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Do Right, Profits Follow

A Early Guiding Principle Pays Dividends for the Founder of Danbury Senior Living

Article by Chris Watson

Photography by Supplied

Originally published in Canton Lifestyle

Our feelings toward aging can easily slip into negativity. Many are prone to fixate on declining facility and increasing isolation. But Bill Lemmon, the driven and caring CEO and founder of Danbury Senior Living, believes that attention, respect, good food and a robust social life can make the twilight years some of the most joyful and fulfilling.

Bill credits the inspiration for Danbury to residents at his Stark County apartment communities more than 25 years ago. He noticed that his conversations with older denizens tended to focus on how living conditions could be specialized to suit their unique needs.

“They’d say ‘Bill, we can’t take care of our apartments like we used to. It’s difficult to cook, it’s difficult to drive. Can you come up with something for us?’ ” he remembers.

These requests reminded Bill of his youth, when his own grandparents resided in senior living. He recalls that, at the time, nursing homes were primarily drab and depressing affairs in large, converted houses. As a young man he detested entering those types of facilities because they were so dispiriting.

That feeling stuck with Bill into adulthood, driving him to seek out better accommodations and a better lifestyle for his residents. He viewed their concerns as an opportunity both to improve their quality of life and to branch out into a new and changing field - senior living. This came during an early surge of growth in assisted living communities, when the notion was frequently talked about in real estate development circles. He took a year to investigate the market and work with his team to develop the Danbury concept.

The first Danbury community was built in 1997 in North Canton on Applegrove Street, and it was strictly geared toward independent living. That meant many specialized services developed for its citizenry, such as housekeeping, social events and fine chef-prepared meals.

“I try to think about what features would appeal to me,” says Bill. “I want to make sure we’re providing care and amenities that make people’s lives gratifying.”

Soon after, new Danbury locations added assisted living and memory care to their list of services, meaning residents who moved in with full autonomy no longer had to move out again if their health declined. The business grew steadily over the next two decades, and later this year the 20th and 21st facilities will be opening their doors.

Bill has devoted more than 50 years to real estate development, property management and construction, and has founded multiple successful companies with terrific longevity. He attributes his achievements to his upbringing and background. He grew up in a family grocery store in Canton on 12th Street NW called Lemmon’s. Working there regularly from age five until leaving for college, Bill recalls learning a lot about business as a very young person.

Bill says he was fortunate in that, when he attended, Ohio State University’s business school was teaching a methodology that was unusual for the time. It’s where he learned not to put the pursuit of profit on a pedestal, but to prioritize respect and compassion.

“Do the right thing, and profits will follow,” he says. “It really stuck with me then, and I’ve read that it's finally being taught more now.”

After college, Bill’s primary experience in real estate was as a commercial appraiser. As such he appraised a tremendous variety of properties across the state of Ohio. He received an inside perspective on how deals came together, what was trending and what created value. That level of market analysis led him to get involved in land, commercial and residential development, where he accrued a wide breadth of real estate experience.

Now Bill has surrounded himself with a talented team of like-minded collaborators, some of whom have been with Danbury since its inception. As CEO, his main efforts are to find new locations and concepts for senior living while working with his team to produce ideas and make decisions about the purpose of their sites and the markets they pursue. He counts his colleagues as a blessing.

“I’m very fortunate to have people in my life who are supportive, who let me express my ideas and accept the challenges I put out,” says Bill.

These people have helped him to create a thriving collection of senior living communities across Ohio. The Danbury mission is to enhance lives through serving others by creating vibrant, caring and exceptional communities. They do this by making every effort to keep residents happy, healthy and fulfilled. Bill thinks that the people who live at Danbury truly appreciate the social nature of the communities. Many of them come from situations where they were living alone, and he believes that being able to sit with a friend and have a meal, to socialize at a community event and to be treated with dignity and respect are critically important to the happiness and satisfaction of anyone.

“What each person wants to participate in can differ, but when I speak to residents I continue to hear how important it is to have a social life,” he says. “Just talking can make life more pleasant. If I walk into a building and see someone not having the best day, I ask how they’re doing that morning and suddenly there’s a smile. They’ve been recognized as a human being. It sounds corny as can be, but I’ve seen it happen time and time again.”

These values are imparted to Danbury’s 1500 employees, who are reminded daily how they can improve a life in addition to their routine job. Even with such a large and widespread staff, Bill says Danbury has a reputation for being an excellent place to work and feels like a giant extended family. It’s an apt comparison. If Bill is the patriarch, then the bespoke leadership teams at each location are the adult children with families of their own. They each develop their own culture, but as a whole Danbury puts individuals and families above profits.

Its scruples have served the company well over the past year and a half. 2020 and beyond have been filled with huge challenges for anyone in senior living. In fact, Bill asserts that the field has been hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than any save the medical industry. When the average age of a Danbury resident is 87, it’s clear that extra precautions must be taken. But when the state restricted outside access to healthcare facilities during the peak of the pandemic, it became very difficult to meet the higher operating expenses that came with additional safeguards.

“Shutting down was the right thing to do, but families weren’t very eager to admit those who needed care into a senior living building where they couldn’t come in to visit, to see and talk to their loved ones,” says Bill.

He also points out how scarce a commodity employees have become. With many people understandably hesitant to work when exposure was a risk, filling roles has been quite a dilemma. Even through the worst of it, though, Danbury continued to increase wages and bolster its employees, supporting those workers whose families had suffered job loss or sickness. Bill expressed his pride in the company’s culture and integrity. As residents and workers alike continue to stay and support the communities, it bears out his philosophy that doing right begets success.

Now, with vaccination rates rising and Ohioans once again moving into senior living communities, Bill is optimistic about the future. In addition to building new facilities, his team has been addressing what’s next for senior living. In coming years he expects to see a steady influx of retired baby boomers, with a sharper increase around 2028. These incoming retirees have had a different upbringing and lifestyle than current residents who went through the Depression and two world wars. He anticipates meeting their needs and expectations to be an interesting challenge.

“Even just looking at how housing styles have changed in the past 25 years, it’s clear we’ll need to adapt,” he says. “I don’t have an answer yet, but it’s what we’re working on.”

For now, Bill feels privileged to have the opportunity to serve so many residents of our community. He loves to assist citizens transitioning into senior living and provide an enjoyable and satisfying lifestyle. The difficulty, he says, is that many people have the necessity but not all of them have the resources to fill that need. While there may not be enough support or funding to allow everyone to experience senior living, Bill and his team work tirelessly to figure how to make it as affordable and accessible as possible. He summarizes the effort beautifully.

“We try to make life as pleasant as it can be for as many people as we can on a daily basis. It’s easy to say, challenging to do, but we have an obligation to make it happen to the fullest extent possible and I think we do a pretty darn good job of it.”

Danbury Senior Living
8230 Pittsburg Ave. NW, North Canton, Ohio 44720
DanburySeniorLiving.com