A pioneer among DSOs, Smile Brands was founded in 1998 by a management team that included co-founder and CEO Steve Bilt and CFO Brad Schmidt, in partnership with Gryphon Investors, combining three West Coast dental companies to form Bright Now!® Dental. Through two large acquisitions – Monarch Dental Corporation in 2003 and Castle Dental Centers, Inc., in 2004 – the organization, which was renamed Smile Brands in 2009, became a dominant player in the dental space.
A change of ownership in 2011, and subsequent change in leadership in 2014, caused the business to lose sight of its mission, resulting in high employee turnover and a diminished patient experience. In August 2016, Bilt, Schmidt and once again primary equity sponsor Gryphon Investors, purchased SBI, with Steve and Brad assuming their former executive roles. After interviewing hundreds of employees and affiliated providers who lamented the loss of their mission-driven culture, Steve and Brad, along with the executive team, began rebuilding the culture that makes the organization great.
Today, Smile Brands, which continues to grow through acquisitions and opening new dental offices, supports approximately 400 practices in 16 states.
Smile Brands Culture
At the organization’s Annual Leadership Meeting in 2007, Steve Bilt introduced the organization’s mission of Smiles for Everyone®, which drives the culture and is based on the premise that every interaction with employees, providers, suppliers and local communities should give each individual a reason to smile.
When the Smiles for Everyone culture was brought back, so was SBI’s G3® Service Platform – Greeting, Guiding and Gratitude – which helps employees and affiliates create Smiles for Everyone.
• Greet everyone with a warm, sincere smile, whether in person, on the phone or by email.
• Listen attentively to each person’s request, ask questions, then guide them to the next steps.
• Thank them for entrusting their care and service, showing gratitude for their confidence, patience and understanding.
When Steve returned, he also introduced the concept of Celebrate. Everyday. Miracles.TM Now, all leaders encourage providers and employees to focus on the great and small miracles happening every day around them. Giving everyone a reason to smile is a miraculous gift – for patients and for team members. That’s why staff members take time daily to honor those gifts and each other.
The Executive Team & Women
Today, six of Bilt’s eight direct reports are women. A decade ago, only two of his direct reports were female. Although it’s difficult to say conclusively what has led to the increased number of females in leadership positions at Smile Brands, this too could be attributed to the organization’s culture. When Bilt began describing the foundation of the SBI culture, he illustrated it with a graphic that he called The Virtuous Circle:
As Bilt explained, each circle represents a collection of constituents who regularly interact with Smile Brands and the affiliated dental groups. The reason he named it The Virtuous Circle is because, after their interaction with SBI and its team members, each constituent group should feel they received a fair deal from the experience. If the interaction is anything but win/win, it wasn’t virtuous. Taking this approach, from leaders to individual contributors, the SBI team strives to ensure that each constituent is judged on their merits and not on their appearance. Perhaps this is why the employee and affiliate populations not only feature a high percentage of women, but are diverse by practically any measure: age, nationality, ethnicity, race, color, religion, military status and more.
Tanisha Wicker, Sr. VP, Human Resources:
Tanisha has 21 years’ experience in HR, beginning in the telecommunications and retail grocery industries, starting as a recruiter and progressively earning positions of greater responsibility. During her nearly 14 years with Smile Brands, she has built a solid reputation for implementing department goals that have the most positive impact on the organization’s profitability and productivity, while improving team member satisfaction. Tanisha is adept at communicating, mentoring and integrating diverse teams around a common vision. In fewer than five years, Tanisha earned promotions from regional HR manager to director, senior director, vice president and most recently senior VP. As HR director for the Central Region, Tanisha was named the organization’s 2014 Business Support Individual of the Year.
Victoria Harvey, Sr. VP & Chief Legal Officer
Victoria Harvey joined Smile Brands in 2014 as associate general counsel and was appointed senior vice president and chief legal officer in April 2015. She has nearly 20 years’ experience in corporate litigation, including over a decade with the law firms of Loeb & Loeb LLP in Los Angeles and Theodora Oringher Miller & Richman in Costa Mesa, Calif. She also spent six years with Real Mex Restaurants (now RM OPCO LLC), the largest full-service Mexican restaurant company in the U.S., where she handled all of the company’s legal functions, and in 2010 was promoted to senior VP, general counsel and corporate secretary. In 2016, the Orange County Business Journal honored Victoria with its “General Counsel of a Private Company” award for her contributions to Smile Brands and to the legal field.
