Meet Grant and Andrea Thayer, the purchasers of Pine Crest Nursing Home

Grant and Andrea Thayer with Arthur, their therapy dog. Tina L. Scott photo.


Up until now, the Lincoln County community has known the purchasers of Pine Crest Nursing Home in Merrill only as a phrase on the recently-approved Asset Purchase Agreement: “Merrill Campus, LLC and Senior Management, Inc.” and that the signature on that document was that of Grant Thayer, the registered agent for those companies.
Now it’s time to meet the couple behind the company names. The two will soon become a part of the Merrill community as the new owners of Pine Crest, effective July 1, 2024.
Grant and Andrea (pronounced ann-dray-uh) Thayer came to Merrill on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, less than 48 hours after the Lincoln County Board approved the sale, to meet Pine Crest employees one-on-one in a meet-and-greet on-site in the employee lounge.
It wasn’t one of those corporate group meetings with executives making an announcement. Rather they wanted a chance for employees to meet them face-to-face, to introduce themselves and to talk with each employee personally. The Thayers wanted Pine Crest employees to get to know them as real people. Most importantly, they wanted to reassure them, answer questions, and lay fears to rest.
“I wanted to come here today and meet people,” Grant said. And to let them know “that they will be fine.”
““This place has a very good reputation,” he said, motioning with his hands to take in the Pine Crest facility. “And all we want to do is continue that. Sure, there’ll be minor changes that we may make down the road … we’ll see how that goes, but we’re going to hire all the people at their same rate of pay. Our benefits will be a little bit different, but we’re just trying to calm nerves and make people feel comfortable with us and what we do.”
As the conversation progressed, I learned Pine Crest employees will actually get some new benefits after the change in ownership.
“One thing I told the staff,” Andrea said, “We’re very family orientated. And if Grant and I can eat free for lunch, so can you. … Now all employees during their shift – and that won’t happen until we take over – but they’ll be able to have a free meal during their shift.”
Another perk? Employees can get things they need at the same cost the Thayers do for the business.
“So we introduced this years ago, and it works out really well,” Andrea said. As an example, “So if I can go to the kitchen and say, ‘Can you get me a whole thing of – a whole slab of broccoli or something – I am having a big party – so I can order it for the same price that I get it for our residents. We rolled that out – all the staff can do the same thing. They will get the same exact food price that we buy it for the residents.”
“We’re sharing that. They can buy food at our cost,” she said.
The Thayers’ businesses are family owned, and they believe in operating like a family. Time and again Andrea repeated: “I mean, we’re a family.” So they choose to treat their employees the same way they would treat family members and offer them the same perks.
The offer extends beyond getting food at their cost.
“Office supplies. Whatever we buy for office supplies, they can buy that at cost, too,” Andrea said. Employees can also get scrubs and clothing, cell phones, and other items at their price. “I never want them to think that I can get a better deal than them,” she said. “No. We’re in this together.”
Providing care for the residents … “It takes all of us together,” Andrea said.
“Our goal is respect and dignity for all, for human life – all the people that we care for, regardless of their physical or mental condition,” Grant said. “We’re here to do – all of us here – the very best we can for the people that we’re caring for.” He gestured again with his hands to include the current Pine Crest staff and facility as well as himself and Andrea.

Some background on the Thayers

Grant and Andrea have been married nearly 30 years.
As far as running skilled nursing facilities, “We’ve been doing it for 24 years, on the ownership side of it,” Grant said. “I’m a nursing home administrator; I have my license.”
“I have a degree in business,” Andrea said. “And then I became a CNA when I turned 50.”
She actually became a CNA during COVID to help due to staffing shortages. “I was on the floor in our Barron location … the whole family was,” she said. “We brought our entire family in to help the whole weekend of Thanksgiving.”
“We have three sons: Jack – 26, Peter – 23, and Eli – 13,” Grant said. Some of them are involved in the business part-time, working with “computer software sort of stuff” on the business end of things, he said.
While the Thayers don’t currently live in this area, Grant went to college at University of Wisconsin-Superior, and Andrea attended University of Wisconsin-Stout. Tim Sadowska, who is their regional director and also came to meet Pine Crest employees on Wednesday, also attended UW-Stout and lives in Chippewa Falls.
Though their legal business entities are named differently, the Thayers’ skilled nursing facilities are collectively branded as “Care & Rehab, a Family Company.”

Drawn to Merrill

Grant said when they heard about Pine Crest, they wanted to ensure that it would NOT close. “It’s a great place with a great facility,” he said. “Great staff. Great community of people.”
“I was a ‘secret shopper’ here to see what it would be like,” Andrea said. Before they even extended an offer, she came to Merrill and visited Pine Crest and the other assisted living facilities in Merrill without telling anyone where she was from or why she was visiting, just to see what kind of a place Pine Crest was and what the community was like. She came away with a wonderful and positive impression. “And people were kind, loving, and cheerful … helpful,” Andrea said.
Andrea laughed then as she retold it. “I found out today that they [some Pine Crest employees] went to go visit us,” she said. “Somehow the name of our Care & Rehab got out a couple months ago and they ‘secret shopped’ us.”
“They said they really liked it [the facility they visited incognito]. They said kind of the same thing that I said. It was very, very similar,” Andrea said. “They said people were happy, the staff were happy, it was all good. They said, ‘We heard that you’re a family company,’ and we are.”
“This is our mission,” Andrea said. “Respect -“
“- And dignity for all, for human life,” Grant said. “Giving people the best life that they can, regardless of their physical or mental condition. They’re still human beings.”
“Yep, created by God,” Andrea said.
“That’s why we’re here,” Grant said.
“We’ve always been like that,” Andrea said. “If this is God’s path for us, He will lead us, and we will always be led by God, guided by our faith. Because we don’t know. You take risks and you just keep going, but it’s all led by God. I totally believe that – 100%.”

