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Cogir Starts New Chapter With Expansion, Evolution Underway in U.S., Canada

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It’s been a big year for senior living company Cogir.

The Montreal-based senior living operator and real estate company earlier this year made waves when it was announced as the operating partner for Welltower’s (NYSE: WELL) new operating platform spinning up in parts of Canada, which until recently was known as “Project Transformer” behind closed doors.

Now, CEO and Chief Investment Office Mathieu Duguay said there are opportunities in reach for the two companies to build a new kind of senior housing operating model together that could provide a blueprint for the future.

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As the company is embarking on new initiatives in Canada, it is also preparing to take on new opportunities south of the Canadian border, according to David Eskenazy, CEO of the company’s U.S.-based operations. To help the company grow and evolve, industry veteran Gottfried Ernst has left Discovery Senior Living to come aboard as COO.

All the while, Cogir is investing dollars in new technology and operational practices for the future, amounting to a new chapter for the company. Although the company’s operations in the U.S. and Canada are independent from one another, they do share best practices.

“Both sides are always looking to learn to be better, and I think we also have great teams, each of us separately,” Eskenazy said during the recent Senior Housing News BUILD conference in Orlando. “What we try to do is figure out how to get more out of our teams and new ideas.”

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Cogir’s ‘prototypes’ in Canada

Cogir currently has a few projects in the works, but perhaps its biggest focus right now is managing a portfolio of communities in Canada.

Welltower and Cogir first began working together about a decade ago, according to Duguay. That relationship evolved over the years, and today the real estate investment trust (REIT) is a partner in Cogir’s services division.

Under its newest arrangement with Welltower, Cogir is slated to manage about 75 properties in Canada, with Welltower serving a more “hands-off” strategic role under the arrangement, Duguay said. For example, Cogir has the liberty of choosing leadership for the new operating platform, among other things.

“They will do massive investments and [help build] operating systems which property managers or even small owners cannot afford,” Duguay said during the recent Senior Housing News BUILD conference in Orlando. “They bring their capital, and we’re going to build those future platforms.”

The REIT is overall endeavoring to “bring the senior housing industry toward the hotel industry,” he added.

In an interview with Senior Housing News earlier this year, Mitra shared his vision for a more aligned senior living industry where owners and operators work together in search of common goals, such as margin expansion and occupancy growth. He believes that operators must find ways to eliminate the inefficiencies of operations, and sees technology and data as a tool for getting there.

“We want to show the industry that if you start from the beginning with a fresh approach — nothing fancy, just common sense — you can get to a viable model,” he told Senior Housing News in October.

Piloting and using new tech to improve operations and create a better resident experience is also a goal of Cogir’s. For example, Duguay said he can see a future just a few years away when senior living operators collect passive data on residents, such as where they are spending most of their time while in their unit.

“Is it more the bathroom, the kitchen, the living room, the bedroom?” he said. “I think in a few years, we’ll use that data.”

That is why Cogir spent millions of dollars piloting and testing new technologies, including a project called “Avatar,” that Duguay described as a hybrid of a communication platform and a virtual healthcare clinic. The tool is 3D-animated and uses voice recognition to help monitor and care for residents, including through sensors that use radio frequencies to determine if residents have fallen in their units.

Cogir has rolled out the tech in just five communities so far, with a “final test” planned in January and a wider launch not long after that, Duguay said.

Overall, Cogir is cautious regarding launching new communities and products. In Canada the company has three communities under construction and another slated to break ground next year.

Cogir’s next “prototype” in Canada is one that will eschew care completely and potentially outsource dining to a restaurant, which would operate a fully functioning dining space in the community.

“We want to see how that model works in Montreal – we’re operating such models in Kelowna, British Columbia. It’s quite successful,” Duguay said.

New COO, More Growth on Tap for U.S.

As Cogir moves ahead with new projects in Canada, the company is also innovating and growing in the U.S.

Cogir’s U.S. operating arm merged with another operator, Cadence Living, in late 2022. As of late October, the consolidation of the two companies was almost complete, according to Eskenazy.

As of mid-November, the company had about 10 projects in the works: Three communities about to open, four that will open in 2024, and another three planned for a date down the road.

Challenges getting financing and cost overruns in construction have made new development hard to pencil out in 2023. But Eskenazy said the development slowdown served Cogir well in that it gave the operator time to ponder the future of both the company and the wider industry.

Duguay (left) and Eskenazy / Merz Photography for AMN

Cogir has spent the better part of the year readying various operational systems and hiring new leaders to take on new work. To that end, Eskenazy said the company’s near-term growth in the U.S. likely lies in third-party management agreements and more collaboration with current ownership partners like Welltower.

Among Cogir’s most recent hires is Ernst, who most recently was senior vice president of operations with Discovery Senior Living to become the COO of Cogir USA. He told SHN his immediate focus will lie in “building a successful team, making sure that we’re set up with operational platforms for growth,” he said.

“My main focus [will be] making sure we have the right people and a seat on the bus, to forge ahead,” he said.

Although what Cogir does in the U.S. and what it does in Canada are separate, the two teams will be able to learn from each other and potentially swap best practices in the months and years ahead.

For example, Cogir USA took a cue from the company’s operations in Canada when it decided to eliminate its vice president of sales role in favor of putting those dollars toward more operations staff. The company also took inspiration from the kind of social-forward amenities and services included in Cogir’s Canadian properties.

And looking ahead, Eskenazy is focused on finding more ways to flip the script on traditional senior housing and create communities that will appeal to younger older adults.

“We do have our heads of departments talking to each other – HR to HR, marketing to marketing, operations to operations – because we want to see others’ ideas,” Eskenazy said.

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