Sherry Smyth, the President and CEO of Dunwoody Village, a continuing care retirement community located in Newtown Square, spoke with PIVOT Today about her blue-collar upbringing in suburban Chicago, the impression her hard-working mother made on her, the lessons she learned from some of her earliest jobs, and what brought her to Delaware County.
Smyth also discussed what her priorities are and what sets Dunwoody Village apart in the intense competition for senior services, as well as the popularity of her organization’s rehabilitation services program.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born, the youngest of two children, in Oak Park, Illinois and I grew up in Brookfield, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. My brother, who was five years older than me, has since passed.
What did your parents do?
Both my parents were blue collar workers. My father was a second-generation meat cutter. My grandfather came over from Czechoslovakia and worked for a grocery store meat cutting business.
He saved his money and eventually bought his own meat market. He had three boys and a daughter, and he made sure each of them was set up in their own businesses. My father had his own small grocery store in Chicago.
My mother was a waitress for many years, as well as working in retail and a Sears catalog department at a local Sears store.
What do you remember about growing up in Brookfield?
We went out the door at the crack of dawn and came home in time for supper when it was getting dark. We had no worries or fears. It was a completely different world back then. Brookfield was very suburban, with a lot of prairies and open fields. We played many different games outside with the neighborhood kids.
Did you play sports?
I played baseball with the neighborhood boys and girls. When I was in my early teens, my mom called me in one day and told me I had to stop playing with the boys. Apparently, they were getting upset that I was always outplaying them! Back then, they did not really push sports for girls.
I picked up golf a few years ago; it’s an extremely humbling sport.
What was your first job?
I always worked. My parents had a very strong work ethic and felt that they were successful, so they did not think my brother or I needed to attend college.
Looking back, we were relatively poor. At the time, women were counseled to be a teacher, secretary or a nurse, or get married and have 2.5 kids. I did not want to do any of that, so I worked very hard, saved my money, and put myself through college, as did my brother. He became a doctor and I became a Certified Public Accountant.
Your mother made a big impression on you, didn’t she?
She absolutely did. She did it all. She worked a lot of hours, always had time for her friends, made clothes for my dolls, read to me at night, and so much more. I don’t know how she did it all. She was my hero.
What kind of jobs did you have growing up?
In the summers, I worked for my dad in the grocery store. When I was young, I dusted the shelves and then graduated to pricing things. I didn’t make any money doing this so after a few years, I essentially started my own business. I bought a craft kit, made collectibles shaped like dogs out of yarn and wire, and sold them at my dad’s shop at the counter.
After realizing how expensive the kit was, I figured out that I should just buy the materials separately to save some money. That’s when I really started making money.
As I got older, around 15, I worked as a checker at the supermarket in my town. I did that all through high school and stuck with it until I was the Assistant Manager a few years later.
What lessons did you take away from those work experiences that stay with you today?
I learned customer service and internal control. I heard this saying once, “find a way to say yes,” and I think that applies well to that type of work. “Yes” is a tiny word that can do big things.
What kind of music were you listening to in high school?
I wasn’t listening to too much music until college, but I liked Rock and Roll music – the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, the Rolling Stones, and Jimmy Buffett of course. I am not into too much new music. I still like the oldies.
Where did you go to college?
I began taking classes at the local junior college. I did not know which classes to take so I signed up for the basics and an accounting class. I wasn’t able to take Accounting 101 because I did not take bookkeeping in high school, so I signed up for Accounting 095. I did very well in the class and moved on to Accounting 101.
I was still in community college at this point, and my next class was Cost Accounting. I had a professor who was very encouraging and asked me where I was going to continue my education. I had some friends coming back from their time in the military, so the combination of both my friends and that professor inspired me to consider DePaul University in Chicago, where I received my Bachelor of Arts degree in Commerce and Accounting.
Looking back, was DePaul University a good choice for you?
Absolutely! I received a great education. I was a little worried in the beginning because it was a Catholic college and I grew up agnostic. You had to take a certain number of humanities classes, in addition to your major, so I had a very well-rounded major. While I was in school, I worked part-time at a local hospital doing different tasks, which helped me get into my first job post-graduation.
What did you do after graduation?
