Building for the future of dental labs

ashfordSean Thompson talks to Guy Hiscott about the journey of Ashford Orthodontics, from humble beginnings to aiming at becoming the most trusted lab name in the UK with the ALS Group.

How did Ashford Orthodontics come about?

Sean Thompson (ST): Ashford emerged from conversations with a few orthodontists back in 2001 while I was working in the orthodontic and maxillofacial lab at Sunderland Royal Hospital.

It became clear that there was a real shortage in the provision of specialised orthodontic lab work resulting in specialists sending their work to non-specialised labs.

The hospital couldn’t take in external work because it wasn’t registered with the MHRA, which made me realise the opportunity. I had quite a rare skill really. It was at that point that I decided to set up a ‘one-man lab’ in my garage at home.

The timing wasn’t the best as I was working full time, then working evenings in the garage, while also studying for a Maxillofacial Diploma at Manchester University. It was a crazy few years to say the least.

One client turned into two, then three. It became obvious that something had to give, so despite the advice that you could never make a living doing ortho alone, I left the hospital to follow my passion of running my own business.

I was fortunate in that I knew two great technicians in Graeme Winyard and Craig Stevens. Five years later they came on board and we formed Ashford Orthodontics. We set up a new state-of-the-art orthodontic lab in Sunderland city centre, capable of accommodating up to 10 technicians. We never thought we would ever fill it, but another two labs later and with around 65 staff now, we must be doing something right.

Maybe you can make a living only doing ortho if you do it well enough!

What were the challenges of growing the lab like that?

ST: The big challenge was the question of moving up from a cottage industry into something that has scalability. It’s not as simple as just ‘getting bigger’.

The biggest driver for us in that sense was the onset of digital technologies. We invested a huge amount in going down the digital route early on. We were perhaps ahead of the curve a little bit – we had the capacity and the capability to print 3D models and do everything that went with it when dentists didn’t actually have anything to send us.

That was the elephant in the room for a while. But what it meant was that when things did pick up, all those visions became a reality.

We learnt as the technology was coming out, and it was learning as we were learning. We just have to make sure that we continue to stay ahead of the curve, so the work never stops. 

Ashford Orthodontics has joined the ALS Group: what’s the story behind that?

ST: When you grow as quickly as Ashford has, you inevitably receive all sorts of calls from people wanting to make you an offer but selling didn’t really interest me. I’ve still got too much passion for my profession. Although it’s tempting at times, I’m definitely not ready for life on the beach just yet.

ALS were completely different in their approach. They wanted to form a group of like-minded professionals that you could be a real part of and invest in their success.

Being able to steer policies and help add to the group through years of experience, while growing the group as a whole by helping to bring more labs onboard was the really interesting bit for me.

We want to bring a level of expertise and trust to the group. A bit like picking up any brand of chocolate bar and seeing it’s made by Cadbury’s. You know you’re going to love it as the name alone shows it’s underpinned by unrivalled quality and years of experience.

That’s the concept we want. There’s a lot of exciting times ahead for both ALS and all members of the dental profession.

What are the next steps?

ST: There are some really exciting synergies within the group to explore.

Being able to share our wealth of experience and products such as our clear aligners or our whitening products, as well as our specialised orthodontic services through other labs in the group really opens up the offering hugely to all of the clients within it – it may even introduce some clients to things they’ve never easily been able to access before.

Equally, we don’t know a lot about things like crowns, dentures, or implants, for example. However, we now know people who do, and maybe we can help in that way also.

There are huge opportunities now to help each other’s clients source the very best of everything they might need.

How do you feel about the future?

ST: There’s a lot of hard work ahead of us, but the process of coming on board has given me confidence that everyone involved is totally professional. The devil is in the detail when it comes to due diligence, but I really like that.

Although we might look at the specifics differently, the other labs involved with ALS are all in it together. Our values are cut from the same cloth. That’s a great driver for me. You have to like and trust the people you’re working with. That’s the essence of what ALS has been built on.

I never wanted to sell the lab and go put my feet up on a beach somewhere. We’re planning something long term and I find that really exciting.

You have to start with the end in mind. If you’re building a 10-storey building then you’ve got to get the foundations right. We want to become the most trusted brand in the dental laboratory market, so this is crucial.

If there’s going to be a major player within the profession, why can’t it be ALS?

Every lab in the group has their own speciality. Why can’t we create a platform that can provide everything that a dental or orthodontic practice might need? Instead of having one ‘centre of excellence’ why can’t we have multiple centres, each catering for their own speciality, allowing all of our clients access to this, regardless of where they are in the UK, or beyond?

That’s my passion. I know it’s what ALS is striving for also. With the extensive investment and expertise we’re bringing to the group, there is no reason not to succeed.

For more information on Ashford Orthodontics visit

This article first appeared in Dentistry magazine. You can read the latest issue here.

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