Straight talker

When his involvement with the hugely successful Smiles chain of dental practices ended, orthodontist Hugh Bradley embarked on another challenge in Donnybrook

As the son of a general dental practitioner in Strabane, it is no surprise that Hugh Bradley followed his father’s footsteps into dentistry when he qualified from Trinity in 1978.

However, rather than go into general practice like his father, Hugh completed his orthodontic training in Belfast in 1982 and set up a specialist practice in Newry at the tender age of just 26.

It was his father who directed him towards orthodontics, as Hugh explained: “It was my personal feeling that I would never fill his shoes in general practice that prompted me to seek to perfect different skills. My father is a man of many words but one adage of his that made it through was: ‘You inform before you perform’. This concept of informed consent was well ahead of its time and it formed the basis of much of the success in my own professional life.”

As the Newry practice was so close to the border, Hugh decided to open a branch practice in Dundalk in 1983. And, while the northern practice was NHS, the southern practice was entirely private. Hugh explained that over the years, the Newry practice developed an unmanageable waiting list of some 5,000 patients in just 10 years. In 1993, Hugh sold the Northern Irish practice and Dundalk became his main point of operations.

In 2000, Hugh served as president of the Orthodontic Society of Ireland and he cut back his working week to four days to fulfil his obligations. Then, in 2005 a now-famous conversation over breakfast with his stepson led to the next chapter in his life.

The stepson was Emmet O’Neill and the conversation was on tooth whitening. The two men took a trip over to the United States to see how it was being done over there and made the decision to bring it back to Ireland and the first Smiles tooth whitening clinic was born. Hugh was aware that the reputation of whitening at the time was questionable and he made sure that the model they were to base their business on had to be an “ethical centre of excellence”.

Hugh said: “We approached the issue by taking on the best technology on the market. Teeth were shade tested before and after the procedure and photographs taken. Informed consent was rigorous and aftercare was provided.

“We had no difficulty in getting the dentists that we needed to work with us. Most were there on a part-time basis and they welcomed the opportunity to gain experience in the nebulous work of tooth whitening.”

The first practice was a former retail unit just off Grafton Street in Dublin with a floorspace of just 70sqm. Hugh was convinced that location was key. “I felt strongly that dentistry be taken out of the converted suburban house and into the retail environment,” he said.

“In 1993 I purchased a high street bank building and acquired a street-side presence in Dundalk which has always stood me well.”

With Emmet’s entrepreneurial spark and Hugh’s dental knowledge, the practice thrived. Clever branding and graphics were designed, multimedia presentations were produced to inform patients of the treatments on offer as well as multilingual leaflets (including Polish). An open plan dental chair layout was adopted. Hugh explained: “My experience in orthodontics was that patients often got comfort from semi-private or even open style bays – seeing that the patient next door was happy was reassuring. No one was putting you in a chair and closing the room door behind you.”

Two further practices were opened in Cork and Galway the following year and in 2007 it was decided to expand the service to offer the full range of general dentistry. The following year a specialist orthodontic clinic in Dublin 2 was added to the Smiles stable under Hugh’s direction. Having worked as a single-handed orthodontist in his own practices, this gave Hugh the opportunity to work with specialist colleagues and it was an experience he relished.

By this time the chain owned 17 practices and in 2010 Emmet took over the UK chain James Hull and Associates. Hugh’s role in Smiles was, by this time, much reduced and in 2014 the UK and Irish operations were bought by Oasis Dental for €36m.

Following the sale, Hugh realised that “there was something of a vacuum in my life and I missed the collegiality of the orthodontic practice that I had been part of in Dublin 2”.

So, he decided to open up an orthodontic clinic in Dublin using all the experience he had gained in his career and building on the team spirit he enjoyed during his time at Smiles. With a particular interest in juvenile orthodontics, he settled on the Donnybrook area because of its close proximity to so many schools and also close to his home in Ballsbridge.

However, finding an affordable building with the kind of floorspace that he felt he needed – close to 200sqm – proved to be a difficult proposition. However, after three months of searching Hugh was alerted to a prime site in the heart of Donnybrook. It was originally part of the post office which had been sub-divided into separate units. The unit was next door to a coffee shop, with a car park across the road and its own 80sqm garden.

With his experience designing practices for Smiles, Hugh managed to finalise the design and layout in a few days and then he brought on board his project manager Vince who had also worked with Smiles on a number of projects in the past. Once he had the plans, Vince managed to get the work completed within four months and the new practice was ready to open in November 2014.

Hugh commissioned a large body of artwork from Irish contemporary artist Abigail O’Brien and he was delighted with the results. He said: “The work is colourful, alive pop-art in 15 large photographic pieces. It transformed the space, making the most of the large amount of wall space and high ceilings. I liked the transformative effect so much that the same work has been commissioned to transform the Dundalk office as well.”

Hugh had already rebranded the Dundalk practice as Ortho, having secured the business name and web domain http://www.ortho.ie back in 2007, and the new practice took on the same branding.

He explained: “Traditionally, the dentist’s name was the brand, the puller and loyalty holder. In dental circles the word ‘ortho’ is synonymous with orthodontics – as in “my child is having ortho”. However, for the public I was aware that it was up to me to create the link that ortho equals orthodontics.

“The tag-line ‘Straight Talking Orthodontics’ was chosen because it said exactly what I felt we were about.”

Hugh has taken on two “super specialist orthodontists: in Muireann O Donovan and John O’Mahony who he says are getting busier and busier.

He said: “Our plan is to develop the ‘Inform before your perform’ idea as far is it can be taken.

“Treatment timelines are prepared for each patient in what we call an Ortho-Map and the installation of an iTero 3d scanner enables us to be ‘plaster-model’ free while being able to show 3D treatment simulations to patients even before treatment starts.”

Looking to the future, Hugh says he has no more plans to open any more clinics. He said: “Orthodontic services are specialist led and do not lend themselves to franchising. Expertise is difficult to spread.

“My intention is to direct Ortho Donnybrook towards excellence in treatment and to provide an unmatched service to referring dentists.”