Debra Cafaro, '82: Turnaround Talent

“I’m not doing everything, making every decision. We’re a five billion dollar company now,” Debra Cafaro, ’82, said. But in the beginning, she made the crucial decisions that turned Ventas around. When she joined the company in March of 1999, the real estate investment trust was floundering. In 2000, shares were going for $3.24; today a share is worth $30.37. Named by The Wall Street Journal as one of the top fifty women to watch in US business, Cafaro says the most significant challenge she faces today as president and CEO of Ventas, Inc. is recruiting and retaining top employees. “I’ve managed to recruit an amazing group of people, and I need to make sure we’re working together, collaborating—marching in the same direction.”

The main focus of her first year or two with the company was saving Ventas, Cafaro says. “We had the value of assets and had to preserve that value. We had to decide if long-term health care could be a field that would yield returns to shareholders. We had to decide if Kindred Healthcare was a good tenant. Once we decided, we could act.” And act she did. Vencor, which emerged as Kindred Healthcare after its bankruptcy, was Ventas’s chief tenant, bringing in ninety-seven percent of its revenue. Cafaro held off creditors that were after Kindred, allowing the company room to reorganize. In those first few years, she managed to get Kindred Healthcare back on its feet. Then Ventas worked to lower its debt, raise capital, gather a formidable management team, and prepare the company to diversify. According to The Wall Street Journal, Ventas was the ninth best performing publicly-traded company over the five-year period ending December 31, 2004.

Cafaro worked as an attorney for thirteen years before joining Ventas. She specialized in finance, corporate, and real estate law and, as an associate, helped found the Chicago-based firm Barack Ferrazzano Kirschbaum Perlman & Nagelberg. She switched from law to business in April 1997 when she was recruited by Ambassador Apartments, a Chicago REIT. She arranged a merger with AIMCO of Denver within a year of becoming president of Ambassador. Cafaro said of the career change, “I love to learn new things. I had clients I enjoyed working with and loved my partners, but I wanted to be accountable for the decisions I made. As lawyers, we give advice, but it’s the clients who are ultimately accountable.”

Cafaro’s love of learning new things made her time at the Law School very positive. Having grown up in a tough neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Cafaro graduated with a high school class of about ninety students, of whom she was one of three who went on to college. After sixteen years of Catholic schooling, including her undergraduate years at Notre Dame as a government and economics major, Cafaro says she found the atmosphere at the Law School liberating. “The main value there is raw intellectual horsepower,” she said. “It was the first place I’d been where it was cool to be smart.”