Lauren Zimmerman-Cook is the CEO of AEC Living, a second-generation, family-owned group of independently operated senior living communities, a Medicare-approved rehabilitation agency, and home health agency located in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Here is her interview:
Tell us about your business
In addition to AEC Living, we have 5 other properties, including:
The Lodge, an assisted living community nestled in a unique and peaceful setting on the lagoon of Harbor Bay. The community’s 101 apartments provide a warm and familiar atmosphere where residents can maintain an independent and active lifestyle. It offers an extensive list of programs and activities, creating a stimulating social atmosphere where friendships develop and thrive.
Elders Inn is a licensed, 52-suite assisted living community that offers every resident the opportunity to live as independently as possible, accommodating assistive equipment, including wheelchairs, with short distances to dining, activities and enchanting courtyards. All resident areas are designed and furnished to create easy access that does not sacrifice pleasant amenities for functionality.
Phoenix Commons is a cooperative lifestyle community that offers members the opportunity to create a community together; one that reflects their values, needs and aspirations for those who are 55 and older. Phoenix Commons offers benefits derived from the caring relationships, common sense of purpose, and the mutual support that develops between a close-knit community of peers.
The AES Therapy & Fitness is a wellness, rehabilitation and fitness center has been specially designed for seniors. It is both a Medicare licensed Outpatient Rehabilitation Agency and a Fitness Center that provides affordable wellness and strengthening programs.
And AEC Home Care is a private duty, non-medical, in-home care agency serving the Bay Area. It offers a wide variety of personalized care solutions for seniors and their families.
Please tell us what being a business owner means to you and why you became an entrepreneur in the first place?
For me, it was all about assuming the reigns of the family business and growing it over time. It was also about growing up in the business and seeing both my mother and father live in it. The experience taught me the values of caring for seniors in a respectful and connected way. Additionally, I lived in the assisted living community and was greatly influenced by the residents who had such amazing stories and insight. Over time, I knew this was meant to be.
I began my career with AEC Living at The Lodge while in high school where I spent much of my time in the accounting department. When I went off to college, I continued to spend summers and winters helping out at the various care facilities that make up AEC Living. My work ranged from accounting to the instillation of the medical record program. After obtaining my Master’s degree in accounting from the University of Texas, Austin, I returned home to run the accounting program for the communities and did a stint as the Assistant Administrator at the Waters Edge Nursing Home. I later went to law school at Tulane University School of Law in New Orleans and received my LLM from New York University Law School, but not before helping to plan and open AES Therapy & Fitness, a Medicare approved therapy company.
In addition to working with my family first as CFO and now CEO for AEC Living, I have been helping with the formation of Elders Village, a 501(c)3 nonprofit focused on helping seniors stay independent through education and community, and serving on the Board of Directors for Alameda Meals on Wheels. Most recently, along with my brother Stephen, we have begun publishing Alameda Senior Magazine, an informative magazine focused on seniors in Alameda and the surrounding community.
I became an entrepreneur by default, learning and doing the job over time, and I wouldn’t trade what I’m doing for the world. Over the course of my time leading AEC Living, I’ve discovered there is no smooth path to becoming a CEO, much less taking over and transforming a longstanding family business to compete in the 21st century. As I took the reins of my second-generation multimillion-dollar business from my mother and father, and partnered with my brother, I realized the importance of striking a balance between my family life and my professional life, because family businesses can be fantastic and yet, very messy. If you’re stepping into the family business, congratulations.
What or who has been your greatest influence in business and why?
Considering I’m now leading the family business, I’d have to say my greatest business influences are my parents. I watched them grow AEC Living from infancy to where it is today. Aside from my degrees, they taught me everything I know about running a retirement community, but more than that, they taught me the importance of family and treating your employees like family.
From handwritten notes to simply remembering an employee’s name, a personal touch ensures that your organization’s values are always realized in every aspect of its operations. My mother Darnelle taught me the importance of treating employees like family early on—and this is especially true when family runs the business. As former head nurse, she built bridges between residents and staff and made sure they all felt heard and valued.
To me, the most fundamental value of any family is that everyone feels appreciated. We are extremely supportive of employees who may need time to regroup in order to bring their best selves to work. Burnout is a problem across many industries, but in the field of caregiving it’s particularly important to ensure that employees have the energy to adequately care for residents. I have learned that by treating employees like family, it’s very easy to want to provide them the very best care and support—and they seem to like working with our company, as a result.
