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From the Manor Born: Atop Barneburg Hill, the view keeps expanding

One word repeatedly pops up in conversations about Pacific Retirement Services Inc.'s past and future ' vision.

It took vision to dream up a retirement center and make it the most recognizable building in Southern Oregon ' the Rogue Valley Manor. It took vision to branch out in several directions and economic levels and then pull it all together.

Although he defers to others on his management team, anyone you ask will say it all comes back to Tom Becker, president and chief executive officer of PRS, and the Manor's executive director.

The Manor's impressive towers atop Barneburg Hill dominate the Bear Creek Valley, and its expansive campus covers 608 acres. Yet, that's just the tip of the PRS iceberg, which now stretches to Texas, Puget Sound and California's high desert.

Nonprofit Pacific Retirement Services was born out of the need for tighter control of the Rogue Valley Manor Corp.'s far-flung influence in 1991 to create, develop, and manage retirement communities, affordable-housing facilities and charitable foundations.

— The latest jewel in the PRS crown, a 12-story, 446-unit retirement community in Seattle's Lake Union district called Mirabella, is slated to open in 2008. It will be four times the size of the original Manor.

The management company is the sinew that connects an ever-growing system overseeing more than 1,500 staff members and 3,500 residential units, 27 percent of which are HUD affordable housing projects on 800 acres. PRS is the sole stockholder for all the entities, which have combined annual revenues exceeding &

36;100 million.

Pacific Retirement Services is the 17th-largest nonprofit multi-site senior living organization in the country. Its Community Housing division manages 23 affordable housing centers, including 12 in Oregon. Its Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRC) division operates centers in Medford, Eugene and Portland; Fort Worth, Texas; and Napa, Saratoga and Davis., Calif.

Two more continuing care operations are due to open near Palm Springs, Calif., in 2007, and Seattle, in 2008. The new operations, like Rogue Valley Manor and Skyline Plaza, begin construction after 50 to 70 percent of the living units are pre-sold.

He keeps going and going

You see what's been done and you have to applaud it, says Bill Thorndike Jr., a present member of the PRS board. Tom Becker is like the Energizer Bunny over the past 25 years. Maybe his biggest success has been re-inventing his job and growing it. At a lot of organizations, when you're there long enough, you'll have outgrown the job or the organization will have outgrown you.

As executive suites go, Becker's would fail to get him a mention in the social registry. The simple 8-by-10 office is a memorial to his other activities, ranging from the Boy Scouts to his role on the board of Lithia Motors.

Those who know Becker say his instincts and common sense serve him well and have prolonged his tenure. His 27 years on Barneburg Hill easily surpass those of his six predecessors combined.

He's not afraid to ask good business questions, says PremierWest Bancorp President John Anhorn. As long as you're growing it creates challenges, and when you have those challenges, you overcome each one and have a new opportunity.

He's in Texas, California ' all these places ' because people want him there. He does an excellent job of looking at an opportunity and taking advantage of it.

Lithia Motors Chairman Sid DeBoer recruited Becker for his own board in 1997 because PRS shared similar circumstances to Lithia.

He was trying to build an organization based in Medford that was growing on a regular basis and financing the growth in unique ways, DeBoer says.

Becker has also built a management team that reflects his vision.

The odds to having it work out like this for so long are slim to nil, but Tom has put together a wonderful team of people and made it work, Thorndike says.

But the organization's efforts weren't always text-book perfect and the early decades produced some trying times.

The concept of continued care proved popular with clients and an evolving task for the providers, setting out to meet both the basic needs and active desires. But it often meant parting with most of their savings and investments.

Initially, the Rogue Valley Manor was probably not as well-planned as it could've been and it ran into financial problems., says Doug Gordenier, PRS' first board chairman. Those were pretty well solved after Tom Becker came (in 1978). He made a lot of the right decisions. He's just a good leader, a good businessman with good ideas and a lot of drive, and that's what it takes.

Becker shaped the organization's future in many ways from aligning it with federal low-income housing and delving into social services to marketing the Manor to outsiders and snagging ' among the simplest of Internet addresses.

It's hard to do everything yourself, Becker admits. So you partner with different groups in order to continue to develop communities.

In the beginning

It's been nearly 50 years since Walt Higgins, the manor's first administrator was hired by the Rogue Valley Manor Board of Trustees ' six years before the first resident moved in.

The project was the brainchild of former Methodist minister and current Manor resident Ross Knotts. But it was little more than a futuristic vision when Higgins arrived in town on Nov. 1, 1955. The trustees could offer no money, no land and no plans, Higgins told the in 1996.

Although the founders eventually targeted Barneburg Hill for the retirement center, it took some persuasion to get some of the land-holders to sell. Construction began May 30, 1959, and with just the first three floors finished, the first 12 families moved into the Manor on Jan. 30, 1961.

