Oasis Dental Care boss Justin Ash talks acquistions

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Rising from an £88m turnover in 2008 to £234m in 2015, Oasis Dental Care has become the UK’s first major dental chain. Chief executive and IoD fellow Justin Ash explains how a focus on acquisition and customer choice has created a business with bite…

“Don’t worry, I’m fully qualified for the job – I used to run Kentucky Fried Chicken.” Oasis Dental Care chief executive Justin Ash’s favourite opening gambit when meeting new staff members is testimony to the fact that many a true word is indeed spoken in jest.

“It’s a very good way of disarming dentists who are wondering why a non-dentist is [in charge],” he laughs, “but it’s true – KFC was actually a tremendous lesson in delivering consumer excellence. They had excellent customer focus systems.”

The more traditional among us – those, say, who blanched when banks started calling their patrons ‘investors’ rather than ‘customers’ – might raise an eyebrow at Ash’s use of the word ‘consumer’, over ‘patient’, when talking about the health sector.

In fact, the word epitomises his aim to turn the domestic dental industry into one which empowers those who patronise it – and to make Oasis Dental Care the flag-bearer for this revolution by, he says, delivering choice, trust, exceptional clinical standards and impeccable service.

Already, under Ash’s stewardship, Oasis Dental Care has become Britain’s first major dental chain, now employing more than 5,000 people across 370 practices nationwide.

When he joined in 2008, turnover was £88m; over 2014/2015, it increased 48 per cent from £158.1m to £234m. A huge portion of this is due to acquisition: the purchase of Apex Dental Care and Smiles Dental in 2014 boosted turnover from £160m to over £225m, and bolstered its network of practices from 204 to 310in just six weeks. A further 40 sites were acquired in 2015.

It would be wrong, though, for Oasis Dental Care to be thought of as a big fish with a voracious and indiscriminate appetite. “We turn down somewhere between 80 and 85 per cent of practices [who approach us for acquisition],” Ash tells Director.

“We’re not in the ‘How many practices can we buy?’ game; we’re in the ‘Can we buy the right practices’ game.” Clinical quality, he explains, is key (“We do very detailed clinical audits”), as is its geographical location – pan-national coverage is critical to the plans of Oasis Dental Care.

But perhaps the main criterion in Oasis’s buyout policy is the practice’s existing culture. “Essentially we want people who believe, who want to come on the journey with us,” he says. “The foundations have to be good. You have to qualify to be bought by us.”Oasis Dental Care waiting room

Consumer proposition

At root, this means fitting in with the other major force behind the company’s recent growth: the ability to turn a medical treatment into a consumer offering. Ash says:

“Dentistry is quite an intimate and sensitive thing, and making it a consumer proposition needs thinking about from a consumer perspective. We do research every two years involving 4,000 people. Three years ago 12 per cent of them were thinking of switching, or had switched, dentists. It’s now 25 per cent.”

Such dissatisfaction, for Ash, is born of discernment – which deserves rewarding. “People are becoming sophisticated consumers who have figured out that they have a choice and can be demanding. That’s an environment in which you can build a brand. This concept’s time has come – you can see the momentum building. You can see our research starting to reward us. You can talk to patients and see they’ve got it. Five years ago it was a more insurgent idea.”

Ash – who has also previously worked as commercial director of Allied Domecq Spirits and Wine, Europe, and honed his medical commerce skills during a tenure as managing director of Lloyds Pharmacy, overseeing its expansion from 1,200 to 1,700 sites – has addressed customer dissatisfaction by asking a simple question: ‘What can we make different?’

“Our research asked people ‘What makes you scared to go to the dentist?’ The first answer was about it hurting, of course, but after that it’s the price: and it’s not necessarily that people think it’s going to be too expensive, it’s that they don’t know what the price is going to be.

“The vast majority of dentists have a pricing system which says ‘from X pounds’. This basically just means, ‘I promise you it won’t be any less than this, but…’ So we’ve introduced fixed pricing, so that a filling is £65 and not from £65. It’s clear and transparent.”

Believing that a fundamental shift is underway from NHS treatment to more private treatment in the future, Ash has also introduced what he refers to as a ‘basics range’ – “basically affordable, entry-point private dentistry”.

Another finding was that people want more flexibility in terms of appointment timings. “Particularly during this economic cycle, they don’t want to have to creep off to the dentist during the day,” says Ash.

“They want it to be easy to book, they want an appointment time when they want it, online booking, extended opening. So all our practices are open from 8am until 8pm at least three days a week, many of them six days a week.”

Confidence in clinical competence was another area Ash was keen to address from the start. “How do you know that your dentist is any good? We publish patient feedback which they give over the web so that it’s anonymous.

“We ask ‘Would you recommend this practice to a friend, are you satisfied with the service, is the quality good?’ and so on. We currently score 98 per cent on those.”

Oasis Dental Care dentists chairInvestment model

Along with building the brand’s technical arsenal across all its practices (currently digital X-ray machines, intraoral scanners and behind-the-scenes de-contamination rooms are among the priorities) Oasis’s plan has been bolstered by the re-investment of the spoils of growth.

