Many executives say they live and breathe their business, but Jim Soper means it.
The CEO of Largo-based Autumn Senior Living, an assisted-living facility development and management firm, Soper lives in the facilities his company builds until every unit is occupied. When the occupancy rate reaches 100%, Soper moves back to his east Manatee County home. It's an arrangement that could last weeks, if not months.
“The good thing about it is that I'm hands on,” says Soper. “If my chef doesn't show up for work, guess what, I'm making bacon and eggs.”
That devotion is about to be tested.
Soper and Autumn Senior Living recently announced plans to build Autumn of Sarasota, a $65 million state-of-the-art assisted-living facility on Proctor Road in Sarasota. The site was previously home to a HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital, which is now vacant and will be demolished. Soper and his partners bought the site in October for $1.53 million.
“We're not just creating something out of 'build it and they will come,'” says Soper of the facility, which will likely have 200-250 employees. “We are looking at demographics, and there is an opportunity.”
Construction on phase one of the complex, 80 memory units, is expected to begin in early 2013 and be done by 2014. The three-phase project will likely take at least two years to build. The second and third phases are planned at more than 200 units in what Soper calls “I-Lite,” a hybrid of assisted living and independent living. It's an innovative, albeit risky, strategy in a heavily regulated industry where change doesn't come often.
“We've incorporated concepts into this that don't exist anywhere else,” says Soper. “We aren't talking about (only) assisted living.”
The new concepts include a 24-hour dining room; a theater; an on-site pharmacy; a three-story lobby; and an aqua therapy pool. Another feature, says Soper, is the dining room will have six-seat booths, in addition to tables, so residents can feel like they are in a restaurant, not a cafeteria. Some assisted-living facilities on the Gulf Coast have some of those features, but few, if any, have all of them in one location.
High tech security is another component of Autumn of Sarasota, especially the radio frequency ID wristbands that monitor when residents enter and exit rooms. That's key for the safety of residents with memory issues, though Soper stresses his facilities never “warehouse” seniors. Says Soper: “We don't use the term lockdown.”
The competitive senior-living industry on the Gulf Coast will likely monitor Autumn of Sarasota's progress closely.
That not only includes developers like Soper, but architecture, building, planning and landscaping firms — any entity that salivates over a rare new construction project. Indeed, at a recent reception for Autumn of Sarasota, held at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Sarasota, a small parade of local building industry executives lined up to meet Soper.
Many other senior-living projects statewide are in various stages of development. Sarasota-based Core Construction, for instance, currently has five senior-living projects, including ones in Sarasota, Miami and Jacksonville. The one in Sarasota, a $30 million skilled nursing home, is scheduled to open by the end of the year.
“We are doing a bunch of work all over the state,” Core President John Wiseman says. “Florida has become a destination again for a lot of people.”
On the developer side, meanwhile, Bonita Springs-based Discovery Management Group has ambitious plans to expand its senior-living presence statewide. Run by industry veteran Thomas Harrison, the firm bought six senior-living communities in Florida in 2009. Some facilities were underperforming, and Harrison led a turnaround. Discovery plans to build eight to 10 new senior-living communities in Florida by 2016.
The trend, finally, spreads across the U.S., where occupancy rates for independent-living properties and assisted-living properties are on the upswing. Both sectors, according to National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing & Care Industry data, averaged 88% occupancy in the third quarter. Independent living was up 0.1% over the second quarter, while assisted living increased 0.2%.
The average occupancy rate for independent living is now up two percentage points from its cyclical low, the center reports, while assisted-living occupancy is 1.7 percentage points above its cyclical low. “Occupancy is now at a four-year high,” NIC Vice President Michael Hargrave says. “With inventory growth remaining tempered, we should continue to see occupancy recover in the near-term.”
Autumn Senior Living will nonetheless attack the crowded industry with vigor. There's the Sarasota project, for one. The firm also plans to open three memory care facilities in the region in 2013 through a partnership with the Kalyvas Group, a St. Petersburg-based office, retail and medical space firm.
Memory care is currently the go-to side of the senior-living industry, given the nationwide aging baby boomer population. The forthcoming Autumn Senior Living facilities, Seasons Bealleair, Seasons Largo and Seasons Northdale, in north Hillsborough County, are, like Autumn of Sarasota, designed with a slant toward new technology-infused features.
Yet from a business model perspective, Soper will likely lean on past successes to grow occupancy in all four new facilities. That goes back to 1979 in Soper's native Ontario, Canada, at Nipissing Manor, a psycho-geriatric/memory care facility.
Soper actually ran that facility with his mom, and there were four rooms when they started: One for his mom, one for him and two for patients. They quickly grew the facility to 120 units. Soper attributes the rapid rise at Nipissing Manor to a sincere effort to listen to residents combined with a hyper-focus on detailed compassion — the same model he uses today.
Soper eventually decided to import his assisted-living model know-how to Florida. He moved to St. Petersburg in the early 1990s, he recalls, with a “trailer and $240,000.” He told several local bankers he intended to build a 120-unit senior-living facility and replicate the success of Nipissing Manor. All he needed was financing. Instead, he got chuckles, snickers and rejections.
Soper didn't give up. He just started smaller, first with 31 rooms, then later with an 80-unit assisted-living and memory care facility on Bay Pines Boulevard in St. Petersburg. That project, which cost $1.67 million to build in 1991, achieved full occupancy in six months. Soper and his partners sold it for $3 million in 1995.
Several other successful projects followed, from Naples north to Largo. The list included Heron House, a Sarasota-based chain of five properties totaling 580 units. Those facilities, says Soper, were marked with intricate features he felt would improve residents' quality of life, from recessed fire doors to low-pile carpets. That's a staple of the Soper model, down to making sure every resident with a subscription gets a newspaper every day to buying apricot nectar juice when a resident asks for it.
“It's the little things,” says Soper. “We don't ask you to leave your independent services. We bring the services to you.”
Soper's properties brought in $18 million in revenues, and by the late 2000s he was on a break from the industry. But in early 2011, a friend, an executive with Cabot Cove of Largo, called with a plea for help. Occupancy at Cabot Cove, a 62-unit assisted-living facility, had fallen to less than 50%, the friend reported. Soper says the property was losing money every month. It was in poor condition, including water damage.
Soper and his team took over operations at Cabot Cove of Largo in April 2011. The subsequent turnaround has been swift: By the end of 2011 Soper says monthly revenue was up 97%, the maintenance issues were resolved and the property was on its way to a profit in 2012.
The model of doing the little things right and prioritizing compassion meshes well with the business side of the Autumn Senior Management model, to strive for low rates. Soper says his facilities don't require steep buy-ins up front, like some others, so residents can remain flexible with their living situation.
Soper says he pushes hard for total occupancy so he can reinvest in the business and keep rates down. It's not only a profit play. “I don't want an 85% margin,” Soper says. “I work on a 100% margin.”
One asset in that regard is Soper has had patient investment partners throughout his career. High on that list, he says, is Jack DePizzo, a nursing home/assisted-living facility developer behind more than 25 nursing homes in Ohio and Florida. DePizzo's investments also include commercial real estate and multifamily housing.
Soper, moreover, says several banks are involved with the Autumn of Sarasota project, though he declines to name which ones. Some banks, adds Soper, fight with each other for his business, which he considers validation of industry trends. “I love the banks,” he says. “They have been extremely competitive.”
Soper says he also still loves the senior-living industry, even after more than 30 years. “This is my passion,” Soper says. “I attribute that to my mother. She's the individual who inspired me to do what I do.”