Earlier this spring (a couple, three moths ago), I spoke at a marketing/P.R. conference and when my session was over, I sat and visited with a number of the attendees. My presentation was about value propositions and marketing; how to align your organization’s core economic value components within a marketplace, within a customer segment. Within the short additional time I spent with these attendees, I learned that a number of their organizations (CCRCs) were still struggling post the recent economic recession/slow-down. In fact, a number of them expressed that in their areas/region, recovery hadn’t yet begun.
Since that event and over the course of the past three months or so, I took notes on various client engagements, discussions and research reports on how the CCRC industry is fairing these days. Before I break down my conclusions/observations, some general prefacing comments about the industry are required. First, the CCRC industry is truly different by location and thus, it is expected that some areas/regions, etc. are faring better than others. Second, established projects have fared differently than newer projects; not always better but different. Third, the capital structure of a CCRC (how much debt and how the debt is structured in terms of rate, etc.) is a major component of how well or not well, certain projects are doing.
Below are my observations/conclusions of how the CCRC industry is doing mid-way through the third quarter of 2014. As stated, most of my observations are first-hand (client engagements)* followed by research and conversations with those that work in and around the industry. *(My firm and in many cases me specifically, does capital development/corporate development work within the industry including consultant’s reports when covenant defaults occur, strategic planning, turn-around consultation, M&A work, research for banks and investment banks, and economic, market, and financial feasibility studies. My comments do not reflect any specific client or series of clients or any engagement former or current).
- Late 2013/early 2014, Fitch issued their outlook on the CCRC industry as “stable”. Their conclusion was that improving occupancy rates, stable expenses due to the non-inflationary economy and access to low (historically) cost capital was favorable and thus, their rating. In general, I concur that where real estate rebounded (used inventory down, prices stable and climbing) and general economic conditions improved (unemployment falling, commercial activity rising, etc.), demand for units returned to near pre-recession levels and occupancy increased. However, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there remains pockets of weakness, some fairly profound, across the country. The regional/local outlook as opposed to the 20,000 foot national trend is more relevant to the success/struggle of any one project. For example, our clients in “rust belt, heavy manufacturing” areas in Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, West Virginia and New York would mount a stiff argument that the outlook is far from “stable”.
- Pricing has remained relatively flat and in many areas, occupancy gains have occurred as a result of discounting and promotions. I don’t see this changing any time soon as while demand is good in some areas, demand is tempered by recent events and still, a large amount of economic uncertainty. The wealth profile of the current demographic has shifted, especially on the income component.
- Approximately half of the projects that were in the development queue in 2008 evaporated or re-scaled. Only recently has the industry returned to a somewhat robust, new development outlook. Access to continued low-cost capital is a key element of fuel for this emerging (again) trend and even though rates ticked-up in November/December 2013, they have since stabilized. Rate however, is just one component. Demand for debt on the part of investors is still at low ebb. Suppressed yields have moved investors out of fixed rate, tax exempt debt en-masse. Deals still are competitive but nowhere close to pre-recession levels. Banks are only now starting to revisit commercial lending to the sector and again, not with the same fervor as pre-2008. The overall number of outlets has declined and the debt to equity levels are still conservative (70/30). Valuations remain a bit low as comps are still weighted by one-off deals, distress deals and work-outs and bankruptcies. Book remains the valuation arbiter and as such, cap levels remain in a narrow range. Overall, the capital outlook is fair but caution and uncertainty remain prevalent and thus, valuations are flat and good deals get done but marginal deals still struggle.
- Rising occupancy and improving economic conditions have slowed defaults and tempered bankruptcies but not eliminated them. Again, certain projects in improving economies have rebounded though others in regions/markets of slow to no-recovery languish. Though average occupancy has once again moved into the low ninetieth percentile across the industry, I still see projects below this level on a regular basis and some, profoundly below. In virtually all instances when I encounter low occupancy, two elements are present. First, the market area is struggling economically – real estate, jobs, infrastructure, etc. Second, the project itself is really viable or relevant. More on this latter point toward the end.
- Projects that have done well, rebounded, stayed vibrant exhibit the following key elements, aside from being in a market area that isn’t still declining or not recovering. First, they were not overly leveraged. Second, they had/have investments and cash reserves. Third, they didn’t defer maintenance to any great extent. Fourth, they stayed relatively lean on the expense side. Fifth, they have diversified revenue streams/bases. Sixth, their pricing was market balanced and actuarially sound. Finally, their management was forward-thinking and had plans in place to address the changing environment. They have a good senses of the economic and market conditions impacting their organization and they plan and address these conditions fluidly.
- Projects that haven’t fared well exhibit the opposite characteristics from above and/or, they simply exist in market areas that haven’t rebounded. The most common element of struggling projects that I see is ineffective senior management and governance. They simply never moved beyond a paradigm that was shifting, shifted and won’t ever return. They aren’t relevant and haven’t learned or developed the current competencies required to compete in a different economic and market environment. For many, the writing is on the wall and for some, revival is possible but a complete turn-around is required.
What I have concluded over the last few months is that industry success is a function today of five components;
- Being in a market area that is economically stable and modestly improving. Real estate fluidity and price stability is important but equally important is the general economic outlook, government infrastructure and commercial economy. Projects that aren’t in this type of environment won’t, no matter what they do, improve beyond a point of mere survival (thriving just isn’t possible).
- Marketing and pricing today require a completely different set of competencies and strategies to achieve success. Pricing must be strategic and financially validated and demonstrative of a clear value proposition. No longer can a project succeed on guessing, market comparables and eyeballing what “management thinks” the budget will support. Marketing is different as well. This is no longer a real estate driven sale and the economic axiom of elastic demand applies. CCRCs have a very elastic demand curve and such, pricing and marketing must unite in the creation and communication of the economic value proposition. More leads than ever are required to generate sales and build and hold, market share. Traditional print and media ads won’t get it done.
- A highly diverse revenue stream/platform (multiple service lines) such that liquidity and debt service covenants can comfortably be made within normative occupancy levels (90th percentile or lower is best). If this is the case, the CCRC also tends to be more market competitive and capable of self-referral and internal market development. In other words, it has multiple channels for referral development.
- Strong, capable management/leadership that isn’t necessarily, tied to the industry conventional wisdom. They are adept at planning, forecasting, and keeping operations structured on high-quality, efficient service delivery. They know the market, know their place in it, know the economic outlooks and demand elements and adjust their products accordingly.
- A relevant physical plant environment for the market. A project doesn’t have to be new and/or the most glitzy. It does have to fit the market however and be current – minimal to no deferred maintenance. Economic value proposition are about proper product value, inclusive of warranty, for the customer to evaluate the tangible and intangible relevance. The physical real estate elements are a major component of the proposition and properly positioned within the overall project, priced and communicated correctly, the prospects for sales and success are high.