John Erickson: Full speed ahead

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John Erickson
John Erickson
Thousands of retired, relatively healthy Americans are dying. And the killer is the single-family home, John Erickson says matter-of-factly. 

“That place will take you down,” says the high-octane, affable chairman and CEO of Erickson Retirement Communities. “You need to get yourself into a social, service and support environment that is active, vibrant and creates dignity.”

The belief in socialization rests at the heart of Erickson's 25-year-old experiment, which has evolved into one of the largest developers of continuing care retirement communities in the country.

His 18 sprawling campuses — which have creature-comfort amenities, as well as medical centers staffed by Erickson physicians, a sophisticated health records system and a unique 100% refundable deposit policy — have caught the attention of the long-term care and business communities.

So has Erickson, who started it all. The Wall Street Journal in February included him among 12 people who are changing retirement. 

“John is one of the most extraordinary individuals that the industry has ever had,” believes Tony Mullen, a senior fellow with the National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing & Care Industry, which last year awarded Erickson its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award.

The breadth of his vision sets Erickson apart, admirers say. Besides pioneering affordable housing for middle-income retirees, he recently has embarked on such ventures as Retirement Living TV (RLTV), a network dedicated to informing and involving those 55 and older. 

He also launched The Erickson School in 2004, a fast growing endeavor that offers degree programs in the business, management and public policy of aging.

“John is by far the most unusual visionary I have ever known,” says Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which houses the school. “What makes him particularly special and unique is he can go from the vision or the idea to reality.”  

Erickson first struck on the idea of retirement campuses while developing leisure communities in Florida. After coming across a 100-acre seminary college in Charlestown, MD, he decided to renovate it into apartments and create a “giant indoor university-type environment.” 

Today, his communities comprise a total of 21,000 residents and 2,000 employees. Fortune magazine ranked the company this year among “The 100 Best Companies to Work For.”

Much of Erickson's drive can be traced to his roots in Chattanooga, TN. He is the fourth of 14 children (11 boys and three girls).

“That's where I got my good competitive spirit,” he says, recalling competing with his siblings in everything from badminton to grades. 

His mother, who didn't finish college until after her children were grown, pushed them to succeed. The children stayed in line and after 14 college graduations, set a record in “The Guinness Book of Records” for the most college educations in one family, according to Erickson.  

He spent seven years in seminary school before breaking into the business world. He is married with four college-educated children, all of whom currently work for the company. 

While Erickson is viewed as a titan of the industry, he keeps a low-profile elsewhere. Brad Knight, who is president of RLTV, met Erickson a few years ago after buying Erickson's 90-foot yacht. He says he found out about Erickson's profession only after about 18 months. 

“I knew him as a person who builds some nice boats,” says Knight, who was hired despite a lack of experience in television. 

Erickson, 64, says he is approaching his “freedom years” and plans to do a lot of sailing himself, including a summer on the Mediterranean.

He also wants to devote time to RLTV and The Erickson School. He will help put a face to the concept of improving with age – even though that may defy common thinking in the United States.

“No one is speaking positively about aging,” he says. “The minute a person retires, they give up their title and cap their income, and they can't be be worth anything.”

Not if Erickson has anything to do with it. 

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Resume

1965 
Receives bachelor's degree in philosophy from the former Saint Bernard College, a Benedictine school in Cullman, AL 

1968
Earns master's degree in education from Catholic University

1968
Works as computer systems analyst for RCA 

1972
Develops leisure communities in Florida 

1983
Founds Erickson Retirement Communities

2004
Donates $5 million to start The Erickson School at the University of Maryland 

2006
Starts Retirement Living TV 
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