Melanie Werdel shares a tribute to her brother, Granger Cobb, at the Institute’s naming celebration.
School of Hospitality Business Management Names Granger Cobb Institute for Senior Living
By Sue McMurray
To know him was to love him. And if you didn’t know him, it is clear after listening to family, friends, and colleagues speak about him there was something special about Granger Cobb.
Nearly 300 people gathered October 30 on the Pullman campus to celebrate the naming of the Granger Cobb Institute for Senior Living. As one person after another took the stage and spoke through tears and laughter about Cobb’s caring nature, it became easy to understand why Washington State University named the institute after a man who left an indelible mark on the past and future of the senior living industry.
The naming celebration recognized the completion of a $2.5 million fundraising campaign, with industry and personal contributions honoring Cobb’s legacy and contributions. This investment will allow the institute to educate the next generation of senior living specialists and leaders needed to care for an estimated 75 million baby boomers as they head into the next phase of their lives.
Cobb was a pioneer in the senior living industry who led several companies, including Emeritus, which until 2014 was the largest provider of senior living care in the country. He was passionate about growing the future senior housing workforce and worked with the WSU hospitality school to excite and inform people about the growing need.
He was also one of the driving forces behind the vision for the institute. When he passed away in 2015, the school and Cobb’s colleagues made it a priority to continue his dream of educating the future senior living workforce.
“I’m proud the institute is modeled on the ideals and values of Granger Cobb. The program is constantly innovating to meet the pressing needs of society, and it shows the power that comes from industry and academia working together in partnership,” says Steve Tarr, former executive vice president of Emeritus Senior Living.
A purpose-driven life and career
It takes a certain kind of person to be successful in an industry that deals with the raw realities of aging. Cobb seemed cut out for this special calling in his mid-20s when he began working in senior living with his father-in-law in Los Angeles. He decided to branch out on his own in 1989 as the owner and operator of Creekside Lodge. There he formed personal relationships with the residents that he cherished for the rest of his life. He went on to lead several companies before becoming the president and CEO of Emeritus.
Family was his highest priority, a perspective he deliberately inserted into his business philosophy and senior living operations. At Emeritus, he worked alongside his sister, Melanie Werdel, an administration executive who served as Emeritus’s former executive vice president and member of Cobb’s senior leadership team.
“He was my brother, my boss, and my friend,” says Werdel. “He took a chance on me, and he was willing to take risks as a business leader. He wanted to come up with solutions, not be handed stale answers. Granger made it look easy, and he touched everyone in a positive way.”
“He was never done learning, and he never lost his love for the people his industry served,” says his daughter Cassie Cobb. “His passion was about caring for the residents and developing young talent that would continue running this industry.”
The birth of senior living education at WSU
Senior living is a natural focus for hospitality, with both growing needs and growing opportunities. It made sense for the School of Hospitality Business Management, one of the oldest and highly ranked schools in the United States, to partner with Cobb and other senior living experts to develop young talent already interested in hospitality.
Senior living leaders Jerry Meyer, Tana Gall, Bill Pettit, and Cobb collaborated with Nancy Swanger, then director of the WSU School for Hospitality Business Management, to launch a senior living curriculum in 2011. The plan was that each week, senior living executives would travel to Pullman to teach a three-hour block.
“At the time, I didn’t know how to teach senior living,” says Swanger. “I had to convince people to take the first class.”
One of the students she convinced was Rosita Sandell, an undergraduate who planned to go into hotel management.
“It wasn’t a normal class,” says Sandell. “It spotlighted the industry itself; I didn’t know senior living existed before that.”
After taking the class, Sandell was hooked and even turned down a job offer from a major hotel. “I could see the potential of the curriculum and institute to remove stigmas and refresh the perception of the senior living industry,” she says. Sandell is now the executive director at MBK Senior Living in Seattle.
“Given the success of the course, and recognizing the pressing need for a cross-disciplinary academic program focused on the business of senior living, we set out to establish the institute within the Carson College of Business and were thrilled with the widespread industry support for it,” says Mark Finkelstein, former general counsel for Emeritus. Finkelstein also notes that after completing the institute’s academic programs and practical experience requirements, students will be well-positioned to find meaningful employment opportunities and hit the ground running.
A global institute for operations excellence in senior living
Unlike other programs that focus heavily on geriatrics, gerontology, or policy, the institute is preparing students for community operations. The goal is to be the program of choice for students and industry seeking an operationally-focused senior living management program, supported by a solid business foundation—for workforce development, solutions-based research, and transformational service.
“At WSU, we do what society needs,” says Heather Redman, a venture investor and cofounder/managing partner of Flying Fish Partners. Redman was a neighbor of Granger and Tina Cobb and believes strongly in the example he set for senior living care. She is also a WSU Regent and says the institute’s goal of producing talent to meet seniors’ needs is spot on with WSU’s land-grant mission.
While there are universities focusing on various aspects of this industry, the institute will be the only program embedded within a hospitality school in an AACSB-accredited college of business.
“The institute is a fitting tribute to Granger’s passion for serving seniors and pioneering contributions to the industry. Through its unique, singular focus on the senior living business, the institute will play a critical role in educating the workforce that will be so important to the industry’s future,” says Finkelstein. “We expect the institute to be a world-class, cross disciplinary center for the development of operations excellence in the senior living industry.”
Laura Hill, professor and chair of human development in the WSU College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences, is helping Swanger to facilitate teaching and research opportunities across campus that overlap with the senior living industry. Specific touch points include nursing, electrical engineering, human development, psychology, and construction management.
“We don’t often have investments from industry in social science,” says Hill. “It’s a huge opportunity to make a difference in the world.”