My first year: best and worst decisions as a principal

by Business growth, Leadership, Movers and shakers, Self care, Treatment co-ordinators

Dr Jonny Cochrane at The Bristol Dental Practice is about to complete his first year as an owner. He’s 31. His learning curve has been extreme as a first timer because he’s gone big, fast. Some things went wrong, but he’s come out stronger. Many wouldn’t be able to stomach the things he’s done (gory details below), but there may be some useful lessons here for you. Jonny has kindly shared them.

Jonny, what was your worst investment?

I wasted £15k on three top of the range intra-oral cameras. No one uses them. Every day I look at them and wonder why the hell I bought them. All my clinicians prefer using their DSLRs with macro lenses and ring flashes. A decent set up costs under £1,500, a bargain in comparison. The quality of the images is on a different level, plus they’re far more versatile, you can use them for taking both intra and extra-oral photos.

Your best investment? 

Rebranding the business with Fine Company. It gave our business a new, clear direction. Everyone got on board with my new vision and the branding was refreshing. It made perfect sense and was definitely a worthwhile investment. Off the back of it we had new uniforms, badges, stationary, prints, website, merchandise etc. All of which has helped us with our new sense of direction. We’re not forcing the old brand to fit my new vision.

Your worst decision?

We tried to grow four new GDPs’ and two new orthodontists’ diaries simultaneously. It was too much. It would have been less stressful and more cost effective not to do that. It also caused upset in the business. I had to let one orthodontist, one GDP and one oral surgeon go. We went from 14 staff to 45 inside six months, then overnight crashed back down to just 35 when I realised our financial trajectory was in serious trouble. Fortunately we are now back in growth and have just rehired a second orthodontist, but this time our growth is more measured.

Was that the hardest thing you’ve dealt with?

Yes. It’s been brutal at times. I was honest with the staff and explained I had to right the ship quickly to protect the viability of the business. A brother and sister emigrated from South Africa to work with me and within a month of them starting I had to let them both go. I couldn’t keep them on just because I felt bad, that would not have been good business sense. The crash came after my first six-month financial review with our accountants Hive Business. I chose who to let go based on last in first out, and who also had skills we didn’t need. For instance, we had an oral surgeon who could only place implants (not restore), but I can place implants. There was also a member of the team who didn’t see the new business vision. She was a great clinician with an excellent reputation, but if anything that turned out to be a drawback; she didn’t fit in culturally.  

How did the team take it?

I assumed everyone would think I was a complete bastard and callous for making such drastic business changes so rapidly; I had to detach from my emotions. But when I explained to them the reality of what was happening they rallied around me and believed in what I was doing. They understood that I had to make difficult decisions on their behalf and that if I didn’t do it then no one would have a job. A low point was when I had to tell one member of staff I was letting her go while she was eating her lunch. I just didn’t have any other time in the day to do it. 

What was the best advice you received?

Make big tax deductible purchases early on — front load it. One-off purchases like our new website, which has just gone live, a CT scanner, complete five-storey building refurb, four new dental chairs, microscope and so on. I’ve benefitted from all this new kit immediately, however I’ll take five years to slowly pay off the loans. My accountant advised me to keep spending because I will eventually run out of things to buy. It’s true, now I can’t buy another website or refurbish the entire building again. We’ve rapidly grown the business but will be paying it off slowly.

How hard has it been personally?

It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, working all day, every day, non-stop, seven days a week. However, it’s also the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done, in a non-financial sense. The Bristol Dental Practice is now my team sharing my vision. It looks like we’ll complete our first year at the end of March 2020 having hit revenue of £1.7m. In the first year we’ve added a sixth surgery, plus all the surgeries are maxed out Monday to Friday. Revenue was just shy of £1m when I bought the business 12 months ago. Now, we’re focused on filling our weekends — we’re currently the only seven day dental practice in Bristol. Next year we plan to add two more surgeries in the basement. Our revenue target for year two is £2.7m. I’m confident. 

How long did it take for the new business model to get traction?

We were open seven days a week for three months before we started filling up properly. It was gappy and it lagged. However, now our weekends are profitable. Patients are appreciative of being able to come in on Sundays: we typically have four out of six surgeries running. I can foresee that within six months my issue will not be marketing, it will be production. Meeting demand. That’s an incredible problem for a private dental practice to have.

How have you brought the team along?