Care & Rehab skilled nursing facilities

The Thayers own five other skilled nursing facilities: “Four currently in Wisconsin, one in Minnesota, so five total right now,” Grant said. But they are licensed for nine, Andrea added.
“Some locations have an assisted living attached, some have senior apartments,” Grant said.
He provided more details about each, by location.
“Ladysmith, it’s unusual in Ladysmith,” he said. “They did a big addition, and so that’s why you have the 1 and 2. [The names of the facilities there are Care & Rehab Ladysmith 1 and Care & Rehab Ladysmith 2.] They’re both skilled nursing, but they’re separate licensures, for some reason, but that’s just how it is there … it’s one building, two licenses. That’s a 62-bed skilled nursing facility with 20 apartments, which are Residential Care Apartment Complexes (RCAC) apartments. It’s a form of assisted living in Wisconsin.” That’s the location members of the Lincoln County Board visited.
“Then we have Cumberland. That’s a 50-bed skilled nursing facility,” Grant said. “It has 20 apartments attached to that, as well.” Those are not RCAC assisted living, he said. “Just senior apartments, but we provide some services there, like housekeeping and one meal a day.”
“Then there’s Barron, which is a 50-bed skilled nursing facility. And then there’s Boscobel, which is a 50-bed skilled nursing facility that’s attached to Gundersen Hospital.”
“And then there’s Ostrander – that was our first facility – south of Rochester in Minnesota. That’s a 25-bed skilled nursing facility with six assisted living apartments,” Grant said.
The couple previously owned two additional facilities. One was in Dallas, Wis., which is located northwest of Eau Claire and just south of Barron. It was a 50-bed skilled nursing facility they closed down some years ago because the town was too small to sustain the facility, Grant said. The population of Dallas has been declining, and the 2020 census reported the population was just 351 people, down from more than 400 in 2010. “We really didn’t have the demand for the beds there at that time,” Grant said. “We maybe would now, I don’t know.”
“When we purchased it, it came together – Barron and Dallas,” Andrea said. “They were not going to split it up. It was either you buy two or you buy none.”
They still own the facility building. “Now we use that building for our international program,” Grant said. [More on that later.]
Care & Rehab also previously had a 50-bed skilled nursing facility in Neillsville, attached to the hospital there. Grant explained the hospital had part of the building and the skilled nursing facility had another part. Each had their own ownership of their part of the building through a condominium-type relationship. However, the skilled nursing facility didn’t have any kitchen facility in their part of the building, so they purchased all of their food service through the hospital. When it was decided to build a new hospital in the community, the skilled nursing facility no longer had a source for food service, which ultimately resulted in the closure. The entire building has since been converted into apartments.
“I don’t want to blame anyone,” Grant said. It just is what it is, he said. “We just really didn’t have a choice.”

