Ecumen got ahead of change

  • Article by: JIM BUCHTA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 4, 2014 - 6:42 PM

Senior housing used to be another name for skilled nursing homes. Ecumen has helped lead the industry in a new direction.

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Steve Ordahl, senior vice president of Ecumen, is retiring after helping to move the company from nursing homes to new types of senior housing.

Photo: ELIZABETH FLORES • Star Tribune file photo,

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When Steve Ordahl took the helm as senior vice president of business development in 2003 for a Shoreview-based nonprofit called the Board of Social Ministry, the company had made a name for itself by operating nursing homes statewide.

Ordahl’s mission was to guide the company through what would eventually become the largest new-construction expansion in the nonprofit’s 151-year history by creating a senior housing development business that would focus on providing a broader range of housing options for seniors.

Since his hiring, the company was renamed Ecumen — the Greek word for “home” — to reflect a shift toward building senior housing that feels less institutional and more like home. The company has developed nearly 1,700 rental housing units in a variety of independent living, assisted living and memory care communities from Apple Valley to Worthington, making it one of the country’s top 20 nonprofit senior housing and service companies.

Ordahl, who is retiring on Jan. 15, also helped launch a development business that helps other companies and investors develop and build housing across the country. Here are his insights into how senior housing development has changed in the past decade, and what he sees ahead for the marketplace.

Q: How has senior housing changed over the years?

A: For me, one of the most significant changes has been the emergence of options to the traditional “skilled nursing facility.” Market-rate housing, comprised of independent, assisted living and memory care, have really established themselves for a variety of reasons. Larger units, amenity-rich communities and upgraded furniture and fixtures have really resonated with our customers and their families.

The development of technologies that allow people to age in place — be it their home on Maple Street in which they have raised their family, or their senior apartment with a killer view of Lake Superior — have provided options for people to live their lives where they want to be.

Q: Ten years ago, the name “Ecumen” didn’t exist, and the company didn’t operate a senior housing development business. What triggered the new focus?

A: We owned or managed many nursing homes and operated about 2,500 beds. About 80 percent of corporate revenue flowed from those skilled nursing beds and most of the rest came from subsidized housing and some management fees.

The board of directors had just hired Kathryn Roberts to be the company’s new president and CEO. It realized that the business model in effect at that time was unsustainable and challenged her to reinvent the company. We knew we had to do things differently and developed a strategic vision which would dramatically reduce the proportion of revenue flowing from the skilled nursing sector, and grow revenues from higher-margin business lines such as market-rate housing, consulting and development.

Q: Did you attain that vision?

A: We reinvented the company, diversified our business and have become much less reliant on nursing home revenue. In the 10 intervening years we have seen nursing home revenue fall to less than half of our corporate revenue while growing the company about 50 percent.

Q: You’ve had a pretty diverse career, including almost 30 years in the Army, 12 years in printing and publishing and another dozen years in the zoo and aquarium business. What experiences made you the right person to implement this new model?

A: I guess you could say that I am adept at identifying problems/issues/opportunities, their root causes and then developing and executing actions to deal with them. I have studied leadership a great deal and have found that a good leader can make a world of difference in most any enterprise. Kathryn Roberts and I have known each other and have worked together off and on since the early 1980s. We trust each other implicitly. This relationship, and the underlying trust, have been an important ingredient to our success these past 10 years.

Q: You presided over the largest new-construction expansion in the nonprofit’s 151-year history. Why was it so successful?

A: Timing is extremely important. The senior housing market was ready for change. I mean, honestly, who wants to live in a nursing home if you can find another option? We decided that there needed to be other options and pursued the market-rate housing segment vigorously.

Of course, even the greatest vision requires solid execution if it is to be successful. At ­Ecumen we place great emphasis in understanding our would-be market.

Q: What big changes do you expect in the senior housing world?

A: Aging is a global phenomenon. Many countries in the world are beginning to confront the need for age-friendly communities and do something about it. I think that multigenerational age-friendly living will soon be upon us. Communities that emphasize and provide opportunities for infrastructure, technology, lifelong learning, wellness/fitness, care coordination, service integration and social interface will be ahead of the game.

Q: Why was it time for you to retire?

A: I love Ecumen. These past 10-plus years have never felt like work for me. On the contrary, they give me great joy. But leaving now feels right to me. We have done a good job of succession planning and I believe it is time to unleash folks with new ideas. My wife and I have purchased a home in the Tucson area and we love it there. We want to explore the beautiful Southwest and learn more about its culture and geology. The timing seems to work for us. Besides, Ecumen has graciously allowed me to stay on in a limited consulting role for the next year. I look forward to that.

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376

  • Age: 67

    Family: Wife, two kids and one granddaughter.

    Hometown: I grew up in Duluth.

    Education: A degree in political science from the University of Minnesota. Then I did active service in Germany, where I met my wife.

    Mentors? I’ve had several, including an old colonel, who said the essence of leadership is this: Delegate, but then check and make sure that they are doing what needs to be done. I’ve never, ever, forgotten that.

    Post-retirement plans: I have worked out a deal where I will consult for Ecumen, but I plan to do less, not more. And I want to see if I can get my [golf] handicap a little lower.

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