By Danny Chan
The last time I spoke to Dr Brendan Guthrie was in 2019. At the time, he had just sold Toowong Dental Group (TDG), a Brisbane group practice where he had spent the previous 25 years as a co-partner.
Against the backdrop of selling one of the most successful dental groups in Brisbane’s inner suburbs to the acquisition firm Ekera Dental, Dr Guthrie shared his penchant for customer service as he began a new tenure as practice principal under the new management.
On an individual case basis, the duration and terms of his post-sale service were set out in the contract as part of the sale. According to Dr Guthrie, this is standard practice that helps to transition the business as well as its previous owners to the next phase.
Fast forward to present, Dr Guthrie has already completed his contractual obligations with Ekera Dental. Yet he’s not ready to hang up the ultrasonic scaler just yet.
Hold your horses
Despite now having the freedom to retire if he chose, Dr Guthrie found himself in a different headspace than previously anticipated.
“When we were negotiating with Ekera Dental, my original idea was that I would serve out the rest of the contracted tenure and that would be it – I thought that I would retire. In fact, I wanted to sort of keep that shorter rather than longer,” says the 59-year-old dentist.
“As it turned out, it's a bit hard to predict the future. Firstly, the practice sale was completed pre-COVID-19. Second, it’s three or so years down the track, suddenly you're not quite as old as you thought you would be.”
The original script that saw Dr Guthrie galloping off into the sunset was modified following several chat sessions with Dr Tony Coulepis, Executive Chairman of Ekera Dental. It was agreed that Dr Guthrie would return as a Consultant Dentist to “just do dentistry”. This new arrangement would be different to that of his post-sale role, which involved overseeing the daily running of the practice.
That Dr Guthrie would put off retirement for the newly minted position speaks volumes of the lingering passion he has for the trade, not to mention how much he enjoys working at TDG – even after selling it to Ekera Dental.
Beyond rekindling his old mojo in a familiar setting, Dr Guthrie finds treating patients a bit more pleasurable these days.
“When you take away the administrative burden, and the other things that go along with managing staff in such a big practice, you find that dentistry itself is actually not the hardest part of what you do,” he adds.
“I would say treating patients is rather more enjoyable when you don't have the pressure of doing these other things in between patients.”
He actually comes into the clinic for more days per week than his contract stipulates – but this also affords a bit more flexibility to “taper off” when he feels like it. Interestingly, even though he clocks less hours, the affable dentist still sees virtually the same number of patients as before.
For someone used to working long weeks – beginning each workday with a patient at 7am – Dr Guthrie admits the last-minute detour as a way to phase in retirement. The dopamine effect, as it were, took a bit longer to wear off than initially thought.
“I actually kind of miss the cut and thrust of dental work,” he confesses. “You don't realise it but I actually get a bit of kick out of solving problems.”
Recalculating the route
Thoughts about retirement, it seems, did not quite work out as planned either. In the previous interview, Dr Guthrie was looking forward to fishing escapades on his 15-year-old boat and vacations with his wife and four grown-up boys.
Although he managed to do the latter – holidaying in New Zealand and Tasmania with family and friends which given the COVID-19 restrictions was no small feat – the Guthries actually sold off the boat. Significant for the keen angler, that decision was dwarfed by the couple’s 180-degree change in lifestyle, encapsulated by the sale of their suburban family home of 25 years.
“Well, the selling of the boat wasn't planned,” he reveals.
“My wife had decided a couple of years ago that because we had four grown sons, the five-bedroom house was just too much maintenance, and she just felt sad.
“We were walking down the hallway past all the empty rooms and I think that's a pretty common sensation. However, she wanted to sell the house about the same time as we were negotiating the sale of the practice.”
The timing was too close for comfort, Dr Guthrie recalls, opting to sell the practice first, then worry about the house later.
“Selling both your practice and home of 25 years at the same time would have caused too much emotional upheaval.”
Time for a change
The couple are very happy they downsized to an apartment nestled in the city’s fringe by the Brisbane River. Enjoying the slower pace of life, Dr Guthrie still remembers being split between house maintenance chores and fishing – back when he needed “38 hours every day”.
Now with freed up professional and personal time, the studious clinician enriches himself by taking up courses, like the one he would be attending the next day in Sydney – partially sponsored by Ekera Dental.
“The folks at Ekera Dental encourage you to go to courses and assist with the costs involved,” he says. “They don't want a bunch of dummies running their places.”
For Dr Guthrie, one of the least expected rewards from selling his practice to Ekera Dental was having the opportunity to work with and befriend Dr Coulepis.
“Tony and I have spent literally hundreds of hours on the phone or email during COVID-19,” he adds. He's a very intelligent person, and he is genuinely interested in what you have to contribute.”
He let on during our 2019 conversation, that the partners’ last-minute decision to sell to Ekera Dental, was due in no small part to Dr Coulepis’ personable disposition that stood in contrast with the other corporates vying for the sale.
“Today I talk about Tony’s professionalism with even more conviction,” he says.
“We've had so many dealings with him and the team over the last three years, and everything has been smooth sailing.”
And that is saying something given the immense potential for hiccups. A few months after Ekera Dental bought over Toowong Dental Group, COVID-19 arrived and, in Dr Guthrie’s words, “turned everybody's world upside down”. The practice also experienced two floods, one of which required “a whole lot of rebuilding done during the Christmas period”.
Instead of straining their work relationship, these difficult events actually brought out the best in the Ekera team’s positive work ethics – whilst earning Dr Guthrie’s trust and loyalty.
“Our relationship with Tony and the Ekera team is the main reason why I wasn't in a hurry to just ride off into the sunset. Despite the ups and downs beyond anyone’s control, it’s been quite an enjoyable experience.
“I thought I wouldn't have any steam left when in fact, I've got plenty. That’s why I've come back for another gig in a slightly different role.”