Editor’s note: As part of the 40th anniversary of McKnight’s, McKnight’s Senior Living and McKnight’s Long-Term Care News are recognizing 40 notable newsmakers. Each week, the brands will highlight a new, high-profile leader from the past four decades. Previously published installments of the series are posted here.
With a background including leadership roles at the National Restaurant Association and America’s Health Insurance Plans, James Balda may not have been the most obvious choice to lead an association representing operators of independent living, assisted living, memory care and continuing care retirement communities.
But when he became president and CEO of Argentum, then known as the Assisted Living Federation of America, in early 2015, he brought with him “fresh eyes,” Argentum Chief Operating Officer Maribeth Bersani said.
“When he first started as CEO, he would ask a simple question about why we were doing something a certain way, and it made us all think about how to answer,” she said. “If the answer was ‘because we have always done it that way,’ it became obvious that maybe it was time for a different approach.”
And it turned out that senior living and the restaurant industries had many similarities, Bersani said. “James had great experience in crisis management in the restaurant world that was very helpful for senior living,” she said.
Brandywine Living President and CEO Brenda Bacon, who chaired the organization’s board when Balda was named to the roles, said certain traits stood out five years ago.
“James may be newer to seniors housing, but his presence, experience and intelligence struck us immediately as attributes that would bring great value to our members,” she said. The board also found Balda’s experience working in “complicated” industries with public and private operators of varying sizes “impressive,” she added.
Over time, the importance of those qualities has been confirmed, Bacon said.
“It is sometimes a thankless job as you navigate many different opinions from people who are used to being leaders of their organizations,” she said. “James listens, processes, figures out the next steps and never, ever, breaks confidences. This leads all of us to trust him in expressing our concerns and viewpoints for the good of the senior living industry.”
Recently, many of the industry’s concerns and viewpoints needing expression have involved the COVID-19 pandemic; the 30-year-old Argentum has been a vocal and assertive advocate for senior living operators, who have not received the same federal help that nursing homes have received to battle COVID, despite having similar needs.
But since Balda’s arrival, Argentum also has worked to implement an ambitious slate of programs designed to elevate the industry by improving employee recruiting and retention, enhancing resident quality of life, highlighting women leaders and, in a move deemed controversial by other associations, developing national standards. Such programs include the new Senior Living Certification Commission and certification programs for assisted living executive directors and senior living sales counselors; the Senior Living Works and Senior Living IQ programs and Senior Living Standards Commission; sponsorship of what is believed to be the first-ever national apprenticeship for nursing assistants and other caregivers in senior living; and the Leadership Advancement & Development program.
Beyond the pandemic, other challenges for the senior living industry include serving members of a population who increasingly have communicated a preference to age in place in their existing homes, as well as finding a way to address the senior housing needs of middle-income individuals. The industry, however, is expected to grow in importance as the oldest baby boomers, now 74, look for their next place to live. Part of Balda’s role at Argentum will be to continue to transform the vision and mission of the organization to address those changes for members and those they serve.