For Aegis Living CEO Dwayne Clark, it was no short trip from his humble beginnings to founding and running an expansive long-term care business. Clark grew up in a single-parent household, watching his mother struggling to get by. Yet she instilled in him a desire to succeed.
Clark built his business for more than 25 years with the conviction that employees hold the key to an organization’s success. And that should be acknowledged and celebrated by the company and its people. Long-Term Living Executive Editor Sandra Hoban spoke with Clark about this employee-focused company and how it creates and maintains this philosophy.
HOW DID YOU PRESENT THE NOTION OF AN EMPLOYEE-FOCUSED BUSINESS TO PROSPECTIVE INVESTORS?
In 1997, when my partner and I were looking for investors, I told them about the incredible corporate culture we planned to have as an employee-centric company. Well, my partner told me that investors didn’t care about that but rather on how they would make money. But my answer to him was that this is how we would build a successful and, yes, profitable company.
Even before the company had its first employee, I talked to the folks at Starbucks and Nordstrom to find out how they developed their corporate cultures. I knew that retention is important because turnover is not only costly, it impacts the customer experience and when that dramatically improves, you can charge more money than your competitors who don’t offer that positive experience.
HOW DID YOU IMPLEMENT THIS EMPLOYEE FOCUS?
Aegis Living not only provides the “hard” benefits, such as health insurance, vacation time, 401k and the like, but we also provide “soft” benefits—Aegis Extras. We tell each employee and every executive that they have a benefits responsibility too. They are challenged to ask every vendor or business owner to see whether there is an additional employee benefit we might deliver. For example, employees can purchase food from our food supplier at wholesale cost. Shirts can be laundered at a local drycleaners for $.90 each. A meal for four to take home to the family is available for five dollars or employees can receive free checking from the bank we do business with.
While that might seem like small savings, each perk that an employee takes advantage of adds up over time. We keep our eyes open for new values as needs change and upgrade these offers regularly.
IS ALL THAT ENOUGH TO KEEP EMPLOYEES FROM LOOKING FOR GREENER PASTURES?
Not only do we look for values to offer, we value each employee. I want everyone who works here to be passionate about something—their jobs, their dreams, their goals. Each year, Aegis Living holds a meeting called EPIC. This is not a rah-rah event nor is it about the company. EPIC is an inspirational, life-changing experience for attendees, many of whom have had emotional breakthroughs.
I open the session telling people, “If you’re not living the most passionate, profitable life you can lead in this company, you need to leave. People need to find happiness, and I will give you every resource you need, short of money.” To those who have expressed their desires, we’ve turned them on to people in a particular industry that interests them, provided business plans and the like.
Actually, that speech came back to bite me when three senior executives left the company. But if I am true to my beliefs, I celebrate the fact that they left. I’m happy for them. Our people know that they are in a safe place in a safe company and they can still follow their dreams even if the path leads away from Aegis Living.
As a company, our turnover was 38% last year, well below the industry average of 128%. Our employees are our best advertisement for who we are as a company. We even hold receptions for our employees to introduce potential candidates to the Aegis team. These are the people they’ll work with and it’s their responsibility to bring in future coworkers.
HOW HAVE THE EPIC MEETINGS BENEFITTED THE COMPANY AND THE INDIVIDUAL?
While every employee cannot attend the main event, attendees are charged with taking the lessons, the inspiration and the motivation back to their coworkers. They are able to conduct mini-meetings at the facility level, because all the materials and videos used are available. It is up to the leader to decide how to pass this information along. Some have held off-site meetings, while others spread the discussions over a number of days. It’s up to the individual.
Susan Sarandon was our guest speaker this year. She is involved with a charity, Somaly Mam, which is named after a Cambodian woman who grew up as a sex slave and helped other girls escape that fate. These girls were not just teenagers, some were as young as five years old. As a result of Sarandon’s presentation, 42 staff members signed up to go to work with the group in Cambodia. This has given us a higher purpose as a company.
YOUR COMPANY CONTINUES TO GROW. WHAT ARE THE FUTURE PLANS FOR EXPANSION?
Aegis Living provides independent living, assisted living and memory care in key cities on the West Coast and we are focused on growth in these sectors. In addition, we operate the country’s first Chinese assisted living in San Francisco and plan to open another soon. This is a burgeoning market because Chinese-Americans don’t stay home to care for aging parents as they did 20 or 30 years ago.