Chris Barrow makes no apologies for his direct and abrasive style; it may have won him a few dissenters over the years but it has also won him just as many – if not more – admirers.
The business coach, who has been working closely with dental professionals for nearly 15 years now, clearly has a widespread appeal, having been voted number two in Dentistry’s annual Top 50 readers’ poll earlier this year.
Twelve months ago he was also voted second, while he was 17th in 2009 and ninth the year before that. The stats don’t lie.
‘There’s a kind of paradox,’ he tells us. ‘If you’ve got anything useful to say you’re probably going to put people’s backs up as well. The people who like me tell me that they like me because I’m an agent for change, and the people who dislike me do so for exactly the same reason.
‘Both groups are very verbal. The latter don’t like my abrasive style of communication or that I’m not a dentist, or that I’ve torn up a lot of rule books in order to facilitate the changes that I believe are necessary to move dentistry into the 21st century.
‘There are a lot of people who like things to stay the same, so they tend to not like me very much. But the people who look to the future and ask “where do we go next?” love the stuff that I do because what I do is commentate, observe and reflect, and I offer suggestions as to where I think the profession’s going to go next.’
It’s a profession that he cares passionately about, but as it turns out it was ‘a complete accident’ that he moved into dentistry in the first place. Having left school at 16, Chris went from ‘office boy to office manager, then sales trainee to sales manager’ in a time period spanning 15 years. Then, in 1987, he became self-employed, moving out of the corporate financial services sector and setting himself up as an independent financial adviser.
‘I was one of the first financial advisers in the UK who moved away from commissions to a fee-only basis,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want to sit in people’s living rooms in the evenings so all of my business was in the business market. During the late 80s I began to develop a client base of small business owners.
‘One evening I was running a seminar on pension planning for company directors. There was a dental laboratory owner in the audience, Brian Gordon (of Crown Dental Laboratory, which has since been sold and he’s retired). He hired me as financial adviser and through word-of-mouth recommendations I had a handful of labs as clients by end of the 80s as a fee-based financial planner.’
In 1993, one of those lab owners was owed a sizeable sum in unpaid bills by a dentist. ‘My client asked me to go in and have a look at this dentist’s business and do a bit of trouble-shooting and see if I could get his money back,’ explains Chris. ‘So I met my first dentist in a professional capacity – he was a complete nightmare who owed a lot of other people money. I spent about six months working with him, re-organised his finances, got him to start thinking about his business a bit more sensibly, got my client his money out, and the dentist was what you might describe as grudgingly grateful!
‘I found I was enjoying the consultancy side of my work more than the financial services side, so I sold my financial planning practice and became a full-time business coach. Between 1993-96 I did a lot of training as a coach with an organisation called Coach University, got accredited and started looking for clients. In ‘96 I got a phone call one Saturday morning from Paul Tipton, a very prominent dentist, especially then. He hired me as his business coach, and later asked me to start lecturing for him. So a couple of times a year I presented some practice management sessions on his implant courses. At that time he was putting maybe 100 dentists a year through his implant and restorative courses – many of these being top dentists in the country – so I suddenly found myself with a captive audience of people who liked what I said and how I said it.
‘Not long after that I was invited to speak at a regional faculty meeting in Birmingham. I walked in and there were 750 people in the room. It was like my fifteen minutes of fame and I got a lot of enquirers off the back of it.
‘In January 1997, I decided I liked being around dentists and small business owners so I went into it full-time, creating of my Dental Business School, which in its various iterations has been there ever since [now called The Dental Business Club].
‘I believe that for anyone getting into consulting in dentistry now it’s going to take two-to-three years to do enough publishing, broadcasting, speaking and networking to get noticed and build what you could call a viable business. From 1993-96 I benefited from gradually building up my network in dentistry whilst I had a day job working with lots of other people as a business coach.
‘The interesting thing about dentistry is that it’s an incredibly strong word-of-mouth community. Dentists usually hang out with dentists they’ve qualified with, and then others they’ve met on clinical courses, so there are strong relationships there and once you can get a dentist to speak favourably about what you’ve done for them, then that network reaches a tipping point when recommendations start to flow in.’
Chris has shown many strengths to gain such recommendations and energise his business, most notably stubbornness. ‘I don’t think that anybody in the small-business sector is any different,’ he says. ‘It is a sense of stubborn commitment to the cause. I also think you’ve got to be very resilient and thick-skinned.
‘I think the thing I’m most proud of is that I’ve survived against the odds. I’ve run my business through boom and bust economies, through some pretty difficult periods when there have been some very vocal voices against my philosophy of business.
‘I have a folder of testimonial letters and emails that go back to when I first started coaching. When someone thanks you for everything you’ve done, transforming their business or their personal life as well, it’s the best moment ever. Those testimonials keep me going.
‘Over the last six years my partner Annie and I have also become very close friends with the founders of the Bridge2Aid charity, which has meant a lot to me. I’ve not only fundraised in the UK for them but have also had the opportunity to do team training with a dental clinic in Tanzania, while I’m just about to leave to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.’
