The CEO Series: Tom Grape, Benchmark Senior Living
This year marks Benchmark Senior Living’s 25th anniversary serving its residents—and CEO and founder Tom Grape’s 25th year leading the senior living organization. In fact, even before Grape founded Benchmark back in 1997, he decided to make senior living his life’s work.
Now, the Massachusetts-based company has more than 60 communities across seven states in the northeast. Additionally, it’s won over 200 local, regional and national awards for its care, programs, workplace, design, overall quality and more. Senior Living News interviewed Grape to hear his thoughts about Benchmark’s 25th anniversary, plethora of awards and future plans.
Senior Living News: When you first founded Benchmark 25 years ago, did you expect that it would get this big? How has the company changed and grown over the past 25 years?
Tom Grape: I saw the long-term potential for assisted living early on. Prior to founding Benchmark, I was active for a decade in not only developing and managing assisted living communities, but [also] helping build the foundation for the industry and how states govern what was a relatively new industry. I worked closely with Massachusetts, for example, in writing the legislation for assisted living, and was active in other states and at the federal level, including serving as a founding board member and past chairman of what is now Argentum. In founding Benchmark, it was my intention to help as many seniors and their families as possible, by providing compassionate care and wonderful experiences. We never aimed to be the biggest—just the best! I am thrilled with the ways in which we’ve grown to help serve tens of thousands of residents and their family members over the past 25 years.
In terms of how we’ve changed, Benchmark has become more structured and methodical in our approach. Going from one community to 64 requires the right systems and processes in place to provide the highest level of service and support to residents and their family members. The foundation of our success, however, is the culture we’ve created for our associates. They are the lifeblood of each community and separate us from the competition. As such, we’ve always worked hard to create a respectful and supportive workplace—one that provides growth opportunities and clear career paths. It’s one of the many reasons that Benchmark is fortunate to be an employer of choice in this industry, including being named in The Boston Globe’s Top Places to Work 15 times straight.
SLN: Benchmark’s won so many awards for independent living, assisted living, memory care, top workplace, etc. Why do you think that Benchmark’s won all these awards?
TG: The more than 200 awards that Benchmark has earned is a direct reflection of our associates, who continually strive to “Be the Benchmark”—one of our core values. They are the ones providing the exceptional care and programming that makes us unique. Sure, amenities and beautiful buildings are great, but if the experience that surrounds those things isn’t enjoyable, then it doesn’t work. That is what has set us apart all these years and earned us awards in everything from innovations in mind and memory care to architecture, culinary and best places to work.
SLN: I understand that you had a gala earlier this year, and different celebrations at each community. Can you talk about the gala and the communities’ celebrations?
TG: We hold a company gala every year—at least, when COVID doesn’t get in the way. We had a two-year hiatus, so the 2022 celebration—our 19th—was a very emotional night, as we once again gathered in person. Plus, we had this fantastic milestone of our 25th anniversary to celebrate. That said, every gala is a special night—one that associates have told me they will never forget. The events are held in landmark venues throughout the region, where we have the pleasure of hosting more than 300 people—including “service champion” associates from each community, their guests and colleagues. Eleven awards are given to individual frontline associates and communities. For many associates, this is their first formal event—complete with black tie and gowns. It is truly a magical evening filled with tender moments, laughter and happy tears. I should note that the anniversary celebrations extended throughout this year and into each community, where festive events reflecting each community’s culture and personality were held.
SLN: I’ve seen it mentioned a couple of times that your employees are “hired for heart and trained for skill.” Can you talk about that mindset and what it means to you?
TG: Skills can be learned, but values and character can’t be taught—it’s something that’s inherent. There are those who truly derive fulfillment from helping other people and have a natural calling toward service. When it comes to hiring, we look for those qualities as our foundation, and provide the training necessary to be successful in their careers. We also provide the support our associates need for continued fulfillment and professional growth. Benchmark has an excellent workforce development program: Benchmark University. We are also collaborating more and more with local colleges, as well as area high schools. More of this needs to happen, though.
SLN: What are Benchmark’s future plans?
TG: We’re excited to be expanding into new markets, broadening our reach in existing markets and continuing to reinvest in our current communities. In 2024, we’ll be expanding into the greater Washington, D.C. area with our first community in Alexandria, VA, and into New York’s Hudson Valley. Benchmark will remain strategic in our growth, focusing on the Boston to D.C. corridor and making investments that are aligned with our business plan. Throughout our history, success has been measured in quality, not quantity. That means continuously strengthening an infrastructure that is responsive to changing resident needs, and providing them and their families with the experiences that differentiate Benchmark from our competitors. In parallel, Benchmark must remain an employer of choice by staying competitive in wages and benefits, maintaining a culture that recognizes and supports our associates and providing them with the tools to grow professionally and find rewarding career paths within our organization.