By Danny Chan
Heathmont Dental is a 55-year-old suburban practice in Victoria with a well-preserved and cherished heritage – but it’s not what you think. By “heritage”, I do not mean a jaded dentist’s office marked by ornate decor, antiquated furniture and orange-tinted tiles.
The “heritage” here refers to the practice’s laidback style of operations that dentists, staff and patients alike have come to appreciate over the years. It is what Dr Joseph Langdon inherited from Heathmont Dental’s founder, Dr Bruce Kaighin.
“I started out working part-time at a couple of practices, one of which was Heathmont Dental. I enjoyed working there because it had a casual and relaxing atmosphere,” he says.
So when an opportunity arose, Dr Langdon bought into the practice in 1980 and then in 1990, purchased the remaining shares from Dr Kaighin.
“Once I took over, I wanted to preserve that light-hearted atmosphere that’s quite unique to the practice.”
To this day, Dr Langdon believes that Heathmont Dental’s informal and non-hierarchical style of operations remains the enduring hallmark of its success. Eschewing a more tradition-bound structure – for example, where the dental staff would address clinicians as “doctors” – the practice’s egalitarian outlook means that “nobody stands on ceremony around here”.
The result is a close-knitted dental team – comprising 6 dentists and 14 nurses – in which almost every single member has served more than 10 years. The practice manager, Melissa has been with Heathmont Dental for over 40 years.
The clinic’s friendly and jocular mood owes much to this sense of familiarity within the team, or with patients, many of who are second- and third-generation customers.
“Patients in the waiting room are more likely to hear spontaneous laughter spilling out from the surgeries than the groans of anxious patients,” he adds.
When it came time for Dr Langdon to sell his practice this year, he was hopeful that the new owner would recognise the value of maintaining the team camaraderie and patient rapport.
No corporates please
The practice has remained in the same vicinity since it was founded in 1966. It moved into its current 300-sqm purpose built facility in 1995, which is located just across the road from its original site. Due to Heathmont Dental’s success, longevity and sizeable clinical space, Dr Langdon received dozens of offers from dental corporates.
However, the dentist had a few bugbears with their modus operandi.
“When the corporates take over, they would usually change the name of the practice to that of their brand. This changeover would disappoint many loyal patients who may leave and never come back,” says Dr Langdon.
“Corporates also have the habit of running a dental outfit like a medical practice. They would obscure the identities of the dentists in such a way that patients are being assigned the next available dentist, rather than being given the opportunity to request for someone they are familiar with.
”What they don’t realise is that it doesn’t work like that in dentistry.”
For these reasons and that of preserving the same style of practice, Dr Langdon had always assumed that he’d be selling to a private buyer. It was only after meeting Dr Tony Coulepis, the Executive Chairman of practice-acquisition firm, Ekera Dental, did he become convinced that a “non-corporate corporate” actually exists.
“In our initial meetings, Tony basically described exactly how I would like a private buyer to be,” he enthuses, “the only difference is, Ekera Dental has the financial muscle, size and infrastructure to run a practice as big as ours – which in hindsight, would have been difficult for a private buyer.”
Having inked the sale in April, Dr Langdon is happy to report that Ekera Dental has lived up to its “non-corporate corporate” reputation. For one, the clinic still displays each team member’s name and photo at the entrance, allowing patients a more personalised choice.
“Ekera Dental does not have an ego about putting its name on the practice. Heathmont Dental has a wonderful reputation accumulated over 50 years. Instead of reinventing the wheel, they had the good sense to leave whatever already works alone,” he says.
“There hasn’t been any change in staff or staff conditions either. Whether in terms of working hours or the buying of supplies, the team basically enjoys the same flexibility that I allowed when I was running it. Even Melissa was commenting on how smooth the transition was.”
Not to say that the Heathmont Dental team didn’t have reservations when Dr Langdon first brought up the idea of a changeover. In fact, there was enough negative feedback that the dental owner almost gave up the ghost.
“It soon became clear that it was only a matter of time that I would be selling the practice anyway, and it was too good an opportunity to pass on,” he explains.
“In terms of continuity, we were satisfied that Ekera Dental wasn’t the type of corporate that would bring in their own dentists to replace the current team. In fact, they will only expand the team if the patient numbers demand it.”
Just like in the good old days
In short, Dr Langdon is glad the changeover proceeded virtually unnoticed. Ushering the seamless transition, he still makes it a point to go in three mornings a week – as he has been doing for the past 10 years – although he isn’t paid to do so.
For someone who has always shunned pomposity, preferring to be thought of as a peer than a boss to dental teammates, it is perhaps unsurprising that Dr Langdon would take a shine to Ekera Dental’s incognito approach. Yet the easy-going dentist believes there are more compelling reasons for choosing the practice buyer.
“Frankly, unlike other corporates,” Dr Langdon stresses, “Ekera Dental is the only one that gets it”.
Dr Langdon says Ekera’s successful business model shows they are willing to listen to what private practitioners have been saying all along, that you can’t run a dental practice the way you do a retail or medical outfit.
“Tony understands that a positive dentist-patient relationship as well as working dental team dynamics are sacrosanct – and that they need to be protected,” he reasons.
“That alone makes Ekera Dental a game-changer in the Australian corporate dental scene.”