My Story – Dr. Chris Sortman

In Spotlight by Dental Entrepreneur

I am frequently asked how I was able to buy a practice grossing $750,000 and turn it into a thriving practice grossing $3.5 million in just eight years. Are the answers simple? No. Is it a secret? Not really. Here is my personal story, written for your benefit!

My parents were serial entrepreneurs. We had a succession of Dairy Queens, sandwich shops, craft show products and photography businesses. Although my parents’ dreams never amounted to much, their goals became mine. Observing them in business, their definition of entrepreneurship was clear. If there was a rulebook that they followed, it was something like this:

1) The customer is always right
2) If you have time to lean you have time to clean
3) If you own the business, you’re always on the job
4) Numbers rule the decision making
5) Re-investment is not an option, it’s a requirement

These unwritten rules became part of the reason I am where I am today. I watched in fascination as other dentist’s practices declined while mine grew. What about their internal rulebook was different than mine?

After being a navy dentist, I knew that owning a business was not simply an option for me. It was a requirement. While the U.S. Military is a fine institution and gave me much needed experience, it does not embody good business values in any sense of the word.

The first handful of years as a private practice owner were very difficult. I purchased a “successful” practice and had my seller stay on as an associate… in 2007 at the cusp of the financial crisis! As we stared the struggling economy in the face, my internal rulebook became more of a dominating force in the office. Customer service became a must. Presenting a wide range of services meant survival. Advertising became a lifeline. Insurance participation stopped being a dirty word. During this time, I made too many mistakes to count. I learned, however, and grew from each mistake. Below, I’ve enumerated a short list of my advice.

First, you have to leverage your skills. Expand your skill set! Extensive investment in education enabled me to be proficient in orthodontics, oral surgery – including IV sedation and implant placement – surgical and non-surgical endodontics, and headache management, to name a few. I leveraged the first asset I had, which was my dental degree. This alone increased my income significantly. Unless you are willing to do this in one form or another, you need to re-examine goals. I see many who would expand their careers but cringe at spending $5,000-$20,000 for a good course. Evaluate the risk versus reward ratio, and then take the plunge!

This points to a second principle of success: monetary assets need to be leveraged correctly. In order to grow yourself, re-investment needs to be key. When I started out, it was extremely hard to write checks for non-essential items! The truth is that most dentists suck the lifeblood out of practices by paying themselves every spare dollar available. Make it a habit to pay yourself the bare minimum and keep the rest of the money in the practice. Then take advantage of opportunities when they arise, and you’ll have great latitude to strike out in new directions. If you are an associate, this might manifest itself by not spending everything you earn, or by forming an s-corp. Become an independent contractor and keep dividends to a minimum. Maybe then you’d have extra money set aside to buy in to your practice when that time comes!

Third, it’s imperative to see that the horizon is always moving. Goals in life are like the horizon. As soon as I think there is an endgame, it shifts just out of reach. Unless happiness comes in the journey, there is no good endgame. Each day as a practice owner brings its ups and downs. Ultimately, the best thing I have learned over the last 10 years was to enjoy working as much as possible! If owning a practice is more stress than you can handle, your happiness should win out. Either get a partner to share the load, or work for someone else and use the skills of entrepreneurship in a different way!

Put yourself out there. Follow your passions, and don’t ever think you have to fit in any one else’s mold!

Dr. Christopher Sortman graduated from University of Michigan Dental School in 2004. Prior to studying at Dental School, he attended Hope College, where he earned a B.S. in Biology. Following dental school, Dr Sortman became Lieutenant Sortman and served as a Navy dentist with the Marines in Okinawa. While there, he completed an Advanced Education in General Dentistry (AEGD). The AEGD gave him shoulder to shoulder experience with specialists in every field of dentistry. This experience was a springboard to becoming a leader in providing ‘comprehensive’ dentistry. On a personal note, Dr Sortman is married to his college sweetheart, Holly. They have four children; Spencer, Saige, Piper and Orly. He enjoys spending time with family, pursuing interests in varying topics and most of all helping others to become the best they can be!