Leading the Way

Editor’s note: The following insights are from a 2018 DEO presentation. 

With Jonathan Walker at the helm, North American Dental Group remains committed to growing through a patient-first mindset.

What was news to the dental industry in September had been in the works for a while for one of the nation’s leading dental service organizations. North American Dental Group announced that Jonathan Walker, its CFO, had been named chief executive officer. He succeeds Ken Cooper, an NADG co-founder who led the company since its inception in 2008 and successfully grew NADG from a single clinic to be one of the nation’s leading DSOs supporting 250 locations across 15 states. 

“I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to lead one of the best-known and best-run DSOs in the country and to be supported by so many terrific doctor partners and team members,” Walker said. “Thanks to Ken’s leadership, I am stepping into the CEO role at a great time in the organization’s trajectory. With its unique culture, dentist partner led operating model, and strong reputation for high quality care, NADG is well positioned for continued success. This is an exciting time for our company, and I’m thrilled to lead NADG into a period of sustained growth.”

Cooper, an NADG co-founder, decided in 2019 that, after co-leading the company as CEO since its inception in 2008, he was ready to focus his energy and attention in other areas. Cooper personally led the effort to identify a candidate that he and Dr. Andrew Matta would recommend as his replacement. Cooper anticipated this would be a two- to three-year process, with a goal of transitioning power to the new CEO at some point in late 2021 or early 2022. 

Cooper hired Walker in June 2020 as NADG’s CFO and groomed Walker to be his replacement. During the summer of 2021, NADG began planning to launch a new, multi-year strategic business plan and determined that the time was appropriate for the transition to begin. The goal was for Walker to be in place to offer fresh perspectives to develop and implement the new multi-year strategic path.

In the following interview with Dental Group Practice Magazine, NADG leadership discussed how the organization plans to move forward.

Dental Group Practice Magazine: (Question for Jonathan Walker) Previously NADG had a shared leadership model with its co-founders Ken Cooper as CEO and Dr. Andrew Matta as CMO. Can you talk about how the structure has changed? What will look different? What will remain the same? 

Jonathan Walker: That is correct, for the past dozen years Ken and Andrew ably co-led NADG and grew it to become one of the most influential DSOs in the country. Going forward, Andrew remains responsible for all clinical decision-making and I am responsible for all final business-related decisions. 

Ken remains affiliated with NADG as an advisor to me with a focus on new development opportunities. This is an important role for us as Ken has enormous institutional and industry knowledge that will support our continued growth.

Ken and Andrew have established a DSO model with strong, seamless collaboration between the clinical and business side operations, which will continue to thrive under my leadership as CEO.

Dental Group Practice: (Question for Walker) What are some individual goals you have as CEO? 

Walker: This is a tremendously exciting time for NADG. We are in a great position to build on foundational improvements we’ve made within the business during the pandemic, pursue scalable growth opportunities, and provide additional supports for our doctors and offices. And we have a plan to get there. We’ve just launched our initial “Core 3” initiatives which will carry us in to 2022. 

The first initiative focuses on taking greater care of our valued team members and giving them more resources they need to be successful in their important jobs. We’re committed to engaging our team members, re-evaluating tools they need to more efficiently perform their roles and making sure they are well compensated and appreciated in doing so. 

The second initiative is assuring that our services are available and accessible when our patients need them most. Anyone who comes to one of our supported practices in need of care will be able to be seen by one of our providers, in many cases, on the same day. We’re scheduling appointments for patients to be seen within days, not weeks or months. We’ve adjusted our office hours in many locations to be more accommodating for our patients. 

The third initiative is generally reviewing our expenses and identifying opportunities where we can be most efficient. This will allow us to reallocate funds to areas that are of greater priority for our supported doctors and offices – such as, making new investments in technology that helps us provide more efficient patient care.

Dental Group Practice: (Question for Dr. Matta) Can you describe your role as CMO? 

Dr. Matta: First and foremost, we are a healthcare organization that is committed to providing the best-in-class oral care for every patient at every visit. That means we must remain keenly aware of clinical developments and opportunities in dentistry that will help us to deliver on our promise of exceptional patient care. As CMO, it is my responsibility to see that we live up to our promise. 

