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Five questions for North Oaks Executive Director Mark Pressman

When Mark Pressman was a student trying to settle on a career, a Temple graduate counseled him to stay away from elder care. The advice didn't stick. Today, Pressman, 64, is the executive director of North Oaks, a continuing care retirement community in Pikesville where he has worked since 2007.

North Oaks, owned and managed by Des Moines, Iowa-based Life Care Services, has capacity for about 230 people, with 177 independent apartments and about 50 spots in its assisted-care unit, Autumn Ridge Health Center. The roughly 160 residents, many of them from the surrounding community, pay an entry fee and monthly rate for services such as housekeeping, transportation and 24-7 emergency response. Last year, North Oaks' sales rose 14 percent and the center, which opened in 1991, had its highest number of move-ins since 1996.

How did you get into this field?

I've been in health care and various fields for a long, long time. Initially, I worked in hospitals and back in, I guess, the mid-1970s health maintenance organizations were becoming really a force in the health care industry and at that time the focus was really on reducing length of stay in the hospitals. I was in Philadelphia at that time, and what was happening was that patients were being discharged much faster than they had before. Hospitals were closing, wings were closing, people were being laid off, and I found that all we were talking about in our meetings was, "How fast are we getting this person out of here?" That was not what I went into the business for. I'm a helping kind of person. So for me and my career, the particular hospital I was working in at that time closed a particular unit and decided to open a transitional care unit — a Medicare-covered skilled nursing facility within the hospital. They offered me the opportunity to run that. … People who would have their three-day stay in the hospital … they would come in and they would stay for three weeks. It was just a much more hands-on, person-to-person experience and just a lot more satisfying for me.

What are some of the biggest changes that you've seen in the industry?

In the industry as a whole, what we've seen is that people are tending to stay in whatever their current residence is for a longer period of time than they used to. Some of that is because there's just so much more available to support people in their homes than there used to be. … And most of the time, most people would prefer to stay in their homes where they're comfortable. … So that's a good thing in some ways. The downside to that as I see it is that sometimes people wait too long. When they become more frail, when they wait for that diagnosis or they wait for the spouse to die, the range of choices that they have available to them and the energy they have to adapt to what's coming next is diminished. What I try to advocate … is to be proactive in this and to move when you have the strength, to move when you can really enjoy the environment.

I kind of wonder when it's my turn to make a decision about my retirement, am I going to be as proactive as I advocate others to be? It's different when you're on the other side of the desk. I learned that as my dad became more frail. It's a very different experience to be hearing what I tell people.

In 2013, North Oaks had its highest number of move-ins since 1996. The year before was also a good year. Why?

That's related to some things happening here at North Oaks. Back in 2011, we had been approached by Mid-Atlantic Health Care founder Scott Rifkin and his group to purchase North Oaks, and during those negotiations things kind of came to standstill here. … At that time, we were also coming off of the impact of the recession so we had a couple years of just really poor sales activity, partly because property values were just in free fall, and people were paralyzed in terms of their decision-making for the future. … When the sale to Dr. Rifkin fell through, the partnership decided, "Well let's do what we need to do to really make North Oaks successful." We brought in a new marketing director … we engaged a new ad agency … we went through a $4.4 million capital improvement project. We renovated what was a 1991 design scheme and brought it into the 21st century, and that's made an impact. … Is any one of those things responsible for our renewed success? I don't think so. I think it's been the package. The other part is the economy has gotten better, too. All of those things have come together to help us be much more effective in selling and people be more interested in making that decision to move to North Oaks.

When you're marketing to families, how do you walk that line between wanting to sell your product and not coming across as if you're pressuring people to make a difficult decision? Are there particular things that win people over?

I don't see it as a fine line at all. We're honest with folks: "Here's the contract. This is what you get. Look around, spend time here, does this feel like the right thing for you or doesn't it?" There are lots of different models that people can choose from. … We want someone to come here, we want them to stay and be happy. We don't want them to feel like they've been hoodwinked. We're honest with folks. We don't sell blue sky.

We try to deal with … the points of resistance. One of the things we've identified is, particularly for folks who are in the same house they've been in all their adult life … just the whole notion of packing up and changing that is a huge obstacle to overcome. We have relationships with … move managers who can assist with the packing, clearing process. … On occasion, as part of an incentive, we'll pay for a portion or all of that, and that can sometimes make a difference. But ultimately the person needs to decide to do that. Sometimes the kids sort of help move that along.

You've described yourself as a "foodie." What's your favorite restaurant?

I really like the Milton Inn in Sparks. I don't get to go there very often. Their service is fabulous, the food is consistently wonderful and it's like this old inn that goes back to like the 18th century. It's really cool.

Mark Pressman

Title: Executive director, North Oaks retirement community

Age: 64

Hometown: Philadelphia

Current residence: Owings Mills

Education: Temple University: B.A. in psychology, master's degree in educational psychology, master's of business administration

Last job: Vice president of health and clinical services, Roland Park Place

Family: Wife, Fran Pressman; three children, Aaron, 34, Sarah Charney, 29, and Leah, 23

Activities and hobbies: Board member of the Edward A. Myerberg Senior Center in Pikesville; board member of the Pikesville Chamber of Commerce; DIY projects, gardening, biking

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