Real Estate

Finance & Economy

From counting silver dollars to building a $32B business: Debra A Cafaro's Story

May 12, 2021

From counting silver dollars to building a $32B business: Debra A Cafaro's Story

Debra A. Cafaro

Chairman & CEO of Ventas

On the latest Walker Webcast, Debra discussed her path to success, from growing up in Pittsburgh to becoming CEO of Ventas.

Debra A. Cafaro is one of the most prolific CEOs in the U.S., bar none. On the latest Walker Webcast, Debra discussed her path to success, from growing up in Pittsburgh to taking over as Chairman and CEO of Ventas and saving the company. She explains the business strategies she is executing at Ventas, the trends she's seeing within the healthcare and real estate industries, her leadership style, and what led her to part ownership of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

In this Walker Webcast, Willy speaks with guest Debra A. Cafaro, Chief Executive Officer of Ventas. A graduate of Notre Dame and the University she’s engaged across non-profit, arts, education, sports and many other sectors and is an owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins. She was born to first generation immigrants who taught her to have a generous spirit even when they didn’t have much. Her father spent a lot of time with her and her sister at a time when not many fathers were doing so, and he gave her a love of sports. Her father was a postman who became interested in rare coins: receiving his paycheck in silver dollars, he began selling rare coins to supplement his income. That money helped Debra go to school; she was the first member of her family to go to college.

She transitioned from law to business in large part because of her willingness to go above and beyond and do anything for her clients. Additionally, a deep love of numbers and deal making played a large part in her transitioning fields, this led her to create meaningful relationships with members of the business community. Debra has been an outspoken advocate for women in business and often speaks to the lack of female CEOs. For women in the mid-point of their careers, she says you need to unflinchingly understand yourself and identify who you truly are and what you want. This allows you to make decisions with confidence, take risks, and organize your life.

Debra joined Ventas 20 years ago when, Debra admits, it was a bit of a trainwreck. She went in without knowing much about healthcare, and she credits a lot of her success to optimism and willingness to learn. In the beginning, her main focus was survival. She revamped the team and brought in experts to help them stay afloat and then built a strategic plan to grow the business, not just survive. She and Willy discuss the plans she made and the moves that helped grow Ventas from one stream of capital to having multiple holdings. 

One of those lines of revenue is senior housing. This business was affected by COVID-19, but Debra believes it will be coming back strong soon. In April of 2021, more seniors moved into senior housing than any other month since June 2019. This is a vital service because loneliness can be more deadly than smoking. Providing community and activity in these senior communities is a vital part of the Ventas business.

Debra never took a business class and says that learning in person and continuing to learn has been important to her. Another area of her focus on diversity. Ventas is a leader in diversity and inclusion. The data shows diverse groups make better decisions and drive better returns.

As the episode ends, Willy and Debra talk about the future and being willing to reinvent yourself.


Learn more about Ventas by visiting their company website
Connect with Debra Cafaro on LinkedIn
Learn more about Willy Walker and connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn


Read Transcript

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