Gelley Talks About Clark Ave Project

By Terry Rogers

Meir Gelley, the CEO of Nationwide Health Systems, the company that is in the process of purchasing the Bayhealth Clarke Avenue campus, says he told his father that he wanted to attend rabbinical school in New Jersey. He was 22 years old and he knew that America was a place to live your dream.

“He told me he could purchase a one-way ticket, that was all he could afford,” Mr. Gelley said. “I left England and arrived in New York in September 1982 with £50, which is about $75 in US money. I arrived at Kennedy Airport and got a ride to the Port Authority and then on to Lakewood, New Jersey, where I began college. While I was there, I met my beautiful wife, we married and settled down in Lakewood.”

Mr. Gelley said rabbis at the time did not make a lot of money and, in 1989, with “one and a half children,” he decided he needed to find a job. He accepted a job in a 380-bed nursing home in New York where he was put in charge of buying for the kitchen. He began working at the company July 5, 1989 and, as the food buyer, began to see areas where he could cut costs while not cutting services. As he began saving the nursing home money, the owner began asking him to look at other areas where costs could be reduced.

“I became the buyer for everything in the building,” Mr. Gelley said. “Before I started, there were no controls. Each department purchased their own items. I began implementing controls and centralizing costs. I basically created a materials office for the company which, at the time, had several nursing homes in Connecticut and New York.” Mr. Gelley remained in that position for ten years, helping the company expand while continuing to monitor all costs throughout the company.

After ten years, Mr. Gelley decided to create his own consulting company which he named Nationwide Healthcare Services. His goal was to work with nursing homes to help them cut costs. He found, however, that he was too good at his job. He said that he would work at a location for one or two months, provide the owner with all the information they needed to save money and the owners would send him on his way.

“I was giving away all the secrets,” Mr. Gelley said. “I knew I needed to try something different. In 2002, I found a nursing home in Media, Pennsylvania, which was called Bishop. It was a disaster. The State had closed it down and it was under federal watch. After consulting with the owner, I made a deal that was a gift from heaven. I was panicked, but I hid my fear. The nursing home was losing $100,000 per year and there were issues with the building. I knew I could not get a mortgage. I made a deal with the owner that I would take over the company and pay them in two years. We changed the name and got to work.”

The nursing home had 35 empty beds, no systems, no phone system no computer system. The old owners fought the employee unions and they did not trust their managers. During the first two years, Mr. Gelley built up the nursing home’s Medicare and Medicaid rate, which was non-existent when he took over. At the end of two years, he was able to buy the company as he promised. He then borrowed to completely renovate the nursing home which, today, is a state-of-the-art facility.

At one point, the employee union served him with a strike notice which Mr. Gelley received on a Friday. The strike was to occur the following week. On Monday, Mr. Gelley met with his employees.

“I told them that this was America and they had a right to strike,” Mr. Gelley said. “I then said that if they chose to strike, I had the right to replace them. My lawyer was furious with me, telling me I couldn’t say those things. Because a union strike is a federal issue, federal marshals were involved. On the Friday the strike was supposed to happen, the marshal told me he could find no employees who wanted to strike and the case was closed.”

In 2007, Mr. Gelley purchased Regency Healthcare in Hockessin, DE. He completely renovated the building, creating a long-term care facility that looks more like a 5-star hotel than a nursing home. There are chandeliers and a fireplace in the lobby. A hotel luggage cart sits inside the door which Mr. Gelley said is used to bring the belongings of new residents to their room.

“When people arrive here, they usually don’t want to be moved into a nursing home,” Mr. Gelley said. “In other nursing homes, they just bring out a big industrial cart, but here, we make them feel as if they are on vacation.” The rooms at Regal include wood-faced cabinet doors and headboards that give the rooms the feeling of home as opposed to traditional metal cabinetry and furniture found in most nursing homes. There is a therapy room with a large whirlpool tub designed to look like a spa complete with a television so that the person being treated can relax while they receive therapy.

When he is walking around the nursing home, Mr. Gelley greets everyone he sees, often calling them by name. Employees are happy to see him, greeting him and welcoming him to the facility. Mr. Gelley said that he had a vision when he opened his first nursing home about how employees should be treated.

“It is a hard job they do,” Mr. Gelley said. “They are the soldiers of the army. They deserve to be appreciated. We work together. I don’t talk down to them. I have had managers who have been condescending to employees. As soon as I find that out, that manager is gone. I wanted a workplace where people wanted to come to work, not to a place they dreaded. I give them the tools they need to do their job, we provide training, supplies and they have excellent working conditions.”

Mr. Gelley said that not long after he took over Regency, the union decertified, something that was almost unheard of in the nursing home industry. Before Mr. Gelley took over Regency, employees reported that their paychecks had bounced and some had not received a check for the past three weeks. Mr. Gelley took over the company on June 1 and immediately wrote checks to every employee for a week’s salary. He also set up a loan fund for employees that has been well-received, something he says began by accident.

“One of my most difficult, establishment employees worked in the kitchen,” Mr. Gelley said. “One day, he came to me and said that he had no heat in his house and he had no money to replace his furnace. I asked him how much he needed and he said $2,200. I took him to my office and wrote him a check. He paid me back $50 per payday and he told me he would never forget what I did for him. Today, we have loan limits for employees who are in good standing. They must have been employed at least a year and they cannot take out more than one loan at a time. This benefit has created more goodwill than almost any other benefit we offer.”

The Bayhealth campus project is the first of its kind for Mr. Gelley. In the past, he has come in to save failing nursing homes. This is the first time he will be creating a nursing home in a building that was another type of business previously.

“Milford will be a wellness pavilion,” Mr. Gelley said. “In fact, our working name for the Milford campus is ‘Milford Wellness Pavilion.’ That may change, but that is what we are leaning toward currently. We want it to be a pleasant experience. We have been approved to put in small retail, mostly for the needs of residents and employees. We hope to create a community center atmosphere. One of the things that the employees at Bayhealth have told us they need is daycare. We will be converting the Medical Arts Building into a daycare center. The current helicopter pad will be converted to a playground.” Nationwide plans to lease space to the Caulk Company who need more space for research and development.

According to Mr. Gelley, there will be very little change to the exterior of the building, which he says has “good bones.” There are no plans to add on or change the appearance of the building. The company is also purchasing buildings along King’s Highway that currently house doctor’s offices and some of the laboratory facilities for Bayhealth. They hope to receive approval during the City’s Comprehensive Plan process to return those buildings to residential zoning in hopes to construct housing. They are still unsure whether this will be 55 and older housing or it will be designed for employees so that they can walk to work, creating a less stressful commute.

Mr. Gelley said that there has been a push from Federal and State agencies to let people remain in their own home as much as possible to avoid nursing home care. He said that although this is beneficial, it can be very stressful on someone’s family when they try to care for an elderly or disabled person at home. He wants to create nursing homes that are not clinical and depressing, but where people will feel as if they are at home.

“My father came to America after I did,” Mr. Gelley said. “I just recently had to make the decision to put him in a long-term care facility because he has severe Parkinson’s Disease. It is difficult. We understand that. We want to make it as painless as possible on the family and the individual.”

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