New kids on the block

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RB1254-0163_PPBusiness ownership isn’t age specific. Angela Tufvesson meets two recently graduated twentysomethings who are the proud new owners of a Sydney dental practice

Many graduate dentists aim to one day purchase their own practice but for Drs Yo-Han Choi and David Jang, the keys to business ownership came much sooner than expected. The childhood friends, aged 24 and 25, attended the same high school and studied dentistry at the University of Queensland, so when the opportunity arose to purchase Canada Bay Dental in Sydney, they were ready to take the next step in their careers.

“After finishing university in Queensland, it was a tough job market and we were looking for jobs all over Australia,” says Dr Choi. “After working in several Sydney practices, I found a job at Canada Bay Dental and after I’d been working there for about six months, the opportunity came up to purchase the practice. I heard the owners were selling, approached them about it and it all went from there. We both really want to do dentistry our way with the patients’ ultimate outcome in mind and without the financial expectations and quotas from employers.”

After securing financial assistance from BOQ Specialist, a bank that caters to doctors, dentists and vets, Drs Choi and Jang officially took over Canada Bay Dental in April. So, how are they building up their client base—and are patients put off by their youth?

A question of branding

One of the biggest decisions facing new practice owners is whether to keep the existing branding or re-brand to reflect a new direction. Because Canada Bay Dental had been through two changes of ownership in as many years—with a period between the two previous owners where the practice was closed—Dr Choi and Jang chose to keep the existing practice name.

“I worked here for a good six months before we purchased the practice so I had a clear idea of what I wanted to change and what I didn’t want to change,” says Dr Choi. “As there was a patient base, we didn’t want to change the branding because we didn’t want to alienate people, especially as we are trying to recapture the old patient base from when the practice was closed. We thought keeping our branding would be our best chance of achieving that.”

According to Jason Borody, managing director of Vividus, a marketing agency specialising in medical businesses, the value of purchasing an existing practice lies in the client base rather than bricks-and-mortar elements such as equipment. And this is a crucial factor in deciding whether to rebrand or stick to the status quo.

“From a marketing point of view what you’re purchasing is the relationship that the practice has with its patients and you’re essentially trying to buy that loyalty,” he says. “When you think about the transferability of the loyalty of the patient base, will rebranding mean that patients will think you’re moving away from the historic value of a practice they’ve grown to love?

“If it’s been a very successful practice, the patients probably want to know you’re going to be keeping the most valuable part of the existing practice and perhaps adding some additional benefits. If you don’t have a lot of that existing value in place, often there’s a terrific opportunity to put your own mark on it and modernise the practice.”

Smooth transition

New practice owners are often concerned that a significant proportion of the patient base they worked so hard to purchase decides to leave the surgery because their regular dentist has left. But Borody says working with the existing owners to ensure a smooth transition can help to secure the ongoing support of patients.

“There’s a lot that can be done in terms of communication well before you take over the practice,” he says. “It’s important to work with the previous owner to make sure that transfer of ownership is done effectively and the patients are brought on the journey in the most effective way.”

Drs Choi and Jang worked closely with the previous owners to ensure patients were informed about the change of ownership and, given their inexperience, to make sure they were familiar with the day-to-day running of the surgery. “We spent three months with the previous owners learning about the patient base as well as how to order supplies, how to manage some aspects of the business and so on,” says Dr Jang.

Changing times

Even if they do decide to keep the existing name and branding, Borody says most new owners like to make some changes after taking over an existing practice. Drs Choi and Jang were keen to implement a young, fresh image that highlights their recently honed dental skills and commitment to long-term ownership of the practice.

“Because we are relatively inexperienced owners, we thought that if we had a practice manager who had been with the previous owners for a long time that they might be a bit stubborn with regards to any changes,” says Dr Choi. “We wanted it to be clear that we were the new owners and to overcome that, we replaced the staff with brand new staff—younger, more vibrant and enthusiastic people who share our vision for long-term growth.”

The pair employs four staff and one associate dentist. Unlike the previous owner, they both work as dentists in the practice, which Dr Jang says is particularly attractive to their client base. “I don’t think the patients were happy seeing a different dentist every time they visited, so people are very happy to see us at work in the practice,” he says.

As well as maintaining the existing website, Canada Bay Dental now has a Facebook page and is involved with local schools and businesses through sponsorships. In the practice, some procedures are offered at a lower price point to try to attract new patients. “We attract patients with a cheap deal on a standard procedure, then we use that as an opportunity to show what we can do for them and try to keep them on as a regular patient,” says Dr Choi.

The re-born practice is still in its infancy, but Drs Choi and Jang are cautiously optimistic. “In the short time we’ve been open, our case books are definitely growing,” says Dr Choi. “David didn’t have any patients here when we opened and tomorrow he’s seeing 10 patients.”

Borody says there are likely to be many opportunities for young dentists to purchase practices as the baby boomer generation begins to retire. “These are people who started their careers at a time when the healthcare profession didn’t often market, promote or communicate,” he says. “It was all about focusing on the health, diagnosis and treatment of patients and that was it. So, there are a lot of practices that people are exiting where they’ve done little marketing, or marketing is a fairly recent practice activity, and in many cases there are great opportunities.”

As for their youth, Drs Choi and Jang say some patients are pleased to be treated by dentists who have recently completed their training, while the occasional person enquires about their age. Ultimately, says Dr Choi, “we believe we are mature enough and we have the right technical skills to build a successful practice”.

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