What would you say is your greatest professional accomplishment to date?
Successfully navigating the minefields that come running a family business and having to manage the perceptions and expectations of other family members.
To avoid misunderstandings among family, I found that it was optimal to host transitional conversations on neutral ground. Going on a family retreat, free from distractions, can be a good way to make sure everyone is comfortable voicing their suggestions on the direction for the business. By having a direct say in succession-planning, family members will be likely to support your decisions down the road.
I found along the way that it is important to create allies early on and weed out those family members who may hinder growth and development. It’s not always easy but having honest conversations earlier on prevents damage to your long-term relationships as well as business functions. I’ve encouraged my family to become involved in activities that do not immediately affect AEC’s bottom line or outside philanthropic and community initiatives. I also gently but firmly restructured any stake those family members held in the business to reflect the move forward.
What’s the best advice you have received in business that you wish to pass on to our readers?
The best advice I received from my parents was to think of the job as not only to achieve success for our business, but to cultivate the next generation while you’re doing it. Sometimes it’s difficult to grasp the awesome responsibility required of my role within the organization. I’m literally responsible for 200 people’s lives every day. But it has been a privilege as well, and I take immense pride in taking care of the people I serve.
Family businesses are often entrenched in the local community, so my advice is to reach out to leaders in nearby business organizations as well as supportive peers to help your family business transition go smoothly.
Immerse yourself in business operations and the organizational culture as soon as possible. Make sure to empower managers and key-decision makers to ensure a smooth transition. Finally, make sure that all family members are on board in terms of your objectives for the firm and boundaries in terms of communication and management style. A successful succession maintains the integrity of your family’s legacy, maintains employee morale, and most importantly, prepares your company for its next phase of growth.
It is one thing to grow up in the family business and another to be truly qualified to take the reins. Whether you are a mom-and-pop shop or an emerging leader in a given field, it’s important to have a deep understanding of your business objectives as well as demonstrated skill in navigating your organization’s culture. Taking over your family’s business may be a daunting task, but establishing clear objectives early on—from onboarding to team-building—can save you huge expense and relationships in the long run.
What has been the most effective marketing initiatives or programs you have used to promote your business?
I’ve found that my marketing dollars are well spent on our public relations firm. Advertising is expensive, and it doesn’t always translate into results. By using a PR agency, I have a team of experts on call who know our space, are super creative and have great relationships with our local media outlets. We have been featured in local, national and trade media. They write and place numerous contributed articles, too. And as a result, we’ve seen a measurable increase in yearly revenue.
What one thing have you learned as a small business owner that has served you well over the years?
That I don’t know everything. Even though I may have grown up in and around the family business, I find that I’m always brushing up on specific skill sets. I personally have three degrees, in accounting, law, and gerontology, which provide me with the expertise to grow and expand the business sustainably. Even with all that education, the most important thing I had to do was embrace our family business’ objectives and make sure that my education was aligned with what the business required of me.
I rely on key experts within the company to complement my training and education—and hire well. I know what I am good at—and I know what each of the employees is good at, too. I know where to turn when I need expertise. I don’t just connect with managers, but those at the front lines of service as well to make sure I’m getting an accurate view of the company from all angles.
Studies show family-business successions tend to be more successful because there is more support in place to give incoming leaders assurance and resources. However, 70 percent of these businesses fail to last beyond one generation due to a disconnect between incoming leaders and their employees.
To avoid becoming a statistic, I shadow as many positions as possible to gain insight into our employee’s workflow. I get involved and connect with our employees to garner their support and trust. By meeting with staff and involving them in the transition, instead of maintaining business as-usual, I was able to refine their workflow as well as identify untapped skills that provide us real business value. I also advise building empathy for your employees’ concerns. Letting others have their say also mitigates potential turnover and other losses to your bottom line.
If you’re in the position of taking over the family business, remember that you are the new generation, and you can make the changes to improve your business so it can continue to grow and excel.
What do you do for fun/relaxation?
I like to travel and spend quality time with my husband and daughter.
What is Number One Business Goal you plan to accomplish over the next year?
I’d like to have Phoenix Commons at 100 percent occupancy, grow our home health agency and grow AES.
You want to write a book on:
“Managing family life AND the family business”
What’s the best way for the readers of WE Magazine for Women to connect with you (feel free to include the links to your social networks and websites)?
Readers can reach me at AEC Living (510) 748-9700 or connect with me on LinkedIn