Collaboration, consultation, co-operation and communication

Portman Dental CareGary Chapman explains the ‘family’ ethos of Portman Dental Care focusing on cooperation and communication.

Today in the ever-growing corporate dental world you hear a number of groups preaching about how important it is to be ‘part of the family’. This was a term originally coined by Sam Waley-Cohen and I in the early days of Portman. The practices that were joining us were literally joining a family-owned business. They had family values that still run through the heart and DNA of Portman today.

With so many groups now following Portman’s lead and trying to call themselves a family, it made me reflect on what this actually means at Portman. What stands behind this commonly used phrase and are we sure this is still the right way to think about Portman as we’ve grown over the years?

As I’ve been thinking about this, the ‘Four legged stool’ comes to mind. The stool obviously doesn’t work if you cut one of the legs off. For me, behind our claim to be a family are four pillars that we operate by and can stand beside. Cut down one of these pillars/legs and the stool falls over. In the case of a business, things start to fall apart. I wonder if every other group that claims to be a family has such a strong vision of what this really means?

Like every family, we’re not perfect. However, we live by our strong vision and values and treating others as we would like to be treated. We work every day to make the right decisions for our patients, our colleagues and our clinicians. That’s what makes Portman special.


At Portman we believe that ‘collaboration’ between our practices and our central support teams is vitally important. We have always found that practices who ‘collaborate’ closely with us perform the most strongly. They get through the ups and downs of dentistry much more easily. They buy into the Portman ethos and we buy into the nuances of the practice.

We don’t fix what isn’t broken. But we do try to mend, improve and ultimately fix things that the practice teams and the central support teams, working together, feel needed fixing.

It’s not always plain sailing and we do occasionally find that some vendors find it difficult to let their business go and truly collaborate with us. I can honestly say, as I’m sure every other group can, that this makes any acquisition difficult at best. So in my experience ‘collaboration’ is key to success. You can only fully embrace this when you closely link it to ‘consultation’.


Consultation is probably the most important part of the process following an acquisition. This is why Portman prides itself on a robust, honest and efficient integration of the practice into the Portman family that is heavily based on consulting with all members of the practice team. This is the way we get the best results.

As soon as we’ve acquired a practice (and increasingly even before!) the integration of the practice into the Portman family begins and we take this part of a practice’s journey very seriously.

The integration process is undertaken by a hugely experienced team of former practice managers that now work with us to impart our knowledge and experience at this delicate, and sometimes emotional, time of transition. Portman are hugely mindful of the impact a sale can have on people’s emotions and feeling when in some cases they are only told days before that the practice is being sold and have many important questions about the security of their roles and their benefits etc.

Consulting with practice teams and taking them by the hand as we walk through the early days of their Portman life is the sole focus of our integrations team. I do believe that many groups forget the soft side of peoples’ concerns and emotions and instead just “leave them alone”.

Ultimately, I don’t think this approach makes things any easier for colleagues within practice as they’re left in limbo wondering what their new owners want and expect from them.


I think it’s clear that in the complex world in which we operate, we need the ‘cooperation’ of everyone in the practice.

The type of practices that join Portman are, in my opinion, the ‘cream of the crop’. Most of the practices that join us are not just joining for the money, which of course is hugely important. They are joining us to come on a journey to take their practice to another level. To look after the baby that they have nurtured and help it develop into a fully grown adult.

We are the suitor that has come along to develop their/your pride and joy, so you can see why ‘cooperation’ between the practice and the group is so important. We know there are times when difficult conversations need to be had, but if the ‘consultation’ and collaboration’ has been fair then these difficult issues can be addressed far easier and earlier with better outcomes.


So what is the trick to make all the above work? For me, it’s simple: ‘communication’. If there is one thing that will thwart any growth, it’s poor ‘communication’. With any business and especially with a people business like dentistry we have to make sure that we have great communication and interaction between our practices and all the different aspects of our central support teams.

We’ve learned a lot about communication over the years. The recent challenges presented by COVID-19 has accelerated this. We over invest in communication and even then I think it may not be enough!

Our practice managers have weekly MS Teams calls with our chief operating officer as well as with their operations managers to make sure it’s very clear what is happening across the business and what the key messages for the practices are. The recent role out of Portman’s industry-leading SOP is a great example of how seriously we take great communication and what a different it makes.

Importance of feedback

But what we really cherish is the feedback we get back from our colleagues. As my father said: ‘You must listen to twice as much as you speak, that’s why we have two ears and one mouth.’ I feel our colleagues are the heart of our business and the businesses that join.

All colleagues I believe want the best for their practices. So many on a daily basis go the extra mile, especially in these difficult times. We listen to our colleagues and clinicians through formal mechanisms like engagement surveys, town halls and forums but importantly all of our

Exec team are regularly on the phone with practice teams, vendors, associates finding. They find out what is going well and how we can get better. It’s essential we retain this approach to make sure we really are a family. We are not a corporate machine that uses that word out of place, as I fear many do.


So what do we know so far about Portman: we can see collaboration, consultation, co-operation, communication are the four legs of our stool, the cornerstones of our business. It’s what makes use special and what encourages so many amazing practices to join us. It’s likely also why we’ve had the honour of winning ‘Business of the Year’ four years in a row. We must be doing something right.

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

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