“It’s not about being big, it’s about being the best” — Sam Waley-Cohen, Portman Dentalcare

by Acquisitions, Disposals, Exit plan, Leadership, Movers and shakers, Site finding

Customer service in dentistry has come a long way in the past 15 years. The best practices blend clinical excellence with a customer-centric sensibility. There’s more choice, more transparency, and business processes are evolving.

A notable ingredient in this transformation is the corporate group, which has achieved economies of scale on marketing, recruitment and back office functions. A notable ingredient in the groups is the famous amateur jump jockey Sam Waley-Cohen, 35.

He founded Portman Dentalcare in 2008 and was nominated Spear’s young entrepreneur of the year in 2011. Portman was the only dental company in the London Stock Exchange’s 1000 Companies to Inspire Britain last year, and today it has 57 practices. We asked Sam what he looks for in a practice and what Portman can do for dentists.

Sam, what matters most in your acquisition wish list: practice size, skill set of clinicians or location?

A practice that’s accessible and convenient is good, but that alone isn’t enough — for us it’s more about culture. We think that if we work with people who share our values, then we can make a practice really work. So we try to understand the people and what they are trying to achieve.

There are obviously certain prerequisites on size and clinical standards, but we want to work with practices that put the needs of their patients front and centre. Because it’s such a trust based profession, people are attracted to places they can build a relationship with. Then we think we can bring lots to help the practice stay at the forefront.

What’s your dream profile of practice to acquire?

We look for two things, physical capacity and operational capacity. If you buy a practice that has nowhere to expand and is humming along, operating well and offering all the services, there’s limited upside. Our group is growing strongly because we add value, and if a practice has really optimised every possible opportunity it is hard to do that.

We think about what treatments are on offer, when they’re on offer, and patient access. A lot of value comes from operational efficiency and getting the basics right: how you communicate with patients, how you attract patients and avoid churn.

What EBITDA do you look for three years after purchase of a practice?

We want our practices to grow, so we would expect to grow their EBITDA, but taken on its own I suspect EBITDA is not even the right measure, because in the short term you can drive EBITDA by cutting costs. We don’t set out to cut costs, we look to grow turnover while managing fixed costs and then the EBITDA takes care of itself.

Maybe, the more appropriate question is what do you want your revenue to look like? We want to grow it significantly ahead of inflation to drive profits. If you just focus on profitability, you might use cheaper materials or reduce staff, and in the medium term that’s probably going to come back to haunt you.

What’s your biggest challenge post-acquisition?

It’s a time of change, particularly for the vendor. We’ve become very experienced at managing change, and helping people find their role in the new business is an essential part of it. Dealing with emotion is the bit that can’t be put down, so that’s the real work; the human side.

The private sector is different to the NHS, it’s all about people. It’s about looking after people as you’d like to be treated yourself, and that starts with understanding their emotions.

Do you plan to have a national brand to combat Bupa on the high street?

I don’t know that branding is what we’re going to be led by. To the extent that we have a brand, we want to represent great dentistry. We want Portman to be known for its clinical standards and its ability to look after people. That’s not trying to take Bupa on, it’s about having an internal culture that represents that.

Corporate dentistry has struggled to build a good reputation, and Portman wants to be the group that represents all the good stuff that groups can deliver, like better corporate and clinical governance and supporting the clinicians to deliver great dentistry. Our brand has to be internally generated. Bupa is so far along its journey that it is nationally recognised, and that has both positives and negatives. Local brand power, based on trust, will always trump national brands.

How many sites will Portman have in five years?

It’s not about being big, it’s about being the best. We’re lucky in that we don’t have any targets we have to hit. We’re growing at a pace that allows us to continue to recruit the right people, and keep our culture. So it’s not really about arriving at a destination of a certain scale.

Why should a practice owner sell to Portman as opposed to anybody else?

We would say we’re the natural home of private dentistry. We’ve got the scale to properly support a practice — incredibly capable marketing and clinical functions led by some great people. Also there’s a keen sense that what we’re doing is looking after people.

Anyone serious about doing private dentistry should look at Portman as their first place to go. People know at Portman they get complete clinical freedom with labs and materials. They have a clinical support network, they work with good nurses with good qualifications in a professionalised environment that we’ve helped develop.

A lot of people are contacting us cold to ask if there’s a job for them, and asking if we can we keep them in mind if one comes up. That’s because the Portman approach is about supporting the dentist to do their incredibly hard job as well as we can. We make our practices well staffed and well trained.

We’re not using cheaper materials that drive up margins but slow down dentists. We’re not sourcing cheaper labs that dentists can’t work with efficiently. It’s about understanding what it is to run a practice, rather than what it is to just be a business.

Sam Waley-Cohen, CEO and founder of Portman Healthcare

“A lot of people are contacting us cold to ask if there’s a job for them”

Sam Waley-Cohen, CEO and founder, Portman Dentalcare

Author: Zac Fine