All the Right Moves

By Laura Thill

Eric Shirley

For Eric Shirley, the best solutions lie beyond the obvious answers.

When Eric Shirley joined Patterson Dental as president of the dental business unit earlier this year, he brought with him years of industry experience and perspective, as well as a fresh vision for the company and its business partners.

“Patterson has two critical and unique assets: our customers and our teammates,” says Shirley. “With that wonderful foundation, I am not here to solve huge problems. My role is to ask the right questions and challenge ourselves to think in ways that enable our teams to make our customers more successful.” Both distributors and manufacturers are tasked with increasing the value of oral healthcare, he points out. “It’s about empowering the clinical team to provide better and more efficient care, enabling the practice to adopt new technologies and products, and designing oral healthcare environments that do all of this more effectively and comfortably.”

“Distributors and manufacturers both have a role to play in that. If we each do our jobs really well, we’re going to increase the value of oral healthcare and help patients receive better care. Ultimately, we’re going to help the practices become more successful.”

From manufacturing to distribution
Shirley’s career took root in dental manufacturing when he joined Kavo Kerr (currently part of Danaher) in 1991 as the Southern California territory manager, as well as a product and marketing manager. He remained with the company for seven years, after which he joined Dentsply as the director of marketing for preventive care. For the next six years, he assumed various sales and marketing roles at Dentsply. In 2004, he joined Midmark Corp. as vice president of sales and marketing for the company’s dental business, later transitioning to general manager of both the dental and animal health divisions. Afterward, he was appointed Midmark’s chief commercial officer and directed the customer-facing efforts for all three of the company’s businesses: Medical, Dental and Animal Health.

“Midmark utilized the Toyota Production System in all of its manufacturing facilities and office environments – an experience that was very educational and eye-opening,” says Shirley. “Working on the manufacturing side taught me a great deal about process, operations and product development. I learned to look beyond answers to the questions and to really search for new ways to solve problems that the customer or clinical team couldn’t necessarily articulate. The discovery of unmet needs is critical on the manufacturing side, as is the ability to utilize real, established processes within those business units to achieve goals.” It’s precisely this experience, he adds, that he hopes to offer Patterson.

Meeting the need
For Shirley, the reasons for joining Patterson were clear. “Patterson has always impressed me as an organization that truly understands the dynamics of the dental practice, including how to bring real value-added expertise to help the practice team achieve its goals,” he explains. “I worked with Patterson as a supplier partner for many years and have gotten to know the organization’s values very well. I’ve long been fascinated with how deeply Patterson knows the practice mechanics of its customers.”

As newly appointed president of Patterson Dental, Shirley embraces the opportunity to bring new insight to dental practices, including practice owners and the clinical team, ultimately improving the care patients receive. It’s becoming increasingly important to provide dental practices with the data and insights necessary to achieve their goals, he points out. “Whether we offer new services, integrate technology, design dental practices, facilitate transitions, or use our data to find new sources of revenue for the practice, I think it’s critical for us to understand how we can evolve and change as a partner to help our customers achieve these goals,” he says.

“It’s important to understand what our dental customers need from a distribution partner, and to realize that these needs are changing – needs that are unique to each customer,” he continues. “Our customers’ needs are not the same as they were 10 or 15 years ago, and they will continue to change over the next 10 or 15 years. Our goal at Patterson is to understand our customers’ needs and position ourselves as the one company that can address those needs.”

Shirley couldn’t have joined Patterson at a more opportune time. Today more than ever, the company works to understand its dental customers’ needs and address the unique goals and objectives of each practice. “We are focusing on what makes the Patterson difference impactful to a dental practice,” he says. “It’s about the data and insights we bring to this conversation and getting to know what each practice really wants to accomplish.” This can vary widely from practice to practice, depending on whether it’s a large dental service organization, a regional group practice or a smaller solo practice, he adds.

Sometimes dental practices are looking to design better operatories or acquire other practices, Shirley continues. In some cases, their goal may be to add new services, procedures and technologies. What sets Patterson apart is “its ability to have those kinds of deep, one-on-one conversations with practices,” he points out. “We are becoming a stronger partner to dental practices, bringing business and clinical solutions to help each practice accomplish their individual goals.” In turn, Patterson’s dental customers are placing greater trust in the distributor by installing its software, equipment and technology offerings, helping to fuel its leadership position in the dental industry.

A look to the future
In Shirley’s experience, not only will the needs of dental professionals continue to change in years to come, so, too, will the industry landscape. In fact, he expects the industry to expand, making room for both large and small players. “We will continue to see the role of Dental Service Organizations (DSOs) grow and new models emerge,” he says, adding that these organizations will look very different in three or five years. “We’ll see new models emerge in size and scope,” he says. “We’ll also see new and changing ownership models. For instance, we may see more medium-sized regional service organizations that are made up of practices with the same consistent values and core concepts.”

At the same time, Shirley anticipates the re-emergence of the small practice environment. “I’m really encouraged by what I see with the sole practice model,” he says. “Solo practices want to be more relevant and provide better care and a different patient experience. They are clearly asking themselves some tough questions about how they can compete in the new world; I’m encouraged by what I see in all areas.”

In addition, he has great confidence in today’s millennial dental graduates, who as a group appear eager to begin their careers and give back to their community. “I have the pleasure of working with a lot of dental school graduates, [many] who are eager to own several practices,” he points out. “I also see dental school graduates who are interested in public dentistry and giving back to the community, and I think that’s great too. I’m encouraged by what I see in the graduating classes of dental schools; I think it’s going to be exciting for the future.

“I’ve fallen into an industry that is really [fantastic] to be a part of,” says Shirley. “Everybody wants to do the right thing and improve the oral healthcare of the patients that we all serve.” That said, he credits the people in his life – family, friends and colleagues – who have inspired him to try to make the world a better place. “I’m lucky to have a very supportive family and so many wonderful friends and colleagues in this industry who have helped me so much,” he says. “My parents and grandparents have been an inspiration to me, and I feel like I’m trying to bring their legacy forward. They have worked so hard over the years, and I am grateful for their example of work ethic and love.”

A history of philanthropy

Eric Shirley, newly appointed president of Patterson Dental’s dental business unit, has long been involved in a number of philanthropic efforts, including TeamSmile and the Dental Lifeline Network. So, it’s no surprise he feels at home at Patterson Dental. “Since 2004, the Patterson Foundation has given $3.2 million in scholarships to 415 students from Patterson families and $7.6 million in grants to 140 nonprofit organizations,” he points out. “So, I know how strongly the Patterson team feels about the mission and the work of the Foundation, and they’ve already encouraged me to continue the philanthropic work that I do.

“The TeamSmile work is what I’m most proud of because I’ve seen how the organization has grown in the years I’ve been a part of the Board of Directors,” Shirley continues. “The passion of Dr. Bill Busch and the many people who work with TeamSmile to provide free dental care to children all over the country – including partnering with professional sports teams – has been so inspiring. I’m really proud of what they do. We began 13 years ago with a single event with the Kansas City Chiefs; today, the program has mushroomed into 40 annual events with 40 professional sports teams!”