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September 2005
Implanted in the Right Niche
By Ellison Clary

Finding the right niche is essential for any small business, and Salvin Dental Specialties, Inc. has certainly implanted itself nicely. Fully 90 percent its sales come from dental implant instruments.

Chief executive Bob Salvin discovered the dental implant industry in 1983, a couple of years after he started carrying disposable products in his car and selling them door-to-door to general dentists across North Carolina. Over the last twenty-some years, he has built a business that sells implant instruments worldwide.

Salvin’s company carries more than 900 different implements, and designs about 70 percent of them. Long ago, he moved his operation from a room over his southeast Charlotte garage to 7,000 square feet off Wendover Road. He incorporated in 1993.

Salvin recalls the first dental products trade show he attended. The lines of booths converged in the distance like railroad tracks: “I thought, ‘How am I ever going to compete with these guys?’” But his father, a professor at UNC Greensboro, gave him good advice: “Never give up,” he told his son. “There’s always a way to do something. You just have to be persistent.”

So Salvin’s top priority became converting his business from selling one-on-one to one-on-many. For help he consulted with Dan Sullivan of Toronto, creator of the Strategic Coach Program. Sullivan advised Salvin to focus on his unique ability to work with people, to develop a strong team through careful hiring, and to steer away from commodity trade by branding his products.

Salvin diligently developed customer relationships and nurtured them with high-quality service. And he concentrated on offering value. That approach successfully executed has resulted in the current construction of a 5,000-square-foot expansion to his building on Latrobe Drive and plans to increase his work force from 27 to 35.

“Our products are very well priced,” Salvin maintains, emphasizing the importance of that to the oral surgeons, periodontists, prosthodontists and general dentists who buy specialized tools sized to fit in a person’s mouth.

The implant dentistry doctors who are his customers perform highly elective medical procedures according to Salvin. Typically, dental insurance pays $1,000 to $2,000 for such work, but restoring an entire mouth with implants could cost anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000. Their customers spend elective dollars to look and feel better.

“Each of these implant doctors is a business person,” Salvin explains. “When they come to us, they are spending their own money. They’re conscious of value and appreciate great service. Our phones are answered by live human beings on the second ring and they are people who can tell you, ‘Doctor, I can do that for you.’ If they can’t, they’re 30 seconds away from connecting the doctor to one of our sales specialists, and that person has taken most of the dental implant continuing education courses the doctor has taken.”

Often, doctors shop from Salvin’s 129-page product catalogue. Calling it distinctive is strong understatement. This year’s cover features a full-color mockup of a cereal box with some of the Salvin tools and machines overflowing a grocery cart. Prominent on the box is the company’s slogan that has become as top-of-mind in the dental implant trade as Nike’s Swoosh is in athletics.

 

‘Everything For The Implant Practice But The Implants’

“Everything for your implant practice but the implants,” is the mantra that dentists around the globe associate with Salvin – and Salvin says that it’s literally true. For proof, he points to color photos of tools ranging from reciprocating bone saws to specialty drills and even containers of freeze-dried bone tissue.

Salvin can easily change the catalogue cover and contents each year because he produces it in-house, for better control and logical presentation. “No one knows the products as well as we do,” he says. “We’re out in the field talking to the doctors.”

Personal contact by Salvin, company president William Simmons and sales manager Greg Slayton and his staff includes attendance at 200 or so “hands on” surgical courses and trade shows annually. And it leads to custom-designed instruments.

Often a professional buttonholes Salvin or one of his lieutenants and describes a tool he’d like to see created. Then the Salvin brain trust fashions a prototype from pliable materials and sends it to the doctor, who twists the model to his own liking and returns it Salvin. “Sometimes it’ll go through five or six iterations before it’s right,” Salvin says.

Salvin commissions production of such tools under the Salvin brand. Usually, the company uses master instrument makers in Germany, but lately it also is placing orders with medical machine shops in the United States.

Endorsing Salvin’s approach in this year’s catalogue are 30 of North America’s most prominent dental implant professionals, pictured with their praise for the company. In return for their business and their glowing sentiments, these doctors and other Salvin customers reap an added reward – all the pistachio nuts they can eat.

“Years ago, when I didn’t have any money,” Salvin explains, “I was looking for something to give my customers as an appreciation. We came up with putting pistachios in homemade bags and delivering them.”

