Tra’ Chambers had no actual laboratory experience when he opened Express Dental Laboratory in Norman, OK in December 2012. Harnessing the efficiency of CAD/CAM technology, the lab touts a two- to three-day turnaround (or same-day for its mobile service) and generated over $300,000 in revenue during its first full year in business. Now, with a staff of seven, the lab serves 118 clients and 45% of its work is completely digital. Here’s more about the lab’s growth strategies:
LMT: What made you decide to open Express Dental Laboratory without any prior laboratory experience?
Tra' Chambers: After spending three years as the Chief Operating Officer of a multi-location dental practice, I had a good idea of what was important to a dentist’s success: for one thing, it’s cash flow. I realized that if a laboratory could provide crowns to dentists in three days or less, it would improve the doctors’ cash flow significantly because they would get insurance reimbursements and patient payment more quickly. In addition, it would make the experience more pleasant for their patients—who wouldn’t have to live with temporaries for more than a few days—further enhancing the dentists’ practices.
The idea behind Express was to embrace CAD/CAM technology to provide quality restorations with a very quick turnaround. Although I had no experience in traditional fabrication techniques, I worked extensively with Sirona’s CEREC® system under the guidance of three dentists in my previous position.
During my research, I discovered that 120 out of 2,000 dentists in my local Oklahoma market owned CEREC systems, but few were taking advantage of Sirona Connect, a service that allows them to quickly send digital impressions directly to Sirona inLab® laboratories. I also knew that many CEREC dentists often limit themselves to doing only single-unit restorations on their chairside mills, so it made sense to me to equip my lab with inLab milling systems and target these dentists to get the work they were still sending out to laboratories.
Teaming up with my brother, Rendon—who handles sales and was actually a full-time college student at the time—I took out a business loan, rented space and bought two inLab milling machines and other equipment. We began reaching out to CEREC dentists through cold calls and by attending CEREC events hosted by Sirona or Patterson Dental. There was a lot to learn and there were many late nights, but we knew we were on to something when we brought in nearly $60,000 worth of business during our first three months.
LMT: It’s interesting that some laboratory owners feel it’s a kiss of death when a client buys a chairside system, yet these were precisely the types of clients you were targeting.
Chambers: Yes, and not only did we get the long-span bridges, abutments and anterior work CEREC dentists were reluctant to do chairside, we also discovered additional ways to partner with them. For example, we offer design assistance and can remotely log into their system to manipulate their designs. Clients can also schedule one of our technicians to spend the day in their office scanning, designing and finishing restorations on their equipment. We recently helped one office prepare, scan, design, mill and deliver 37 units to multiple patients all in the same day.
But to ensure we stayed in a growth mode, we didn’t exclusively focus on CEREC dentists. After a few months, we started marketing our milling services to dentists not already prescribing CAD/CAM restorations. I quickly realized the demands of these dentists were significantly higher because they were used to traditionally fabricated crowns; they weren’t prepping with the mill in mind and had higher expectations with regard to esthetics and morphology. This pushed us to develop skills to meet their demands, like adjusting our designs and cutting back and layering porcelain for more lifelike esthetics; it was also when we hired our first experienced technician.
LMT: I know you’re a huge advocate of digital impressions. What are some of the things you’ve done to convert these non-CAD clients to intraoral scanning?
Chambers: One thing we did was purchase a CEREC® Bluecam intraoral scanner and take it to dental offices to scan patients and send the files to our lab. The feedback on this service was terrific and several clients opted to buy their own intraoral scanners.
More recently, we placed scanners in four different practices. We purchased them, installed them and set them up to send files to our lab via Sirona Connect. Two practices have Omnicams in exchange for at least 40 units a month and two have Bluecams in exchange for 25 units a month.
LMT: How did your mobile service evolve?
Chambers: When we first started bringing the Bluecam scanner around to different offices, it sparked another idea: why not take all of the equipment to dental offices and mill restorations right there?
We set up a few appointments and loaded the scanner, design computer, porcelain furnace and inLab MC XL milling unit into an SUV. At our very first appointment, we fabricated four anterior crowns for one patient, and seven anterior veneers and a crown for a second patient. Both patients were prepped that morning and had their restorations before 5:00pm. Clinicians continue to be amazed at the ability to prepare, scan, design, mill, finish and deliver a crown or multiple crowns in one appointment; currently, 5% of our cases are done via this mobile service and our fees are about 70% higher than normal.
LMT: You also opted for a more traditional growth strategy when you recently purchased a small laboratory. Can you tell us about that?
Chambers: At the beginning of 2014, we merged our lab with Dental Creations, a high-end boutique lab and Owner Kurt Nashert and his one technician came on board; it’s a win-win because we benefit from their expertise and the goodwill they have with their clients, and Kurt has an equity share in our new venture.
Because of the nature of Dental Creations’ business, half of our caseload is now pressed and layered units, at a price point and turnaround that’s double that of our milled restorations. However, digital technology is still involved in almost everything we do, including milling wax patterns for pressing, and we’ll continue to invest in it and continue to find ways to enhance our efficiency and profitability.