When Granger Cobb sold his house in 1987 to finance the purchase of an independent-living building, he didn’t imagine that some day he’d be running one of the nation’s largest assisted-living companies. “I was an entrepreneur back then,” says Cobb, recalling his days operating a small startup in California. “I thought we might grow to a handful of communities and that would be that.”

Today Cobb oversees publicly traded Emeritus Corp. (NYSE: ESC), which owns 168 buildings. The Seattle company operates 308 assisted-living properties and lately has been snapping up the buildings it manages. Like other seniors housing companies, its stock has taken a hit. On Feb. 13, the stock closed at $7.96 compared with $23.75 a year earlier.

With a deep commitment to operations, Cobb built his first company into a respectable enterprise with 14 assisted-living properties. In 1998, he sold it to Summerville Senior Living.

Cobb stayed with Summerville and became CEO in 2000 when the assisted-living sector was severely overbuilt. “We worked through that period until we generated positive cash flow,” he says.

When Summerville merged with Emeritus in 2007, Cobb introduced his successful operations platform across the portfolio. The platform was based on a lesson Cobb learned early on: “Communities have to be responsive to the needs of the local market,” he says.

To make that happen, regional directors manage 10 communities and focus on one area, such as service or marketing. They report to division managers who specialize in the same area. “It stays very focused at the local level,” he says.

Cobb also believes in providing information to building managers. Computer software tracks local referral sources and marketing leads. Another program generates resident care plans that show how much staff time each resident needs.

It seems to be working. In the second half of 2008, the occupancy rate in the Emeritus portfolio held steady at 86.6%. Average revenue per occupied unit rose 6.1% in the fourth quarter compared with the fourth quarter of 2007.

Despite the weak economy, Emeritus will carefully continue to grow, says Cobb. “We are looking at every opportunity that comes along.”