Making something from nothing

Dr Saif Hayek
Dr Saif Hayek

Experience has taught Dr Saif Hayek to strive for success, even when life throws seemingly insurmountable obstacles his way. By Chris Sheedy.

Today Dr Saif Hayek is the very image of success. He is the owner of two respected and award-winning dental practices under the Advanced Dental Services banner, one on the Central Coast, New South Wales, and the other in Edgecliff in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. He has also recently launched the Health & Smiles Medical Centre, a clinic that offers GP and health allied services. And he even dabbles in property development and share trading.

It’s an amazing record for a dentist who is just 35 years of age, but even more incredible when you realise he has achieved it all in just 12 years, having had to start over in a new country after losing everything in his homeland.

Hayek spent his childhood, school and university years as part of the Christian minority in Iraq. As the situation deteriorated around him, leading up to the US invasion, the challenges became so desperate that in 2002 he had to abandon the dental clinic he had recently opened with a partner and leave the country, never to return. Everything he knew including friends, business and several family members, was left behind.

When he landed in Australia the young dentist was forced to start over again. He began by expanding his education, studying and earning an MBA at the University of Technology, Sydney. While he was at university he met Veronika, a Slovak from Bratislava who was completing a Masters in marketing. Veronika would later become his wife.

Then Hayek completed his dentistry accreditation in order to practice in Australia, having graduated from dentistry at the University of Baghdad in 2001.

“I completed that accreditation quite quickly. I have heard nightmare stories about people having to do it several times before they pass,” he says. “But I work and study very hard and I was very keen to get on with my career and begin learning new skills.

“Actually the past 10 years have been spent working day and night and constantly learning,” he says. When Bite meets Dr Hayek, he has just arrived home from Japan, literally an hour or two earlier, where he attended a conference and also took a few days off to enjoy a skiing adventure. It quickly becomes clear that every minute in his life is packed with activity, either physically or mentally challenging—mostly both. This interview itself has been carefully planned to ensure it fills what could have been downtime. Very few moments in his life are wasted. But this is the way things would have to be for anybody to achieve so much in such a short period of time, as Dr Hayek has.

“I obsessively learn new techniques every year,” he tells us. “I have spent a lot of money attending courses on various topics and I now have over 150 certificates for different courses and seminars. When I first came to Australia it was certainly a challenge, but I was never discouraged. I just like to keep moving forward and learn from my experiences.”

Dr Hayek’s first practice, in Woy Woy on the NSW Central Coast, was opened in 2008 after he spent a few years working within various clinics. He opened the Edgecliff practice two years later. “I’m not a fan of the large corporatisation of dental practices,” he says. “It takes away from their levels of service. I just wanted a few of my own, enough to be able to control the quality and service.”

From the inception of each practice, he insists on implementing a comprehensive marketing and awareness campaign that includes advertising in different mediums including television, radio, school events, sport events, buses, cinemas, newspapers and cosmetic magazines—sometimes considered controversial in the world of dentistry. We ask specifically about his TV campaigns, obviously successful as it’s a medium he utilises to this day, and the philosophy behind them.

“The advertorials have been part educational, explaining various procedures, and our patients really liked that,” he says. “Many didn’t even know that certain treatments were available before they saw the ads and they came in to discuss them with us. Advertising isn’t cheap and does not always achieve the intended purpose, but I think it was a great investment.”

But what was the main intended messaging in the advertisements? “The most important thing is that I advertise ethically and in doing so I spread the message that I do not compromise on quality. Some dentists don’t advertise at all because they don’t believe in it, and that’s fine. Some choose to advertise to tell people about their low prices and perhaps that works, too. But I believe that if you drop prices you sacrifice quality and I didn’t want to do that. I advertised instead to educate people and to let them know of the quality of our work, and the response was very positive.”

Dr Hayek has worked hard during his time in Australia, but interestingly he has also found time to play hard. His hobbies include skiing, scuba diving and various other sports, and for a three-year period he took to the air and went skydiving every weekend. Once he and Veronika started a family—they now have two daughters, Isabella (three) and Sophia (seven months)—he made the sensible decision to stop jumping out of planes.

But all of that energy had to be channelled somewhere, so instead he concentrated on growing his businesses. As he employed and trained staff and welcomed new clients into his practices, always with an eye on quality of service, Dr Hayek dreamed of one day being recognised for the quality of his clinics’ work. And of course it happened—he just never imagined it would happen so soon.

Last year his business was nominated, amongst several others, by a group of Sydney newspapers for Sydney’s Best Dental Practice. Ultimately decided by readers through a voting system, the award was won by Dr Hayek’s Edgecliff practice, Advanced Dental Services.

“I was so proud,” he says. “Customer service and quality are very important to me. It is everything. It is why I spend long hours at work and strive to learn so much. I felt, at that moment, that my hard work was not a waste of time and that I had started to reap the fruits of my work.”

Dr Hayek doesn’t take all of the credit for his astounding success, though. “Without the support of my wife and the amazing staff that I have, I would never have reached where I am now,” he says. “I have dentists, nurses, administration staff and now doctors too, working within my businesses and I always want them to feel respected and appreciated. I can’t continually improve a business without the very best staff being on board.”

Perhaps fitting for somebody who has proven to have such a hunger for knowledge is the fact that Dr Hayek is also a casual tutor at the University of Sydney’s Westmead Centre for Oral Health.

“I like to share my own knowledge and experience with young dentists,” he says. “I give seminars locally and overseas and tutor at the university. And I learn from the students too; they ask brilliant questions. They make me go home and do further research. It’s very powerful.”

The urge to give back has also seen Dr Hayek travelling into parts of the world that do not have dental services as advanced as our own, into regions such as the Middle East and Central America, to give his time in the name of charity dentistry. Similar to his experiences with the university students, Dr Hayek says he is constantly learning skills and coming up with business ideas during these trips, too. On his return he’s able to merge some of these ideas and lessons into the running of his own businesses.

Dr Hayek’s clinics now employ up to 30 people and show no signs of slowing their growth. “I don’t know what I will be able to achieve in the future but I do like to challenge myself and constantly improve and grow,” he says. “Business success is about adapting to change. Some say survival of the fittest is being the biggest or smartest, but I say it’s about having the ability to adapt and to change quickly. That is what I have had to do throughout my entire life. Success has been about developing new skills, seeking constant education and working incredibly hard.”

“The combination of life experiences from when I left my home country, losing everything, starting again from zero, building a business and seeing people within that business thriving and clients enjoying the levels of service and expertise—it has all enriched my life and made me appreciate everything so much more. I wouldn’t do anything differently, not a bit.”

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