The SHB Interview: Greg Roderick, CEO, Frontier Management

Third-generation owner and operator channels inspiration from his family and other industry luminaries into large portfolio.

By Jeff Shaw

Greg Roderick was born for this industry. 

Roderick’s grandfather was the first in the family to enter seniors housing. He got his start alongside Carl Campbell, a seniors housing industry pioneer who started building in the 1950s and finally retired in 2017 while in his mid-90s.

As part of his retirement plans, Campbell shrank his 12,000-square-foot penthouse located at one of his own communities in Wenatchee, Washington, down to 1,200 square feet and turned the remainder into more units, according to the Wenatchee World, the local newspaper. Located in north central Washington, Wenatchee is a city of approximately 35,000 people.

Roderick’s father also got his start the same way, forming a seniors housing development company with Campbell and one of his best friends, William Colson. Yes, the William Colson who would later go on to found independent living giant Holiday Retirement in Salem, Oregon. (Holiday Retirement relocated to Lake Oswego, Oregon in 2012 and to Winter Park, Florida in 2017.)

At 20 years old, the youngest Roderick landed a job opportunity through his father’s friend, Colson, and joined Holiday as an assistant manager at a seniors housing community. He worked his way up through the ranks, including executive director and regional director positions.

After many years in the industry at a variety of owners and operators, Roderick was hired as CFO to help a struggling seniors housing company in Portland, Oregon, divest some of its assets. Recognizing an opportunity, Roderick bought half of the company himself, launching Frontier Management in 2000.

That modest portfolio of 10 properties bloomed over the next 20 years. Frontier is now one of the 20 largest seniors housing operators in the country, with a portfolio of 106 communities in 16 states totaling more than 8,550 units. Approximately 47 percent of the units across the portfolio are memory care, 43 percent assisted living and 10 percent independent living.

Still headquartered in Portland, Frontier’s properties are spread throughout the country, with large concentrations on the West Coast, Texas and Illinois.

Seniors Housing Business spoke with Roderick to discuss his deep roots in the industry, and where he sees it heading next. Below is an edited transcript.

(Editor’s note: With the exception of the question specifically about the pandemic, these statements were made before the COVID-19 pandemic. Please take that into account when reading his responses.)

Seniors Housing Business: Tell us about your personal and family history that led to you becoming a seniors housing executive and eventually founder of Frontier?

Greg Roderick: My grandfather was a personal friend and business partner of Carl Campbell, a seniors housing pioneer. Campbell is still alive today, well into his late 90s. He gave my grandfather his start. Campbell was not just my grandfather’s partner, but his tenant. They ultimately opened two or three nursing homes back in the 1950s. (At its peak, Campbell’s Triple-C Convalescent Centers operated more than 180 properties in 21 states.)

Unfortunately, my grandfather passed away at the age of 52. Later, my dad quit college and went on to General Electric Credit Corp. His best friend went on to work at his stepfather’s construction firm, building small apartments and homes. The two of them got back together after college. They decided to approach Carl Campbell and asked, “Carl, would you back us like you did my dad?”

They went off to form Redevco, which built a whole bunch of Camlu-branded communities. With Carl, they built 48 communities, all located from Oklahoma to the West Coast.

SHB: And what about his best friend? 

Roderick: His best friend was Bill Colson of Holiday Retirement. My dad loved nursing homes, and Bill decided to take the retirement homes, so they went their own directions.

My dad continued to build nursing homes and became a very large owner-operator in the West. Bill obviously did really well — he went off to build a whole big enterprise in Holiday. (Holiday is currently the third-largest operator of seniors housing in the United States with 259 properties totaling 31,313 independent living units, according to the American Seniors Housing Association’s 2019 count.)

My dad sold his company in the late 1970s. He literally made a fortune at a very young age. Unfortunately, despite all that newfound wealth, my dad went bankrupt and died at the age of 45 when I was just 20 years old.

SHB: What happened to you at that point?