Lorilee Schmidt, Regional VP, West
Lorilee spent 14 years in retail at Safeway and Costco, where she became part of the management team. She then spent three years at Willamette Dental Group before joining Bright Now! Dental in 2001 as an office manager in Portland, OR. After assuming roles of increasing responsibility, including director of market operations for Oregon and Washington, in 2010 she was promoted to VP of operations for Washington and Northern California and in 2016 assumed the role of regional VP of the West Region, which includes Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, Utah and Washington. Her responsibilities include staff recruitment, training, coaching and development; leadership designed to encourage an exceptional patient experience; and translation of national strategies and initiatives into local tactics and actionable insights. In 2008, Lorilee received the organization’s highest honor, the President’s Award, for her achievements as director of market operations for Washington.
Christy Englehart, Regional VP, East
Christy’s 28 years of experience in dentistry includes 15 with Smile Brands and seven as COO for two regional dental support organizations: Sage Dental (formerly Gentle Dental of Florida) and Marquee Dental Partners. She began her career as a dental assistant in her hometown of West Plains, Missouri. After moving to Austin, Texas, Christy joined a group practice, which shortly thereafter was acquired by Castle Dental Centers, Inc. Christy held successive roles with increasing responsibility after Smile Brands acquired Castle, eventually being promoted to VP of operations for Houston. In 2007, Christy received Smile Brands’ highest honor, the President’s Award, for her exceptional performance and embodiment of the organization’s Smiles for Everyone® mission. Christy has accumulated deep and broad experience throughout her career, but the most valuable skill she brings to Smile Brands is her ability to build, align, integrate and empower teams to achieve a common goal.
April Cole, Regional VP, Central
April began her Smile Brands career in 1996 when she joined Monarch Dental as an office manager. After six months, she was promoted to regional manager, and through her exceptional performance, has been promoted to leadership roles of increasing responsibility, including director of market operations for the Mid-Atlantic market; senior director, national field operations; VP of operations for the East Region; and currently regional VP of the Central Region. Because she has worked in nearly all the positions she supervises, she understands the challenges and the opportunities that are inherent to the leaders who support the affiliated professional corporations.
Jody Martin, Chief Marketing Officer
Jody joined Smile Brands in June 2017. She is responsible for all marketing, public relations, and call center operations and oversees the Smiles for Everyone Foundation. Jody brings in-depth dental category experience having previously led the marketing team at Hero Practice Services, a mid-sized DSO serving the needs of low-income children, where she built the digital marketing platforms and helped the company migrate to an ROI-based marketing program. Prior to moving into the dental industry, Jody spent 20 years driving customer acquisition and retention in the telecom, satellite TV and financial service industries with leadership roles at Qwest Communications, Dish Network, and First Data Corporation.
Q&A Session with Lorilee, Christy, Tanisha, April, Victoria, and Jody
Q: What experience/skills helped you achieve your current position?
Prior to working in the dental sector, over 20 years ago, I held multiple management positions in grocery and retail. I learned the importance of customer service, developing my team, being a strategic thinker, quick execution, and managing a P&L to get desired results.
I grew up in dentistry, starting as a Dental Assistant right out of high school. There is nothing in this industry I have not been exposed to, good and not so good, which has been extremely valuable as I continued to advance. I have always taken pride in never forgetting where I came from, always being empathetic with team members and walking in their shoes. I also believe the greatest asset in any industry, especially in the DSO sector, are your people. This is a people business, both the providers and the patients. I want people to come to work every day and not just hold a job. It’s all about the culture you create and the importance of recognizing their contributions. I remember years ago I was asked to manage a large market on an interim basis as the director of operations.
I remember how positively my team responded to something as basic as doing what I said I would do. When I decided to interview for the position, the CFO said, “You know Christy, there are many people in the organization who believe you don’t have the skills to do this job.” That was all the fuel I needed to accept the challenge!
Q: Why do you think SBI has so many more females in leadership positions than its competitors?
DSOs are largely made up of women, not only dentists, but also the support functions such as office managers, front desk receptionists, dental assistants, marketing and human resource departments. SBI values executives with dental experience and, as a result of that, is sure to look first internally at the talent within the dental sector and develop those with many years of dental experience, leadership skills and proven results.
One reason Smile Brands has more female leaders might be that the organization’s overall population is 60% female. When hiring managers, we look for the most qualified candidates that are the best fit for our business model and culture, rather than focusing on gender. We fill senior management positions with individuals who are the best leaders for our organization to grow and succeed.
Q: What about SBI culture makes it possible for women to thrive?
Both women and men are equally valued in our company; in fact, it is one of the cornerstones of our “Smiles for Everyone” culture, which values the opinions of our management team from the dental office to the board room, regardless of someone’s gender.
The SBI culture is gender blind – it’s more about your skills, core competencies, results and abilities than your gender. The culture is not “heavy handed”; it’s more about nurturing and treating people with respect. Mutual respect goes a long way in building lasting relationships.
Q: Are there advantages to being a woman in your position, given the high percentage of females in most dental practices?
Our affiliated practices are predominantly female – nearly all the dental hygienists, assistants, administrators, office managers and a growing number of the dentists. Therefore, I believe the team feels they can relate more to you as a woman and as someone who understands trying to balance work and family.
