Oasis Dental Care is the UK’s first national dentist chain and it is run by Justin Ash. Once keen to be the British Prime Minister, Ash has now turned his attention to oral health. And in this role, he is determined to take Oasis to 1000 sites and make it a truly renowned brand, famous for the quality of its work and recognised as having transformed dentistry. When Ash first started, this ambition seemed almost impossible. Now he is well on the way to achieving it but he believes the best is yet to come.​

THE INTERVIEW

 

THE INTERVIEW

All smiles

The first time that I put a branded poster on a practice wall, the dentists tore it down and told me that branding would never work in dentistry”​

Until he was 21, Justin Ash had one, dominant ambition: to run the country.  

“Up until the time I finished studying politics, I was relatively determined to become Prime Minister,” he says. 

A stretch working in Westminster in the UK and Congress in the US put Ash off a political career: “It was all about people, not about answers,” he says.

Nearly three decades later, Ash’s aspirations, while stretching, are slightly less lofty than they were back then.

“I want to build Oasis to 1,000 sites and make it a truly famous brand with a great proposition and a reputation for having transformed dentistry. That’s my long-term ambition and I’m going to stick at it until I get there,” he maintains.

“Shorter term, I want to cycle from Geneva to Nice on the Route des Grandes Alpes. It’s only about 600 miles but it’s apparently like climbing Everest in five days. And I’m doing it next year.”

Steely determination

The two ambitions, while very different, share certain features. Both are tough, both reflect Ash’s steely determination and both would have been far from his mind ten years ago.

Now approaching 50, Ash had precious little interest in fitness until he turned 40, since when he has become a cycling and triathlon enthusiast, who cycled 205 miles between Kent and Somerset on a single day last year – a ride known as the Chase the Sun challenge. 

“My one regret is that I wish I’d got into fitness when I was 10. These days, when I go on long trips, I do finish but I’d like to finish somewhere near the front and I didn’t start training early enough for that,” he says. 

He has no such regrets on the professional front. Having left politics behind as a student, Ash joined management consultancy firm Bain & Company and then moved into consumer goods. He ran KFC’s UK and Ireland business from 1999 to 2004, became managing director at chemist chain Lloyds Pharmacy subsequently and joined Oasis as chief executive in 2008. 

At the time, the group had 100 sites and the concept of branded dentistry barely existed.​

Convincing the dentists

“When I joined, I knew that I wanted to build a dental brand.  But the idea of branding was alien to dentistry back then. The first time that I put a branded poster on a practice wall, the dentists tore it down and told me that branding would never work in dentistry because it was all about having a local name and a local presence,” says Ash.

Eight years later, those poster-tearing dentists may be wishing they had kept their counsel. Today, Oasis has a national presence across the UK and the Republic of Ireland and 70 per cent of the British population can access an Oasis practice within 20 minutes of leaving home. 

In the last three years alone, since Bridgepoint invested in the group, site numbers have almost doubled, from 200 to 380, and there are three million people on the Oasis database, two-thirds of whom have regular check-ups.

Feedback is exceptional too. More than 95 per cent of customers say they would recommend Oasis to a friend and, when it comes to employee engagement, the group scores even higher than UK department store John Lewis, traditionally a bellwether for good staff relations. 

“It’s been quite a journey,” says Ash.

Brand new

The approach however, is relatively straightforward.

“The basic principle is that we are bringing a branded consumer approach to dentistry. Eight years ago, dentistry was very inconsistent, there was no real marketing and no one really knew how to choose a dentist. They were open 9 to 5 if you were lucky and pricing was completely opaque. It was basically a service that suited the dentists, not the consumer,” Ash explains.​

“We did a lot of research to find out what people actually wanted from their dentist. Their top priority was high-quality treatment with no pain but they also wanted consistency of treatment, more flexible opening hours, transparent pricing and online booking.”

Having found out what people valued from their dentist, Ash and his team set out to deliver it.

“We have a strong clinical backbone and our dentists are monitored by an internal audit team, which is itself composed of dentists. Cleanliness and modernity are two other consumer priorities so all our practices have a decontamination room, which is not required by legislation but means that we follow hospital standards,” he says.

Practices tend to be open from 8 to 7 five days a week and at least two Saturdays a month, with some open on Sundays too. Prices are fixed and clearly visible within practices and on the Oasis website. And considerable investment goes into making the dental practices look good. 

“We make sure that the reception area is welcoming and you can’t hear the sound of drilling or smell that waft of antiseptic which reminds you that you are at the dentist. We want to avoid triggering those nervous sensations that some people, particularly older consumers, associate with going to the dentist,” says Ash. 

Selective growth

The strategy is working. EBITDA has tripled since 2013 and Oasis has become the first branded dental chain in the UK. Like-for-like growth has been consistently strong and the group has also made a number of acquisitions.

