Why did you choose Smiles Dental?
Smiles and Oasis are very similar companies. Both have a strong focus on patient and consumer and a strong clinical focus. But we are also very much thinking about the business in terms of what works for consumers and how they access dentistry easily and how we make the patient journey simple.
We’ve got very complementary geographies. Smiles gives us a stronger presence in the south east and also gets us entry into the Republic of Ireland (ROI) and Scotland. We had a business that was 60% NHS and 40% private, Smiles has a business that is more focused on private. We wanted to get to a 50/50 NHS/private split and that’s exactly where we end up as a consequence of this acquisition. So it gives us a truly national footprint, it gives us a very good business-mix balance and it brings in some excellent practices.
I’ve been out to see a few of the practices (at Smiles) and so I knew there were some really great practices in there. We’ve both got a strong, branded consumer focused approach. I can tell, having been out there, we really fit well together. Two groups, some very enthusiastic teams, really coming together well. And the big point is it’s a really good idea for consumers because it gives them access to the reassurance of a national brand.
We’ve undertaken a lot of work on what consumers want. In a survey of 8,000 patients, 65% said they would be reassured by knowing that their dentistry would be backed by a national brand. And, if you then research our own patients, 88% are reassured by a national brand, so when they actually discover they’re within a branded proposition, they like it.
So it’s an exciting consumer idea, it’s great for the businesses it will be very good for the teams because it creates career opportunities for them. And they’re really enthusiastic about being part of the bigger group. But it’s also a really good business. We’re not in the business of buying struggling practices and trying to move them forward. We like to buy businesses with momentum and then increase that and the Smiles business has got real momentum. Emmet O’Neill, who started Smiles, has done a super job with his team.
Did the geographies of Smiles Dental have any impact on your choice of acquisition?
We now cover all the domiciles in the UK and ROI, which has been a strategic ambition of ours, to take our proposition as widely as we can.
Scotland is an area we haven’t been before, we’re delighted to now have seven practices there and we’ll look to grow that business with, as ever, a focus on quality and choice.
Emmet has built a really super business with the Smiles business in the ROI. The ROI is basically a private business, the NHS is very small there. And we’re going to keep that brand and support that and we’ll look to grow that in the years ahead as they’ve got a super team out there.
So for us this is strategic, we want to grow in the ROI and Northern Ireland (NI), and grow in Scotland. So we’ve created a new platform to do that.
Why are you keeping the Smiles brand in Ireland?
We’ve researched the Smiles brand in the UK and in the ROI. In the ROI it’s got great presence and recognition. In the UK, Oasis is bigger with a higher profile.
We’re going to be bringing together in the UK the brand values of the two. So as we rebrand over time in the UK, it will have a slightly different look and feel to recognise the strength of the two businesses. The UK brand will evolve how we present Oasis, they’ve got different characteristics as brands (Smiles and Oasis) and I want to get the best of both as we bring them together.
So in the UK it will look a bit different but it will be Oasis. But in the ROI we will be Smiles and will be growing that franchise.
With the continued apprehension and still no concrete idea over what the upcoming NHS contract could bring with it, will you continue to remain 50/50 NHS/private?
We are a strong partner with the NHS, between NI and England we’ve got 36 different NHS pilots we’re involved in. The new pilots, the Steele pilots, the NI pilots; we’ve been very actively involved in helping to contribute towards the design of a future NHS. And lets be very clear, we think that NHS England is doing a very good job in terms of trying to work out how to design the future of dentistry and we’ll contribute towards that study.
So we’re not making a statement and saying: ‘Oh lets go 50/50’ as a negative to NHS dentistry, we’re very much in support of it. But the growth opportunity, there is no doubt, and the choice opportunities, lie in the private arena. There’s more choice in the private arena of aesthetic options. There’s also a whole question around the type of services you can offer, the time slots availability, Saturday opening, offering innovative access services, online booking, a range of treatments in the orthodontic arena that you would naturally associate with private and, lets be honest, there are parts of the country where it is still difficult to access NHS treatment.
We work on the basis that, what they call the ‘financial envelope’, isn’t going to get any bigger. We have an Oasis Basics offering, which provides an affordable entry point for private dentistry, for those who really want and need to access dentistry and, for whatever reason, prefer not to, or can’t, access NHS.
So we’re definitely going for a twin strategy, while being hugely supportive of any NHS provision we can give. And we are always looking to grow our NHS provision, we’re always asking for growth and will continue to do so.
