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The Next Generation of Laboratory Owners
Up and coming dental technology professionals come at the industry from a whole new angle
Any technician who has spent time on the bench knows that dental technology gets into the blood. Once they enter the industry, they are hooked, and oftentimes, their enthusiasm for the profession becomes a family trait. There are many second- and third-generation professionals in the dental technology industry poised to take over when their fathers and grandfathers retire, bringing with them an old-school understanding of the profession as it existed in the past, as well as a new-school train of thought as to how businesses should be managed and adapted to new technologies. This next generation of dental laboratory owners are coming at the industry from a different place than their predecessors, and with their guidance, dental technology will move into the future faster, better, and more efficiently than ever before.
An Unorthodox Entrance
The next generation of laboratory owners differs greatly from their predecessors in a number of ways. The first is that many of them have entered the industry through a side-door, beginning their career in dental technology in a role not directly related to fabricating restorations. These future laboratory owners may never get a bench education and choose to approach the business from an entirely different angle.
One such future laboratory owner is Megan Nakanishi. Nakanishi is the operations manager at Nakanishi Dental Laboratory, a company founded by her grandfather and currently helmed by her father. While both her father and her grandfather were CDTs, Nakanishi has no formal training in the everyday bench work that happens in the laboratory. “I never had any intention of going into the family business,” confides Nakanishi. “I have a business degree that’s tailored to manufacturing and operations management. At first, I was only working at the laboratory to manage the installation and integration of our DAMAS quality system, but I very quickly fell in love with the field. It’s fascinating, complicated, wonderful, and rewarding all at the same time.” Nakanishi looks at the dental laboratory business from a purely business angle, which she believes allows her to see the industry on a larger scale than if she had entered the profession as a technician. “I can see doing things differently than people who are purely technical. I decided to pursue an MBA because I realized the obstacles we face at the lab today, and will face in the future, will require real world business solutions. A business background definitely helps our company come up with innovative solutions to recurring problems.”
Other future laboratory owners enter the dental technology world without any bench experience, but after spending some time working for a laboratory decide that becoming a CDT would help them grow in the field. Chris Waldrop, CDT and president of Burdette Dental Lab, took this course of action. Joining the industry nearly 20 years ago, Waldrop is the son-in-law of second-generation laboratory owner, Harold Burdette, Jr., CDT. When Waldrop started at Burdette’s lab, he was doing basic accounting and bookkeeping, but soon he grew restless, moving into sales for the laboratory. As a sales person, Waldrop realized that he wanted to learn more about the technical side of the industry, so he started working in the laboratory and took his CDT exam. “I just didn’t feel I was able to do my sales job well unless I had a background in the technology I was selling,” explains Waldrop. “Once I learned the ropes, I found that I really enjoyed the family nature of the business and the overall culture of dental technology in a laboratory environment. It’s a great, tightly-knit community that is wonderful to be a part of.”
Applying A Fresh Perspective
Fifty years ago, the only requirement for opening a dental laboratory was to be a skilled dental technician. While the industry would indeed collapse without a masterful workforce, technical skill is no longer the sole resource necessary to run a successful dental laboratory, and the perspective of someone who is not only focused on the bench can be extremely useful to move individual businesses forward. This is because people not initially from the dental technology industry are not limited by any knowledge of “the way things have always been done.”
Bob Savage, vice president and CFO of Drake Precision Dental Laboratory, has worked for his father-in-law, Billy Drake, for about 14 years. Before joining the laboratory industry, Savage worked as a project manager for a construction company, overseeing large construction sites. Savage says that his time as a project manager gave him a number of skills that could actively be applied to his new job in the laboratory. “Dental technology has a lot of parallels to construction. In both cases, you’re creating a custom product for a specific customer. With each new customer comes a new set of challenges, and that’s something that has to be addressed head on,” he explains.
Savage also believes that the business fundamentals he learned in construction are invaluable in the laboratory industry. “Knowledge regarding things like customer service, marketing new products, and managing a staff comes in handy when running a laboratory,” says Savage. “Especially when that laboratory is expanding.” Savage notes that not every business fundamental is consistent between industries, however. “It took a while for me to get used to the fact that technicians are extremely hard to find, and that if you lose one, he or she is extremely difficult to replace. In construction, if I didn’t have enough electricians, I would hire more. If a laborer quit, there were always people I could call to take his place. That is very much not the case in dental technology, where everyone has their own specialties and certain qualities are in very high demand.”
As there can sometimes be a learning curve for people new to the laboratory industry, a working knowledge of dental technology can be extremely useful to those entering the field, even if their job function does not require any bench work. Nick Ragle and Natalie (Ragle) Swanson are the children of Jerry Ragle, CDT, owner, and founder of Ragle Dental Laboratory, Inc., and have been working for their father in some capacity or another since they were in high school. Currently, Ragle serves the laboratory as President, and Swanson acts as Executive Vice President. While neither expected to end up working in dental technology, they discovered that the careers they pursued in college would be applicable to the laboratory industry, and that their father’s business was the ideal place to continue to hone their professional skills. “We grew up around the lab, but it wasn’t until we had graduated from school that we realized what our dad had built. There are huge opportunities in this industry, and our background in dental technology, combined with our formal education in other arenas, have allowed us to excel,” explains Ragle.
