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a blog by Chris Barrow

The Dark Side beckons…..

I need to warn you that this could be my longest ever post – so put the kettle on, make a nice cuppa and read when you have a few minutes of peace available. Because its time to talk openly about my departure from Breathe Business to join the team at Integrated Dental Holdings – hence the title of this post (which could just have easily read “poacher turns gamekeeper”). I believe that today is a good time to be writing this – I informed my colleagues in Breathe on Friday last week, IDH issued an internal note on the same day and Simon wrote to all the Breathe clients earlier this week – so the news is “out there”, notwithstanding the fact that a press release will still be a few days away. So what on earth is going on? Chris Barrow – champion of the cause of the small independent practitioner and constant critic of the New Contract and its effect on customer service – has joined forces with what a good friend and client described in an email this morning as “the evil empire” (his words not mine). What I want to do here is to describe:

  1. how this happened?

  2. what I am going to be doing

  3. why I am doing it with IDH?

and then a few comments about coaching and Breathe Business.

Then I can finish for a 2-week break and leave the critics to gossip and the fans to speculate, whilst I get some sleep, read some books and enjoy some fresh air.

How this happened?

I have long held the view that the independent sector in UK dentistry was under a full scale attack from the Government and retail competition – and its interesting that, when I posted my “12 predictions for the future of dentistry” well over a year ago, I suggested that the smaller operator would have to find ways to create “producer groups” that would allow them to pool their finances to afford services and support.

There are many principals who would never consider for a moment losing their fiercely won independence.

In many ways, this article and the subsequent late nights of conversation between myself and Simon, gave rise to Breathe Business and to the Breathe Business Club, in which we created (and Simon will continue to provide) the content, community and thought leadership that is necessary.

In parallel to the formation of Breathe, I have had a professional “itch” that said “is there a place here for creating a private corporate?”

I’ve watched the existing corporates grow and grow over the last 12 years, the NHS sector championed by the IDH/Oasis/ADP philosophy and the “celebrity dentist” sector championed by J D Hull.

In the last three years, I have also seen the appearance of smaller versions with “twists” in their business plan, perhaps best illustrated by Genix, whose management team I had the pleasure of meeting with in the last few months.

But it seems to me that there is an opportunity in the marketplace to create a corporate that would serve the needs of those either in mixed practice with a heavy bias towards private, or those fully private and developing higher value treatment sales on a good foundation of dental maintenance.

What’s in it for the principal? For the team, for the patients?

More of that later.

So in the last 2 or 3 years, I have invested some of my time in discussions with a variety of potential backers for the creation of such a venture. Sometimes I’ve just set off on my own, following “degrees of separation” from my many contacts – sometimes its been with members of the Breathe team.

And if you had asked me in the Spring of this year “how was it going?” I would have told you a tale of blind alleys and greedy financiers – venture capitalists who wanted all the money, bombastic private individuals who wanted all the glory, banks who had no vision and just wanted security.

I tell you – I’ve become somewhat of an expert at this – and at least I can now “fail more quickly” in those conversations and get out when I know I’m wasting my time.

So I’ve been carry “THE IDEA” around in my head – and telling people about “THE IDEA” – and getting nowhere.

Until the BDA Conference.

Because I bumped into David Hudaly, CEO of IDH.

Actually, the day before, I had spent a couple of hours chatting to two of the IDH management team about whether of not Breathe Business could help them with their internal management and leadership development and it was on the back of that conversation that I met with David.

12 years ago, when I first started out in dental coaching, I worked with some clients who sold their practice to what was then a much smaller IDH. I worked closely with the clients and David on the sale – and I believe that David and I developed a mutual respect at that meeting which has survived the test of time and many subsequent further acquisitions.

I may have been a critic of the NHS corporates over the years but David and I have always been able to approach each other at conferences, crack a few jokes about each others business and then have a good conversation about dentistry.

David, unlike me, shuns publicity.

So (back to the BDA), after the ritual back-slapping a fun-poking, we get down to chatting about our respective plans – and I bemoan the fact that there is no funding available for that “mid-market private corporate” that I’ve imagined.

“Why didn’t you ask me?”

Perhaps the most important thing that anybody may have said to me in the last 25 years.

Now I’m not going to delve into the detailed and confidential conversations that took place between then and now, but suffice to say that, over a period of perhaps 4 months, I have invested a huge amount of my private time in conversation with David, with his excellent senior management team and with Merrill Lynch (the guys with the cheque book)- and we have reached an agreement that allows me to realise that vision and at the same time leave my core values intact as to how a business should be lead, managed and how it should reward and behave towards its people.

