For nearly half a century, CEO Larry Harris has been at the forefront of Willow Brook Christian Communities’ development into one of the area’s most prominent retirement home organizations. Now, that time is coming to a close as Harris is set to retire on Tuesday, closing the book on 48 years of service in the community.
Harris announced his retirement on Feb. 4 of last year, giving the Willow Brook board a year’s notice to identify his replacement. On Oct. 31, Willow Brook announced Troy McKnight had been approved by the board to succeed Harris after previously serving as the executive director of Christian Care Communities and Services in Fort Worth, Texas, for seven years.
Leading a senior living facility wasn’t exactly part of Harris’ career plans after graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Harding University the same year Willow Brook was founded in 1972. Harris was working for a furniture chain in Columbus in 1974 and was in management training when he was approached by a member of his church who also happened to be the board president of Willow Brook.
“I’d have to confess, going through college and as a young man just getting started in the business world, becoming a nursing home administrator was probably the last thing on my list, or close to it,” Harris told The Gazette. “But I talked with Frank Chappell about it, I talked with two or three people who were already in the business in other nursing facilities, and they sort of said, ‘Come on in, the water’s fine.’ So, based on that, I went ahead and charged into it.”
What Harris inherited when he began his journey with Willow Brook was a far cry from the current standard of senior living the Willow Brook name has come to represent today in the local community.
“Willow Brook was not in a good place,” he said. “It was technically bankrupt when I took over. We didn’t declare it, but that was my first task, to set about raising some money and getting some financial stability for the organization. We started to do that and got it on its feet financially.”
In addition to the financial crisis in which Willow Brook was marred, Harris said the reputation of the facility, itself, was also in a bad place. He recalled the “typical nursing home stink” when he arrived at Willow Brook, as well as operational issues that included difficulties with the state licensure agencies that needed to be corrected.
“I just started working on the issues, cleaning it up and getting rid of the smell, and kind of turning it into a facility people wanted to come to if they needed that level of care,” Harris said.
Through it all, Harris never questioned his decision to join Willow Brook. Rather, with the support of his wife, Janet, he was determined to embrace every challenge en route to turning the organization into a success. And over time, Harris built a team around him that played an integral role in shaping the bigger picture of what Willow Brook could ultimately become.
“As I got involved with it and began developing relationships, began recruiting team members to join me, I began to really say, ‘Hey, we can make something of this.’ I began to really see a vision for down the road,” he said.
During his time, Harris has overseen several expansions of the Willow Brook facilities, beginning with the original expansion of the 25-bed Willow Brook Christian Home in Columbus to 50 beds in 1981. Later that decade, the board began considering developing its first full-service retirement community, ultimately purchasing 30 acres on the south side of Delaware and breaking ground in 1989 on Willow Brook Christian Village.
Today, the organization has grown to include a third facility — Willow Brook at Delaware Run — that represents the second full-service community in the Willow Brook network. In total, Willow Brook now operates on a $28 million annual budget with $100 million in assets.
Harris is the first to admit he would not have been ready to take on such a large operation when he first agreed to lead Willow Brook decades ago. But just as Willow Brook has continued to grow through the years, so, too, has Harris.
“In 1975, if I had been dropped into my current position as CEO of this large, complicated organization, I would have failed miserably,” he said. “I just kind of grew up with Willow Brook over the years, step by step, as we added services, and as we recruited new people. Willow Brook and I grew up together. It’s part of my DNA. It’s just very natural within me as to what it takes to operate the facility today. I have grown, I would say, exponentially in my abilities to lead, plan, and acquire the vision for new facilities. But I didn’t have that from day one, that’s for sure.”
Harris said he likely would have retired a couple of years sooner had it not been for the COVID-19 pandemic, which took a hefty toll on Willow Brook.
“I cannot tell you how bad it was for us,” Harris said. “We were invaded by the virus on all three campuses. Folks were dying. It was just a retched, perilous, and scary time, and I just couldn’t see turning it over to anyone else right in the middle of that. It’s bad enough to come in and take over a grand operation like this, but to do it with the COVID invasion would have been almost unthinkable with all the troubles we were facing.”
Although the impacts of the pandemic haven’t completely subsided, Harris has reached the point where he’s comfortable stepping away. Physically, Harris feels like the time is right for him to move on while he’s still “at the top of his game.” However, he admitted he’s approaching his retirement with “deeply mixed emotions” given what he’ll be leaving behind.
“On one hand, I am looking forward to taking my foot off the accelerator and slowing down a little bit, and spending time with the people I love,” he said. “But on the other hand, it’s breaking my heart to leave this organization and what we have here, what we’ve created here. The people who I have recruited around me and my residents, I consider them dear good friends. It’s hurting to think of walking away from them.”
He went on to say, “As I reflect on almost a half-century of service, I look at all that Willow Brook has become. We have three campuses. Two full-service retirement communities and then the original facility. We have a reputation for excellence. We’re well-received and well-viewed in the community. I take justifiable pride in what has been accomplished, but I certainly haven’t done it alone by any means. I’ve had a board of trustees there with me the whole time, and I’ve recruited some magnificent leaders, many of whom are making decade-long commitments to Willow Brook.”
As for what’s next, Harris said he’s looking forward to spending more time with his wife, children and grandchild. He’s also looking forward to becoming an even more frequent visitor to Burlington, Vermont, which has been a favorite travel destination for him and his wife through the years.
Harris added that he would like to do some writing, which he enjoys, although he’s not yet sure what direction he may go with the writing. He mentioned the possibility of pulling his 50 favorite essays from Willow Brook’s internal newsletter, along with some new additions and, perhaps, turning them into a book.
As for the future of Willow Brook Christian Communities, Harris feels he’s leaving behind an operation that has become a model for consistency and stability in the industry.
“I feel like I’m handing him an organization that is at the top of its game,” Harris said of McKnight. “It is well-run, we have people who know what they’re doing. We’re in good shape in most every metric. He’s taking over an operation that is stable and predictable.”