Survive the storm
Bruce Oxley explores why some practices are thriving in the recession while others are just treading water
“Apart from maybe half a dozen practices, I can’t think of any that have really survived the recession. And by survive I mean they are down 10 or 15 per cent. That is survival in Ireland just now. Some are down by 50 per cent or more. The effect has been huge.”
Niall Jennings isn’t a man predisposed to pessimism and, having been involved with more than 200 practice sales in Ireland through his Innovative Irish Dental Services business since 2000, he is uniquely placed to offer his insight into the current situation.
However, he believes that many dentists have simply “gone out, bought a shovel and buried their head in the sand”, rather than being proactive in an effort to counteract what has been a devastating recession for many.
“I grew up in the era where you could just put up your plate and you’d be fine because it is Ireland and everybody knows everybody,” he said. “They say: ’Marketing? No, that’s not for me.’
“There is a huge element of our profession that is still stuck in that vein. They haven’t changed and they can’t get their heads around doing anything else.”
John Barry, who works with practices in Ireland and the UK with his Dental Plan, Dental Business Academy and SUSAN Dental companies, says that the recession is only part of the problem – the rest is attitude. He said: “Some practices are doing fine, some practices are growing and some practices are in serious decline.
“Part of the decline is to do with the recession because there is less disposable income out there, but some people are working an awful lot harder on the skills required to be successful in a business at any time, be that a downturn or a boom.”
John argues that the well-run practices with efficient systems in place will always be successful, whatever the economic situation. “Dentistry is recession resistant,” he argues. “It is not recession proof, but it is recession resistant. People have dental needs whether they are flush or whether they are minding their money.”
And according to John, who graduated from Cork in 1987, being successful in the recession is not rocket science. He said: “The good practices are doing all the right things. They are carrying out selective targeting of their patients, they are sending messages, they are on Facebook and Twitter, they are mining their databases.
“They are contacting patients who haven’t been in for years, they are making offers such as subsidised tooth whitening, oral cancer screening. And they are busy. You are not going to earn a penny with an empty chair.
“But some dentists are so proud, they won’t budge on their fees by offering reduced treatment prices.”
Niall reckons a large part of the problem is down to complacency. He said: “When we hit our 50s, we hit a comfort zone. Most of us do. There is no need for these guys to get their fingers out – or, more realistically, they have not perceived the need for them to get their fingers out. But, of course, there is.
“Over a pint – because it is only one as they can’t afford three anymore – they moan and they groan to me, so I ask them: ’What are you doing about it?’
And John said: “Part of the problem is that some of the dentists are facing a situation for the first time in their professional lives where they are not busy. They are sitting there in a state of inertia. They don’t know what to do to respond and they are quite happily wasting all of that money that they aren’t earning every week.
“Because, quite simply, if they are not earning it, they are wasting it. You only have to invest a little to get a return.”
John gave the example of a practice that spent a seven-figure sum on a brand new, state-of-the-art practice and then employed an inexperienced 17-year-old as a receptionist. “It’s like having a pedigree racehorse and giving it to a 12-year-old to train,” he said.
However, both Niall and John agree that there is cause for optimism despite the doom and gloom headlines in the press on an almost daily basis. Niall said: “In Ireland, I think we have stopped crying into our milk. Those who have survived and are not bankrupt are getting on with it. That’s the nature of the Irish – it’s raining, so what? Let’s get on with it.
“But there is still a huge lack of money. People are still spending, but you have to give value for money, you have to explain more to your patients. But this is good for dentistry. This is good for patients.
“It is about time that we got off the ego trip that many of us have been on.”
He argues that dentistry in the south has long been overpriced compared with the north, a situation that is starting to even out, which can only be good for patients and dentists in the long run.
“One thing that I do think is positive,” said John, “is that associate percentage income is dropping and I think that is a good idea. Because some associates were paid so much percentage-wise that they weren’t actually profitable.
“It might help business owners to retain some of the income and perhaps if they invest that in their practices, then I think we will have better practices throughout the land.”
A proactive approach is what is required, said Niall, along with hard work: “We are going to have to massively change our facilities, we are going to have to spend money on marketing, we have to make an online presence so when the younger generation Google for a local dentist, your practice appears at the top of the search.
“We have to understand that we are in competition with everyone else, including the hairdresser. We are not in competition with each other.
“We have to offer our patients a unique experience – the Irish experience – which is quality dental care from ethical, highly-qualified ’owner practitioners’ in a patient-centred environment.”
Dr Niall Jennings is one of the only dentists in the UK and Ireland who is actively involved in the buying and selling of practices, overseeing more than 200 sales in the last 12 years.
Dr John Barry works with dentists throughout Ireland and the UK through his businesses: The Dental Plan, The Dental Business Academy and SUSANdental.com
A founding director of Highland Dental Plan and a founding member of IndepenDent Care Plans, he was also CEO of Isoplan from 2001 until 2007.