How do you ensure customized, individual attention for all with such a large reach of communities and staff?
Robins: We believe that each community should be a reflection of its surroundings, of the culture in its immediate vicinity. On top of the clinical piece, hospitality is at the forefront of what we focus on. So what does that mean? It means specialized programming, dining, and design of the community, so everything is created and managed to the best of our ability to meet the needs of that specific population. And then as we bring in residents, we focus on what their needs are through food committees or program committees, things of that nature. We take pride in that.
A portion of Senior Lifestyle’s portfolio is made up of the Senior Suites, twenty-four communities in the city of Chicago that are affordable seniors housing. And that is a prototype—they are somewhat similar, between eighty-five and 110 units, all programmed identically. The other portion of the portfolio has been developed through construction or acquisitions, so they vary in terms of city to suburban locations. We took that opportunity to really fine-tune each one to its specific market.
Senior Lifestyle has been known to help residents arrange some wild adventures. What are some of the more special ones that come to mind?
Robins: So, back to tailor-fitting to the community’s environment, we started this program called “Live Your Adventure.” We, as a company, feel like when a resident becomes a part of the Senior Lifestyle family, we want to help them live their life. We’re always trying to find ways to engage the residents further, to keep things exciting, and to keep them happy.
With this Live Your Adventure idea, we wanted to poll them and ask, “What would you want to do that you haven’t done yet?” And obviously, living an adventure might be something different for you than it is for me. These opportunities ranged anywhere from residents wanting to skydive, wanting to zipline . . . one of the communities in the Phoenix area had a Harley Davidson group visit. The residents got on Harleys, put tattoo sleeves on, and rode around the neighborhood. These are opportunities that they never got to experience. They engaged in food challenges akin to “Fear Factor”— where they ate, I believe, cookies with bugs in them—and different things that obviously are safe, but are adventurous. We also had a contest nationwide for who put together the most interesting Live Your Adventure opportunity.
You’ve had an uncommon trajectory of responsibilities in your time here. Could you recap it for me?
Robins: I started at Senior Lifestyle when I was sixteen years old, and with that internship, I really started out with more spreadsheet-based work: working on construction draws and visiting those construction sites. I started to figure out what goes into the development of the physical asset, if you will. Then, after I graduated school, I took a role in the acquisitions/development department and had more direct responsibility for my own work—not just running numbers for other people. I started to take a heavier hand in the development of the affordable housing communities with the VP of development at the time.
Throughout both the development and acquisition process, it gave me a great background as to what it takes to acquire a building, what it takes to build a building, getting a community’s buy-in, and the zoning process.
After working in that realm for several years, I then moved onto more of an operational role, one focused more on bringing up the hospitality standards and pushing a heavier focus towards service culture at our company. To do that, I had extended periods of stay: I would live at the communities during the week and fly home on the weekends. It allowed me to be at a community at times when most people aren’t. So, I got to be at a community at one in the morning, walk around, talk to nurses on the night shift, and eat breakfast with the residents. Seeing a community through that cycle was extremely helpful.
I did that for a few years, then I moved over to a hybrid role between an operations and finance role. I oversaw all capital expenditure as well as plant operations. It was great because I could take all my experience from the operations side and hospitality side and think about how to best reinvest capital in all our communities.
I worked with those departments for a couple years, and then I added IT and asset management to my oversight. A portion of my background was management of information systems, so I knew several computer programming languages, and I had always wanted to help take the IT infrastructure of the company up a notch.
How do you find that your deep roots here have enabled you to more fully engage with your work?
Robins: I guess I was lucky to understand at a young age—and probably some of that came through the internship—that there are many parts to a career. It provides you with the basics—money, the opportunity to learn, to grow—and then there’s this other piece that’s sometimes difficult to get, the culture piece. And if there’s one thing that always struck me, it was the people and the leadership of the company. Everyone was very genuine, very caring, and I always felt important, even when I was just working on these spreadsheets. So as I went to college and thought about what I really wanted to do, I ended up remembering what the feeling was to come here every day.
You spend a lot of time with coworkers and associates—some weeks more than you spend with your family. And I value those relationships to such a high degree that I’d already crafted at ages sixteen to twenty-one, twenty-two, and how much history I had there, and the loyalty that they felt they had to me. They showed me that they were willing to teach me—that I could experiment and grow. That’s, I think, what helps me engage: that opportunity to experiment, to learn, and to be better for each of those experiences. AHL
Editor’s note: Shortly after press time, Robins was named executive VP and chief administrative officer at Senior Lifestyle Corporation. AHL congratulates Robins on his promotion.