When the Business Needs a Makeover

Last Updated Jan 24, 2011 6:36 PM EST

By Dennis DiGloria, CEO, Atlantic Shores Nursing & Rehab Center, Melbourne, Fla.
When I became CEO of Atlantic Shores Nursing & Rehab Center in January 2008, the company was in trouble. Occupancy was at 80%, revenue was down, the center was falling into disrepair, and few people in the area seemed to know the company even existed. It was up to me -- a newcomer to the area and the company -- to turn the situation around. My task was twofold: expand the center's presence in the local community, and transform the facility itself.

Making a name for ourselves
Because revenue was weak, I couldn't build up our presence just by dumping money into advertising. I had to network, one person at a time.

I joined the Space Coast Entrepreneur Society and the Rotary Club. I attended networking events for local business owners and physicians, and held networking events at my own company. As I continued to meet people, word spread. I began getting referrals from other entrepreneurs who had relatives or friends needing rehabilitation or long-term care.

But it's not about going out and networking with just anyone. It's about figuring out who your business comes from and targeting those people. Perhaps the most important demographic I got to know was physicians. They're the biggest source of referrals in my industry, but because I'm not a physician and can't join a physician group, I had to be more creative about networking in that profession.

Whenever we get a new patient, we check hospital records for the physician that treated him or her. More often than not, it's that doctor who referred his patient to us. We make an effort to develop relationships with those doctors, starting with a phone call to thank them and discuss our facility. Over time, we have developed partnerships with physicians and physician groups. That's where a large portion of our business comes from now.

Finally, I got to know the competition. I took tours of other assisted-living facilities, gathering information about what worked and didn't work about their organizations. When I went to renovate our facility, that's where I got a lot of my ideas.

Focusing on appearances
Getting referrals and spreading the word about our business was only the first step. Once an individual or a family is referred to us, they usually tour the building. Facilities like ours are commonly referred to as nursing homes, and there's a stigma attached to that term. People often think of us as the place where their loved ones go to die. They think of our industry as sterile, cold, sometimes even cheap -- bare walls, bland food, crumbling furniture.

The truth is, when I arrived at my company, it had great nursing care and a great staff, but the building wasn't very welcoming. It felt uncared for. The furniture was old and falling apart, and door hinges creaked. The dining room looked like a high school cafeteria. It was not the impression I wanted to give to potential patients and their families.

My first order of business was renovating the dining hall to make it more open and spacious. I hung paintings on the wall and invested in window treatments. I eliminated tray service and began serving food from steam tables.

I transformed one unused room into a resident library, and a second into a special events room. I installed wireless Internet service throughout the building. I bought all new furniture and upgraded the interior furnishings. Most of my competitors lacked attention to detail, so these moves set my facility apart.

The changes paid off
The renovations cost about $10,000. Many of the staff initially thought it might be a waste of resources, but I was convinced that focusing on the details would save our business. After the staff saw the changes in real life, they understood my decision: It transformed our residents' entire living experience.

Over the last two years, our occupancy rate has increased from 80% to 97%, and our revenue has increased by 30% to $10 million. Next year we project another jump to $12 million. The personal touch has made all the difference.

-- As told to Harper Willis

Dennis DiGloria has worked as a nursing home administrator for 25 years.