So, why does he think he has received so many votes every year since the Top 50 poll was launched in 2006? ‘I’m all over the bloody place!’ he says. ‘I’ve always been an early adopter of any form of networking; I was public speaking in 1980, writing my own newsletter on a word processor in 1990, put my website live in 1997, wrote my first blog post in 2004. I travel 40,000 miles a year around the UK, am constantly appearing in individual dental practices or at conferences, so the phrase “notable networker” comes to mind.
‘I don’t think I’m any more popular than anyone else, I just think that when it comes to a poll like the Top 50 if I broadcast a “please vote for me” message through my social media platforms, which I unashamedly do, then that message is going to reach something approaching 4-5,000 people in a very short space of time.
‘I’ve always been very authentic about what the Top 50 represents for me – I’m in the consultancy business and it’s important to get as much PR as you can. Getting a large amount of votes started to open doors for me in some of the larger dental companies.’
He has influenced the lives of many dental professionals through his goal-focused coaching sessions, but who has helped influence him? ‘Paul Tipton obviously in giving me that early chance, while Kevin Lewis was very kind to me at the start of my career and gave me a lot of good advice. Roy Higson was a very significant influence; he invited me to speak at his Talking Points sessions and gave me a huge leg up in terms of career development.
‘One of my first ever clients was a dentist called Tim Thackrah, principal of Elmsleigh House Dental Clinic in Surrey. I’m still working with him and we’ve become very good friends. He’s been a second opinion and sounding board for me over the last decade. He’s an amazing guy and an amazing dentist and I’m just very lucky to have had him around.
‘James Goolnik has been another huge friend, somebody to bounce ideas off and to tell me “you might want to rethink that” if something’s not right. I’ve always worked with people I’ve enjoyed being with. Successful dentists who run their own practices have the same foibles as the rest of us, but they’re just genuinely nice people to work with and that’s what’s kept me going all these years.’
Has Chris noticed any changes in the advice he has been giving to dentists over the years?
‘There are a few golden rules of how to run a business properly: 1. Make sure your finances are in order; 2. Do lots of marketing; 3. Look after the customers when they arrive; 4. Look after your team; 5. Have very robust systems within your business; 6. Make sure you get an adequate balance between your work and private life.
‘You can trawl through Waterstones or Amazon and find thousands of books on how to run a business, but they’re all going to say pretty much the same thing, there are just some basic universal truths about doing things right. The difference is that in the mid-90s the range in products and services that were offered by dentists were probably 10% of what you see now. Only a small minority were doing whitening, veneers, white fillings, complex restorative work, whereas nowadays of course there are huge numbers of dentists offering those services.
‘The way in which those practices market themselves has undergone a complete transformation. In 1992 it was a brass plaque and the Yellow Pages. Over the last 10, years we’ve seen the rise and rise of cosmetic dentistry. Ten years ago the UK market for private dentistry was around a couple of billion, it’s now over five billion.
‘I think there’s an 80/20 rule. In the late 90s Roy Higson said to me there are 10,000 dental business owners out there and only 2,000 show up for anything. That 80/20 rule still applies – 80% of dentists are happy to go to work to deliver a highly ethical, highly competent and highly necessary preventative maintenance service. But 20% of dentists out there want to develop their clinical skills and move themselves and their business into more complex and more exciting pastures.
‘So I think those ratios have stayed pretty constant, but the ways in which that 20% go to market have changed beyond anybody’s imagination. Back in 1997 you could not have imagined that I would have clients who are recruiting six-to-eight new patients a week from Facebook.’
His drive to be a voice of progress within the profession is shaped by what changes he’d like to see. ‘I’m concerned by the way young dentists are trained, developed and prepared for the marketplace,’ he says. ‘I don’t think they are receiving enough appropriate training on what it’s going to be like to forge a career pathway or consider establishing their own businesses.
‘I think that the existing training systems within dentistry have become unhealthily focused on the delivery of NHS dentistry. I think the dental schools are turning out competent dentists, but my concern primarily is the VT system.
‘I talk to a lot of young dentists at VT conferences and so forth and more and more of them are interested in the prospect of practice ownership at some stage in the future. But there is no provision for any business skills development for those people. I’m often seeing dentists buying existing practices in their mid-30s or opening their own practices but there is a rather disturbing level of commercial naivety amongst them.
‘If I won the lottery I’d want to create some business skills training programme. Not on the basis that I want everyone to be a practice owner, but even as an associate in someone else’s practice it would be a darn good idea to have some inkling about how that operates as a business.’
Chris Barrow – up close and personal
Best trait: I’m never frightened of expressing an opinion
Worst trait: I’m lousy at cocktail parties
Best quality in people: Self-discipline
Worst quality in people: Gossip
What do you like doing in your spare time? Annie and I walk, read and travel a lot
Favourite food: Penne arrabiata with spinach
Favourite drink: A good bottle of Gavi
Favourite book: Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville
Favourite film: Memento
Favourite album: Any chill out music