Change of ownership

Dental therapist/hygienist Marie McCormack founded Toothbrush Land in Toowoomba, Queensland.
Dental therapist/hygienist Marie McCormack founded Toothbrush Land in Toowoomba, Queensland.

The ownership of dental practices by non-dentists is a growing trend but what are the challenges faced by this new breed of entrepreneurs? Frank Leggett investigates

“Successful people aren’t born—they have to go out and learn it. They experience trial and error, refine it, keep learning and keep practising,” says dental therapist/hygienist Marie McCormack, who founded Toothbrush Land, located in Toowoomba, Queensland.

McCormack is at the vanguard of a new wave in the dental industry—non-dentists who own and run a dental practice. While the deregulation of the Australian dental industry was a long and involved process, its implementation opened the door for non-dentists to buy their own practice. While the main impact has been the growth of the corporate model of practice ownership, there’s also a growing number of practices now owned by individuals who are not dentists.

The one thing these individuals have in common is that, generally, non-dentist owners have worked in the industry in some other capacity. While the traditional business model of a dentist run-and-owned surgery is still the most common type of practice, the non-dentist model has found favour right across the country. And the trend is growing. These practice managers, hygienists, dental assistants and oral health therapists who have jumped into the deep end of practice ownership face a range of unique challenges and opportunities.

Marie McCormack spent over 30 years as a dental therapist/hygienist before deciding to take on her biggest challenge—opening Toothbrush Land in 2011. The practice is situated on the western side of Toowoomba which is currently experiencing growth in the population due to the coal seam gas industry and the new airport. As well as running the business, McCormack owns the building itself. She became the project manager after purchasing a residential house in a medical zone opposite a major private hospital, and transformed the building into a reality.

“To be successful, you need to understand the true meaning of efficiency, effectiveness and astuteness, as well as the ability to face a range of challenges and opportunities, while remaining resilient,” she explains.

As well as focusing on continuing education in terms of clinical development, McCormack completed a business degree with a double major in commence and human resource management. She has also commenced an MBA which is on hold due to the heavy workload of managing and working in the practice.

So, what’s her key to making the business flourish? “I truly understand that the customer is the most important part of any practice so the challenge is to make the business customer focused,” she says. “The best part of the journey is to remind all staff the importance of meeting the individual needs of the customer as well as offering a high quality clinical component.”

Dental nurse, practice manager, receptionist, consultant and now practice owner Deborah Wilson started Somersmiles Dental in Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula just under two years ago. With such a varied background, Wilson has a broad insight into the business models of an array of dental practices. Her work as a consultant saw her involved in every aspect of the business, including building up practices prior to being sold, helping dentists purchase second practices, marketing strategies, staffing problems and increasing sluggish turnover.

Even though Somersmiles was a start-up business with no patient base, this wasn’t completely by choice. “When I was looking at established practices to purchase, I received a lot of knock-backs,” she recalls. “The fact that a lot of dentists were not willing to sell to me was never going to stop me from achieving my goal.”

Wilson spent three years searching for the perfect site because, once again, she was fully aware that position is everything. “I chose the site predominantly because it’s in an allied health building,” she explains. “We all run separate businesses—pathologists, podiatrists, doctors and so on—with our own suites and we’re right next door to a medical centre. We also have oodles of parking. That was a priority when I was searching for a site—easy access to the building and lots of parking.

“I was determined to offer services that aren’t readily available on the peninsula so we do nursing home visits, sleep dentistry, kids’ check-ups and cosmetic dentistry. This practice has become a one-stop shop for patients.”

The success of Somersmiles Dental is due in a large part to the relationships that Wilson builds with her patients. She and her staff work hard on establishing a rapport with their clients, and time is never an issue. “Because I’m not needed in surgery, I can always find time to be with my patients,” she says. “If a new patient rings on the phone, I could spend 20 minutes on that call—and that 20 minutes is well invested. A dentist is usually unable to spare that amount of time simply because they need to be in surgery. That is definitely an advantage to being a non-dentist practice owner.”

Now running a successful dental management firm, Julie Parker had once become a real groundbreaker as the first non-dentist to own a practice in Australia. A dental nurse and receptionist, she purchased Dendy Village Dental in Melbourne’s beachside suburb of Brighton in 2003. The practice had been operating since 1970, had plenty of goodwill, a good location and an owner/dentist more than willing to sell.

“The original practitioner, David, is a really nice guy who was quite open to the idea of a non-dentist owning a practice,” says Parker. “He prepped the patients beautifully even though a handful followed him to his new practice in Port Melbourne. He told them not to be ridiculous and to go back to my practice. It was through him that I met the dentist I hired full-time. She was a godsend and we worked together beautifully for the 10 years I owned the practice.”

A lot of what she learnt during her time as a practice owner has been put to good use in her new venture, Julie Parker Dental Management. Her consultancy operates to help dental practitioners improve their business.

As a new enthusiastic practice owner back in 2003, Parker first contacted the Australian Dental Association. “I told them I was a non-dentist practice owner who wanted to become a member,” she recalls. “They were hugely supportive but they informed me that I could not join—you had to be a dentist to be a member.

“I knew this could become quite a problem as more non-dentists buy practices and the ADA has no governance over them. Anything I did was not under the auspices of the organisation, and that includes advertising, treatment of patients, quotations and financial management. That was back in 2003 and the situation is the same today,” she says.

Sharon Roberston has spent 27 years working in the dental industry and is now the managing director of Momentum Management. She is seeing more and more non-dentist practice owners signing onto their dental management programs. “There is a discernible shift from dentist ownership to non-dentist ownership in practices across Australia,” she says.

“There are a couple of reasons why I believe this will become a popular business model in the future. Firstly, I have met hundreds of dental practice owners and 80 to 90 per cent of them want to focus on what they do best—dentistry. It can be very time consuming and overwhelming to learn the business of dentistry. However, it can be very rewarding if you can invest time and effort into it.

“Secondly, there have been many changes in the dental industry in such areas as employment law, work health and safety issues and dental regulations. It can be hard to keep up. In addition to this, we have more demanding customers who expect more for their money. There is really no option but to get on top of all of this and become more business focused.

“Finally,” Roberston continues, “there are significant profits to be made in dentistry, but to achieve these profits you need to have great clinical skills and excellent business management skills. It can become exhausting trying to be both, which is why we are seeing more non-dentist owners.”

While the overall percentage of non-dentist practice owners is still small, it remains to be seen what the eventual impact on the dental industry will be. What can’t be denied, however, is that this trend is growing—and growing fast. This is a business model that liberates dentists from the day-to-day running of the practice so they can concentrate on developing exceptional clinical skills. Meanwhile, the owner has the time to create a customer-centric practice while ensuring all aspects of the business—be it marketing, social media presence, staff relations or accounts—are working seamlessly.

There are so many challenges, benefits and all the usual struggles and concerns when a non-dentist opens their own practice that it can be a daunting prospect. But Deborah Wilson has one final thing to say. “The only advice I would give anyone considering opening a dental practice is to go for it. If you feel that you have hit a dead end in your career as a dental nurse, hygiene therapist or practice manager, there’s something else you can do that’s very fulfilling. I have not regretted one day since I opened my own practice.”

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