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Rick Workman Of Heartland Dental: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder

“You are going to become the middle ground of your 5 closest friends.” The people that you spend time with will influence you, so if you are friends with the right people, you will be pulled onto a good path.

As part of our interview series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A Founder”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rick Workman.

Rick Workman, DMD set out to practice dentistry in 1980 with little hint of the impact he’d have on the industry. More than 40 years later, Dr. Workman has helped to change the landscape of dentistry with his innovative thinking, leaving an indelible impact on the field.

Dr. Workman opened his first dental office in the birthplace of Heartland Dental — Effingham, Illinois, and another office followed 15 months later. Pursuing his passion for dentistry came with 55 hours a week delivering patient care and an additional 30 hours on the business side of operations. As Dr. Workman continued to grow his dental career, he knew there had to be a better way for himself and future dentists to practice.

In 1982, Dr. Workman first introduced other dentists to the potential opportunities of high quality, non-clinical administrative support. With the help of a growing team of inventive professionals, he crafted the company, known today as Heartland Dental, into a world-class dental support organization. Heartland Dental provides an array of non-clinical administrative support to more than 2,400 dentists in more than 1,600 supported offices. Today, Dr. Workman continues to be actively involved with the company as the Executive Chairman.

Dr. Workman devotes himself to the dental industry beyond his work with Heartland Dental, including mentorship, leadership advice and speaking engagements. Dr. Workman also established the Heartland Dental Foundation, providing supported dentists, team members, support professionals and the communities they serve more reasons to smile through financial assistance during times of hardship.

Dr. Workman is a 1977 graduate of Southern Illinois University and a 1980 graduate of the Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was always interested in a career in the healthcare industry where I could help people and make a positive impact on their lives. After many visits to the chiropractor in high school, I thought that was the right direction for me. However, a great discussion with my family physician about my career aspirations and a happenstance meeting with a couple who happened to be dentists led me to dentistry. Something about my conversation with that couple early in my college career — their kindness and passion for dentistry — made an impact on me. It was in that moment I realized dentistry was the path I wanted to pursue.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

As a practicing dentist, the hardest part at the beginning of my journey was connecting the technical learnings from dental school to the practical applications within a dental practice. Everything that goes in to operating a dental practice — from the business processes required to be successful — was new territory.

I realized that while we may learn the most common denominator skills and approaches in dental school — there are always better, more effective ways to do things. That is how the idea of Heartland Dental came about. I came to realize dentists faced the same realities and often lacked similar experience or basic business acumen, no matter where they are in their dental careers. When supported doctors have the opportunity to learn from one another and share best practices, they are better positioned to provide the best care for their patients. I believe that the open, transparent, sharing of knowledge may be the largest benefit to being a part of a successful DSO.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were hard?

I grew up on a farm in downstate Illinois, surrounded by great role models. It was my parents who instilled in me a strong work ethic and commitment. I learned many valuable lessons like sensibility, timing and decision-making from them and the work we did. I knew that when it was time to do something, you had to do it then. Even when things didn’t go as planned, I knew I had to persevere and make deliberate decisions to achieve my vision.

These early lessons paired with my career goal to help people, kept me moving forward, even when things were difficult. They are lessons I still hold with me today.

So, how are things going today?

I am proud of what we have created and how Heartland Dental continues to evolve to meet the needs of the dentists we support across the nation. We continue to expand and diversify our family of supported practices and now support more than 2,400 doctors in more than 1,600 offices across 38 states.

Our competitive advantage remains our doctor-led culture. Our continuing education opportunities for supported doctors and team members is widely regarded as the best in the dental industry. Supported doctors trust Heartland Dental to enhance their continued success as they provide world class care and experiences to the communities they serve. We have an incredibly strong doctor community. Our supported doctors never have to practice alone. They have a network of colleagues available to learn from or to help work through patient challenges or situations, but also team and leadership challenges that impact their practices and results.

As we look towards the future, we are laser-focused on continuing to advance our support services, enabling supported doctors to provide the best patient experiences.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Early on in my career, I numbed the wrong side of a patient’s mouth. I brought him back and for reasons I still cannot explain, I numbed the wrong side again! I still can’t believe I numbed the same patient on the wrong side twice in a row. It was truly a humbling experience and one I remember 40 years later.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Heartland Dental is a doctor-led organization, meaning that doctors are at the heart of everything we do. Supported doctors remain the leaders of their practice and continue to make all clinical decisions while benefiting from Heartland Dental’s non-clinical administrative support.

We support doctors in achieving their goals and aspirations, whether it’s geographic flexibility for personal or family needs, or learning an advanced clinical skill — all of that is possible as a Heartland Dental supported doctor. We help doctors receive insurance reimbursement indicative of their skills. We also use our scale to provide opportunities to save them money on almost every line item of their office level P&L.

There are a few additional components of Heartland Dental that are true differentiators. First, is the strength of our supported doctor network, which I mentioned earlier. The bonds built between Heartland Dental supported dentists — both new and experienced — are unmatched. They learn together, and from one another, as practitioners and leaders. Additionally, Heartland Dental’s proprietary compensation model utilized by supported PCs offers a guaranteed base salary, opportunities for quarterly bonuses, stock ownership, and unique offerings like the Doctor Mastery Program, all of which positions doctors in a place to control their earnings and professional development. Finally, Heartland Dental offers the nation’s best clinical and leadership training to help build supported doctors’ professional and personal skills.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

I believe burn out is often derived from the combination of stress and the perception that there is no way to change one’s situation to avoid that stress. Early in my career, I could see how the changing landscape, the rapidly increasing number of women graduating from dental schools, escalating educational costs, and other changes were going to impact our profession. I admit most in the profession steadfastly refused to acknowledge the changes. Dentists are under an ever-increasing pressure at the inception of their careers to earn and learn. They must continuously grow their skills and knowledge. Dentists later in their careers begin to see changes in what we call their “external environment.” They begin to understand they may not posses the solutions to address the impacts of those changes on their practice, career, and happiness. I believe these are origins for how dentists at different stages of their careers can become prone to developing “burn out.”