“We see hundreds of businesses a year but we are very selective so we only choose 40 to 50. We have strict criteria about where we buy because we want to be in places where we can grow, so they need the right socioeconomic profile. We also tend to like larger practices, with a minimum of four dentists, as you can offer a wider range of services in bigger sites. And we very rarely buy practices whose owners want to sell up and leave,” says Ash.

Initially, dentists were reluctant to sacrifice their independence and become part of a branded chain. Now, Oasis finds that the dental community is much more enthusiastic. 

“We often find dentists saying to us: ‘It’s amazing. We put up the Oasis branding and more people come in.’ I tell them: ‘That’s why we do it!’ But they really get it once it happens to them,” says Ash.

“In essence, it becomes a virtuous circle. Dentists can focus on their work while we focus on running their business, making sure they are compliant with the latest regulations and investing in their practices so they have state-of-the-art equipment and systems. Patient books grow, the practices get bigger, the feedback is good and typically, within a year, dentists are making more money than they did before they sold to us. They often go on to recommend us to other dentists,” he adds.

Ash and his team work hard to make sure that new practices feel part of the wider group, spending up to a year integrating acquisitions and helping staff to feel confident and comfortable.​

“It can take a while for people to get used to the way we work but we organise conferences and awards ceremonies and suchlike and we do have a nice big community culture,” Ash explains.

When meeting new dentists, Ash has his own way of putting them at ease, while conveying the essence of the Oasis approach. 

“We have rolling inductions and I try to go along to all of them. When I meet new dentists, I tell them: ‘You’re in good hands. Your CEO used to run Kentucky Fried Chicken!’ At first, they tend to laugh nervously but then they get the link – both businesses are about quality, consistency and good service,” he says.

Data focus

The company makes widespread use of data to ensure that service levels remain ahead of the pack. 

“At any one time, I can see how many new patients we have compared to existing patients; I can see how many patient bookings we have going forward and whether we need to increase dental hours. I can even see how long people had to wait in reception. We use this information to drive the business forward, a bit like a retail company,” says Ash. 

The Oasis data also shows that the British, traditionally renowned for having bad teeth, are becoming more aware of the importance of oral health. 

“The British are famous for not having pearly-white straight teeth like Hollywood stars but every year, in a slightly British way, people are more concerned about looking after their teeth and their gums. They are also more interested in the aesthetics of dentistry so the fastest-growing areas for us are implants, orthodontic work and aesthetic treatments to improve your smile and have a healthy mouth. And people are going to the hygienist a lot more than they used to,” Ash reveals.

Ash himself has a check-up every nine months to a year and goes to the hygienist every six months. However, he is constantly out and about, visiting practices to see what they are doing and how they are faring.

“It’s a really energising and exciting environment to work in. I know it’s the dentist and that may sound strange but when I meet our people and they completely buy into our vision to be the go-to dentist brand; when the ones who’ve been here a while say how far we’ve come and how we’ve built a proposition that they didn’t think was possible, that gives me real pleasure. They are all really positive about the business and, frankly, delightful with patients and that gives me a great feeling,” says Ash.

He attributes the group’s success not just to the team around him but also to Bridgepoint, which invested in the business three years ago.

“Of course, success can be attributed to building a consumer-facing brand proposition but the investor and board environment is key to allowing that to happen. You need to have a backer who looks three to five years ahead and is prepared to take a long-term view. Bridgepoint has been very good at asking us what our world will look like and how we can make sure we’re winning in five years’ time. It’s a very motivating way to run a business,” says Ash.

Having built the business to a 380-site chain, Ash believes that Oasis still has huge potential.

“Our growth is accelerating and enthusiasm for the concept is building so we believe that we can really develop the brand from here. There is so much more to go for. True, I didn’t set out to be the CEO of a dental chain – but it was a good move,” he says 

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I want to build Oasis to 1,000 sites and make it a truly famous brand with a great proposition and a reputation for having transformed dentistry”​

We make sure that the reception area is welcoming and you can’t hear the sound of drilling or smell that waft of antiseptic which reminds you that you are at the dentist. We want to avoid triggering those nervous sensations”​

Patient books grow, the practices get bigger, the feedback is good and typically, within a year, dentists are making more money than they did before they sold to us”​

“We did a lot of research to find out what people actually wanted from their dentist. Their top priority was high-quality treatment with no pain but they also wanted consistency of treatment, more flexible opening hours, transparent pricing and online booking.”

Having found out what people valued from their dentist, Ash and his team set out to deliver it.

“We have a strong clinical backbone and our dentists are monitored by an internal audit team, which is itself composed of dentists. Cleanliness and modernity are two other consumer priorities so all our practices have a decontamination room, which is not required by legislation but means that we follow hospital standards,” he says.

Practices tend to be open from 8 to 7 five days a week and at least two Saturdays a month, with some open on Sundays too. Prices are fixed and clearly visible within practices and on the Oasis website. And considerable investment goes into making the dental practices look good. 