A lot of training. Our treatment coordinators had training with Fine Company, as did I on the Fine Company leadership course. I also shut the entire practice down for two whole days and got all 35 of us doing bespoke in-house training with Ashley Latter on how to deliver a first-class patient journey. Our team left believing in our mission statement: to provide the best, most comprehensive care in the South West, seven days a week. Because if they believe it, they will communicate it to our patients. It becomes a self-reinforcing belief. Everybody likes to be a winner, it feels good to be on a winning team. A positive mental attitude rubs off on everyone.

How have you found your leadership role?

I got married last year. The business has put a strain on my relationship with my wife and family. No one can quite comprehend why I’m doing this, why I have to work 100 hours a week. They just want to spend time with me. Six months in, the stark reality for me was that I had to make it work because I had taken on these responsibilities (and £2m of debt). My parents had mortgaged their own home to help with my deposit. Leadership is lonely. At work I’ve learnt to embrace the awkward conversation. You have to be prepared to confront people otherwise they will take advantage of you. People steal and shirk unless you manage and lead from the front. You have to find ways of incentivising your team. I’ve learnt that on the fly. My main incentives are financial and investment in their careers via training, qualifications and awards. I’ve sent my business managers and nurses on courses. There are good holidays, benefits, free treatments and black tie events.

How long can you keep it up?

My business success has come at a cost. It’s put a big strain on my marriage, my social life and my health. I currently don’t have any time for hobbies or the gym. It’s been all encompassing. But I have delivered on what I set out to do, which was rapid business growth. Now I need to cut back a little and rebalance my wheel of life. In the first year I publicly promised to take no salary. Instead, I reinvested all my earnings into the business so now I’m very much looking forward to paying myself my first dividend, after one year and one day. 

If you could go back in time what advice would you give yourself?

I wouldn’t want to detract from my youthful self’s innocent ignorance and excited eyes. I weathered and matured very quickly. I’d say: “Brace yourself, you have no idea what you’ve let yourself in for. As long as you’re open and honest with your staff, they will respect you. You earn kudos for making the hard decisions and acting decisively.” I’d also say that it’s important you surround yourself with good counsel. I’ve found that between Hive, Fine Company and my other principal friends, the people you can truly trust are few and far between. It pays to receive good advice. On the Fine Company leadership course I met other principals in the same boat but they had a minimum of 20 years more experience than me. That was vitally important for my psychological wellbeing. Developing my leadership mindset early has definitely paid off.

What advice would you give to young dentists entering the business world?

Think big. You have the fortunate possibility to think bigger than our older peers. The world is a different place to 30 years ago. I have just finished a year long entrepreneurs’ club with Ashley Latter. During the first meeting I was the only one in the room who technically didn’t own a practice. A year later I own the largest dental practice by turnover and I’m still the youngest by 10 years. It’s important to hire people who buy into your vision. It’s hard or impossible to foist your vision onto staff you inherit. In my case it’s been truly testing. Know your numbers. I’ve had some tight cashflow moments and had to quickly reign spending in, having expanded quickly. There’s a big difference between wealth and cash. You can quickly go from profit to loss owning a practice. You pay yourself last.

And advice on leadership?

Leaders are made, not born. I have to make hundreds of decisions every day across compliance, training, office politics, materials, marketing, the list goes on… You have to act with intent, people are looking to you to make decisions and they hate indecision and weakness. Of course, sometimes you will make the wrong decision. That’s OK. You’re allowed to change your mind. But people have to respect you as a leader regardless of your age and experience (and theirs). If you find yourself with team members who can’t buy into your vision or respect what you are trying to do, lose them. Even if it costs a lot up front. In my case, one person cost £12k to remove so that I could bring the right person in. It was £12k well spent.

What’s your next step?

My career seems to evolve through 24-month cycles. I spent my first 24 months as an NHS dentist, the next 24 months working privately, the next 24 months working as a roaming implant and sedation dentist, now I am in the next 24 month cycle as a principal. The next one will be my development into a dual-site principal with views to go multi-site thereafter. I expect that the last step will take me more time. I want to do it in a way that’s more balanced and sustainable with my personal life. The next phase of my personal development is going on a year long CEO incubator programme. This is outside dentistry and I’ll be joined by two close friends, one is a partner in an investment bank and the other is founder and CEO of a fintech company.

Jonny Cochrane

“I assumed everyone would think I was a complete bastard and callous for making such drastic business changes so rapidly

Dr Jonny Cochrane, The Bristol Dental Practice

Author: Zac Fine