We largely get this done through our Professional Dental Alliance (PDA), our doctor-led group that has partnered with NADG to provide non-clinical support to our dental offices. The PDA is where our doctors can emerge from a solo practitioner mindset to working in collaboration with talented dentists from across the country and earn opportunities to become equity holders within the organization. 

The PDA integrates best clinical practices, sets comprehensive standards of care for patients, and sources high-quality supplies for the providers to deliver efficient oral service. The PDA also provides ongoing doctor training and mentorship.

Dental Group Practice: (Question for Ken Cooper) How will you continue to be a part of the organization? 

Cooper: As NADG’s co-founder, I am still heavily invested in the continued success of this company. I will serve as an advisor to the CEO, available to Jonathan to tap into the institutional knowledge and connections I developed in the DSO community over the past dozen years. 

I am fully aligned with Jonathan’s patient-first goal of growing our business to be the leading support organization for doctors and dental offices across the country. My primary focus as an advisor will be to help identify and cultivate those relationships that could lead to genuine partnerships between NADG and providers. Our doctors do a tremendous job of caring for our patients and have the capacity to do more. 

Separately, and personally, I now have the opportunity to focus on other philanthropic and charitable interests that in many ways will support dentistry. I’m also looking forward to spending more time with my family.

Dental Group Practice: (Question for Walker) Can you talk about the preparation that was involved in you stepping into the role of CEO? How did your time as CFO help? 

Walker: I feel certain my prior experience serving as CEO at MedExpress, which operates walk-in urgent care health centers across the country, will serve me well in my role as CEO at NADG. At MedExpress I led efforts to more than double the size of the business over four years and helped establish the company as the nation’s premier urgent care operator with more than 300 walk-in centers and worksite clinics across 26 states. In many ways, our overarching goals for NADG are very similar, considering that we intend to grow the number of doctors and dental offices we support across the nation to make oral care accessible to more patients. 

Joining NADG first as CFO was invaluable regarding my role now as CEO. As CFO, I had the opportunity to work closely with Ken and Andrew, understand how NADG’s partner-centric approach to dentistry differentiates it within the industry, and learn the company from the inside out by closely examining all aspects of our operations and finances. As CFO I revamped our internal revenue cycle and other finance processes and worked with other members of the leadership team to fund resources and bolster operations at the practice level. 

Those steps as CFO are important as we embark on our “Core 3” initiatives and ultimately grow our business and establish NADG as the premier DSO in the country.

The State of the Dental Industry

With a culture-centric approach, North American Dental Group is focused on supporting good people and empowering those dentists with the support they need to provide the best-in-class dental care to every patient. When Ken Cooper and Dr. Andrew Matta, partnered to form NADG in 2009, Dr. Matta said: “I wanted to create a hospitalized approach to dentistry.”

Indeed, the team at North American Dental Group is working to transform oral healthcare. Company culture is a huge lever for this transformation, and NADG takes great pains to ensure that all the dentists that partner with them meet the criteria they have established and align with their values. He explained, “There’s a void of lab and dental supply formula alignment around the clinical side because the clinical partners don’t feel like partners. They feel like it’s being forced on them. There’s a lack of doctor-led committees and input, there’s a light focus on culture. It’s typically a buzzword. It’s the soft side of the business, but it’s not the core of the business.”

Cooper said North American Dental Group is positioned to become the Cleveland Clinic of dentistry. “We have a pure focus on clinical excellence and reputation,” Cooper said. “We’ve let that drive our decisions. We are a group dentistry and not corporate dentistry. We’re culture-centric, bottom up. It’s a servant leadership philosophy with a focus on gratitude. We do no buyouts. We’re a partnership model.”

NADG is working to pay it forward to others in the industry. “I really believe that this industry needs more collaboration, and we are all at risk, whether we know it or not,” Cooper said. “The better we get together, the stronger we get as an industry. The more that we are focused on clinical excellence instead of valuations, the better we will all be.”