Company Profile: Distinctive Living Partners Up

by Jeff Shaw

Through value-add acquisitions and ground-up developments, new owner-operator is a big believer in the power of collaboration.

By Jeff Shaw

For a company that’s less than two years old, Distinctive Living has grown quickly.

Launched in 2021, Distinctive currently operates 27 seniors housing communities under third-party contracts, with 19 of its own ground-up projects in some phase of development through its affiliate company, Distinctive Living Development. The company, based in Freehold, New Jersey, plans to have an ownership stake in all its own development endeavors.

Those 27 communities total 2,881 units of active adult, independent living, assisted living and memory care. Rents, blended across all types of care, average $7,000 per month.

The quick growth in its operations portfolio stems from CEO Joe Jedlowski’s background in turnaround projects as a former executive at Milestone Retirement Communities, headquartered in Vancouver, Washington.

Jedlowski got his start in the industry at age 16 as a waiter in the nursing home where his grandmother worked. He later became an executive director and, in addition to his time at Milestone, also worked with Atria Senior Living, which is now the second-largest seniors housing operator in the country.

Chris Hoard, who is chief development officer of Distinctive’s development division, has similarly worked in the seniors housing industry in a variety of roles. He spent 17 years working with HCR Manorcare, now known as ProMedica Senior Care. Hoard also worked with owner-operator giant Brookdale and Civitas Senior Living, a Texas-based operator with over 50 communities.

“Joe and I met a few years ago and found this passion together for senior living,” says Hoard. “I was ready to jump on the development side and figure out how to put it all together in one place.”

This deep experience is how the company grew so quickly.

“Our new developments are Class A, but we’re also managing more of the legacy-type assets that are 15 to 20 years old,” says Jedlowski. “Several we’ve repositioned, whether it’s repositioning the team, the product mix or the actual physical asset. We’ve been very successful with repositioning, particularly coming off the COVID pandemic.”

COVID, in fact, played into Jedlowski’s decision to launch the company in 2021, calling it “an opportunistic time.”

“A lot of capital has been frustrated with operators, and folks that weren’t properly resourced and didn’t properly address COVID concerns around occupancy,” he says. “Capital providers have become much more comfortable making operator changes.”

“At the same time, the industry was grounded from a development standpoint,” continues Jedlowski. “There was no new supply. It was a very intentional, opportunistic time to start our development platform. There are a lot of folks that have put development on pause because of COVID and inflation and interest costs going up. 

“We believe it’s time to put the pedal to the metal with the demographics that are coming. We take into account the extra cost, but also the extra revenue when our buildings come on line in two to three years.”

That said, Distinctive does not believe in unlimited or unchecked growth. 

“We have a very good, thoughtful growth platform with our developments,” says Jedlowski. “But we would be fine stopping here. I don’t think we have a number of properties in mind. We are very much more focused on whatever we do, we want to do it really well.” 

Strategic partnerships are key

Distinctive is certainly expanding, but one term comes up again and again with the company’s executives: partnership.

Because each community is branded and marketed individually, rather than flying under a Distinctive Living banner, the company’s website does not spend time reaching out to consumers. Instead, it is more focused on finding partners for acquisitions, development, third-party operations contracts and investment.

“We purposely created our website not to be a consumer website,” says Jedlowski. “We’re the men and women behind the curtain. Our intention is to speak to the asset manager, the capital partner, the multifamily developer that knows nothing about seniors housing. From a development standpoint, partnerships are critical.”

Just like with growth, though, Jedlowski’s goal is not to partner wantonly. He says everyone — from the architect to the capital partner to the co-developer — needs to be on the same page, or else the idea won’t work.

“If we are all humming the same song, those are the projects we have found to be most successful. While many potential partners have looked at us hard and done due diligence, we’ve done so equally to them. We don’t want unaligned expectations. We’ve turned down a lot of opportunities because they weren’t the right fit for us.”

This belief extends beyond Distinctive’s ground-up developments to include third-party operations contracts as well. 

Jedlowski says the company has “a big, sophisticated” platform for operations, but remains strategic when it comes to choosing who it partners with.

This is especially visible in the portfolio’s geographic layout. Distinctive’s communities are heavily concentrated in its home state of New Jersey, with smaller concentrations of assets in the Midwest and Southeast.

“We don’t want to take on a 20-unit building five states away,” notes Jedlowski. “But if it’s a bigger relationship where it’s part of a portfolio of five to six communities, it makes a lot of sense.”

Current expansion targets include Texas, Arizona, California and Colorado, and 10 of the company’s current ground-up developments are in Florida.

“Those are states where we’ve had success operating in the past,” says Jedlowski. 

“We want to be thoughtful. We’re not going to just grow for the sake of growing. We have to have the right partners and be wholeheartedly confident.”

“We try to grow where we have resources already, but we’re also seeing where the population is going,” adds Hoard. “We’re looking at those pockets where we can bring greater value — underserved populations in high-
barrier-to-entry markets — but we’re not afraid of secondary or tertiary markets if we can support those areas properly.”

A team sport

As an operator, Distinctive puts a heavy emphasis on its employee recruitment and retention, recognizing that labor is one of the biggest challenges facing the industry today.

Rather than wait until someone leaves and conduct exit interviews, Distinctive holds regular “stay surveys” to find out how the company can better serve its frontline workers. These surveys are especially crucial in the first 60 days, “when they’re most likely to leave,” according to Jedlowski.

“I can’t even tell you the time and energy we put into every component of recruiting, retention and keeping people engaged,” says Jedlowski.

The company also recently implemented goHappy, an application for improving employee engagement and communication. Jedlowski himself can now send out a text to every worker in the company. 

“We take for granted sometimes that if we send out an e-mail to all users, they’ll all read it. But that only gets to one-tenth of our staff,” says Jedlowski. “The people in front of computers aren’t the ones making our business happen. goHappy allows us to touch everyone in our company.”

The program’s surveys can alert executive directors when a worker isn’t happy. “This is real-time data,” says Jedlowski.

The availability of the executive team is one of the strengths that separates Distinctive from the competition, adds Hoard.

“Being able to pick up the phone and reach the CEO, and have him comment on promotions, that changes the partnership,” says Hoard. “Joe and I both came into this industry as dishwashers and servers. I remember those days and how transactional everything seemed to be. We want to create a different environment.”

“A lot of people pay lip service to treating employees well,” adds Jedlowski. “One of the things we do right out of the gate is understand the personal and professional goals of each worker and help him or her achieve that.”

Distinctive’s labor initiatives also reinforce the idea of partnership.

“We work with people we want to work with,” says Jedlowski. “We want people that can pick up the phone and call us and know that we can work through whatever’s going on. It’s really hard to stay true to that business philosophy sometimes, but it’s really a core value.”

This spirit of availability and adaptability extends to residents as well. The executive team is constantly on the lookout for technology that can make life easier for residents.

Distinctive also has split the standard four levels of care — active adult, independent living, assisted living and memory care — into 10 separate levels. This approach allows the residents to only pay for services they need, while ensuring the company still gets properly compensated for every service it provides.

The wider array of options allows the company to go after more people on the fringes, catching active adult-style seniors that don’t need many services at all and heavy-lift assisted living residents who need a lot of help, but are hoping to stay out of the nursing home.

Says Jedlowski, “We’re hoping to catch both ends of the spectrum with that model.”

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