 

Coffee Mugs Proved Nuts A Winner

Once, Salvin made a change and sent out coffee mugs. “The doctors all asked where the pistachios were,” he remembers. “We knew we had a winner.”

Now, graphic artist David Palmer, who designs the Salvin catalogue, puts a custom Salvin label on half-pound and one-pound bags of pistachios and Salvin distributes four tons of the Mediterranean nuts annually. They go to the company’s 8,000 customers worldwide and to many of its 35,000 prospects. Though 75 percent of the doctors the firm serves are in the United States, it also has a strong following in Europe, Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

Salvin’s comprehensive line is a plus. Lots of companies specialize in dental instruments or bone graft materials or in equipment. Only a few, Salvin says, offer a product line as extensive as Salvin’s. “In our niche, we’re number one or two,” he adds. “Since the companies are privately held, we don’t know.”

 

Salvin holds his financial details close to his casual golf shirt. He plotted in 1998 to grow the business 10 times larger by 2012. “In 2002, I was where I needed to be in 2006,” he says. “We’re a company that’s growing 30 percent a year and has for the past 10 years.”

Referrals from satisfied clients fuel Salvin’s growth. High-tech equipment and the latest information technology keep the Salvin team connected and producing cutting edge products. Still, Salvin gives most of the credit for his company’s impressive performance to his employees themselves. He selects them carefully.

“We are only hiring award-winning sales reps from other companies, and not necessarily from our industry,” says sales manager Slaton. Salvin insists that his teammates build a thorough knowledge of all the firm’s products. He expects each employee to explain how the products work, and to do so in simple terms.

Finally, he drills “please” and “thank you” into each Salvin associate’s vocabulary. “We thank our customers and make them feel special,” he adds. “In other words, we have an attitude of gratitude.”

In return, Salvin treats his crew like family. Once a year, the company throws a back-to-school party for children of employees. Highlights include school supplies bought by the company for each student and a trip to a teen-friendly eatery such as this year’s stop at a pizzeria.

A huge break room in the new addition will have an atmosphere that blends classroom with coffee shop. In-house it’s known as Billy Bob’s, after Simmons and Salvin.

 

Stock Ownership And Succession Plans

Salvin also is proud of a relatively new stock ownership and succession plan. Simmons owns five percent of the company and can take 10 percent in another four years. “I’m 55, William is 35,” Salvin says, with an eye toward succession. “We hope to make the stock ownership available to other people.”

The plan was engineered by Charles Greer of the Greer & Walker accounting firm in Charlotte. Greer also serves on Salvin’s five-person board of directors. Salvin says he and his executives listen closely to the board’s advice.

“Bob thinks things out very well,” says Greer, who’s been a friend for 15 years. “He takes input from others on how to accomplish what he wants to do. He’s got a plan that he carries through, and he asks his advisors for help along the way.”

Salvin keeps the company debt load light. “We’ve been able to grow using internal cash,” he says, “and we have a great relationship with the Scottish Bank in Charlotte.”

A native Charlottean, Salvin finished at East Mecklenburg High School, then earned a textile degree at North Carolina State University. He was a textile executive until he started his own company.

Salvin hopes to retire in 2010, at age 60. But already, he’s helping others learn how to run the company. He does so by periodically leaving the reins in the hands of his employees while he travels.

Salvin and wife Susan, retired director of Hemby Children’s Hospital at Presbyterian Hospital, have sailed the Amazon River and camped in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. “I like being outside,” Salvin jokes. “Outside the French restaurant, outside the Italian restaurant, outside the good steak house.”

He and Susan are becoming involved in more civic activities. Both recently joined the board for the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation. “We’re encouraging the young people who work for us to get involved in things we’re involved in,” he says.

When not traveling, Salvin estimates he works 50 hours a week. But each year, he takes 12 weeks off. When he’s away for more than a week, he might call the office only once and trusts his team to check and respond to his e-mail or voice messages.

“If you can’t take three weeks in a row and have people run your company,” Salvin says, “it doesn’t do you any good to have a succession plan.”

He smiles and adds, “When I return, I get fewer of my responsibilities back.”

Matter-of-factly, he quips, “If I wanted to, I could retire tomorrow, but right now, I’m having too much fun.”

 

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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