From Sunrise to Startup
As seen on Seniorhousingnews.com…
by Emily Study
When former Sunrise executive Tiffany Tomasso launched Kensington Senior Living five years ago, her career in senior housing came full circle. Along the way, a number of people have influenced her career path. In fact, relationships have been one of the secrets to her success.
From family members and her first nursing home supervisors, to Brenda Bacon of Brandywine Senior Living and Patricia Will of Belmont Village Senior Living, Tomasso has been “surrounded by entrepreneurs in every facet of [her] life.”
Now, with a 17 year tenure at Sunrise Senior Living under her belt and a thriving new company with a promising future, Tomasso has had some time to reflect on a career full of transitions, her strategies in the industry and the challenges that arise when going from c-suite to start up.
‘It Was In My DNA’
Owning a business was always in the cards for Tomasso, now the CEO of Reston, Virginia-based Kensington Senior Living, which currently has three assisted living communities open in Kensington, MD, White Plains, NY, and Sierra Madre, CA. Even when she first spoke with Sunrise Co-Founder Paul Klaassen years ago, she was confident she wouldn’t stay at the company — now one of the top-five largest senior living providers nationwide — for longer than a few years.
“I remember saying to Paul, ‘I’ll probably just be here for about three years. I’ll be bored, I usually only stay places two to three years, and I really want my own company,’” she says.
For Tomasso, owning a business was a family affair — something seemingly ingrained in her genetic makeup from day one.
“I had worked with entrepreneurs my whole life. My mother, father and every grandparent had their own business — it was in my DNA growing up,” she says.
It’s not surprising, then, that Tomasso would later be recognized by her peers as a “wildly successful” entrepreneur whose generosity yet fearless determination would characterize her as a force in the senior living industry.
“Tiffany has been an entrepreneur her whole adult life,” says Brenda Bacon, president and CEO of Brandywine Senior Living, and chairperson of the Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA). “When she worked for me and certainly when she worked for Sunrise, she came to work every day feeling like she owned the result of what happened that day, and that’s what really makes an entrepreneur.”
But it wasn’t until 1985, after she graduated from college, that Tomasso even considered a career in healthcare, and specifically long-term care.
A Resume of Relationships
Before rising to the position of chief operating officer at Sunrise and eventually launching her own senior living organization, Tomasso had to first get her foot in the door. As in many industries, networking and building relationships was key. That started in college, when Tomasso’s business professor Gregory Marks became one of her first advocates, pushing her to pursue a career in health care and later helping her to secure her first job in the long-term care field.
Two years after graduating from Pomona, N.J.-based Stockton State College with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, Tomasso took her first step into what would become a lifelong career in the senior housing industry. She began as an administrative assistant at Greenwood Health Care Center, a single-site, 120-bed nursing home in Pleasantville, N.J. Under the leadership of Juanita Green-Wood and her daughter Olivia Peters, Tomasso quickly worked her way up to assistant administrator.
Now, Tomasso remarks a common thread that has woven through her life. Surrounded by entrepreneurs, including Green-Wood and Peters, she has developed a support system that has served as a foundation in the industry.
“I really built some great relationships and have maintained them for years in this career,” she says.
Building these strong, sustainable relationships — both in senior living as well as other fields — is a huge component in a professional’s long-term success, Bacon says.
“Every business goes through really great times and challenging times. Sometimes things may not go the right way, but the relationships and the kind of basis upon which you form those relationships really transcends what’s going on in your business life,” Bacon says, noting that Tomasso has always been able to maintain her relationships.
After two years of working at Greenwood Health Care Center, Tomasso, at age 25, was hired by Bacon to open Meadow View Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Williamstown, N.J.
Though Bacon was not affiliated with Brandywine at the time, the 180-bed nursing home was the first community that she and her partners developed and opened.
“That was a big job — probably a bigger job than I realized and that I was equipped to do,” she says. “But I had Greg [my professor], Olivia and her mother to rely on. Plus, Brenda was a huge support of mine, as were her business partners.”
Bacon doesn’t deny that hiring Tomasso could have been a risky move. Still, Tomasso’s inherent talent shined through, pushing her above two other candidates who had years of experience in running skilled care communities.
“I interviewed the three candidates and I said, ‘Tiffany’s the one.’” Bacon says. “Even at that young age, you could see Tiffany’s star power. She was smart, she was fearless and she was very dedicated.”
After a few years working with Bacon and her team, Tomasso went back to school to earn a Master of Business Administration from Widener University in Chester, Penn. Not long after finishing graduate school, she accepted a position as director of planning and program development at nonprofit Presbyterian Homes of New Jersey — which would ultimately determine her career path in senior living.
“It was my first non-line job; it was a staff job. What I realized from that was, one, I’m very much a line person — I like leading, I like making decisions, and I like the buck stopping at me,” she says. “Two, I like working with mission-oriented organizations.”
