Schonbrun raises the bar with Balfour

Michael Schonbrun struggled almost two decades ago to come up with a name for his luxury senior housing company, which he believed would raise the bar as far as architecture, design, food, amenities and care.

Michael Schonbrun

Michael Schonbrun

“I spent a lot of time going through dictionaries in English as well as Italian, Latin and Greek to come up with a word that suggests the wisdom and respect of older people and stuck out,” Schonbrun recalled.

One idea he quickly eliminated was to incorporate his surname into his company, which he launched after a diverse career that included working in the public sector, running National Jewish Hospital, and even a stint as a venture capitalist.

“Schonbrun is much too hard of a name to pronounce,” he said.

Then it dawned on him.

Some of his fondest memories were of a camp in upstate New York, where the Manhattan native had spent eight weeks each summer from age 5 to 17.

The camp was built around Lake Balfour.

“It was a beautiful setting surrounded by green covered mountains, which we in Colorado would call hills, and was really just peaceful and pleasant,” he recalled.

And because his father and grandfather, and many of his cousins, also had gone there, “it had this intergenerational connection,” he said.

Thus, Balfour Senior Living was born.

He opened his first Balfour senior living center in Lafayette 17 years ago and one in Riverfront Park in downtown Denver. He recently announced another one in Stapleton and is in the early stages of opening one in the college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Depending on the level of care, the cost for a resident can run from about $3,500 to $13,000 per month.

“It is expensive,” Schonbrun said.

“But everything is included,” he said.

“It’s like living in a high-end country club,” he said.

The interiors are so nice that even some affluent people who could afford it are intimidated.

“They say this is nicer than any home they have ever lived in. It’s probably not for them.”

Schonbrun never expected his career path to lead him to develop senior living centers as nice as a Four Seasons hotel.

Yet it all came together that way.

When working for the government, for example, he saw centers with despicable living standards and later he realized at some level that he wanted to build a brand that was the antithesis of those senior slums.

And when his father unexpectedly died, he moved his “very fussy, New York mother” to senior centers and found firsthand even top centers somewhat lacking.

Schonbrun grew up on the Upper East Side of New York City on 92nd Street, not too far from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

His father, Arnold, was a prominent dentist.

“His patients included Fortune 500 CEOs, members of the United Nations, Broadway stars. Angela Lanbsury was a patient,” Schonburn said.

So were a number of Playboy bunnies.

“I always tried to stop by his office when they were being treated,” he joked.

Many people thought he would follow in his dad’s footsteps.

“I wanted to make it on my own, rather than slip into my dad’s profession,” he said.

“And I have absolutely no fine motor skills,” he added. “In my hands, I would have bungled all of the goodwill he created.”

Instead, he attended Yale University, where he obtained a broad-based, liberal arts education.

“I was a dilettante,” he recalled. “I probably changed my major four or five times. I loved architecture, but had no talent for it.”

He particularly recalls “captivating” lectures on the history of art in architecture from Professor Vincent Scully.

“He would get a standing ovation after every lecture, which was not typical for cynical Yale students,” he said.

He also took a lot of English, art history, design and other architecture courses at Yale.

“It was a wonderful, diverse, liberal arts education that Yale let me do,” he said.

“I have no regrets, although my grades could have been better.”

He attended school during the Vietnam War and after Yale he attended another Ivy League school – the University of Pennsylvania’s law school.

“I was one of those guys who went to law school who never thought I would be an actual lawyer, practicing law,” he said.

“I went to law school because at Yale they had this concept of a philosopher king or philosopher prince,” where you took an on a high view of law and what it could accomplish for society.

“I got disabused of that notion pretty quickly and was a pretty indifferent law student,” he said.

But what got him excited was politics.

In his second year at law school, he worked for George McGovern’s presidential campaign, focusing on health care policies.

He was part of a federally funded research project to explore ways to improve care and drive down costs.

“It was kind of like what Obamacare is trying to accomplish,” he said.

After his first year of law school, he received his first taste of life in the West, when he worked for legal aid in Boulder.

He loved it so much that he thought of transferring to CU law school, “but I never got my act together.”

After law school, he worked for John J. Gilligan, a Democrat congressman and later the governor of Ohio.

“I was with him for a year as a Vista volunteer,” he said.

“We all thought he was going to be elected president and we would follow him to Washington. I would have become his George Stephanopolous. But it was not to be.”

Once again, he focused on health policy issue. As part of his job, he toured some senior housing projects that were real eye-openers.

“In Ohio, I saw some really lousy housing situations,” which made an impression on him when he founded Balfour decades later.

“I knew what I didn’t want to do.”

His wife at the time did not enjoy living in Columbus, Ohio.

She had graduated from the University of Denver and wanted to return to Colorado.

He couldn’t be happier to accommodate her.

In late 1974, they moved to Boulder, where he worked for a now defunct think tank.

“Like everyone else, I loved the quality of life, the skiing, the outdoors,” he said.

But his love for the area transcended those appeals.

“What I really liked is there is no snob effect like you find in New York and the East Coast,” Schonburn said.

“People out here don’t care what family you came from, what your father did, or whether you went to a fancy school,” he said.

“I mean, if I had not gotten into an Ivy League school, I would have been considered a failure by my family. Out here, they judge you on who you are personally, your interests and how hard you work, not on your pedigree.”

Also, he finds there is no “caste” system in the West that was found in the East.

“My dad couldn’t join certain country clubs because we were Jewish,” Schonburn said. “You just didn’t find that kind of thing out here.”

Once again, he focused on public health care policies at the think tank. His job demanded a lot of travel across the country, which he didn’t like.

