Transform in Real Time

Scott Estes helps investment trust firm Welltower navigate the rapidly evolving healthcare real estate market to achieve massive growth

Scott Estes has been with Welltower since 2003, when it was known in much more literal terms. As the former Health Care REIT Inc., and as a real estate investment trust focused on the skilled nursing and assisted-living industries of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, the name seemed to be an appropriate fit. But in his thirteen years with the company, Estes has witnessed the kind of growth that made the change to “Welltower”—well referencing wellness, and tower referencing the infrastructure with which it’s associated—seem almost mandatory.

OFF THE CLOCK WITH SCOTT ESTES

Athletes’ determination, experience with teamwork, and ability to work under pressure often make them natural-born leaders in the business arena as well. Welltower’s Scott Estes has firsthand experience of this correlation—he’s an ace on the tennis court and in the boardroom.

For the past twenty-five years, Estes and his father have participated in the United States Tennis Association’s National Father/Son Clay Court Championships, which is held annually in Cincinnati, Ohio. In fact, they were ranked number one in the United States in 1992. Nowadays, Estes competes at the national level in platform tennis, also known as paddle tennis.

“It’s all about the love of the sport and spending time with family,” Estes says. “It’s something I can focus on outside of work that I can do year-round.”

“Health Care REIT simply described what we were, but we’ve transformed,” Estes explains. “Now, we add value to our operating company partners by creating things like group-purchasing organizations to reduce food spending costs. We’re getting much more involved in helping them run their businesses more efficiently rather than being a passive landlord.”

Welltower has expanded greatly in recent years. Since Estes came on board, the number of employees has grown from about thirty to nearly 500. Since he became chief financial officer in 2006, $1 billion in equity market capital has blossomed into $24 billion. Understandably, Welltower’s finance team is quite larger than it used to be with Estes himself overseeing no less than six different department functions involving up to 200 different people.

Now an S&P 500 member company, Welltower has an enterprise value of $39 billion, and Estes acknowledges a certain degree of excitement in “becoming one of the big boys” while still staying true to their roots. “About 100,000 people live in the communities we own, and there’s something like fourteen million visits per year in our medical office buildings,” Estes says. “So our partners employ a massive number of people, but it’s still a relatively small organization just based on the number of professionals working at Welltower. We developed a very entrepreneurial culture, flying by the seat of our pants, raising money in real time to finance our growth.”

A more diversified portfolio is a huge key to the company’s current success. Welltower’s former assets have been sold off, including “older” nursing homes, smaller medical office buildings unaffiliated with health systems, and almost all of its US-based hospitals. Senior housing (independent living and Alzheimer’s care), post-acute care facilities, and high-tech outpatient facilities now comprise Welltower’s 1,500 property portfolio—primarily in the United States. Although, about 15 percent of the company’s business is in Canada and the United Kingdom.

Yet Welltower owns less than 3 percent of the current US healthcare real estate market, which is valued at $1 trillion in large part due to the needs of aging baby boomers, according to Estes. The potential for growth over the next two decades is enormous, and the combination of Welltower’s current portfolio and longstanding reputation provides unparalleled access to capital. In fact, Estes reports that Welltower executed “the largest overnight stock offering” of any Wall Street company in 2014. “Our success has helped us recruit great people who are attracted to our organization, our campus, and our mission to support the transformation of healthcare as the population ages,” he says.

Improving his community has long been important for Estes as well. He is vice chairman of the philanthropic Toledo Community Foundation, treasurer of the Ottawa Hills School Foundation, and past chair of fundraising for the Northwest Ohio chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

His community involvement is reflective of Welltower as a whole. The company supported more than ninety charitable organizations in 2015, and, this past March, it launched the Welltower Foundation. The charitable arm of the company supports innovative practices for the aging population—with an initial donation of $250,000 to the Alzheimer’s Association.

From the name change to a decade of unprecedented growth, Welltower is in many ways a different organization from the one Estes was a part of five years ago. It’s no surprise, then, that he believes his leadership style has “evolved dramatically” in that time. Leadership development training and individual coaching is largely responsible, he says, for helping him develop a focus for working on the system as opposed to within the system. “You can’t do everything on your own,” he explains. “And I think the culture of the organization is about empowering my team members to be the ones to go and execute my philosophy.”

Meanwhile, Estes devotes the bulk of his time to leading meetings, development plans, and succession plans. “I have to make the time to be able to sit back and think strategically about how to better the organization,” he says. “Too little of our time is spent doing productive things. . . . We can find ourselves running around like crazy instead of being more purposeful.”

For Estes, bettering the organization contributes to a business model that is built on smaller, relationship-based transactions. It is what allowed Welltower to invest $4.8 billion last year, with 80 percent being repeat business, or as Estes calls it, “a built-in pipeline of growth.” His efforts facilitate Welltower’s unique, strategic partnership model, ensuring its continuous growth.