After college, I got a job and an apartment. I went to work for the federal government in the Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) department. At the hospital, I was doing Medicare billing, and I knew the regulations, so the first job HEW put me on was to audit the Blue Cross contract for Medicare. I did a few audits, and then the government sent me to “auditor intern school.”
I went to this training in Philadelphia, which was majority men and about four of us women. During the week-long seminar, there was this one man who liked to tease me. As it turned out, this gentleman was the man I ended up marrying! We did the long-distance thing for a while and then I moved to Lansdowne where we married two years later in 1977. We just celebrated our forty-first wedding anniversary.
At the time, he was working for HEW as well, and we did not want to work together. As I was leaving Chicago, I was called in by Asher Tenner, the regional director, who asked me why I was leaving. He would not accept my resignation and told me to take a leave of absence in case it didn’t work out with the guy. It was a real gift. Because I was a government employee, I got a job in Philadelphia working for the Department of Defense.
Looking back over the years, who were the people who gave you a chance?
The professor at my junior college, as well as Asher Tenner from HEW who would not let me resign.
In Philadelphia, Lloyd Lewis in the Kendal Corporation where I got my first job in long term living as a controller.
Robert Morrow who was the CEO of Presby Homes hired me to be their CFO. When Morrow left, I served as the interim CEO before returning to the CFO job. It was during this transitionary period that I was inspired to get a nursing-home administrators license. I worked 9 months at Broomall Presbyterian, and I studied for the 120-hour course before sitting for the exam. I passed, but the test was more difficult than the CPA exam!
A colleague named Jim Standish owned a senior living consulting company called Third Age. I worked as a consultant filling in as a CFO & CEO. Jim had me interview for a position in Bucks County, the search committee asked if I had a nursing home administrators license. I went home that night, and the license came in the mail. I went to work for them as Executive Director in an interim position for six months and then they hired me for the job. I worked for them for them about five years full-time.
Then the Dunwoody job became available. My colleague, Sherry Outten, who worked with me at Presby Homes and Kendal, told me about Dunwoody looking for a CEO. Right before Thanksgiving, I was in church, and the sermon inspired me to apply for the Dunwoody job.
Why do you think Dunwoody offered you the job?
I lived in Newtown Square and was, and still am, involved in the local community. I currently serve as an elected auditor, but at that time, I was a supervisor for six years. I was Chairman of the Board of Supervisors at the time.
My background as a CFO, CEO, a CPA, and having a nursing home administrator license helped me. I was named CEO in 2005.
As we head into 2019, what are your immediate priorities and projects you’re working on?
The government is very fluid, so the rules regarding senior communities like Dunwoody are constantly changing. It’s important to keep up with the different rules and regulations that are required of us.
Dunwoody Village is celebrating 45 years of providing stellar elder care services to residents of the Delaware Valley so my focus is on rebuilding the infrastructure of our community. We recently invested in a generator, which was a massive undertaking. We’ve upgraded systems throughout including plumbing, electrical, and more. We did this all as the residents were living here.
It was three stages worth of work over five years. We are redoing our lobby and in the process of reinventing our dining services program; our lounge has become very popular with the residents. We are redoing our lounge in the upcoming lobby renovation, too.
The competition for senior services is growing astronomically, what are you doing to keep Dunwoody at the top?
I interview all our prospective residents and ask them, “why Dunwoody?” They always say the friendliness of the staff and residents. We did a culture survey in the last few years to see what we are doing well, what we need to work on, etc.
We always try and anticipate the changing regulations so we can stay ahead of that. Our rehabilitation services program is very popular. We have a lot of individuals who want to rehab here. Our healthcare is 5-star quality rated from the Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services in addition to growing our Dunwoody at Home (home care/home health) program.
What do you do in your free time?
I like to golf. My husband and I try to travel as much as possible. We like to go to Europe, Key West, and the Midwest to see our family out there. I am also on the Board for the Family Support Line of Delaware County serving as the Treasurer in addition to volunteering on the Board for the Newtown Square Business Association serving as Vice President.
Finally, Sherry, what is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
When I was at Kendal, there was a gentleman named Mr. Greenleaf who did a series of booklets on servant leadership. I always try to lead by example.
Also, my minister at church has a thing called “nudges and hunches” – if you have a dream or a thought about someone, check in on them.