- Meet James Lee, Co-Founder & CEO at Bella Groves
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Meet James Lee, Co-Founder & CEO at Bella Groves
“Bella Groves was born out of values not ambition.” Co-founder James Lee is a seasoned career professional in the senior living industry. In this interview, James shares his perspectives on what it takes to build a community from the ground up and how to create unconditional joy for families affected by dementia.
Adam Wilensky (AW): I spend a lot of time on LinkedIn and follow many different professionals from dozens of verticals, but your posts stood out to me immediately. Your writing is consistently sincere, highly engaging, and honest. It’s so rare to see someone ‘drop their guard’ on a professional platform and really speak to the wide array of challenges we face in our new normal. Can you share any advice to professionals who are on the fence about making their perspectives known to their professional counterparts?
James Lee (JL): Thanks so much for saying so. The truth is, I see writing as an artform and all meaningful art is vulnerable at heart. You’re sharing an intimate piece of yourself – your perspective. It opens up room for criticism, judgement, and all sorts of potentially negative responses – both perceived and real.
But there’s also real connection that comes from sharing your art. It isn’t so much about dropping my guard as it is about being compelled to influence specific and meaningful change. The only way to really do that is to share your perspective – to share something real. My advice, then, is along the same lines. Don’t ask yourself whether or not you can drop your guard. Ask yourself how compelled you feel to influence change. Is the change specific? Is it meaningful to you? Is it meaningful to others? If you can answer “yes” to those questions, then get to sharing.
AW: You’ve spent a significant portion of your career in Senior Living sales and marketing both at the community and corporate level as well as several years in sales training and development. Sales is rarely synced to Strategy and Operational Execution the way it should be, but to those organizations that can really make the right blend of these disciplines – there’s much to gain. Can you share some of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned over the last few years?
JL: What I have learned is that few organizations really understand their strategic position. I think a lot of that happens from mismatched motivations between owners, middle managers, and line managers/staff.
For us at Bella Groves, it’s simpler to align our mission (purpose of the company) to our strategy. Our reason for existing is to create joy for central Texas families affected by dementia. Our strategy is to advance our true mission. How we operate, how we align our teams to do interrelated work, and how we market/sell all revolve around that mission.
For some companies, the misalignment happens right from the beginning when the real motivation (financial) is masked behind a faux mission. It isn’t very compelling for a senior living company to say “our mission is to create a high return on investment for our owners and senior housing has more attractive margins that traditional multi-family real estate”. They have to essentially adopt a customer-friendly mission statement. That’s the first misalignment that ripples down the line to many other misalignments.
When you are clear about your mission, then you can create a simple strategy. When you have a clear strategy it tells you what you pursue and just as importantly what NOT to pursue. Marketing tells you who your customers are and what they need. Operations tells you how to create the solution to your customers’ true needs. Sales tells you how to connect your customer to your solution that you created for them.
There are plenty of businesses trying to do good care. There are fewer caregivers trying to make a good business. The order of things matters.
AW: Branding has become an indispensable tool in the digital age. How would you describe the process of building a community’s voice from the ground up?
JL: First thing for us is to understand that branding isn’t a logo, a text or color, or a slogan. A brand is how your customers feel about your organization and what they associate as the thing you’re good at doing.
What I am learning about branding is that you stand a better chance at a strong brand the narrower your focus. Instead of all of senior care, we’re focused on dementia. Instead of all of the U.S. or Texas, we’re focused on our community of San Antonio. Instead of playing in a vague middle market, we’re focused on a high value in our market. Instead of having 100+ units, we’re focused on 32 families.
Then branding efforts should be entirely focused on letting this hyper-focused subgroup of your market to know that you have a solution to their specific problems.
AW: Dementia is a subject many families prefer to avoid due to confusion, apprehension, and fear. You speak to creating “Unconditional Joy For Families Affected By Dementia”. Can you elaborate on your approach and how it aligns with Bella Groves’ mission statement?
JL: What we’re doing is to directly contrast people’s natural emotions around dementia (fear) with what we believe is possible (joy). Our tagline “Unconditional Joy” is both simple and profound. It is a promise that no matter what circumstances exist related to a person’s dementia, JOY is not only possible but deserved – from the first moment of dementia to the last.
Our operations are built around creating this joy. That starts with our higher 1 to 4 staffing ratio than traditional to communities our size. That follows through in intensive dementia training during employees’ first 13-weeks versus the minimal 4-hours of state required training for dementia caregivers. All of our partners orient around our goal for “creating joy” instead of a simple “activities of daily living” view. In the end, we believe that by focusing on 32 families (a relatively small number) we can influence change in people’s perceptions about dementia. Would we like to serve thousands of families? Sure. But if our ultimate goal is to influence a change in mindset about dementia, we don’t need thousands of customers. We need a handful.
AW: According to the CDC, there will be up to 14 million people affected by Alzheimer’s by 2060, and the disease will impact minority populations the most severely. In your opinion, are Senior Housing services taking the appropriate steps to prepare for the massive influx of seniors requiring MC and AL services?
JL: Our industry won’t ever be able to build enough facilities to serve the number of people who will be affected by Alzheimer’s Disease. That, by the way, doesn’t include the nearly 100 other forms of dementia that aren’t counted in this demographic projection.
What we’re trying to do at Bella Groves is to transform the idea of a dementia care facility from a “final destination” to a “dementia hub”. We are developing learning courses, at-home concierge services, meal delivery options and many other initiatives aimed at spreading dementia education and to support to those living at home and in the earlier parts of the dementia journey. We say to our partners “don’t think of Bella Groves as a 32-bed memory care. Think of us as a working showroom for dementia knowledge.”
When you go to an IKEA showroom, you’re not there to buy furniture. You’re there to see what you can do with the furniture you buy. Fans of IKEA love them, because they help them see possibilities – to do more with less – to have fun, even, with furniture.
We’ll eventually build other facilities in Central Texas but only when we need a new “base of operations” or “hub” to serve that surrounding community.
A phrase you’re hearing more is “senior living as a service”. We can’t let that become a fad statement. It needs to be a concerted effort to repurpose AL and MC facilities from a warehouse model to a hub model of senior wellness.
You can learn more about Bella Groves here: https://www.bellagroves.com
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