Legacy Labs: Pittman Dental Lab

March 21, 2012

It’s been said that death and taxes are certainties of life. Add change to that list. A new generation of dental lab operators are adapting to trends in the industry that include incorporating new technologies, using different methods of marketing, and coping with downward price pressures from overseas.

It’s been said that death and taxes are certainties of life. Add change to that list. A new generation of dental lab operators are adapting to trends in the industry that include incorporating new technologies, using different methods of marketing, and coping with downward price pressures from overseas.

As they adapt to those changes, Dena Lanier, owner of The Lab 2000 in Columbus, GA, has noticed the new twists that younger people are bringing to their family-run businesses. Change is inevitable and a new generation that wants to have an impact on how business is done is responding.

“I call it, ‘This ain’t your Daddy’s dental lab anymore,’” said Lanier who also writes columns on marketing for dental labs. 

“Unlike previous generations, younger people are not as interested in spending their careers at the bench,” she said. 

“The next generation is not on the bench,” she said. “They’re managing the business. They look at it more as a business.”

While most younger operators still get their CDTs, Lanier said they may not devote as much time working hands-on in production as previous generations did because they are more involved in other tasks such as analyzing the value of new technologies.

Changes like that had been coming even before Zach Pittman, Vice President of Pittman Dental Lab in Gainsville, GA came into the family business eight years ago.

“With automation, production is changing and the way we manufacture is changing,” said Pittman.

Even starting a lab from scratch as his father, Rudy, did in 1974, would be much more difficult today, Zach said. Rudy launched the business in a detached garage at his parent’s house. It has grown from having one employee to about 100 employees.

“I think it’s much more costly to be a competitive, viable lab today,” Zach said. “Technology is a lot more expensive.”

Rather than spending time at the bench, both Zach and his father see their role as being responsible for ensuring that their product is up to snuff.

“We still do a lot of the quality control, but we’re not sitting there grinding the porcelain,” he said.

Adapting to advances in technology means that Zach has taken on the role of assessing what equipment is worth the company’s investment, a task his father did not have to be involved in simply because equipment and software did not change as much in previous decades.

“He (Rudy) didn’t have to have those thought processes involved in calculating a return on investment (on buying new technology),” said Zach, adding that his father has encouraged many of the changes and new technology that Zach has introduced to the lab.

“If I’ve got an idea on something he usually lets me run with it,” Zach said.

Zach proposed the idea of adding a night shift, an idea that took a while for his father to get used to, but has increased the company’s return on investment in the costly CAD/CAM and other tools the lab has purchased.

“The pieces of equipment are so expensive. To maximize them I felt we should run 24 hours rather than the 12- to 15-hour a day shift,” said Zach.

After some deliberation, they decided to try the night shift.

“We went back and forth on whether we wanted to do that,” said Zach. “It’s proved to be a good move for us.”

Being able to focus on innovation and technology has been something of a luxury for Zach whose father had to wear more hats, particularly in the early days of the business when, like most entrepreneurs, he had to be concerned with every aspect of the lab from whether water was running in sinks, to production, quality control, to increasing sales.

“He WAS the lab,” Zach said. “He was the one dealing with plumbers and worrying about other things like building infrastructure. I came into an already established business.”

Marketing is another area in which younger people are doing things differently than their parents did and it’s making an impact.

“We used to do a lot of trade shows and mass mailings,” Zach said. “We’ve cut back on the number of trade shows and we’ve definitely cut back on the mass mailings.”

Instead, the company is delving into marketing by email, social networking, and on its website. Rather than large trade shows, it focuses its efforts on networking at regional industry events such as local dental society study clubs.

Lanier applauds the way the Pittmans have melded the desires of different generations to have an impact on the lab business. As new generations of family members enter a business, Lanier said it’s important for family members to recognize that their family and business roles are separate.

“When they step over the threshold (of the business) you’ve got to think that’s not my sister, that’s another employee,” Lanier said.

Communication is key to how Zach and his father have made their business relationship work so well.

“Communication is critical to everything,” Zach said. “Especially when you’re trying to run a family business. And having mutual respect among family members is really important too.”

Zach and Rudy also try to set boundaries that keep their business and personal relationships separate. When they step outside of the business they try not to make the lab a topic of conversation. They like to spend time fishing together, but when they are casting lines they talk about the fish, not the lab.

“We try to leave the business at the office. When we go fishing, we enjoy the time together,” Zach said.