Ragle and Swanson acknowledge that people who have been in dental technology field for a long period of time may be too attached to the way things were done in the past, but having a youthful perspective really helps Ragle Dental Laboratory to adapt to industry demands. “Since we have been around dental technology our entire lives we know the history, and we understand the pain and frustration of technicians who are holding on to the way things used to be. However, we have at least 30 years in this industry ahead of us, and as such we must look optimistically at all of the innovations that are coming down the line,” explains Swanson.
Embracing a Changing Industry
One of the most striking characteristics of this next generation of laboratory owners is their passion for pursuing new technologies and ability to enact changing processes. This characteristic proves invaluable in dental technology, as the industry is forever in a state of flux. Megan Nakanishi explains, “Anyone who’s been in the field for a long time feels like the industry is being turned on its head; and they’re right. What they have to realize is that digital technologies will soon be the new norm. Change is going to be our only constant in this industry.” Nakanishi, as well as other members of the new dental technology regime, is forever on the lookout for the next best material, the next best technology, and the next best manufacturing processes. “What we’ve realized over the years is that we can’t just cram these new technologies into our existing system. In order to maximize our investment, we have to transform how we think and operate. We have to create new business cultures and new teams of skilled individuals that who embrace change and are not afraid to think outside the box,” says Nakanishi.
According to Chris Waldrop, the next generation’s ability to embrace change likely stems from their varied roles in the industry. “I came up through the ranks in a pretty unusual way. I got to see all aspects of the industry, the good, the bad, and the ugly. It also let me see where all the opportunities are and has allowed me to seek out those opportunities if I wish,” he describes. Waldrop also says that he has been able to see the evolution of the laboratory industry from a number of different roles, including accounting, sales, technician, and manager, and in his opinion, the future of the laboratory industry involves much more customer service than current technicians are accustomed to. “We have to listen to our customers and meet their needs. It sounds really simple, but it is not something that the dental technology world has really taken on in the past.”
Natalie Swanson says that the next generation of laboratory owners has another advantage when it comes to adapting to change—they are already familiar with computers and advanced technology. “My brother and I grew up on computers, and sitting at a desk doing everything by hand is not how we were brought up. Pushing buttons, keying in information, creating things digitally is what we know. By changing laboratory processes to a digital workflow, we can make the technician’s job more seamless and the company as a whole more efficient,” Swanson explains. Swanson has even taken the idea of a digital workflow further, making as many of Ragle Dental Laboratory’s internal processes as possible electronic. “When I first came on, one of the first things I did was set up our payroll to accept direct deposit. From there, I’ve started to pay most of our bills online, as well as do most of our ordering online. And, to be honest, if a vendor doesn’t offer online ordering, I will look for a vendor that does. A paperless, low-waste, low-hassle digital system really makes a difference when running a business.”
As a whole, dental technology is hurtling toward a digitized workflow, and many of the laboratory owners who have been in the industry a long time are wary of the complete overhaul that adapting these technologies requires. However, per the next generation of laboratory owners, digital technologies are a necessity that will revolutionize their workflow, make their processes more efficient, and ultimately increase the quality of the restorations that they are creating for dentists and patients.
Joining the Dental Technology Community
The adaption of new technologies and processes has revolutionized more than just how laboratories are run, it has also changed the way that people in dental technology industry meet and interact with each other. Chris Waldrop thinks that while there is a lot of value in attending tradeshows, people in the dental technology industry should also be willing to participate in digital communications. “Online communications allow for instant gratification. The digital medium allows technicians to watch videos on processes and techniques. You get to pull up scientific data at the touch of a button. You can have ‘meetings’ online with people from the industry without even having to be on the same continent. There is value adapting these digital means of communication,” explains Waldrop.
By participating in an online community, as well in tradeshows, meetings, and other industry events, the new generation of laboratory owners are able to integrate themselves into an industry that previously only had one entry point—as a technician.
An Optimistic Viewpoint
As the laboratory industry continues to morph, there is a new generation of laboratory owners poised to take over for their fathers and grandfathers. These individuals offer the industry a fresh perspective, along with the full on support of their knowledgeable, technical predecessors. They are not afraid to shake things up or pursue new technology, and they feel a strong optimism regarding an industry that has recently been overshadowed by pessimism. Nick Ragle explains, “Optimism is a common trait among the younger players in dental technology. We don’t see the new technology as a bad thing, and we’re ready to grow and change with the industry.”
A Contemporary Outlook on Tradeshows
Taking into consideration the changing demographics of the industry, dental technology tradeshows have begun to diversify so as to provide an inclusive environment for all of the different people attending. Megan Nakanishi says, “Attendees at tradeshows vary from experiences technicians, to lab owners who may or may not have a technical background, to managers who have come from outside industries.” By aiming to appeal to such a wide variety of demographics, dental technology tradeshows are truly becoming a grab bag of information, and the attendees get to learn more about all of the different facets of the industry. Nakanishi further explains, “The rapid changes we’re experiencing in this industry make information-sharing opportunities, such as trade shows, more valuable than ever. The diverse backgrounds of attendees at these shows make it interesting to learn what everyone does and how they do it.”
Bob Savage is also a strong proponent of tradeshows. He believes that while a digitized workflow is valuable, and that it is extremely convenient to able to access educational education and webinars online, it is becoming increasingly necessary to go out and interact with fellow members of the dental technology community face-to-face. He particularly notes tradeshows as a place where he has acquired good industry information. “Interacting with other people in dental technology at tradeshows can be more valuable than attending a lecture or watching a webinar. The information passed on to me by vendors, or ideas tossed out when chatting with other technicians is what helps me the most when I’m planning a business strategy or seeking facts about new technologies and materials,” says Savage.