A Mom-and-Pop Operation

Knowing these realities, Colson & Colson designed a system that caters to each resident's around-the-clock needs. The company provides food service, linen service, weekly housekeeping, scheduled transportation, and laundry service. The company also has managers and assistant managers on duty around the clock. Residents have a pull cord in their rooms to summon managers.

The key component in the system: hiring two sets of couples to live in and manage each facility. In most of the properties, one couple serves as the manager and another as the assistant manager. One manager is always on the property and should be able to assist a resident within minutes if a problem arises. "When it works, it's the most wonderful management tool in the world," he says. "If your grandfather is in our building and you call at 8 at night, you won't get a dishwasher or cop [who monitors the building after the property managers leave at 5 p.m. for most senior communities]. You'll get an assistant manager or manager."

Most of the couples are in their 50s, and many don't have business, customer service, or property management backgrounds. But that's not a problem: Holiday will train them. "Typically, it's someone in their second career," Colson says. "The guy has done well, and the woman wants to do something for humanity. From teachers to truck drivers to Ph.D.'s, we have a talent level that's incredible."

But the couples' age can be a detriment. The company usually has these couples for 10 to 15 years, until they hit retirement age themselves. With the 18 to 20 properties Colson & Colson opens every year and the couples that don't work out, managers constantly have to be recruited. Then there is the issue of having four people–two married couples–running a property, which leaves plenty of room for disagreements and infighting. "The couples may hate each other," Colson says.

Still, Colson says he is content with how 93 percent of his properties are run. He blames poor hiring decisions for ones that aren't well run. "I don't think our [on-site] managers are hiring well," he says. "Sometimes, I think they have an opening, just get scared, and take someone without the best résumé." To help managers hire better, the company offers hiring seminars.

Serving the Customer

The man once dubbed "Budget Bill" when it came to food service now sends about 80 of the more than 300 Holiday chefs to the Culinary Institute of America each year. Marilyn Taylor, who came on board six years ago to handle food service operations, changed his attitude. "We had good food but no flair," Colson says. "I always thought plain old food worked, but that wasn't good enough. Food is now one of my passions. What makes a person happier than good food?"

While good food may be offered at each of Colson's properties, assisted-living services aren't. Until four years ago, the company had assisted-living wings in a few properties but didn't devote an entire facility to assisted living because Colson didn't want to deal with the associated regulations and potential higher workers' compensation bills.

Then in 2000, the company started XL Management, under director Randall Corwin, to take over its assisted-living services. Now Corwin and his staff run 16 assisted-living properties. Although Colson & Colson wants XL to grow, it wants to go slowly. "When we started this, we all agreed we wanted to do it the right way," Corwin says. "When you are dealing with seniors and health issues, you don't want to go too fast."

Coming from an acquisitions background, though, the brothers underestimated the time and sensitivity needed to deal with human capital, says Mark. "All of a sudden we were 400 people, with 400 stories, and 400 circumstances. It's been a very big challenge."