Enter Sunrise Senior Living
“I left [Presbyterian Homes of New Jersey] and went to work for Sunrise, which to me was the best of both worlds: They were a for-profit entrepreneurial company but were very mission-oriented,” Tomasso says. “At 29 years old, that was something I could get really excited about.”
The Age of Sunrise
Despite telling Klaassen she would only work at Sunrise for a few years, Tomasso left in March 2010 with a nearly two-decade-long tenure. She held a variety of positions at Sunrise, including regional vice president, senior vice president of operations, executive vice president of operations, chief operating officer and executive vice president of European operations. But she gained much more from Sunrise than just job titles. From its mission to its model, Sunrise provided a foundation for what Tomasso wanted to see in her own company.
“Sunrise had such a strong culture. That was one of the things that attracted me to the company in 1993 — that focus on the culture and the mission to change the way America ages,” she says. “Recognizing how critical the company culture would be to Kensington’s success, one of our first challenges as partners was to define what we wanted that to be and to formulate a mission statement that would support it.”
After many conversations, Tomasso and her partners created a promise, rather than a mission: “To love and care for your family as we do our own.”
“It is personal, intimate and clearly conveys the relationship we want with our residents, family and team members,” she says.
As for Kensington’s business model, Tomasso set out to do what she loved and to fill a different niche. Throughout her career in senior living, she had been an integral part of start ups, which catered to under served communities and brought new concepts to the market. She also experienced firsthand at Sunrise what it was like to develop and roll out a new senior living product on a national scale.
“The most creative years at Sunrise were the years when we were creating, building and rolling out the [Victorian-style] mansion model,” she says. “What excited me was bringing a new concept and a new idea and a new community to a market — to seniors and their families — when that option wasn’t there.”
Now, at Kensington, Tomasso focuses her efforts on ground-up, purpose-built development, targeting uncharted markets with high barriers to entry, such as northern New Jersey and Westchester County in New York, Northern Virginia and the D.C. metro, and California locales, including Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“We’ve opted, for business reasons, to go into those markets because the demographic profile is very good and, secondly, there are such high barriers that it’s not as easy for competition to come in behind us,” Tomasso says.
Tomasso and her business partners plan to develop 10 to 12 communities in these markets, building one or two per year. Currently, Kensington has three communities open, and another three under contract and in the entitlement phase in Falls Church, Va; Montclair, N.J.; and Redondo Beach, Ca. Additionally, a community in Redwood City, Ca., is under construction with a planned opening of summer 2015.
While its community in Sierra Madre, Ca., is still in its lease-up stage, having opened just this past February, Kensington’s other open communities boast high occupancy levels. In 2014, the Kensington, Md., locale was 96% occupied, while the White Plains, N.Y., community was 99% occupied.
What’s Kensington’s secret to occupancy success?
“Both of these markets have a lot of supply, but we’ve filled a niche in each market that [other providers] weren’t filling,” Tomasso says.
Leaving Corporate America
Before launching Kensington with friends and former colleagues from Sunrise, Tomasso spent 15 months transitioning into the unknown. But if her past was any indication, she would have plenty of relationships to lean on.
“I was leaving corporate America, the steady paycheck and the proven model. At that time I reached out to people in the industry — Patricia Will, Brenda Bacon — and I met with friends of mine who were lenders in the space, to get a sense of what this was going to take,” she says.
Despite some of the challenges involved, Will says she encouraged Tomasso to launch her own company.
“The experience of moving from the industry colossus to a start up is humbling and scary. … But there is nothing as satisfying as creating a business from scratch and nurturing it through the challenges,” she says. “It may be tough, but you really get the opportunity to execute your vision.”
Will first met Tomasso after Sunrise acquired Marriott Senior Living in 2003 — when Belmont Village was still a young start up, itself.
“While we approached our industry from very different vantage points, she in a senior operating role at a large public company, me as the leader of a fully integrated start up, we clicked,” Will says. “We shared a vision for delivering quality of life to seniors and for continuous improvement in our industry.”
The two also worked together in 2008 when Will served as the chairperson of the American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA) and Tomasso served as the chair of ALFA. In December that year, Tomasso began transitioning out of her role at Sunrise as COO. But she was no stranger to transitions and had been planning for quite some time to own her own business.
“I really thought through the implications — what it would take personally and financially, and what the business model would look like.”
For five years now, that business model has been to do ground-up development in tough markets and self-fund them without seeking outside equity.
“There’s more financial risk doing it this way and it takes longer but at the end of the day it’s what we want to create,” she says. “We just want to control our destiny and what we’re doing, and really work for ourselves. Now, while we’re incubating the company, we want the flexibility to do that internally amongst ourselves.”
For Tomasso, the biggest opportunity and challenge moving forward isn’t tied to finances, but to something she’s been close to her since day one.
“The biggest opportunity for us and the biggest challenge that we face is to really stay true to the culture that we’re creating — this culture of entrepreneurship, of family — and to not lose sight of that as we grow,” she says.