Changemakers: Justin Dickinson, Co-Founder, Evolve Senior Living

Changemakers: Justin Dickinson, Co-Founder, Evolve Senior Living

Changemaker in operational technology

Justin Dickinson is co-founder of Evolve Senior Living, an operator that launched in 2023. As a Changemaker, he strives to elevate the quality of care for senior housing operators. Dickinson has over 10 years of experience in health care and said he enjoys positively impacting the lives of his residents.

In this Changemakers interview, Dickinson discusses the importance of value-based care, data visibility, and how the capital market is the biggest driver of change in the senior living industry — among other change-making themes.

How have you changed as a leader since starting in the industry?

I started in 2009 at Health Care REIT before it was Welltower. Over the course of my career, I’ve sat in many seats as an owner, an investor, a developer, an asset manager, a technologist, and an operator. I’ve developed a pretty well-rounded view of the sector throughout my career. Over the course of time, the realization that I’ve come to is that in order for the plans that the investors put forth to really materialize, the operations are the key. Otherwise, a business plan is worth the value of the paper that it’s written on, which is nothing.

I think the main change that I’ve gone through my career is really focusing more on operations. That’s what led to the creation of Evolve Senior Living, which is the operating company where I sit today.

Do you see yourself as a Changemaker? Are you always excited to drive change?

Definitely. I think that the industry, depending on who you have spoken with or what your opinion is, was really founded in the early to mid-90s in terms of private pay, AL, and memory care. Over the course of time, the industry has shifted from more of a hospitality model to more of an acuity-driven model. As that shift has happened, there’s been a lot of change as it relates to data, technology, the operations, and the investment structure. I think that that change will continue to happen in what the future looks like in terms of hospitality or the acuity model is to be determined.

I believe that is going to be more of a care-driven model. From my perspective, being a new operator, and a younger individual in the sector, I do view myself as a change agent, having the ability to look at some of these problems with a fresh set of eyes and with fresh perspective. I think it’ll be interesting as regulatory pressures persist and the model changes to continue to look at things through a new lens.

In what area or areas do you think that you’re a Changemaker?

I would say that our area of focus is operational technology. Historically, the industry or the seniors housing model has been viewed as a hotel, a hospital, and a restaurant, three businesses in one. As a result, many point solutions have developed to support one of those three businesses. As we move forward and think about the best ways to aggregate data, roll that up, and create more consistent visibility from our owners to our operators and other stakeholders in the business, there’s a lot of opportunity in that space.

What we’ve been focusing on is building the company around improving data visibility and removing the veil that exists between the owner and the operator to improve operations, asset management, property values, and, ultimately, resident experience. The change that I’m focused on is improving the operational technology.

Can you specifically talk about a change that you’ve made in that area, operational technology, and why you made that change?

I would say that the partners we’ve selected for our various point solutions, we’ve done very strategically to ensure that they have the ability and capability to share the data as we deem fit. We’ve very intentionally designed the architecture of our data system. We’ve also developed our Evolve intelligence platform, which is our in-house business intelligence tool that we share and use with our owners to improve visibility and operations and make the conversations more specific about issues as opposed to broad.

As you look across the senior living industry, what are some ways that you think it needs to change in the next five years?

I think that the industry needs to do a better job of establishing its value within the broader U.S. healthcare system. We really haven’t been a player within the U.S. healthcare system as it exists today. We’ve been an ancillary adjunct aspect to it. With the advent of more clear and consistent data, I think we can make the case that we do add significant value and therefore should be recognized as a key player within the U.S. healthcare system.

That is the conversation that regulators are starting to see with some of this federal pressure and mandates. People are starting to see that, but we as an industry need to prove that point with data, hopefully in the next five years.

Given where you think it needs to go, do you think that the industry is changing fast enough to keep up with the times?

Change is happening faster now than it ever has. This change is being driven by some of the regulatory pressures I mentioned and external capital market pressures. You’re seeing consolidation abound.

We went through the change curve that we saw on the data side through the ’90s and early 2000s. 2005 through late 2020 was the advent of the [Software as a Service] model. SaaS companies came about within our space and started to really make a move.

I think now we’re starting to see AI make a big play, and I’ll layer that onto the SaaS model. The change curve on the data size is reaching a new era, which will further expedite change. Change is happening quickly, and stakeholders need to be prepared for that.

Can you talk about a time when you tried to execute a change and things didn’t go according to plan? How did you pivot, and what did you learn as a leader?

I was brought in to lead Waterton’s Pathway to Living company, and the charge was to turn the company around from a performance perspective and reposition it for growth. For reasons outside of my control, the decision was made to exit the sector. Then subsequently with Anthology, the owner really established developer investors in the space, but not as familiar with the senior living space.

Working through that change management was very difficult. Candidly, one of the main reasons why Andrew and I decided to start Evolve Senior Living is out of the fact that we felt like having been experts in the space and sat in all the seats that I mentioned, we could add value in ways that others couldn’t. Those are two very personal examples for me.

Changemakers tend to be risk takers. Do you agree with that statement? How would you describe your own appetite for risk?

I think anyone who ventures into the unknown to explore bounds of change is taking some degree of risk. I come from a family of entrepreneurs successful in their own right, but not in senior living. I do think there’s risk. I think people do their best to mitigate that.

From my perspective, my experience in the sector is the largest mitigator of risk, but on the data side, making connections, building infrastructure and platforms, and pushing the conversation publicly in the direction of data transparency and interoperability, is certainly something I’m passionate about.

Can you talk about how you see the need for diversity, equity, and inclusion, and what you’re doing to drive change in that regard?

For any business to create value and participate in today’s markets, you need as diverse a perspective as possible. The industry has struggled with this over the years at the leadership corporate level, but this is something that Evolve has specifically focused on. As we’re building out our teams and thinking about our growth at a regional and a corporate level, engaging diverse opinions, values, and perspectives is top of our list.

Use a movie, book, or TV show title to describe the year ahead for the senior living industry in 2024.

“Traction” by Gino Wickman.

The book outlines an operating model for companies, which is called [the entrepreneurial operating system]. I think it’s applicable to the future, not only because the name is apropos in terms of the industry gaining traction and moving forward in a positive way, but also, the book offers a structure and a framework for companies to follow to improve transparency, accountability and communication, which is what the industry needs in order to succeed.

Choose one artist, scientist, thinker, engineer, entrepreneur, or other person living or dead to help change the senior living industry for the better. In only a few words, who are you choosing and why are you choosing them?

Steve Jobs, because he’s a revolutionary thinker and he helped to reimagine his sector. We can use that type of insight in ours from a technological perspective.

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