Picture this, an optimist

24 August, 2020 / indepth
 Will Peakin  

Twenty years ago, the co-founder of Clyde Munro transitioned from a legacy business into new technologies; he remains as fleet of foot today

Jim Hall has, in a manner of speaking, always been in the business of smiles. Thirty years ago, the Strathclyde University graduate joined Polaroid; working for the ‘instant camera’ corporation across Europe and the Americas, and as managing director of its manufacturing site at Vale of Leven – which, at its height, employed more than 5000 people. In 2001, he founded a division – Polaroid’s ‘European Design Centre’ – employing specialists in electronics, mechanical engineering, physics, and software. It went on to be a standalone business unit, securing work from outside contractors, and was eventually ‘spun-out’ of Polaroid in a deal led by Hall in 2006.

It was a prescient move, given the growth of digital photography and the fate of Polaroid. Known as Wideblue, Hall’s spin-off worked with – and continues to do so today – start-ups and small-to-medium enterprises developing new technologies. At Wideblue, Hall worked with the investment partners of the fledgling businesses, which led to him co-founding the investment syndicate, Kelvin Capital, to support Scottish-based tech businesses. One of those was Bedi Oral Care, that launched the Bedi Shield, a device used to help people with complex care needs maintain their oral health, developed by Professor Raman Bedi, former chief dental officer of England.

Professor Bedi said to Hall that he thought there was an opportunity to develop a dental group “better than the others”; he would bring his clinical expertise and Hall could bring his business acumen. “That was in 2014,” said Hall, in an interview with Scottish Dental earlier this summer. “The following year, we bought seven practices. Today, we have 40.”

Clyde Munro employs more than 200 dentists and 350 staff, and has more than 300,000 patients across Scotland. As the company’s press releases underline: “The group’s ambition is to become Scotland’s ‘local dentist’, operating an expanding network of family dentists across Scotland, with each devoted to providing the best dental care, while reflecting the needs and character of its community.”

Did Hall have a number of practices in mind that the group would, ideally, own? “Everybody asks me that, and the answer is no,” he said. “I don’t want to turn it into a corporate. I say to my team; we need to be careful that, as we grow, we stifle innovation, we stifle decision-making, and prescribe one-size-fits-all. That’s typically corporate – we’ll never do that.” He said there were “probably 700 to 800” practices that would be a fit for Clyde Munro; that’s just a few hundred short of all the practices in Scotland. Hall is 62; I doubt he wants – would be able to – spend the next decade buying 75 practices a year in order to come close. I suspect his stance is more: ‘Our door is always open,’ to owners who might be thinking of selling. “We’ve got 40 now and 11 in heads of terms, so plenty of room to grow,” he said.

On the phone from his home in St Andrews, Hall sounded as though he and the company had managed lockdown reasonably well but, initially, “it was intense, working 14-hour days, on several Zoom calls a day. The priority was to make sure we protected the business and looked after the team, as well as providing whatever service we were able to our patients,” he said. “Guidelines came at short notice and were not always as clear they could be; nobody is to blame for that because everyone, including the Government, was dealing with an event that in terms of recent history was unprecedented.”

It became clear that telephone triaging was the most that the practices could offer. The next question was, how could the business survive financially. How would furlough work? What did the split between NHS and private practice mean to the business? What support was available? “How do we preserve this business and provide the best possible service as we come out of this – that was a huge challenge. But,” said Hall, “it was where the strength of being a group came in; to be able to access support, look after our people, and work with our business partners.”

Throughout, the company has ensured that staff have received full pay regardless of whether they were covered by NHS or Government initiatives. Dentists and hygienists who previously relied on a private income have also been supported by the company. “This lockdown,” said Hall, “has brought us together as a team, from Orkney down to Gala, like nothing else has. It has demonstrated its values, in terms of being here for each other, supporting each other, no matter what. Whether you are a private dentist, a hygienist, a nurse, or an accountant, this company was here for you – not just financially, but also for people’s wellbeing.”

Pressed on how the Scottish and UK Governments, and regulators, handled the crisis, Hall does not fault their response, given the ultimate potential for the virus’s impact. He also has little time for the complainers, instead focusing on working with his team and their business partners to get through these extraordinary times. “Is it fair that NHS dentists have been receiving support and private dentists not? There’s a lot of unfairness that much less well-off groups of people have been experiencing. The Clyde Munro team and a number of our dentists have run successful businesses and when the going gets tough you have to use all your experience and reserves – both emotionally and financially – to get through.” He gives an example of his top earning private dentists who got zero income and who dug deep into their own reserves while continuing to provide their patients whatever service they could which helped the company to focus on providing financial support to those who needed it the most.

Looking ahead, Hall has faith that a longer-term system of remuneration will be established for NHS dentistry so that good practices will remain viable. “We first and foremost have to get through the next few months,” he said, “and then look at any permanent changes to the way we are going to be remunerated by the NHS going forward. If that moves towards a system that is based on prevention, then that’s a good thing, as long as the model works and allows a dental business to be viable.”

Hall has written to Tom Ferris, the Chief Dental Officer, offering his network of experienced clinical teams as a sounding board for the proposed ‘new model of care’, focussed on prevention, that was being developed before the pandemic, and on any other fundamental change that is needed. As a group, Clyde Munro concentrates on Scotland – Hall said he had no interest in acquisitions south of the border – and the nation as a whole, not just the central belt, with recent additions to the group being made in Orkney, Fort William, Glencoe and Galashiels. Digital is a big focus, he said. A patient portal, developed by Software of Excellence, that was being tested and might in normal circumstances have been rolled out over a year, was installed in every practice within weeks.

“The key thing is, not to drift back to the way things were,” he said, “things that have worked well; treasure those and make them part of the way we work going forward.”

Tags: Clyde Munro / Clyde Munro Dental Group / Jim Hall / Polaroid

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