Thomas Wellner on Corporate Culture as Competitive Advantage

Thomas Wellner speaks on Corporate Culture as Competitive Advantage at a recent #EDGEtalks event. 

About Thomas Wellner

Thomas Wellner is President and CEO of Revera, a leading owner, operator and investor in the senior living sector. Since joining Revera in early 2014, Mr. Wellner has led the organization through transformational change, developing the company’s strategic direction to grow, innovate and lead in the sector. He has worked with a number of strategic partners in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. to grow Revera’s portfolio to more than 500 properties internationally.

Mr. Wellner has extensive global experience in biotech, pharmaceuticals and health care services, previously leading a number of organizations including LifeLabs, CML HealthCare and Therapure Biopharma. He began his career at Eli Lilly where he held a variety of global operational and leadership roles.

Mr. Wellner holds an Honours Bachelor of Science degree in Life Sciences from Queen’s University and has completed the ICD Directors Education Program at Rotman School of Management as well as executive education through Harvard Business School. He sits on the Boards of a number of public and private companies.

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Seeing as how I had been spending the last three years at Revera, what we do at Revera when I looked at it as a business moving forward, seniors housing account? Wow! I’m in the dynamic lab business running a public company! What the heck do I want to do with seniors housing and old people? Ew! But what we’ve been able to do is, we’re trying to make seniors sexy and supporting and caring and working with seniors to be very interested and part of our strategy. We worked, actually, with David and his team early on to really define strategy culture for us and this has been very important for our strategy around growing our core operating platforms.

We’ve done a lot of divestment to get back to the core of what we do well, which is care and serve seniors in our residences that pay privately to get a better experience for their ageing process. And so that’s where our focus has been and that’s why we have in Canada the US and in the UK, the cultural journey we have: growth, innovation and leadership.

I want to talk a little about innovation and leadership. What’s really helpful in our business is, we do a lot of passionate (audio muted) about entrepreneurs and technology. The growth platform David mentioned, we have done a lot of acquisition, singular acquisitions as well as large, bringing 30 communities into a business. There’s a lot of learning there in cultural aspects, which I’m sure we can talk about in the dialogue, but what I wanted to talk about was innovation and give you a thought on innovation.

Innovation and explaining and making what we do is, we set up an innovators and ageing program. We’ve basically been able to bring Revera’s other CEO, Hazel McCallion, on board.  She’s our chief elder officer. We’ve brought in people like a guy named Bill Jarvis, who is a gentleman, who is at one of our long-term care homes in Toronto; he helps us screen innovations. We basically look at any innovation that can help the senior, the family or the front-line staff, so what we do is screen – we probably screen about 200 different technologies that can make the senior experience more impactful. It’s focused, usually, on preventing falls, urinary incontinence, communication, wounds etc.

We’ve done a lot of work where we have ideas going up from the front line, we’ve done Dragons Den, and we’ve made investments into some of these companies so that they can scale others across our network of 50,000 seniors, and you wouldn’t believe it but we’ve had a group that came up with a food mold!

If you think of food and seniors, sometimes you have to have it whizzed up because you need support on how you eat it or you might choke you or something. We had front-line staff who were whizzing these things up whether it chicken, fish or potatoes or whatever. It all looked like a meatball and so we had one of our staff and one (innovator) come up with a mold that, basically, if you were whizzing something up it would look like a carrot a potato or whatever. It could be a fish. These simple molds that really engaged the team. They came, they presented, they were proud, and it really has changed the engagement.

Those are a couple of examples. I could go on and I’ve been given seven minutes, so I just wanted to highlight a couple of things so far. The three things I would say is: number one: treat the front-line staff the way you would expect to be treated yourself and that will help with engagement. We did a lot of work and still do work at Revera on staff rooms, basic things like making sure the staff rooms have windows and are painted. Making sure the chairs aren’t falling apart. That was the same thing at CLM; the staff rooms were awful and we did a whole program to just do simple things.

Think about respect. Think about it especially in large healthcare businesses. Simplify processes – we spent a lot of time at CLM (on simplification) and continue to do so at Revera. The saying is: if you can’t have your processes simplified for diverse networks, people are not going to be able to understand what it is you want them to do and follow through. For us, that’s a big thing.

The third thing is values. Our values at Revera are respect, integrity, excellence and compassion. It’s really fascinating, culturally. You have to make sure people understand what each of those words means. They’re just words, but you need to communicate them and over and over in different ways and different behaviours and walk the walk and talk the talk.

The fourth thing I would say, just to close off, is fear of change.  I drive the team absolutely berserk!  I’m a pleasure to work with, but you also have to, as a leader, remember that not everybody processes change the same way you do and I’ve learned a lot about that.