So this is definitely an ‘and’ rather than an ‘or’ strategy and I think that is reflected in 50/50 and we think that mix reflects the market, which is 50/50, it reflects what patients tell us they want, they tell us they want access to NHS so we provide that, they also want private choice. There’s an increasing number of patients now, with the private market beginning to pick up in our view, who choose to pick private for a number of reasons. We’re very focused on informed choice, so this is an informed choice about the services available. We think it’s a consumer-led strategy, but it is far from being a comment on NHS, quite the reverse. We’re supportive of that but we also want to make choice a key plank of our strategy.
Tell us a little about yourself and how you got involved in the Oasis project?
I have had an increasingly long career, I’ve run Oasis for six years now and I joined it with an absolute belief and with, at the time, little data, but a belief that a branded proposition in dentistry, with committed clinicians and teams, would be something the consumers wanted. And I think it’s after a lot of work we’re starting to see that as a reality.
Prior to that I ran Lloyds pharmacy for a couple of years. At the time I was there we grew it from 1,250 to 1,750 pharmacies, a lot of that through acquisition and new openings.
Before that I ran KFC in the UK and Ireland. Which is a business I also love, I did that for five years. And various things before that; I started life in the army many years ago.
So basically my background is multi-site, service focused and for the last 11 years, healthcare focused. Lloyds was a very big business and when I came in Oasis was a very small business that I thought had tremendous potential. For me it’s exciting building a bigger business but, you know the best bit? I’ve been out and met the Smiles teams and just like the Oasis team, they’re just a fabulous bunch of people; I really like dentistry teams.
One of our values at Oasis is inspiring, and what inspires me is the work that gets put in every day, and that’s why I’ve stuck with, and will continue to stick with, growing the Oasis brand, because I really like the business.
What’s your opinion on the value of goodwill for dental practices rising?
We have noticed there are people who are claiming huge multiples.
We pay very good prices for good practices. I’m never quite sure how true some of the articles that get quoted actually are. When we buy a practice, we do it because we have a willing seller who’s very happy with the price and it is a price we’re very happy to pay.
A bit of ‘the frothiness’, it seems to me, is more reported than actual. We don’t come across it nearly as much. So I don’t know how true that actually is.
The truth of the matter is, the better run the business and the more committed to the future the team are, then of course that does benefit the price. So it is like all acquisition markets. High quality businesses with people committed to the future go for good prices, and those are the businesses we’re most excited to buy because they’re the easiest to work with and they have the best service solution.
What is the future now for Oasis?
We’ve just hired McCann as an agency, so we’ve now got an advertising agency. We’re going to be looking at how we refresh the brand and bring in the Smiles brand, because the practices will be rebranded to Oasis practices in the UK.
Smiles has a number of very, almost bespoke, private dentistry practices, which is a very exciting segment in itself and is mainly London focused. So we’ve now got a footprint in London that we will be developing and supporting. We’ve got a very broad church in Oasis and we’ve got high quality dentists in NHS dentistry right up to very top-end specialists and I think those fit well as a proposition. We’ll be developing that network.
We’re looking to add a lot more practices too. I’m just in the process of agreeing terms in a single-site acquisition as we speak, we’re very excited in single-site acquisitions. Oasis is tremendously well funded, we could do another Smiles acquisition tomorrow, and more. We’re very active now in the acquisition market, we’re looking for really good dental businesses everywhere in the UK to acquire, with people who want to come and work in the vision we’re working towards. My original aim last year was that we would double the company and we were 200-practices strong back then. We’ve now got to 280, which is very exciting, so a good first year. But that doesn’t satisfy our appetite for growth. So we’re very keen to grow, we’re also going to be doing some innovative openings. This is where we agree to buy a good high-quality single-site dentist. Then we build a new practice with, say five chairs. We put them in there as the anchor for the practice and then we grow the practice from there.
We’re going to be growing our orthodontic business as well. So quite a lot of our acquisitions that we’re talking about are orthodontics. So we’re absolutely well funded and on the acquisition path, to build the proposition for our consumers. Which we’ll reinforce by significant marketing spend to grow those businesses.
Twenty Oasis practices have just passed the BDA good practice programme, and we will roll it out to more this year, as part of our commitment to quality.
We’re also looking for businesses that are enthusiastic and keen to join us. Put Smiles to one side, those other businesses we’ve bought this year, obviously a lower number, but we’ve brought in some great clinicians.
We’re focused on high quality growth, and well funded to do it. We’ve now got momentum to grow Oasis significantly. For me Smiles Dental is the first decisive start, but it’s certainly not the end, it’s the beginning for us.
Justin Ash is the chief executive officer at Oasis Healthcare. He has 11 years of experience working in the healthcare industry having run Lloyds pharmacy previously.