What am I going to be doing?

When the conversation around this corporate began, I placed on the table certain core values that would have to be recognised and embraced in our business plan.

  1. that although we were intending to acquire practices, it was essential that the “principals” retained a financial interest in the growth of the corporate overall – “skin in the game” – so that they would continue to drive profitability in their own practice and support incentives that would improve the whole group;

  2. that there would be absolutely no compromise on customer service and clinical standards, that a “NEWCO practice” (we don’t have a name yet) would still be acknowledged as a place of quality not quantity;

  3. that the rewards of ongoing profit enhancement and ultimate wealth creation would be shared with the leadership/management team and with the principals and not just squirreled away by the backers;

  4. that the performance systems and behavioral standards of NEWCO would be consistent with the message I have been preaching for the last 12 years in The Dental Business School and Breathe;

  5. that we would put the “principals” in a position where there were no more “wheels to invent” – that we would build a national and regional team providing training, consultancy and support in all of the key areas of business development;

  6. financial modeling, monitoring and controls;

  7. marketing systems

  8. customer service, patient journey and sales systems;

  9. operational systems and

  10. personnel systems to recruit, train, and motivate the team

I have to tell you that, in the early days of the conversation, I wondered whether my vision would be thrown out by yet another investment bank focused on “ROI” – but I was delighted when the news came back that they were willing to support this view.

So why would a successful principal give this offer any consideration? Especially if they were still full of vim and vigour?

  1. a chance to create wealth over and above that which could be expected as an individual practice owner;

  2. a chance to maximize income now;

  3. an opportunity to hand over the daily responsibility for running the business to existing and/or new team members who have been trained to the highest standard and are being managed by an experienced and competent regional team;

  4. a chance to focus on personal clinical excellence;

  5. a chance to utilize tested systems and standards that are continually improved;

  6. a chance to be a part of a small community of like-minded individuals who are pursuing a common goal;

  7. a chance to work with some of the brightest minds in the business;

  8. a chance to go home at night and stop worrying.

Why IDH?

  1. Because I have the highest professional regard for David Hudaly;

  2. Because I have invested time in the senior management team and like what I see;

  3. Because we are head-hunting some extremely high quality people from outside of dentistry to build a real business that will stand up to scrutiny by the City when its time to realise the dream;

  4. Because I have met with Merrill Lynch and they LISTENED;

  5. Because if I don’t take this opportunity, I’ll kick myself for the rest of my life.

We have designed a financial package that I think will be of immense interest to SOME people – and I suspect that my first approach to the market will be in the Autumn when we have created some more infrastructure.

Now – a final comment about Breathe Business.

I’d like to anticipate any speculation about my relationship with Simon and my intentions with Breathe.

There is no doubt that ending my working relationship with Simon is the downside of this change, I have experienced many of my best professional moments as a business coach, working “on stage” with Simon at my side or simply sat in some obscure cappuccino bar, my Sony Vaio on one side of the table and his Macbook Pro on the other, our man bags swinging on the backs of chairs.

We have talked and talked for 10 years now and we share many of the same core values. Our lives are intertwined in many ways, both personal and professional (and we are not gay).

Simon and I met last night for the first time since my internal announcement and I like to think that we did that thing that guys do – telling each other what we thought and then “getting on with it” – and I’m personally delighted that Simon invited me for tea at 5.30 pm – we chatted for an hour.

There was some fear in the Breathe camp that I would either be setting myself up as a rival coach or attacking the Breathe client base as acquisition candidates.

So I was happy to repeat to Simon last night – and I’m happy to repeat here, that neither of those scenarios will occur.

I am not marketing myself as a business coach going forward.Â

There is only one decent business coach left in UK dentistry right now – his name is Simon Hocken and if you want help, call him – he’s really very good you know. I’ve watched him change people’s lives for the better.

And, for the record, there will be no mass mailing campaign to Breathe clients asking them to take the blue pill.

When we are ready (and we are not ready) NEWCO will make its noise in the marketplace- and if you want to talk to me I’d love to.

During September, I will be talking to existing principals about the NEWCO offer, because we don’t claim to have the offer 100% right yet – and I’d love some feedback.

Finally – this is the only place I will have to thank the clients who have written to me this week to say “thanks and good luck” – without exception they have had a dig at my choice of new business partner- I’ll get used to that- but they have also been very kind in their appreciation.

That means everything to me.

The next three to five years will be some of the most exciting in UK dentistry – and I hope to be right in the middle of it all – just cannot wait. I may even shine a light on the dark side 😉

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