By Danny Chan
The dynamic dental practitioner is a well-known figure in Victoria’s close-knitted dental circles. With a finger in every pie, Dr Sternson’s abbreviated bio contains more commas than the grammar police would be comfortable with.
President of the Victorian Branch of the ADA; Fellow of the Academy of Dentistry International (FADI); Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne (UoM); Fellow of the Pierre Fauchard Academy (FPFA); Fellow of the International College of Dentistry (FICD); President of the Australian Dental Association, Victorian Branch (ADAVB); Deputy Chairman of the eviDent Practice-based Research Network, treasurer of the Evident Foundation; and Associate Investigator in the eviDent Implant Complications Project; Australian Dental Council Examiner; Professional Assessor for AHPRA and the HCC. The list goes on.
On top of all that, Dr Sternson ran a thriving Melbourne CBD dental practice for 21 years as co-owner and Practice Principal.
Before asking if he requires eight hours of sleep like the rest of us, or surreptitiously keeps “time in a bottle”, you’d be somewhat relieved to find out that Dr Sternson has scaled back his practice involvement in recent years.
Along with Dr Greg Barton and Dr Thomas Joseph, he sold the Melbourne Dental Group to practice acquisition firm, the Ekera Dental Group, in 2019.
Time to focus
Dr Sternson’s primary motivation for the sale was, well, he needed more time. More specifically, he wanted to devote more attention to his original passion.
“I’d been a practice owner for 19 years and frankly the way compliance, regulation and everything was going, I found I was spending more of my time running a business than doing what I loved – dentistry,” he says.
“Hence the idea of joining a corporate such as Ekera was attractive as it offered to take away the headaches of running a practice, allowing me to focus on why I became a dentist in the first place.”
Staying on as Practice Principal following the sale has deepened Dr Sternson’s appreciation for the practice buyer’s laidback mode of operations, and their robust back-end support.
“Ekera has a very “hands-off approach” allowing the practice principals to continue to practice with autonomy and keep the practice running as it was – albeit with more efficiency and help from the Ekera team.
“There hasn’t been much of a change except that now I get spare time in my day to catch up on things I’ve been trying to do for years.”
The indefatigable dentist devotes a fair chunk of that spare time catching up on his multifaceted role as the ADAVB President, while championing practice-based research and advocacy work at the eviDent Foundation, where he served as past Chairman.
The Ekera difference
Hearing stories from industry colleagues, in addition to first-hand accounts from his vantage position as AVADB President, Dr Sternson admits he once held a “grim view” of corporates. It was Ekera Dental’s well-known “hands-off approach” that changed his mind.
“The reason our practice had been successful in the past was not our waiting room and processes but the people that interacted and treated the patients,” he rationalises.
“Ekera recognises this and doesn’t want to interfere unless you want them too.”
Since selling, the practice acquisition firm has helped the practice obtain accreditation and successfully managed a complex series of HR and COVD-19 issues.
“It has taken away all the things I didn’t like about running a practice,” he affirms.
“Our philosophy is still the same and I practice as I see fit. I can order what I want. If I want to entertain new technologies, Ekera can help me along that path.
“In Ekera, you deal with the people that run the corporation directly and they are honest and transparent.”
The practice sale also helped see the Melbournian dentist through critical junctures and cope with unforeseen challenges, both professional and personal.
Six months after joining the Ekera group, his house – recently upgraded with funds from the sale – and farming business at Mt Hotham in Victoria’s alps were ravaged by unusually intense bushfires, part of what became known as the Black Summer.
The Sternson’s dream house, built only nine years prior, and virtually everything on their farming property including budding trees producing their maiden crop, had been razed to the ground. Miraculously, two recalcitrant horses sheltering in a canyon, had survived. The family was staying with friends when the tragic event occurred.
“It’s hard to explain what you feel when this happens.” Dr Sternson says, “ but it is like something has been torn out of you and the sadness is constantly there.”
“People often say they’re “just things”, but losing some things are like losing memories as certain objects spark feelings and fond memories of times past. It was a dark time for my family and changed our whole 10-15 year plan.”
Dr Sternson is nonetheless thankful for the timeliness of the practice sale.
“Not having the burden of looking after my practice at that time, together with the time I needed off, meant that I could help my kids with the reconciliation process and help them form resilience going forward,” he said in an interview published in the Ekera Dental Newsletter.
“Shortly after that, COVID-19 hit and we all know that story. It was good knowing Ekera had my back.”
Support in a pandemic
In a bizarre way, the pandemic lockdowns provided much needed downtime for the practicing clinician to attend to the clean-up and rebuilding process. A self-confessed control freak, Dr Sternson is in the middle of rebuilding an identical house on the same property, albeit to very high bushfire standards.
With Ekera Dental taking the driver’s seat at the Melbourne Dental Group, he was happy to relinquish the macro considerations and responsibilities of charting the way forward in these difficult times.
“When COVID-19 came, dentistry was definitely not normal: lockdowns, re-openings, and more lockdowns. Victoria was hit hard. It was great to be at the frontline in advocacy with the ADAVB and also to have Ekera there looking after the maze of HR issues that arose,” he says.
“I would have been lost especially at a time when I was still coping with the tragedy. Having someone there to take care of the business gave me the freedom to rebuild my life and form strong resilience going forward.”
What little time Dr Sternson has left outside work and organised dentistry, he spends across a variety of leisure activities including fly-fishing, skiing (and all snow sports), hiking, mountain biking, white water rafting, kayaking and looking after his two recalcitrant horses.
At the time of writing, however, he has been busy coordinating the final re-construction phase of his house due to complete in a few months. It’s been two years since the fire, and the wait is almost over.
“I look forward,” he adds with a mix of excitement and poignancy, “to making many more family memories up there.”