Roderick: When my father passed away, I went off to meet with Bill. I said, “My family’s bankrupt, dad passed away. I’m looking for any opportunity to find a job.” Bill had 69 buildings at that time. He said, “I’m not sure what we have available, but I’ll introduce you to some folks.”

I interviewed quite well as a hungry 20-year-old, and I got an assistant manager position at a community. I got three meals a day and a bed, so I was pretty excited. I later became executive director, then went on to marketing in a regional role.

I also got very involved in the Resolution Trust Corp. (RTC) properties when the savings and loan debacle occurred in the late 1980s and 1990s. I really cut my teeth there in a variety of development, acquisition and marketing roles. (The government-run RTC became a massive property management company, cleaning up what was, at the time, the largest collapse of U.S. financial institutions since the Great Depression, according to Investopedia.)

Ultimately, I became Holiday’s regional vice president for Florida. I took over a bunch of defunct buildings, turned them around and moved there. For two years I oversaw that region for Holiday and steadily filled and fixed every property.

After six years with Holiday, I went back to Oregon. I worked with Walt Bowen of BPM Senior Living. He had three buildings back then. Over the following years, I helped that company go public, and then later private again, while growing the portfolio to 35 communities.

I then got recruited as a CFO for a family-owned company whose biggest client was Carl Campbell. 

Health Resources in Portland was a 35-
building operating company with a lot of leases. It was struggling horribly, but management asked me to come in to get rid of bad assets. Over the next four months we basically wound down the company. I bought 50 percent of the business through acquisition of debt. Through that I started Frontier. This is now our 20th year here.

I started my company with 10 properties on day one, and here we are with 106 today.

Along the way I became partners and teamed up with everybody in the business: George Chapman, CEO of Welltower (formerly Health Care REIT), and his successor Thomas DeRosa; Arnie Whitman, founder and chairman of Formation Capital; Dan Beatty, chairman and CEO of Emeritus (later acquired by Brookdale Senior Living). As far as a “who’s who” in the industry, I’ve been a partner with most of them, and I would like to say I’m a friendly competitor of the others.

The portfolio today

SHB: What does Frontier’s portfolio look like along the continuum of care? Do you have a type of care that you consider your specialty?

Roderick: Out of our 8,500 apartments, only about 1,000 are independent living units. We have more than 4,000 memory care units, and the balance is assisted living. For the 55-plus segment, we have two projects nearing completion.

SHB: There’s a lot of discussion right now about whether 55-plus, also known as active adult, is an important trend or just a fad. What’s your take on that segment of the industry?

Roderick: I have been very careful about that space. I want to be sure to go to a market that’s big enough and has limited competition. I sat with Aron Will (co-leader of CBRE Capital Markets’ National Senior Housing team) and talked with him about it at length. It’s an interesting market for the middle-income seniors.

The middle market is now what everyone’s talking about, but when I was at Holiday it was built for the middle market, and now my own company is as well. Our industry is generally middle market. If you’re extremely wealthy, the chances are you’ll bring in home healthcare and a cook. That makes a lot of sense. But for the rest of seniors, monthly assisted living rental rates of $3,000 are middle market.

SHB: I know Frontier develops seniors housing, but you market the company primarily as an operator. How much ownership stake, if any, do you generally like to have in your properties?

Roderick: Of our 106 properties, Frontier owns a piece of 38 of those buildings, and I personally have an ownership stake in 50. Of the 38 buildings in which Frontier has an ownership interest, the stake ranges everywhere from 5 percent to 100 percent.

The remaining 56 buildings where neither Frontier nor I have a stake are third-party management contracts.

It’s really healthy for me to have a company that is performance-based. If we’re not performing, we’re gone. If you’re not delivering, you lose the business. That’s a healthy platform. We have to keep our eye on the ball; we have to be hands-on; we have to be interested; and we have to visit our properties a lot.

I don’t have a private jet. I fly commercial. I stay at the buildings or nearby. I’m very hands on, boots on the ground. I love the business and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

I’ve been in the business for three generations. My brother works for Hawthorn Senior Living. My wife has an interior design firm that does strictly seniors housing. My kids have worked in my buildings. 