What the early dreamers, administrators and occupants didn't take into account was inflation that drove up costs and took the operation to the brink of bankruptcy.

Gordenier, who once owned Rogue Valley Plywood, recalls how fellow timberman and philanthropist George Flanagan single-handedly staved off disaster one pay-day in the mid-1970s.

Things were tough and they had asked George to step in as interim administrator, Gordenier says. There was no money one day and George put up his own money to make payroll.

Flanagan, who died in 1994, actually served two terms as interim-administrator in 1973 and then again from 1975 to 1976.

In mid-December 1977, nearly 80 Manor employees went on strike. The corporation deemed the strike illegal and fired the workers four days before Christmas. The National Labor Relations Board sided with the Manor.

Shortly thereafter, Becker arrived for duty. He was 26, but already experienced in senior living needs after a stint Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan Society from 1972 to 1977 that took him from Fairfield, Wash., to Oberlin, Kan., and Seattle before he came here.

It was a combination of a receptive board of directors and ' again the vision and mission enhancement that Tom Becker brought to bear on it that set things in motion to be what they are today, Thorndike says. Tom's an interesting individual, having an almost dual personality. One of his personalities is about public service and service to the people.

On the other side, Tom is extremely entrepreneurial. He's basically put two-and-two together. If you can basically run very successful CCRCs (continuing care), then you can fulfill a wider mission for seniors that don't have financial resources and keep seniors active in the community.

Expanding services

For the ailing and infirm, the Manor built a medical wing in 1982. It later became the first continuing care center in the United States to have its own full-time doctor and medical group.

If the Manor's turning point came with Becker's hire, its growth era can be traced back to the creation of PRS in 1991.

New organizations in the community that needed management services, such as the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program and Foster Grandparent Program of Southern Oregon, were taken completely under the wing of Rogue Valley Manor Community Services.

Becker says it allowed his group to provide management services to nonprofits that they couldn't afford on their own.

It consolidated the whole operation so that each of the organizations were no longer independent, Gordenier says. The only way to hold them together was through interlocking boards. Before that, each of the community services could've gone their own way.

Gordenier recalls attending one board meeting or another as many as four days a week.

Without the creation of Pacific Retirement Services, there was no way the Manor could have advanced in the various areas it has, Gordenier says. Now, the Manor and all these other organizations are insulated from each other; if one is in trouble financially it doesn't affect the others.

Federally subsidized HUD housing programs, which the Manor undertook with the 50-unit Ross Knotts Retirement Center in southeast Medford in 1986, took off in the 1990s ' PRS now owns or manages nearly two dozen centers.

Our mission is to enhance the lifestyle of seniors of all levels, Becker says. After doing this for 10 or 15 years, people started coming to us and asked 'Can you do this?'

Aggressive growth

Some opportunities arose where others failed.

Labor-intensive senior housing facilities can bleed red ink, especially when revenue fails to keep pace with costs. PRS' first out-of-state acquisition came in 1995 when a Texas operation ran aground financially.

PRS had developed relationships with international banks as it sold bonds to pay for expansion projects over the years. French-owned Banque Paribas approached PRS and asked if it would be interested in taking over Trinity Terrace, a 15-story L-shaped tower with 300 residents that opened in 1983 in downtown Fort Worth.

It was on the verge of bankruptcy and going under, Becker says. Banque Paribas worked with us and agreed to write off &

36;10 million of its debt if we would take over sponsorship, operation and management.

In 1996, PRS took over management of Cascade Manor in Eugene. The operation was too small to be run cost-effectively, so on June 17 work began on a &

36;17 million expansion and remodeling that will result in 50 garden apartments, a pool, spa and exercise room. It should be finished in a year.

PRS' biggest financial undertaking to date is a two-phase project in Saratoga, Calif., near the Santa Cruz Mountains. The first phase of the &

36;120 million community, being built in cooperation with the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, opened in 2002. The second phase is on track to open in December. In LA Quinta, Calif., near Palm Springs, PRS is developing a 224-unit community that will offer a range of specialized housing, from those who need little or no help to special nursing units for people suffering from Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

Earlier this month, PRS announced the purchase of two acres in Seattle's South Lake Union district from Paul Allen's Vulcan Inc. PRS will build a 12-story, 446-unit housing center in two phases. The cost isn't yet known.

With steel prices, concrete, lumber and transportation all going up, it's hard to predict what the cost will be ... , Becker says.

Catering to the customer

Ultimately, PRS is driven by the needs of it clients.

People who have saved and have means for retirement, and people that didn't save are the ones we're trying to help, Becker says. The vision of continuing care means that health care is a vital component at a lot of our properties.

The curious thing is that we drive actuaries nuts because people live longer in a CCRC. We help keep them vital with a lot of activities and interests.

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Peers say Tom Becker, president/chief executive officer of Pacific Retirement Services and the Manor?s executive director, has been responsible for the nonprofit?s runaway success. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell