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Growth
Business Observer Friday, Nov. 26, 2010 10 years ago

Dreams With Teeth

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A bold group of entrepreneurs hopes to take a big bite out of an even bigger market. Plans include going from 20 to 280 employees in five years.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

REVIEW SUMMARY
Business. Natural Prosthetic Dental Lab, Bradenton
Industry. Dentistry, health care
Key. Company plans a major expansion in space and employees.



The effort undertaken by a Bradenton foursome of executives to turn a dentist's chair into a digital domain reached a pinnacle June 16.


That was the day Brad Sauer, executive vice president with global consumer products and technological giant 3M, flew into town in a G5 Learjet. Sauer and his team met with the executives of Natural Prosthetic Dental Lab, a 26-year-old firm with 20 employees and about $3 million in annual sales.


The companies had worked together for a few years under a loosely defined partnership, and this meeting was one of many. The ultimate goal: To replace the gooey substance dentists have used for years to make an impression of a patient's teeth with a digital scanner and other high-end gadgets.


St. Paul, Minn.-based 3M brought the equipment, while Natural Prosthetic brought the dental lab manufacturing expertise and dentist training knowhow to the venture. Yet this particular meeting, with Sauer personally jetting into town, held more significance than past get-togethers. “That's when we started to gain traction with our concept,” says Dennis Cooley, Natural Prosthetic chief technology officer.


The concept has the potential to dramatically alter the company, says Natural Prosthetic owner David Jensen. In fact, the company now thinks so big it plans to invest at least $10 million into the expansion, from leveraging the business and personal equity.


The money will go toward new equipment and to build another facility in Manatee County. Natural Prosthetic also plans to hire nearly 300 people over the next five years. The hiring side is boosted by up to $283,000 in performance-based incentives from Manatee County — $1,000 per employee.


Natural Prosthetic hopes to accomplish two secondary, yet consequential goals with the expansion. For starters, executives are excited about the possibility of getting jobs back from China, where the bulk of American dental lab work has been outsourced over the past decade.


“Our goal is to bring jobs home,” says Natural Prosthetic President Eric Grimes. “The only way to compete with overseas labor is with technology.”


Moreover, the company hopes to take a lead position in the $60 billion dental lab and prosthetics manufacturing industry. The industry is a mom-and-pop like world, where the largest lab in the country has less than 2% of the market.


“You can't run a lab like it used to be run,” says Jensen. “It's much more business focused and technology focused now.”



A magic wand


Indeed, both Natural Prosthetic and others in the industry consider technological innovations made by 3M to be the industry's analog to digital moment. The equipment, the company says, can transform a dentist visit from an anxiety-ridden nuisance to an efficient and easy appointment.


“It's not that the technology hasn't been available, it just hasn't been available due to the expense,” says Cooley. “But this program changes everything.”


The program starts with 3M's digital milling machines, which are sold under the 3M Lava line. The machines, through a fusion process that combines computer-assisted design and computer-assisted manufacturing —CAD/CAM — can make crowns and bridges out of zirconia, a white crystal commonly used by dental labs to make impression trays.


Next, a dentist is provided with a digital scanner placed adjacent to the patient's chair. So, instead of the goop-filled trays commonly used to make impressions, a dentist can turn to an interactive, 3-D digital impression system called the 3M Lava Chairside Oral Scanner.


Then Natural Prosthetic takes over. A dentist, trained on the system by the company, can trace the patient's teeth with a digital wand. The dentist can then transmit the screen to Natural Prosthetic, where employees will assemble the final product for the dentist to provide to the patient.


The key point, says Grimes, is computerization. Says Grimes: “Automation is the key to saving money and the key to making money.”


The digital dental revolution will also make for a better and faster patient experience. “Within the decade, digital dentistry will be the standard,” Grimes says in a press release announcing the potential incentives from Manatee County. “We want to lead that wave and grab market share.”



'Some structure'


The first step to get there was to woo 3M, a process Jensen and Grimes launched five years ago, soon after Grimes joined the company.


