The SHB Interview: Traci Taylor-Roberts, CEO/President, Sodalis Senior Living

by Jeff Shaw

By Jeff Shaw

When Traci Taylor-Roberts took the reins at Sodalis Senior Living in 2020, her goal was to grow the company. And grow it did.

During her first two years at the helm, the operator went from nine communities in Texas to 24 across Texas, Florida and Georgia. The company has been on the Inc. magazine list of the 5,000 fastest growing companies list for two years running. Companies on the 2023 Inc. 5000 are ranked by percentage revenue growth from 2019 to 2022, according to the magazine.

“This year we were ranked No. 210 overall,” says Taylor-Roberts. “Our growth year over year was 2,167 percent. It was a lot.”

Currently, the portfolio comprises 37 properties and 3,568 units of independent living, assisted living, memory care and respite care.

The growth is due in large part to Sodalis’ partnership with seniors housing REIT giant Ventas, which in recent weeks announced it was installing Sodalis as the operator of 13 additional communities in Texas. That announcement brings the partnership to over 30 communities.

Sodalis — which means “your companion” in Latin — was a mom-and-pop operation with four people in the home office when Taylor-Roberts joined the company. But she knew how to make it a powerhouse. Despite being only 49 years old, she has experience at some of the premier seniors housing companies in the country, including Pegasus Senior Living, American House Senior Living, Holiday Retirement, Legend Senior Living, Emeritus Senior Living and HCR ManorCare. 

Seniors Housing Business spoke with Taylor-Roberts about Sodalis’ growth and where it goes from here.

Seniors Housing Business: Walk me through your career path leading up to taking the reins at Sodalis in 2020.

Traci Taylor-Roberts: I started out when I was young. I grew up in a church where most of the old people were born before 1900. There was no nursery or Sunday school — I was the only little kid in that church. My comfort zone was growing up with older people. Those were my friends, those were my people. I started visiting nursing homes as a small child.

I’ve been in it for 30 years. I’ve done everything — activities director, executive director, cooking, regional positions. 

When I was brought into the company there were three or four of us in the home office. It was a very small mom-and-pop operator. A couple investors that bought a majority of the company had a lot of real estate holdings.

I wanted to come here because I wanted to take all those things I learned and some things that I saw I would do differently, and I wanted to build a company based truly on culture and servant leadership. That’s how I ended up here. I was always interested in scaling it into a company similar to the ones I had worked for.

SHB: What was your first position in the industry?

Taylor-Roberts: HCR ManorCare. That was my first big-girl job. I was a sales director. That was my first real paying job. Before that I did volunteering.

SHB: Tell me more about the kinship that you feel with seniors.

Taylor-Roberts: I was very close with my grandparents. My grandmother lived next door. We spent a great deal of time together, making pies, canning, gardening. She was my best friend. I didn’t realize she was old, she was just my best friend. So my whole life I’ve naturally gravitated toward older people. Always.

Finding a new path

SHB: Your employment history is a who’s who of big-name senior living companies. How has that pedigree informed your path at Sodalis?

Taylor-Roberts: It gave me best practices from each one. It gave me experience in skilled nursing, assisted living and independent living and how to run large organizations. There was a lot of structure that I learned. 

I also learned about things that, as I scaled my own company, I might want to do differently when it comes to hiring, the backgrounds of people I hire, and how I go about cultivating my own culture.

SHB: What did you want to do differently?

Taylor-Roberts: I don’t require people that lead our communities to have college degrees. I look for people that have a lot of experience and great character. I can teach them the rest. That has worked very, very well for us.

During the pandemic I realized that we all talk about appreciating employees, but it wasn’t working for us anymore. We were having a hard time hiring. I had to reflect on what appreciating an employee looks like. 

I realized it was more of a business transaction — you pick up a shift, I’ll give you a gift card. This is not what the world needs. We need to love our teams.

