By Danny Chan
“Learning is a lifelong process”. The adage holds true whether you are a dental entrepreneur with a proven track record or a practice aggregator with a stable of thriving dental businesses.
It took equal doses of humility and ever willingness to learn from mistakes that led Tony Coulepis, Executive Chairman of Ekera Dental, to engage the management expertise of Dr Hetal Patel. It was Dr Patel’s spirited contribution, turning around a declining practice that Ekera Dental had acquired as its first dental practice in October 2013, that still serves as a useful template for the corporate entity’s unique acquisition model.
Living up to Ekera Dental’s reputation as a “non-corporate corporate”, Tony did not hide behind a corporate veil that is prone to mask inefficiencies and inflate profitability. In fact, he heartily endorses this article’s premise of how his company still benefits from backing the right visionary dentist, and providing him with the necessary tools and investment to restore Ekera Dental’s first practice to its former glory.
Praising Dr Patel’s efforts for steering the company’s maiden acquisition in the positive direction, Tony says: “Dr Patel was the right person at the right time for the challenges we were facing at the time.”
“It was an excellent learning opportunity for the Ekera Dental team and I believe we have come away more knowledgeable and better prepared for future challenges.”
Guts and gumption
Before moving to Australia in 2008, Dr Hetal Patel was running a successful 5-chair practice with his brother in England. From 2000, the Patels had built their practice from scratch with a simple formula: “Treating every client as we would members of our own family and surpassing our patients’ expectations – not just meeting them.”
Values of honesty, integrity and humility were ingrained in their day-to-day operations. The practice thrived and within 6 years, grew to a team of four full-time dentists and 2 hygienists servicing 14,000 clients – seeing up to 150 patients a day.
Dr Patel recounts pulling out all the stops to establish points of difference from competing practices. While many of the ideas may seem commonplace now, the passionate entrepreneur insists they weren’t so for England in the early 2000s.
From simple things like greeting every customer on first-name basis to sound-proofing all treatment rooms to using expensive plasma TVs as promotional vehicles to installing digital x-rays and setting up snack bars in the waiting room, these were considered fancy inclusions that no one was doing at the time.
Careful deliberation permeated every facet of the clinic, including its scent (using wood to absorb the clinical smells) and ambience (incorporating a cafe-like waiting area). As a testament to how uncommon these ideas were, they used an optical store fitter to build the practice as “dental fitters hadn’t gotten to this level of fit outs just yet.”
Still, the most innovative concept had to be their membership-type business model, where patients signed on as members of the practice – paying a monthly fee by direct debit. Over 12 months, the fee would cover the cost of two check-up appointments and two to four hygiene appointments.
“There was an in-built insurance premium that also covered them for free out of hours emergency treatment,” he adds.
The membership program not only provided a steady cash flow but also converted the practice into a preventative focused clinic ensuring a constant stream of patients.
“Patients would leave on the day not paying which made them feel like they were getting this great service for free,” Dr Patel enthuses.
At the crossroads
While Dr Patel found running a successful practice both exhilarating and rewarding, he also realised that it was taking a toll on his personal life. “Something had to change or I was heading for a heart attack at 45.”
This epiphany soon gave way to the major turning point of his life and career: In 2018, he sold the practice and migrated to Australia with his family. “It was a big call and a scary one but again I was up for the adventure. I was cashed up and debt free. I felt a huge burden had come off my shoulders.”
For 9 years, Dr Patel would work as part-time associate, judiciously keeping a work-life balance. However, when the practice he was working in was taken over by a mainstream insurance provider, frustration crept in. “Once you’ve been a boss, it’s hard to fall in line,” he remembers feeling trapped, “I couldn’t control my clinical environment.”
It was around this time Ekera Dental was looking for someone to manage Smile Style Dental. At the crossroads of whether to change employment or buy a new practice, Dr Patel decided he would give the Ekera Dental challenge a shot.
“Ekera Dental was transparent and acknowledged that its first acquisition proved a learning curve for them and mistakes had been made but they were passionate to invest time, resources and money towards fixing it.”
Another turning point
Challenging Ekera Dental’s model from the outset, Dr Patel recalls making tough decisions – even ruffling feathers – pushing through with a new vision and philosophy. Dr Patel took over the management reins in August 2018 and wasted no time to revamp the clinic with a new modern image – one that he says “portrayed the calibre and standards we aspire to”.
Mission statements were scribed onto the walls for all to see. New systems and processes were implemented to ensure day-to-day operations were “purposeful, repeatable and efficient”. From a re-activated patient database, along with Dr Patel’s loyal patients from his previous clinic, the practice was energised with a fresh momentum as were the practice staff who enthusiastically followed Dr Patel’s “hands-on” model.
As good word of mouth began spreading, Ekera Dental continued investing in new technology and equipment. Dr Patel believes that investments such as the 55-inch screens connected to HD intraoral cameras, have proven to be invaluable in patient education and getting treatment plans approved:
“When a patient sees the problem and then owns that problem, they ask for a solution – without the sense of a sales agenda. It’s so powerful.”
Hooked up to these new screens were other diagnostic aids like Diagnocams and Diagnodent along with popular entertainment channels like Netflix. Dr Patel was also instrumental in bringing 3D scanning into the Ekera Dental group. “We had one of the first trios units in the group and now have digital workflows throughout our practice in all treatment modalities.”
Once the practice was moving in the right direction, the focus shifted to providing on-the-job training for clinicians. “We invested in ourselves and attended courses to improve communications with patients. We spent hours on time management and better treatment planning for them to get more from their clinical practice.”
Ekera Dental facilitated training in Invisalign and implant placement so that the Smile Style Dental team was equipped to provide a comprehensive range of services, significantly reducing outside referrals. The clinic would also rely on Ekera Dental’s marketing and administrative expertise to take care of all back-end duties, including payroll, HR and P&L reports.
“Throughout the process, Ekera Dental was open to my ideas and supported me whichever way they could.’
“The results have been amazing. We’ve experienced massive growth. The practice is thriving and its fortunes have turned around. Smile Style is now amongst Ekera Dental’s top performing practices and takes pride in being the jewel in their crown once again.”
Family of practitioners
Dr Patel’s experience working with Ekera’s operations team has been nothing but positive. Once again, alluding to their “non-corporate corporate” style of management, the dentist says Ekera Dental has an inclusive family-oriented culture that promotes healthy cross-practice interaction.
“Their model of allowing clinics to run without interference but taking on the administrative duties is very powerful and really allows the Principals to focus on clinical and day-to-day issues.”
“The group as a whole encourage Principals to mingle, share resources and provide a supportive network. Many of the more experienced practitioners offer their time to mentor other practitioners within the group – in this regard, Ekera Dental is like a family of dental practitioners.”
For someone who has built and sold a successful practice, Dr Patel firmly believes in Ekera Dental’s current model, to which he can claim positive contributions: “I cannot recommend the Ekera Dental model more to Principals looking to sell their practices.”