Excited for the future of Pine Crest

Grant and Andrea are excited about Pine Crest, which is a 120-bed facility, because they know there is a need in the community, and they want to be part of meeting that community need. And they’re excited about the future. There is opportunity for growth here.
Pine Crest will soon open a second memory care area, Grant said. Ryan Hanson, Director of Nursing Home Operations at Pine Crest, and Gary Olsen, Executive Director at North Central Health Care, who will continue to manage Pine Crest in the interim until the actual sale, confirmed this project was already in the works and they are hoping to have it open in about a month. It is nearing completion, but they are waiting on a couple of components that need to be installed, Hanson said. He added they are also excited to get the unit open, as it will fill up quickly based on the number of potential residents they’ve had to turn away in the past because the existing memory care unit is full.
“We want to be able to bring life to the whole campus,” Andrea said. They plan to expand into all areas of the facility, including areas not currently in use.
Embracing community support – committed to keeping Pine Crest open
I talked with the Thayers about the concerns of those who opposed the sale.
“We want the whole community to come together,” Grant said. “We know there’s been this disagreement, you know, on what to do, but we hope everyone will want to support this place. We want community support.”
They are all about keeping Pine Crest open, Andrea said.
“Pine Crest is a huge asset to the community,” Grant said.
The overwhelming concern for Pine Crest became very evident over the last two years. The community’s love for this place … “We don’t want to stop that,” Andrea said. “We want to only enhance that.”
“In all of our locations, we want it to feel like it’s community owned,” Andrea said. “We want everyone to feel comfortable to come in and love everybody and to have that community feeling still. It doesn’t change it that it’s a private company buying it. We still want you guys to feel like it’s a community.”
I spoke to them about the strong community involvement at Pine Crest, school children visiting, area churches providing services, etc.
“We hope that that continues,” Andrea said. “We want that!”
Grant said he understood why people would have gotten involved in the issue, “because this is such an important asset for the community – being an employer, plus caring for community members.”
He understands the concerns, the worry, the fear that some outside corporation might close the business.
There have been instances of players coming in and running businesses into the ground and making cuts, he said. “That happens sometimes,” Grant said. “But that’s not us.”
“We show our location, and if it doesn’t fit … then we’re not a good fit for them,” Andrea said, referring to the process and working with the County Board. “No matter who we are. We don’t try to hide anything.”
And also, she added, “Financially, that doesn’t make any business sense to buy something to close it. Take out a loan from a bank and then close it? So that we can shut it down? It just doesn’t make sense in a financial business.”
They did acknowledge there may be a slight name change to align with their brand, but they haven’t decided 100% for sure yet.
“We were talking a little bit this morning and we’re sort of thinking – we know there’s value and history to Pine Crest, and a good history, so we don’t want to give that up,” Grant said. So they are leaning toward keeping Pine Crest in the name.
While their other facilities were renamed to Care & Rehab followed by the city name, they are considering still keeping Pine Crest in the name because it is recognizable and so highly valued in the community. Yet their brand has value, too, so a hybrid name may be the answer.
“Care & Rehab – we have a really good reputation in western Wisconsin and one in Minnesota,” Andrea said. They want to bring their positive reputation to the name, too. “Together we create a family,” she said.
Perhaps “Care & Rehab – Pine Crest”? That could be a possibility.

Addressing staff shortages

Staffing shortages in the health care industry has been an ongoing problem – and even more so after COVID. Currently, Pine Crest has openings for both RN and CNA positions. With additional staff comes the capacity to care for more residents and expand services.
The Thayers have taken a proactive approach to staffing their facilities when local advertisments fail to get the needed applicants.
Some years ago – “Six or seven, eight, … somewhere in there,” Grant said, they became involved with the Permanent Labor Certification (PERM) program through the U.S. Department of Labor. The program allows employers to recruit and hire a foreign worker to work permanently in the U.S. after they certify that there is a shortage of U.S. workers who are able, willing, qualified, and available to fill the position and that the hiring of a foreign worker will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of U.S. workers doing the same or similar jobs. It’s an extremely long and complicated process and they work with an attorney and an employment agency to facilitate the process.
“So when people first come in – we’ll sponsor people mostly from the Philippines. Or Israel. Or a lot of times they’re Filipinos in Israel,” Grant said. “They’ll come to this country … they don’t have any housing, they don’t have anything. They’re coming with their clothes pretty much, and a few items.”
The former skilled nursing facility in Dallas is now used as temporary housing for them and also used as a training facility.
“It’s a long process, but it gives people permanent residency. And green cards,” Grant said. “I think after maybe ten years, [they] can become naturalized citizens.”
“You have to apply,” Grant said. “It’s a great program. It’s just very lengthy. It takes three, four years, sometimes longer to get them here.”
It also benefits family members of the workers who come, as the Thayers will often sponsor family members of their employees directly to help them immigrate to the U.S., as well.
“It’s a beautiful system,” Andrea said. “They save thousands of dollars by going direct with us.”
Unfortunately, in recent years, the system has become bottlenecked due to the number of people coming to the U.S. illegally who say they are coming for asylum and say they want to work, Andrea said. She explained their attorney told them the U.S. only allows a certain number of foreigners to come to the U.S. to work, and people who come in seeking asylum and say they want to work are getting precendence over all the people who have already been in the “pipeline” to come here legally to work through the PERM program. “They have a quota, and they can’t go over their quota. That’s what the attorney told me last week,” Andrea said.
“I was upset when I heard that because of the fact that these people wait – it’s not just three years – we’re going on four years for our first direct hire program,” she said. “It’s been four years. The paperwork is done. All they’re doing is waiting for their interview. It’s the very last step. When their interview is done, then they can come over and start working for us. But there’s such a hold up with the embassy.”
It’s discouraging, Andrea said, because these are people who want to work here and become citizens and they’re doing it all legally. “And they want to work for us, and they make great caregivers, and we train them as CNA’s,” she said.
“We pay for the training, we put them through the training, get them set up as CNA’s,” she said.
Grant said they are also always hiring local people. “This is just to supplement,” Grant said. It is designed to help alleviate the shortage of care workers in the U.S. They just find it frustrating, as they are taking steps to try to expand skilled nursing care in many communities, and the red tape and delays make it so challenging.

Giving Love

In addition to the regional director and his wife, Grant and Andrea had another companion who accompanied them on their trip to Merrill. His name is Arthur and he is a therapy dog who often visits their various facilities with them. “His job is to give love,” Andrea said. Indeed he does. Wearing a “Therapy Dog” vest which invites anyone and everyone to “Pet Me,” Arthur’s calm, relaxed and friendly demeanor seems to mirror that of his owners. Pine Crest employees seemed to warm to both Arthur and Grant and Andrea on their visit.

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