Adjusting to a new world

SHB: As we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, what are Frontier’s future plans for communicable disease prevention and mitigation?

Roderick: We have established the protocols, policies, procedures and best practices for COVID-19, and all measures and efforts are ready to implement should it happen again.

As of now, we are developing the software to implement a kiosk at each entry and service entrance to track and health screen every visitor, vendor and employee to ensure that there is less of a chance that there is a spread of COVID-19. Training programs and videos are now available online via our intranet for all employees. We are planning to build up PPE (personal protective equipment) supplies in the summer of 2020, when the pricing comes down a bit, to best prepare for the possibility of a COVID-19 return.

Sanitation, health screening and distancing measures will be part of our daily operations until further notice.

SHB: The portfolio is widespread geographically. How do you manage a large, spread-out portfolio while maintaining a high quality of care?

Roderick: We have 10 regional vice presidents of operations. We have 11 nurses in our corporate ranks who are stationed all over the country to make sure we’re delivering the care we promise and that we’re adhering to licensing rules. We have a team of marketing and operations specialists that goes around the country to train our workers. We have a deep team.

Oregon is our home office, but we have an operations and secondary home office in Dallas. Eventually we’ll have a third office, most likely in Florida, to support the whole East Coast.

SHB: How does Frontier differentiate itself from other operators in the space?

Roderick: First, we have transparency through our intranet and apps. Our clients/lenders get 100 percent transparency. If they want our reporting information on their phone; monthly or quarterly; in person or over the phone, we can get that done. We’re very client-centered.

Second, we are very consistent in our messaging. We communicate three to five times a week on all of our company-wide focus points and initiatives.

Third, we visit our properties and I meet with the regional directors frequently.

We are evolving. This is not what we did 30 years ago. 

For our residents, we have happy hours. We have life-enrichment programming. Our dining rooms have become restaurants with full menus. Twenty years ago, you got grilled cheese or liver and onions. Today we have five to seven “everyday” menu items, and then two focused entrees for each day. We are serving meals from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. 

We do more now based on what the residents can do. Our vans are far nicer for transportation. Our buildings are more interesting. Our fitness centers are far more robust. We have lifelong learning so people can continue to learn, grow and educate. Our theaters are much more comfortable. It feels far more resort-like. 

The apartments are also much nicer and feature stone countertops, better windows, better HVAC. When we build, we add generators so there’s never an interruption in electricity.

We just broke ground in Spring, Texas, on a property that will include a pool and five outdoor fireplaces. We are far more thoughtful in our industry than in the past. 

We’re creating an environment where we expect more and we want more for ourselves. I’m 51 years old. When I start looking for myself, the options will be far greater and more appealing. I want that. I want to have a better environment for myself and my wife and my kids. We’re the ones who have to establish that environment and raise our own bar.

SHB: With a robust development pipeline, how do you avoid the overdevelopment issues that have led to a decrease in occupancies in recent years?

Roderick: Some markets really do need new properties. I was recently in Mississippi, and we found three markets that were fantastic and need new product. That said, some markets are full.

We’ll see five to six new developments completed this year, so about 5 percent growth. We’ll probably see that many a year for the next 10 to 15 years with baby boomers retiring.

But we also see a lot of opportunity in repositioning, taking over underperforming properties and managing those. We see this robust growth in that area, approximately 10 percent growth per year for a conceivable 10 years. I don’t see us slowing down from that.

I do see some markets being very hard to fill. The hope is that everyone has the ability to drive up occupancy slowly and steadily. Investors and lenders are prepared to refinance and build a larger reserve fund to get through those tough times. They’ll have to be patient and dig deeper for a few years.

SHB: What is Frontier doing to mitigate the effects of the staffing crisis facing the industry?

Roderick: We recently launched Frontier Management Careers. I would recommend this for everybody in our space — it’s our website for posting job openings and creating excitement for seniors housing as a career choice.

You must build a culture that your employees can embrace and feel good about. 

Our employees have a tough life. They’re not paid the highest amount. Build a culture and benefits program — free meals, great uniforms, whatever your company can do to help them feel good and build their future.