When you love your staff or your team, you can’t expect anything in return. We started giving backpacks with school supplies to their children and buying every employee’s children a Christmas gift. We didn’t expect anything back. It’s because it’s the right thing to do. 

That was a different mindset than what I grew up with in the industry — love versus appreciation. I attribute a lot of the success that we’ve had to that.

SHB: How do you turn that love into recruitment and retention at the community level?

Taylor-Roberts: When you treat people exceptionally well, looking out for them and their children, helping with rent and car payments, they realize you’re a different kind of organization. 

We promote them to executive directors and regional positions, and then they spread that culture to new communities. They reach back and pull other people up with them. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish here. 

You’re having a very profound impact on people’s lives and the quality of those lives. Instead of working three jobs to take care of their family, they work one job. They can have work-life balance. They can read to their children and spend time with them.

Strong partnerships = strong growth

SHB: Does Sodalis own a stake in its any of its properties or is it solely an operator? 

Taylor-Roberts: We own three of our own assets that we built, and then I have a personal stake in the entire company — I own 15 percent of it.

SHB: I know Ventas owns the bulk of your portfolio. How does that partnership work?

Taylor-Roberts: We work super closely together. They give us insight, analytics, work together on capital expenditures and work through operator transitions together. We have a building with Capitol Seniors Housing and three buildings with National HealthCare Corp. as well.

SHB: Sodalis is on a trajectory of meteoric growth. How do you plan to absorb these new communities efficiently without growing too fast to keep up? 

Taylor-Roberts: When I took on the first tranche of buildings from Ventas, I hired teams I had worked with for over 15 years at very good and very big operators. I surrounded myself with people who had a lot of experience and fantastic culture.

We’ve been training people at the community level for regional positions. When we take on a new tranche of buildings, we have people ready to go in those regional roles, and they’ve trained people to backfill them at the community level. We already have our culture instilled in the new communities by people who are already there. 

SHB: Are there any growth metrics you are trying to hit?

Taylor-Roberts: I’m opportunistic if it makes sense. We have things that have been offered to us that don’t make sense. A lot of it is making sure you have a healthy partnership with the REIT, that you’re like-minded and have a good working relationship. And we do with Ventas. The company is super easy to work with.

We’re definitely opportunistic. I don’t think there’s a magic number.

SHB: How does your background being in operations and sales — rather than, say, finance or real estate — inform how you lead the company?

Taylor-Roberts: Because I’m intimately close with what goes on in those communities, I understand what it’s like to be an executive director. I understand what it’s like to be an operator. I’m very thoughtful with regard to the teams in the communities. 

I’ve learned the finance piece and the real estate piece, but operating is extremely important. This is not just a real estate opportunity. It’s heavy on the care component. It benefits you to have the background as an operator. It helps you make really good decisions.

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

Taylor-Roberts: I have six grandchildren.

There’s two very different sides to me. There’s the CEO side, which I take super seriously. Then there’s my other ego, which is Nana T, which is equally important to me. I can play on the floor, be goofy, give lots of love and lots of hugs. That’s the other title I’m most proud of.

When I talk to staff members, I want everybody to know that if they work hard and have a passion they can be a CEO. I had my oldest child at 18 years old. 

I didn’t have a nice, tidy, perfect life when I went to college. It was very hard. I had all three of my kids by the time I was 22 while working in this industry. 

I think I’m relatable to the frontline staff. I can speak to the struggles of a parent working a couple jobs, always feeling less than. I felt that if I was being a good mother, I wasn’t a great worker and if I was being a great worker, I wasn’t being a good mother. It helps build a lot of trust when people know you come from where they come from.

It also makes me compassionate. That’s where that love comes from for the frontline staff. I genuinely want to do whatever I can to make younger people not feel the way I did. If I can help solve problems for them, that’s a good day for me.

If you really take care of your frontline people, they’re going to take care of your residents. You have to show love to get love. Not everybody knows what love is. They’ve never seen that. Once you do that, it’s easy to teach them to take care of residents.

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