Back Story

Jay Prince

President & CEO, Heritage Community of Kalamazoo

For being all of 30, Jay Prince knows a lot about retiring and growing older. As the CEO of the area’s oldest continuing-care retirement community, Prince oversees 450 employees and the care of 420 residents. A transplant from Bemidji, Minn. (“You know how International Falls is always the coldest spot in the U.S. on the weather? It’s near there,” he says), he has been at Heritage’s helm since August 2013.

Why do you do what you do?

I grew up with a family that was involved in business, but I really wanted to help people and become a doctor.

I ended up combining these and went to Concordia College, which is a great college for health care administration. There I decided I wanted to become a hospital CEO, and they had a great program in that.

What was the most influential moment in your life?

As a student, I had a practicum at a nursing home. The first day, the administrator said, “Jay, I want you to know what it’s like to be a resident, so go home and pack a bag and plan to spend the night.” When I came back, they put me in a wheelchair, bandaged up my knee and said, “From this point forward you’re a resident that has had knee surgery, and everything we will do for you we would do for a resident.”

The initial process of filling out contracts and paperwork for Medicaid and Medicare, like any resident and their family would do, was very confusing. And then, at the time, Minnesota law required all residents to be educated about nursing home abuse upon admission. So I am sitting in a wheelchair, not knowing anybody yet, signing all these confusing contracts about Medicaid and Medicare, and then I have to watch an old video on nursing home abuse. I remember thinking “This is really uncomfortable. Why would you educate me on nursing home abuse – has that happened?”

If I needed to get up and go to the bathroom, they had to put a gait belt on me and help me go to the bathroom – talk about issues of dignity and compassion. And residents have different diets. Some get food that is pureed. Others get liquids that are thickened. I got a chance to try them all. I still can’t eat tuna casserole to this day – it’s lost its luster.

They turned me every two hours during the night, as they do so patients won’t get pressure sores, and I didn’t get any sleep.

This was the only environment I had ever been in where my life was in the hands of caregivers. That experience changed my thought process about what I wanted to do with my career.

What question do you get most when you tell people what you do?

When I say I run a retirement community, people don’t always know what I mean. Many people automatically think of a nursing home, and that’s not what we are. Not a lot of people realize when you combine those 420 residents with those 450 employees, it becomes like a little city. And we are trying to create a sense of community in that little city so that the residents know the employees and the employees know the residents and every day we have an opportunity to make someone’s life better.

What’s an ideal day like for you?

A couple of mornings a week my day starts with coffee with the residents. The best part of my day is spending time with our residents, having a cup of coffee and not talking about anything that’s work related, just about what’s going on with them or what’s going on with me. I like spending a lot of time in the community working on how to make it better.

What’s your favorite thing to do outside of work?

I would say food. I have always loved food, and West Michigan has great food venues. Food Dance just blows me away. This area creates these great local businesses that are inventive with their food. I love that and being able to have a piece of that, even though I can only eat so much.

What keeps you up at night?

I am very mission-minded, and I believe I am in a really important business. Heritage has a 70-year legacy — we have such a great foundation, those local donors, those stakeholders that created Heritage. I want to continue to have that vibrancy and hold on to that great vision. We serve such an important customer at such a pivotal time of their life, and I take that very personally.

I just never feel like I have enough time in the day — you get tied up and there’s distractions — and the last thing I want to feel is that I missed an opportunity to make someone’s life better.

Do people call you Jay or Mr. Prince?

Jay. I am absolutely Jay.

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