The Leadership Series: Chris Winkle, CEO, Sunrise Senior Living

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Monday, October 29, 2018 12:00 pm EDT

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Senior Housing News

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Meet Chris Winkle, CEO of Sunrise Senior Living. A Buffalo, N.Y. native, Winkle began in the CEO role in 2014 after serving as the company’s chief operating officer—a position that brought him to Sunrise in 2013. Prior to joining Sunrise, he served as CEO for MedQuest, Inc., an outpatient operator of diagnostic imaging services. A graduate of Case Western Reserve, he previously served as president and CEO for Mariner Health Care, Inc., and as chief operating officer for Integrated Health Services and held various management roles in speciality and rehabilitation hospitals.

Spotlight on Technology

Looking at the huge universe of tech, how are you thinking about what the best opportunities are going forward? Are there technologies in particular that you think are promising for the evolving the resident experience?

We have done electronic health records, and eMAR. We’ve got TELS. We’ve got OnShift. We’re doing tableside dining. We did something called, “improving move-ins,” where we automated the move-in process. Technology is a huge, huge part of our strategy. In many ways we’re also kind of data obsessed. But I think the distinction is I’ve seen a lot of industries and companies that will slap on technology because it’s “the thing to do.” We’re constantly looking at how it enables us to get better at our fundamental business. And that is an also an obsession of ours. So we’re going to always look at how we can perfect what we do.

So what we’re always looking for, is how do we reduce the non-value-added waste? And there are going to be different technological solutions that come along, that we’ll adopt and continue perfecting.

And we coined a term, “foundational growth”. We said, “If we look at ourselves for the next five to ten years, we’re going to be growing rapidly,” but everything we’re also going to be doing is building the foundation for the future. So one of the things we saw way back then was that if we do all the things we think we can do, and we’re kind of starting year five into that ten-year growth plan. We did all the things we can do, now we’re just at the starting line. And how many industries can say that?

Everything we’re doing, is really building the foundation for what we see here. And that’s everything that you talked about from Medicare Advantage to our development, to all of the operational improvements we’re making.

We sat down with Winkle to learn about Sunrise’s approach to growth and branding, the company’s early foray into Medicare Advantage, and where he sees opportunities to excel through technology.

Senior Housing News: How did you get involved in senior living?

Winkle: It was ironic. My entire career has been in healthcare. I was an accounting business major at Case Western and I had a fraternity brother come across the hallway on a Friday afternoon with a phone in his hand. He said, “Oh, by the way, my aunts who work in this hospital are looking for somebody to help with their work papers.” And then he said [referencing the phone], “Oh, and this is my aunt.” I got on the phone, then I went in to meet them at the pediatric rehab hospital where they worked. It was called Health Hill Hospital For Children. They had me do some paperwork for them. Then one Saturday, the CEO of the hospital walked in. “Do you know computers?” he asked. “Do they teach you at school?” I said, “Yeah, why Tom?” They were on the cutting edge with their first PC-based accounting system and it was a total disaster. And he said, “So can you help?” I said, “I’ll take a look.” So I then got into the weeds of what the right answer should be and worked with a company in Wisconsin as well as the hospital and our board. They pretty much approached me after that and said, “Our Business Office Manager is moving to Maine, so we want to create a job for you, so that you’ll stay with us.”

And they made me Business Office Manager, Director of Finance at that time and gave me other operating departments so that I would stay with it when I graduated and that’s probably the only reason I’m in healthcare today, and it was great opportunity. And being in pediatric rehab was incredible. During my lunch hours I would go up and play basketball with the kids. We had a handicap hoop and we could lower it. It was totally inter-disciplinary.

I thought I was going to law school when I started school. Obviously, I had no desire to do that. But I just loved health care and stayed with it and 34 years later I’m still here.

So, was Mariner your first senior focus?

That was Integrated Health. I ended up becoming the COO of that company. Mariner was my first CEO job.

I started there in 2000 less than a year before they filed for chapter 11. Frankly I was kind of like the choice between either going to a trustee or some of the directors coming down. So it was kind of a baptism by fire. It was not the most fun thing to start into but I got dog years of learning because of it.

And when you took that job at Mariner did you have any inkling of how things might go at the company?

For me it was an opportunity. I was aware of where things most likely would head when I got in and really got into the details. So I was kind of one person who said, this is pretty much the path that we’re on.

If you look at the nursing home business back then, many of the nursing homes went bankrupt when the balance budget act went in and there was kind of an over-under line on the sector. Those that stayed with traditional nursing care made it.

So is that your MO? Do you like to be in those high-pressure situations where you’ve got a surprise on your hands?

I wouldn’t say it’s my MO, it has just turned out that way. After we sold Mariner, I was recruited by a company called MedQuest which was an imaging company and there was a turnaround. And so then all of a sudden, I get labeled a turnaround person…Which I don’t really think is my nature. I like to be part of something for a long time. And that’s really where I think we are at Sunrise. I don’t really want to be transactional. I don’t want to look for a quick flip. I like the fixing for the long term. I told my board when they hired me, and it’s was probably a stupid negotiating point, but I said I had no intention of ever leaving. This to me is my last job.

Was that in 2013 for the COO role?

Correct.

Where was the company at that point and what was going on in your mind when you were debating whether to come on board?

From a personal perspective, when I first started at Mariner, my family was in Baltimore and the company was in Atlanta. I commuted for four straight years between Baltimore and Atlanta. So I’d made a decision that I was going to do anything big until my youngest sons were out of school and that really happened in 2012. So in 2012, I decided I’d test the waters.

So I was looking around at a few different opportunities, and then the Sunrise call came in. I knew one of the board members and came in to interview. They had made a strategic decision at that time that they were not looking for a health care person, but they talked me into the COO. So there I was going from 2000 all the way to 2013 when I’d been a CEO and all of a sudden, I was taking a COO job.

It was kind of the classic case where you love the company, it was a long-term play, check your ego at the door and do what you think is right for you and your family.

A new CEO came on board and then all of a sudden we were transitioning again, and we had another owner and that team decided they wanted me to stay on board and assume the CEO mantle.

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