We need to build positivity, a skill set, confidence, and make people feel great about what they’re doing. We have to step up our game to help create a better work environment where they can feel comfortable, safe, happy and appreciated. That happens through building culture, improving their work life and just being compassionate about their challenges.

Industry-wide, 70 percent of executive directors and above have started in lower-level positions and climbed the ladder. Some were caregivers and moved all the way up. There’s nothing more rewarding than people who work hard, find a career that speaks to them, then help drive our industry to a better place.

SHB: In 2018, you bought out private equity investor Formation Capital’s 50 percent stake in the company. What was the strategy behind that move?

Roderick: With Formation, we grew the company and had a great run. Then I was able to get financing to acquire Formation’s interest at a good return for Formation.

Welltower then approached me. We had some history together. The publicly traded REIT came along and decided to take a minority stake in the company. That worked out great for me and for Welltower. We’ve grown our platform together through acquisitions and development, as well as some transitions. We’re doing great things together.

We have a wonderful relationship, as I did with Formation. We’re still partners with Formation on half a dozen communities. We’re very friendly.

With Welltower, we’ve been able to bring great investment opportunities to that REIT’s table as well. It’s been a really positive relationship with both groups. 

We also have some third-party leases with groups like Ventas. 

I’m old-school seniors housing. I’m friends with all. I help people out in our space. I’m a very friendly competitor. I’m fortunate that I have a place in this space. We all must try to elevate and improve our industry.

Feeding the industry

SHB: You personally invest in a wide variety of other property sectors. Is there anything you’ve learned from those investments that has helped direct your approach to senior living?

Roderick: Absolutely. I’ve been able to invest in hotels, restaurants and so forth. Those hospitality investments have really helped me understand and appreciate not only employee training, but also the customer expectations and how valuable customer service is. Our service delivery has to become part of the fabric of our companies.

In seniors housing, that exceptional service delivery can be as simple as knocking on the door and asking permission to enter. How do we deliver restaurant dining? How do we present ourselves at the front desk? How do we provide a fantastic first impression?

I’ve gotten to know the restaurant and hotel businesses, and I’ve incorporated elements of each into our space. Those industries have been great for learning to elevate our resident experience.

Frankly, it even affects how we treat our clients — our real estate owners — giving them access and face time. All these little tricks of the hospitality trade translate quite nicely into seniors housing. While never losing sight of the healthcare delivery, it’s about giving exceptional service to the people we serve both as a caregiver and a client. 

If you were a client, with the amount of investment you’ve made, you would want to hear from and meet with us and understand everything top to bottom — all the costs, gains, losses, occupancy and licensing. We do that. The client knows as much as we know as fast as we know it. A lot of that comes from the hospitality sector. We want people to feel that appreciation and have that immediate knowledge.

SHB: You’re very active in the various industry associations. Is that important to you?

Roderick: It is. I want to be a participant, help drive the business and give input.

I’m on the American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA) Executive Board, and it gives me an opportunity to meet with friends and colleagues in the space, to improve the industry as a whole, to give my input on the challenges, gains and hurdles in our space.

Frankly, when I go to an ASHA or NIC meeting, it’s like a family reunion. I’ve been doing this for 31 years. Seeing my friends in this space, spending time with them and helping to drive their business is critically important. We have to do what we can as a whole to help each other out and have a better industry.

My goal is not just for me to thrive and enjoy this space, but hopefully my kids and their kids will follow suit, join in this industry and help senior citizens — including me — to have a better life.

To help shape and improve the life of all these folks is not an obligation. It’s an honor to be involved.

SHB: What’s something people in the industry would be surprised to find out about you?

Roderick: For 14 years I was a single father after my wife passed away. I remarried a year ago. I raised two wonderful people, a son and a daughter — one’s 18, one’s 21. I was lucky enough to adopt two kids at birth. I lived a true work-life balance, coaching sports and traveling all over the country and making it all work without a full-time nanny. I wasn’t a father because I wanted pictures on the mantel. I chose to have kids and truly invest my time in their lives and their future. I feel very blessed on that front.