A Retail Veteran's New Challenge: Senior Living Management

Sunrise Senior Living chief Mark Ordan made a name for himself in retail.
Sunrise Senior Living chief Mark Ordan made a name for himself in retail. (Picasa 2.7)

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By Thomas Heath
Monday, August 4, 2008

Staff writer Thomas Heath's Value Added column appears Tuesdays on the WashBiz blog. Most weeks, it profiles local entrepreneurs, discussing how they make money and what they do with it.

Mark Ordan is kind of like Forrest Gump, always bumping into opportunities or creating them himself. He is part of the Washington entrepreneurial set that sniffs for good opportunities. I am talking about guys like financier Russ Ramsey, former AOL chairman Steve Case, CapitalSource's John Delaney and investor Mark Ein.

Ordan, 49, is part showman, part salesman. He helped start the Fresh Fields grocery chain and considers himself a born retailer.

So what is he doing as the new chief executive of Sunrise Senior Living, the publicly owned company that cares for 50,000 seniors every day?

"I thought this was an opportunity to combine everything I've known," Ordan said recently. "It's an entrepreneurial company, a big, complex company, and it's a very heavily real-estate-driven company. . . . For me, it's an opportunity to be partners with a great entrepreneur like [Sunrise co-founder] Paul Klaassen."

Part of the rap on Ordan among local business types -- who will not put their name to their quotes because they don't want to alienate him -- is that he is a dealmaker and marketer, but not an operations guy. That's partly based on the experience at Fresh Fields, which expanded too fast and sold out to Whole Foods.

"I don't think that's the case," Ordan said. "Everything I have done is operationally intensive. I also surround myself with very good operators."

Ordan grew up in Brooklyn. After studying ancient philosophy at Vassar College, his consumer electronics hobby led him in 1979 to talk his way into a job as director of operations for Harvey Electronics in Manhattan. He spent a year at Harvard Business School, then worked at Goldman Sachs in the equities department and in real estate deals. But the retail bug was itching.

Leo Kahn, who had spent his entire career in the supermarket business and was also an early investor in Staples, urged Ordan to check out a grocery store called Bread & Circus in Newton, Mass.

It was the early 1980s and the store was a novelty. It was a good-for-you, organic grocery store targeted at health-conscious shoppers. Ordan went to Newton on a Saturday, and the place was absolutely packed.

"It seemed so obvious that this was a fabulous idea," Ordan said. "Leo was our first investor and we started out with $14 million to open four stores."

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