This is something which, according to Ash, is keenly encouraged by Bridgepoint – the private equity company behind Pret a Manger, which bought the Oasis Dental Care chain for £185m from buyout firm Duke Street (which itself paid £77m to pull Oasis from the London Stock Exchange in 2007).

“I’m an enthusiast of the private equity model,” he says. “I like the way you set up your own ambitions and are then challenged about the ways you’re going to achieve them. We’re a business which does better the more you invest, basically, and not just in acquisitions, but in quality and systems.

“The sale to Bridgepoint was a transformational moment, because their forte is growing businesses to double or triple the size they were when they bought them.

“They’ve been very focused on how to invest, how to make things better for consumers, how to grow the business… They’ve given us room and that’s helped us grow. I’ve got one of the best jobs in the world: on any given day, everything I talk about is how to invest more in marketing to grow the business, what new technology can we add.”

In terms of his leadership style, Ash says he advocates a ‘What don’t I know?’ over a ‘What do I know?’ approach, and believes in being approachable to staff.

“If ever there was a people business, we are a people business,” he says. “It’s going to be a long time before you have your teeth created on the internet. It’s an industry full of very intelligent people, most of whom have many more qualifications than I do.

“We have 1,600 dentists and 4,000 staff who are mostly qualified professionals. An intelligent workforce asks questions, so at least one day a week I’m out on the road visiting practices. It keeps you in touch with the front line, and makes you available for people to ask questions. Every six weeks I’ll organise a big meeting which involves pulling a whole region together and telling them where the company is going. The real world’s a great place to spend your time.”

Once, Ash’s greatest challenge was convincing people his vision had teeth. “It started as an act of persuasion,” he says. “The first time I talked about being a national dentistry brand eight years ago, people scoffed. Now they are just excited.”

One might expect having both commercial and clinical boards could involve a clash of priorities, but Ash insists the business avoids this by having “a very balanced board structure… we have debates but not conflicts”.

Such rapid growth as Oasis Dental Care has enjoyed does bring its strains, though. “We’re adding a practice about every week and two days, on average, and they’ve got to be taken on the same journey we took everyone else on.

“You’ve got to integrate them, while continuing to deliver a great consumer proposition and keeping the core business going. It’s a challenge, but it’s a brilliant challenge.” And how does he approach it? “We now have a dedicated integrations team with a clearly defined approach to bringing new sites on board.

“Since the people in a practice are key to its success we focus on communication, starting before completion if we can with ‘Welcome to Oasis’ meetings – many of which I attend myself. We put in measures of success early including regular surveys of how the acquired teams feel the integration is going. These reports go up to the executive team and board, and any opportunities to improve are responded to fast.”

Oasis Dental Care false teethThe future of Oasis Dental Care

The future looks dazzlingly bright for a medical business which currently cares for more than two-and-a-half million people. The £7bn dentistry market – split roughly 50/50 between private and NHS – is growing along with the population, which happens to be ageing as well.

People are becoming much more conscious of oral health – “not in the Hollywood smile sense,” laughs Ash, “but in terms of visiting a hygienist, having a good bite and their teeth looking good but natural” – and it’s a largely unconsolidated sector. “We’ve got six per cent of the market, so there’s so much headroom to go for,” he says.

Oasis Dental Care has taken a stride towards making dentistry, like optometry and the pharmaceutical industry before it, a sector dominated by standardised brands will surely march on, with Ash confident he can grow from 370 to 1,000 sites in the UK and Ireland in the near future.

“I won’t stop until our name is associated with a really high-quality, national offer everyone’s heard of,” he says. “Nobody has really cracked a quality-focused dental brand in most overseas markets, including the US, Canada and China, and we have every potential to be a global family brand. It feels I’ve just started, which is always a good sign.”

Vital stats – Oasis Dental Care

Founded 1996

HQ Hambrook, Bristol

Staff 4,000, of whom 1,600 are dentists

Recent growth Increased turnover by 48 per cent from £158.1m to £234m

CSR Oasis supports Bridge2Aid, a national charity providing dental care to under-privileged children across the developing world

Ownership Bought by private equity company Bridgepoint for £185m in 2013 from Duke Street, which paid £77m in 2007

Acquisitions Apex Dental Care and Smiles Dental were purchased in 2014, bolstering Oasis Dental Care’s network from 204 to 310

Leadership Justin Ash is vice-chair of the NHS Partners Network of independent healthcare providers and a member of the advisory panel of Queen Mary Business School and Dental Bodies Corporate. Oasis Dental Care is chaired by Lord Rose, former boss of Marks and Spencer

To find out more about Britain’s biggest dental chain, visit oasisdentalcare.co.uk

@OasisDentalCare

For similar interviews see:

Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, founder of The Black Farmer

Sacha Romanovitch – the Grant Thornton CEO on making the UK economy vibrant

Dermalogica founder Jane Wurwand on successful entrepreneurship

About author

Nick Scott

Nick Scott

A former editor-in-chief of The Rake and deputy editor of the Australian edition of GQ, Nick has had features published in titles including Esquire, The Guardian, Observer Sport Monthly and Rolling Stone Australia and is a contributing editor to Director magazine. He has interviewed celebrities including Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig and Elle Macpherson, as well as business people including Sir Richard Branson, Charles Middleton and Nick Giles and Michael Hayman MBE.

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