In 1976, he went to work for Gov. Dick Lamm to focus on health care issues.

Part of his job was to oversee nursing homes.

“We worked on ways to improve care at nursing homes,” he said.

Most of the nursing homes were “adequate,” but none of them were very good, he said.

He also got a look at the worst ones, where residents were being overmedicated, strapped into chairs and often lived in overcrowded, squalid conditions.

“They were just being warehoused before they died,” Schonbrun said.

“They were run by nasty people and they were gloomy,” he said.

“Thinking back, I think part of my inspiration for Balfour was to not be like that. At the same time, I did not want to be part of a revolution and end up being a despot like (Fidel) Castro.”

He also was the chairman of a clean air quality committee spearheaded by Lamm and Denver Mayor Federico Peña.

“When I came here, there was this terrible gray cloud and through our efforts we helped clean it up,” he said.

“I’m very proud of that.”

After three years with Lamm, he was recruited as the No. 2 person at National Jewish Health, with the understanding that he would be groomed to replace the aging president of the hospital.

“National Jewish is one of the best research and teaching hospitals in the country,” Schonbrun said.

“It was the No. 1 respiratory hospital in the country,” he said.

After about two years, the president and CEO had a heart attack and decided to retire.

Schonbrun was tapped to replace him.

“I was only 31 when I got the job,” and the trustees thought it was vey likely that he would spend the rest of his career there.

“I told them they should expect me to stay there for five years and maybe 10 years at the outside,” he said.

Instead, he spent 13 years at National Jewish. He still has ties with National Jewish, as he has been on the board since 2006.

His next stop was at Blue Cross, which recruited him, but it wasn’t a good fit.

“At that time, and I don’t know what it is like today, it was very bureaucratic. It was far more bureaucratic than National Jewish. It was even more of a bureaucracy than the state government, which is saying a lot.”

He left to become a budding venture capitalist in Palo Alto, California, marking one of the few times he has left Colorado during the past 42 years.

His charge was to raise money for companies that could find better ways to manage diseases that were effective both in terms of care and cost.

“I found some really exciting programs, but I could never get the venture capital funds excited enough to fund them, so I started looking around the corner,” for another job.

In the mid-1990s, he moved to Miami to join a friend who was the president of Vitas, a national, for-profit hospice system.

Just joining the company was a sea change for him, as far as his perspective on a for-profit business.

“It’s worth noting I was a child of the ‘60s and I thought all business was bad,” Schonbrun said.

“A good thing was to work for nonprofits and the government, which I had done,” he said.

But working for the hospice company and to some extent working as a venture capitalist changed his mind.

“I realized that making money and doing good were not mutually exclusive,” he said.

Vitas hired a new president and he left the company.

He moved back to Colorado and decided after working for a for-profit company and as a venture capitalist, he wanted to grow a company from scratch.

“I just wasn’t sure in what field it would be,” he said.

While working at Vitas, he moved his mother from a senior center in Boulder to one in Miami.

He now brought her back to Denver and put her in Shalom Park.

He realized that in every center he had been in, something was always lacking.

“The Miami center looked nice, but the level of care wasn’t as good as in Boulder,” he said.

“The Shalom center had the best educational programs, but the food was about what you would expect at a college dorm.”

He realized the needs of aging, wealthy baby boomers weren’t being met by most facilities.

And, unlike the previous generation, which grew up in the Depression, baby boomers weren’t adverse to spending money, as long as they felt they were getting a lot of value for the money.

He believes he has achieved those goals at Balfour, where residents dine on gourmet meals, they have their choice of 300 activities a month and free transportation whether they need to see a doctor or are in the mood for a shopping spree at Cherry Creek.

He also hires top people from hotels.

“I recruit the top people from the hospitality industry and pay them very well,” he said.

At Balfour, he also can indulge his longtime passion of good architecture.

For example, he hired renowned architect Robert A.M. Stern to design the Balfour center in Riverfront. That development was delayed by the Great Recession and he later brought in Klipp Architecture to refine the design.

“I will never do cookie-cutter designs,” Schonbrun said.

The design of every center must be tailored to the city and site. Also, the interior must be as inviting as the exterior.

The interior design is important even to the color of the paint. He said many centers paint their walls a drab white or grey, so as not to offend anyone. But his centers don’t shy away from brighter colors, which he thinks brightens the mood of the residents.

Going forward, he envisions opening other Balfour Senior Centers in “super” high-income ZIP codes, across the country.

“I am more inclined to open them in the Western states, probably focusing on California, than on the East Coast,” he said.

When not working, he spends a lot of time with his twin 12-year-old boys, who he has with wife Susan Jeroe, who is the general counsel for Balfour.

“I spent a lot of time shuttling them to skiing, soccer and basketball games and things like that,” he said.

As a family, they also like to travel outside of the country once a year and he hits the gym three times a week.

“Chronologically, the calendar tells me I am 67, but internally, I think of myself as 39,” he said.

“Back in the day, I played a lot of tennis and was pretty good, but I haven’t played much tennis the past 10 years, so I plan to get back to that, too.”

One thing he doesn’t plan to do is abandon Balfour for another career choice.

“If you looked at my resume, I would look like a real job hopper,” Schonbrun said.

“I love what I do. And I think we are only in the second or third inning of this industry. I think it is about to really take off. I’m going to keep doing this until they carry me out.”

Featured in CREJ’s XXXXXXX issue

John Rebchook has been taking the pulse of the Denver-area and Colorado commercial real estate world for almost 35 years. He joined the editorial staff of CREJ in 2011. Prior to that, he was the Real Estate Editor of the Rocky Mountain News from 1983 until it closed in 2009.