Before he joined Natural Prosthetic, Grimes, a Bradenton native, started and ran several businesses, including a Signs Now franchise in Sarasota and a real estate entity. A former deputy with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, Grimes also counts several accomplished entrepreneurs in his family tree: His wife's mother, Donna Eason, owns Ezra Cafe, a trendy restaurant in west Bradenton, and his wife's grandfather, Dewey Eason, co-founded Signs Now.


When Grimes got to Natural Prosthetic, he says the high-end dental lab had gotten by sales-wise almost entirely by word-of-mouth. Grimes believed the firm needed to embrace technology to grow.


That's why Grimes and Jensen sought out 3M — the firm is the known industry leader in manufacturing digital dental milling machines. Still, to get access, and then acceptance, required diligence and resilience. “Large publicly traded companies move very slow,” a truism Grimes says he and his executive colleagues learned firsthand. “They have to protect their company and shareholders.”


The persistence nonetheless paid off. So much so, says Grimes, that 3M tried to buy Natural Prosthetic at one point. But the companies instead settled on an information-sharing partnership. Jensen declines to elaborate on the specifics of the relationship.


The 3M partnership, good as it is, does deliver an entirely set of new challenges for Natural Prosthetic.


Space is one issue. The company currently operates out of two facilities that total 5,500 square feet. But executives estimate they need at least 10,000 more square feet, so they have scouted three locations in east Manatee County. Grimes says the company hopes to begin construction on a new facility by the end of the year and have it ready by next spring.


Meanwhile, another key component of the growth strategy is to hire local employees in roles from sales to production to training the dentists. For that, Natural Prosthetic plans to work with the schools and colleges in Bradenton and Sarasota, to help train the firm's future workforce. “Education will be a big part of this,” says Grimes.


Another issue is to convince dentists, a traditional group, that digital dentistry is the wave of the future, not a fad. Says Jensen: “There's an information gap we are trying to close.”


Finally, there's the matter of putting all the parts together while going from 20 employees and $3 million in annual sales to 280 employees and tens of millions of dollars in annual sales. To reach that lofty goal, Grimes will rely on the 3M partnership and the ability of Natural Prosthetic's top four executives to divide and conquer without trampling over each other.


“We have the momentum now,” says Grimes. “But we still have a lot of work to do.”


Cold Case Files


Eric Grimes is head-over-heels passionate about the growth prospects for Natural Prosthetic Dental Lab, a company he's helped run for five years.


But Grimes is equally passionate about his first professional love: Law enforcement. And fortunately for Grimes, he now gets to combine both passions.


Grimes, it turns out, is an active member of a unique, business-owner focused volunteer cold case squad with the Palmetto Police Department. The north Manatee County city, with a population of about 13,000, has six unsolved homicides — all of which took place since 2002. Former police chief Garry Lowe formed the unit of volunteers last year to shake some new life into the cases.


Bradenton funeral director Ray Shannon, a former inspector with the Manatee County Sherriff's Office, joins Grimes on the cold case squad. Dan Molter, owner of a pest-control business in the county, also previously volunteered for the unit.


Palmetto Police Chief Rick Wells, who took over the department from the retired Lowe in September, says volunteers like Grimes and Shannon have been valuable. They know how to talk to suspects and witnesses, understand the magnitude of flawless record keeping and care about the community, Wells says.


“They are looking for anything that might have been missed or overlooked,” says Wells, son of longtime Manatee Sherriff Charlie Wells. “It's very methodical work.”


Methodical, but not Hollywood-style cops and robbers.


Grimes says he's not kicking down doors and chasing bad guys down alleys.


Instead, he says, the cold case squad is a way to give back and honor his father, a Manatee County police officer killed in the line of duty when the younger Grimes was 7 years old. Eric Grimes himself became a deputy for the Manatee County Sherriff's Office straight out of high school.


Grimes, who attended the police academy while he ran his first business, a Signs Now franchise in Sarasota, soon faced a choice: Follow his entrepreneurial mindset into a business life, or stick with law enforcement. “I couldn't keep doing it all,” he says. “I had to choose.”

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