Who’s the boss?

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Dental practice owners who are not dentists face special challenges in running their businesses. But the drive and entrepreneurial spirit that made them want to own a practice in the first place often sees them find creative solutions. By Chris Sheedy

“If you have a great team and you have respect for each other then what you can achieve is amazing,” says Lyn Carman of Oral Health Clinic in Adelaide.
“If you have a great team and you have respect for each other then what you can achieve is amazing,” says Lyn Carman of Oral Health Clinic in Adelaide.

When she floated the idea of buying a dental practice in 2008, dental hygienist Lyn Carman says some people were a little perplexed by the decision. After all, she wasn’t a dentist so what business did she have thinking she could run a clinic? But Lyn had worked within major practices for many years and was often tasked with managing the businesses. Along the way she had learnt a thing or two and knew, even if others didn’t, that she had what it would take to succeed.

“Once I really started looking into the business transaction of buying a practice I found more unexpected but interesting challenges,” Carman, who now owns Oral Health Clinic in Adelaide, says. “Insurance specialists had a serious problem with the fact that I was not a dentist and I had to find one that was able to think outside of the box. And one major dental financial company simply shut their books when they found out I wasn’t a dentist. But then, once again, it was a matter of finding finance professionals who could see beyond that simple fact.”

And, of course, it makes sense that a dental business can be run just as well, if not better, by a non-dentist as it can by a dentist. Just as in other industries CEOs are chosen on their management talent and general business experience as opposed to their technical proficiency in the specialisation of the organisation itself—Richard Branson can’t fly a jumbo jet! So, too, it should be within dentistry. But that’s rarely the case.

Stephanie Wilson (right) with fellow fairies Emina Muminovic (centre) and Georgia Campbell.
Stephanie Wilson (right) with fellow fairies Emina Muminovic (centre) and Georgia Campbell.

Stephanie Wilson, an oral health therapist who runs two successful practices in Brisbane and the Gold Coast, under the banner of TFI (Tooth Fairy International) Dentistry, says that when she started her first practice 10 years ago, the reaction from some dentists was nothing short of bizarre.

“Actually, the first problem was that I was female,” Wilson says. “This can be a very male-dominated industry and some male dentists simply refused to even consider a position with us once they heard the practice was managed by a woman. The fact that I wasn’t a dentist was even worse!”

But such reactions allowed Wilson to narrow down her search as it forced her to seriously consider the character of each person she would employ. Wilson and her builder husband had literally built the practice up from the ground. They had planned and created the physical space into which the Brisbane business would fit and over the years, it has expanded from a three-chair to a six-chair surgery. That growth only became possible because of the focus that her original experiences gave her on the direction of her business as driven by its people.

“The ‘Tooth Fairy’ name turned off a lot of potential employees because they didn’t want to concentrate on children,” Wilson, who was recently short-listed as a finalist in the 2013 Telstra Business Women’s Award, says. “But with children come families and parents and friends and neighbours. We now have almost 30,000 patients on our database and I have 10 fantastic dentists on board. When I employ dentists I am interested in their strengths and weaknesses but also in their interests and their character, and I’ve become a very good judge of character over the years.”

In fact, Wilson has learnt that character should come before technical skill in the hiring stakes. “Success in this business is about having the right people around you. It’s about how you handle challenges as a team and how you act towards your patients. I employ on attitude, not aptitude. Skills can be trained but personality cannot,” she says.

Wilson’s first hire was a female dentist who was more important to the business than she realised. As she wasn’t a dentist herself, Wilson had no Medicare provider number and so needed that first employee in order to purchase certain items for the surgery. “That was very stressful,” she says. “But I was fortunate to find a fantastic female dentist who really had faith in what we were doing.”

Carman has also found herself seeking guidance and assistance every so often from her dentist friends. “I have mentors that support me and I still sometimes find myself ringing or emailing them, whether it’s about a specific hire or something to do with running the business. A good mentor is a very powerful thing when you’re running a business,” she says. “For me, they come from previous employers, past lecturers and friends, as well as my father who ran his own business but in another industry. I was also a client of Prime Practice who gave me invaluable coaching, particularly in leadership skills.” Unable to employ graduate dentists as she can’t properly mentor them herself, Carman always hires dentists with experience but like Wilson, she looks first at character. “I need to know that they have a similar philosophy to me, that they have a patient-based focus and not a money-based one,” she says. “Of course, they need to be productive as dentists, but not to the detriment of the patient.”

Finally, Carman says, the other serious challenge is in attracting and retaining great staff. But this is where being a non-dentist actually comes in handy.

“I have been employed by dentists across several practices and I have seen the ups and downs of what it’s like to be on staff,” she says. “That has given me a unique view and I consciously bring to my workplace a team philosophy in which people are empowered and the staff truly do have a good level of control over what goes on and how things are run. When I sold my last business two years ago then started my new one 12 months ago, some of my staff from the old practice followed me across. If you’re not surrounded by great people then the business will suffer. But if you do have a great team and you have respect for each other then what you can achieve is amazing.”

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