Q: Why do you think there are so few women in leadership positions in DSOs?
I think when DSOs were on the rise many years ago it was still considered a good ol’ boys club; however we are seeing this evolve over time. Women have decided, “I can do this too and I can do it better. I manage many demands daily, work and family and I can do more.” Leadership is about being willing to stand up for what’s right and having the thick skin it takes to power through to make it happen. I think that the DSO space is finally waking up to the fact that its leadership is not about gender, but more about clinical excellence and patient advocacy.
Historically, there have been more men in leadership positions in just about every business sector. Until recently, most dentists also were men. Dentists were also the first DSO leaders. It takes time, and the appropriate culture, for that to change. But the change is coming; more women are becoming business leaders and about half the students enrolled in dental school are females.
Q: How does SBI benefit by having gender equality in leadership?
Since dental offices have a higher female to male ratio, female executives are more relatable to the teams. It’s a great example to the employees when your leadership sets an example of what can be accomplished with hard work, and that no one will be overlooked due to gender. Because of this, we’ll have more employees really applying themselves and striving to climb the corporate ladder.
Dentistry is a people business. Attracting, developing and retaining top talent across the organization is critical for office productivity as well as patient satisfaction and loyalty. Having diversity across the leadership team helps ensure that the business support functions are a true reflection of the affiliated practices we serve. At Smile Brands, our culture was founded on the mission of delivering Smiles for Everyone® and that mission guides how we interact with employees, affiliated providers, patients, suppliers and communities. It’s not a coincidence that our leadership team is heavily female – women tend to truly understand the mission and thrive in this culture.
Our CEO Steve Bilt is a champion of women in the workforce at all levels. He continuously strives to remove obstacles that limit career growth, and encourages each person, female or male, to grow professionally as much as they can. When each person can put their passion into their profession, it unleashes an energy that’s contagious – that’s what empowerment is all about. Men in leadership positions at Smile Brands value and support gender equality in the workplace, which has had a positive effect when hiring and promoting women. One of our cultural ‘mental models’ is Celebrate. Everyday. Miracles.TM This means that every day, in ways large and small, our work has the potential to improve lives. To me, one of the miracles our organization benefits from the most is how team members embrace our culture and feel empowered to deliver Smiles for Everyone® to each person they encounter, treating them with the respect and dignity they deserve.
Q: Have you had a mentor in your career, and if so, how have they helped you?
I’ve had different mentors throughout my career, both male and female, and each one taught me something different about who I am and how I react in different scenarios. They’ve each helped me to learn more about myself, to be open to feedback and advice and what it takes to be a true leader. Sometimes in the moment you may not understand the lesson but with time and experience you start to put it all together.
Q: Have you faced barriers in your career based on gender?
I have been fortunate that both firms where I practiced for most of my career valued female attorneys and provided me with opportunities for growth and development. Since becoming an in-house counsel in 2007, I have not seen my gender being a barrier in my career path. At my first company, I was surrounded by strong female leaders and was given numerous opportunities to grow my skill set, which led to my promotion to SVP, general counsel and corporate secretary. Similarly, when Smile Brands had an opportunity for the chief legal officer position, I was promoted to this role based on my performance, skill set and ability to interact with other departments.
Fortunately, my career advancement has never been hindered by gender, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t had to deal with gender issues in the workplace. I’ve worked in several male-dominated environments where the management style was based largely on bullying and intimidation. That style creates a toxic work environment and one where women are more likely to opt out. In the DSO space, that style of management is particularly problematic because patients would certainly feel the fallout from employees operating under a cloud of stress and intimidation.
Q: What advice would you share with young women entering the industry?
Never stop learning, take on new responsibilities, be open to expand your skill set and learn about other functions of the business, don’t be afraid to ask if someone can be your mentor, seek feedback not only from your boss, but from your colleagues and direct reports.
Having worked in a lot of different industries from advertising to tech to dentistry, I believe that DSOs offer tremendous opportunities for women. The industry has incredible growth potential and provides room for both flexibility and advancement. Whether entering the industry as a dental assistant, marketing manager or any other functional area, I’d advise any young employee to be curious. It’s not enough to just be great at your specific job function; make an effort to really understand how the business works and what the keys to success are. The more you understand the big picture, the more you can find ways to help move your organization forward.
Q: Does Smile Brands have a diversity program that favors hiring female leaders?
The Smile Brands culture favors treating each constituent group with which we interact – patients, providers, employees, suppliers and our communities – with the respect and dignity that each individual deserves. When we look for job candidates for any position, entry level or executive, we look for the most qualified candidates that are the best fit for our business model and culture. That has naturally led us to having one of the most diverse populations of employees and affiliated providers of any DSO in the country.
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