“We make sure that the reception area is welcoming and you can’t hear the sound of drilling or smell that waft of antiseptic which reminds you that you are at the dentist. We want to avoid triggering those nervous sensations that some people, particularly older consumers, associate with going to the dentist,” says Ash. 

Selective growth

The strategy is working. EBITDA has tripled since 2013 and Oasis has become the first branded dental chain in the UK. Like-for-like growth has been consistently strong and the group has also made a number of acquisitions.

“We see hundreds of businesses a year but we are very selective so we only choose 40 to 50. We have strict criteria about where we buy because we want to be in places where we can grow, so they need the right socioeconomic profile. We also tend to like larger practices, with a minimum of four dentists, as you can offer a wider range of services in bigger sites. And we very rarely buy practices whose owners want to sell up and leave,” says Ash.

Initially, dentists were reluctant to sacrifice their independence and become part of a branded chain. Now, Oasis finds that the dental community is much more enthusiastic. 

“We often find dentists saying to us: ‘It’s amazing. We put up the Oasis branding and more people come in.’ I tell them: ‘That’s why we do it!’ But they really get it once it happens to them,” says Ash.

“In essence, it becomes a virtuous circle. Dentists can focus on their work while we focus on running their business, making sure they are compliant with the latest regulations and investing in their practices so they have state-of-the-art equipment and systems. Patient books grow, the practices get bigger, the feedback is good and typically, within a year, dentists are making more money than they did before they sold to us. They often go on to recommend us to other dentists,” he adds.

Ash and his team work hard to make sure that new practices feel part of the wider group, spending up to a year integrating acquisitions and helping staff to feel confident and comfortable.​

I want to build Oasis to 1,000 sites and make it a truly famous brand with a great proposition and a reputation for having transformed dentistry”​

Patient books grow, the practices get bigger, the feedback is good and typically, within a year, dentists are making more money than they did before they sold to us”​

“It can take a while for people to get used to the way we work but we organise conferences and awards ceremonies and suchlike and we do have a nice big community culture,” Ash explains.

When meeting new dentists, Ash has his own way of putting them at ease, while conveying the essence of the Oasis approach. 

“We have rolling inductions and I try to go along to all of them. When I meet new dentists, I tell them: ‘You’re in good hands. Your CEO used to run Kentucky Fried Chicken!’ At first, they tend to laugh nervously but then they get the link – both businesses are about quality, consistency and good service,” he says.

Data focus

The company makes widespread use of data to ensure that service levels remain ahead of the pack. 

“At any one time, I can see how many new patients we have compared to existing patients; I can see how many patient bookings we have going forward and whether we need to increase dental hours. I can even see how long people had to wait in reception. We use this information to drive the business forward, a bit like a retail company,” says Ash. 

The Oasis data also shows that the British, traditionally renowned for having bad teeth, are becoming more aware of the importance of oral health. 

“The British are famous for not having pearly-white straight teeth like Hollywood stars but every year, in a slightly British way, people are more concerned about looking after their teeth and their gums. They are also more interested in the aesthetics of dentistry so the fastest-growing areas for us are implants, orthodontic work and aesthetic treatments to improve your smile and have a healthy mouth. And people are going to the hygienist a lot more than they used to,” Ash reveals.

 

The first time that I put a branded poster on a practice wall, the dentists tore it down and told me that branding would never work in dentistry”

We make sure that the reception area is welcoming and you can’t hear the sound of drilling or smell that waft of antiseptic which reminds you that you are at the dentist. We want to avoid triggering those nervous sensations”​

Ash himself has a check-up every nine months to a year and goes to the hygienist every six months. However, he is constantly out and about, visiting practices to see what they are doing and how they are faring.

“It’s a really energising and exciting environment to work in. I know it’s the dentist and that may sound strange but when I meet our people and they completely buy into our vision to be the go-to dentist brand; when the ones who’ve been here a while say how far we’ve come and how we’ve built a proposition that they didn’t think was possible, that gives me real pleasure. They are all really positive about the business and, frankly, delightful with patients and that gives me a great feeling,” says Ash.

He attributes the group’s success not just to the team around him but also to Bridgepoint, which invested in the business three years ago.

“Of course, success can be attributed to building a consumer-facing brand proposition but the investor and board environment is key to allowing that to happen. You need to have a backer who looks three to five years ahead and is prepared to take a long-term view. Bridgepoint has been very good at asking us what our world will look like and how we can make sure we’re winning in five years’ time. It’s a very motivating way to run a business,” says Ash.

Having built the business to a 380-site chain, Ash believes that Oasis still has huge potential.

“Our growth is accelerating and enthusiasm for the concept is building so we believe that we can really develop the brand from here. There is so much more to go for. True, I didn’t set out to be the CEO of a dental chain – but it was a good move,” he says 

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Bridgepoint  |  The Point  |  November 2016  |  Issue 30