My first tip is to stay open, positive, and mentally flexible. There is always something we can learn from someone else and by understanding others’ best practices, we are better positioned to find our ideal way of doing things to achieve our goals.

Another tip for thriving in dentistry is collaboration. Oftentimes, when we learn of other doctors producing multiples of what we’re producing, we think they’re simply tolerating multiple times the stress and workload. In reality, doctors who partner with their teams to achieve goals and collaborate on solutions will position themselves and their team to realize their full potential. We have learned that doctors and teams working in harmony can achieve higher levels of productivity increases and practice results, with less stress and more joy. It’s a mind shift that can be learned. The key is open communication, active participation, and setting your team up for success. At Heartland Dental, we’ve been blessed to help hundreds of supported dentists transform their lives. That gives me great joy.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

First and foremost, my wife and family are the best support system.

There was also a dentist I met when I first started practicing. He was in his 70s and practiced about 30 miles from Effingham, Illinois, where I had five offices in the area. The lab tech in his office was the best I’d ever seen. I could recognize his work when I saw it in a patient’s mouth.

For reasons beyond my understanding, this dentist took an interest in me and sent his lab tech to work with me for a day. The day the lab tech was in my office, I was seeing a patient who was a Hall of Fame high school basketball coach and local legend. I prepped his teeth and showed the impressions to the lab tech. They looked pretty good to me, but he ended up making me re-do my impressions three times! When the lab work came back, the crowns and bridges were beautiful — and he had modified my preps. He gave me instructions to modify the teeth in the mouth to fit the preps — and it will all work out.

This experience made a huge impact on my life and made me a better dentist. I share this story, because I could have been arrogant and reminded him that I was the doctor and he was the lab tech, but I knew he was a genius, and I was blessed to have him willing to work with me. I learned you can have your own opinions and not take help or advice, or you can enhance your skills by learning from those around you.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I believe to those who have success and blessings, there is a certain responsibility to give back. We try to teach that to our children. I’m incredibly blessed, so it’s important to me to share those blessings into the broader world. I’m most proud of the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) that we set up in 2004 that gifted 26 percent of Heartland Dental to its employees. The ESOP was structured so employees would have access at their retirement age, and their stake in the company would continue to grow and be more beneficial in the long run. The value of those retirement funds today is in excess of 500 million dollars. It has provided lifetime economic security to dental assistants, dental hygienists, business assistants, and many team members at the support offices.

Along the way, we were blessed to provide the lead gift in helping to create the Workman Sports & Wellness Complex in Effingham, Illinois. It’s our way of giving back to the community that has given all of us so much.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

At the top of the list is to get a mentor. This is something I wish I had started earlier. One of the things that Heartland Dental is known for is our top-notch continuing education opportunities. We have incredible doctors supported by Heartland Dental who also serve as mentors. I think everyone can benefit immensely by having a mentor.

Next, I’d recommend surrounding yourself with the right people. There’s the saying, “You are going to become the middle ground of your 5 closest friends.” The people that you spend time with will influence you, so if you are friends with the right people, you will be pulled onto a good path.

Then I’d say, proactively seek out opportunities. Walter Hailey taught us, “That which you are looking for is looking for you.” If you have an idea or a need, ask people and seek those that can help you, because there is someone out there that can. Opportunities don’t always present themselves unless we are looking for them. Go after your dreams.

We commonly hear work smarter, not harder, but that’s not accurate. Of course, you have to work smart and hard. What most folks in life miss, particularly in dentistry because of the way we were trained in dental school, is that we don’t understand the multiplying effects of working together. I believe this is the number one reason most dentists can’t understand how some can have practices, many multiples of their size.

Last but not least, be grateful and treat people right.

Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder?

Being a founder comes with a lot of emotions, especially as the company evolved and met different challenges over the years. We have had to overcome many difficult situations and encountered difficult people who challenged Heartland Dental’s purpose.

One thing I have learned is to try to ensure everyone is doing the right thing for the right reasons. Assume good intent, but ask questions to seek and learn from even the most challenging of situations.

I also think you need to surround yourself with great people. Many of our Heartland Dental family have a long relationship with the company, from supported doctors such as Dr. Bill Bloink, who was my first partner, to hygienists like Julie Thomas, who has been working with me since the beginning, in addition to the many professionals like Pat Bauer, CEO, and DeAnn McClain, COO, who have played integral roles.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

This question gave me goosebumps because I think we are in the midst of that right now. In the world today, the majority of the news you see is negative, but the truth is that most people get out of bed wanting to do good in the world.

I believe the greatest gift any person can possess is the challenge, dignity of work, and opportunity for a meaningful career with a great company that helps people and makes a difference in the world. Heartland Dental is often recognized as near the origin of where a professional support organization and leadership career path for non-dentists began. A larger number of significant career paths would never have existed, if not for the emergence of DSOs like Heartland Dental.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can learn more about Heartland Dental on our website, Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn!

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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