Working class hero

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Working class hero

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Working class hero


Working class hero

Dr Saaqib Ali is a man who knows the benefits of applying yourself. Taking home the full sweep of four Dentistry Awards – and that includes last year's newly introduced Outstanding Achievement Award, won by the practice's orthodontist and old principal, Eddie Crouch – in just two years says a lot about his practice, Sherwood Dental.

To anyone who knows him, this is unlikely to be much of a surprise. The son of a factory worker who came to the UK with five pounds in his pocket, Ali has good reason to see himself as a textbook ‘working-class boy done good'. His relaxed, friendly manner belies the drive to succeed that that has taken him to the heights of the profession at a relatively early age.

Nestling in the middle of one of Birmingham's more affluent suburbs, Sherwood Dental is very much a product of its creator's vision. Smart without being flashy, the whole practice shows traces of Ali's touch, right down to the Jack Vettriano paintings that adorn the walls in each surgery – paintings that used to hang in his house.

It wasn't always this way. When he took over six years ago, there was a lot of work to do to in order to bring the building in line with what he wanted, putting in a new roof and windows, signage, reception, and even a new parking area. NHS dentistry is a subject close to Ali's heart, but his game plan was always about being more than just an ‘average' NHS practice.

He explains: ‘It was a functioning practice, but I wanted to take it to the next level and offer a private experience within the confines of NHS dentistry. That was part of my vision.

‘I think a lot of NHS patients are drawn to a practice because they want the cost-effectiveness of NHS dentistry. They want bargain dentistry. But having said that, a lot of people have the financial resources to opt for private treatment.

‘If you have an environment that is luxurious and enjoyable for your staff and patients, people will be more receptive to picking up private alternatives if you offer them.'

Success in the NHS
The figures certainly seem to back up his approach. ‘People can see that we invest in our practice,' he says. ‘We have almost 500 new patients a month through personal recommendation, and that's largely due to the environment and the fantastic team we've got.'

So, despite a healthy income from private work, Sherwood is one of the largest NHS contract holders in Birmingham. It's also one of the largest practices overall, with close to 30,000 patients on the list. A good thing then, that its layout is so deceptive; every turn revealing another room squirreled away somewhere. The practice needs all of its five surgeries and one hygienist's surgery just to fit in all those patients. It's a business plan that works, and one from which Ali clearly doesn't plan to deviate any time soon. He says: ‘We might have a decent private side to the practice, but  ultimately I think it's very important that everyone has access to NHS dentistry.

‘We could probably turn wholly private relatively easily; we've got a large list, and we're blessed with some very good dentists who have stayed with us long-term, worked very hard and built up a great reputation. But I personally wouldn't feel comfortable with it.

‘I think, too, that a lot of private practices are now the ones that are suffering with the credit crunch, whereas we have a hard core of NHS contract money to fall back on – so even if all our private work falls off overnight, we can still employ our nurses and provide stability for staff and patients.'

Ali understands the roots of his business, and isn't afraid to say so: ‘Some places offer a boutique-style concept of dentistry. While that's fantastic if it's right for you, we're a traditional dental practice, and that's the image we want to portray.'

Small beginnings
While Sherwood – named due to its close proximity to the area's main thoroughfare, Robin Hood Island – may be a success story now, it wasn't always such plain sailing. The man who was voted Best Young Dentist in the Midlands in 2007 has come a long way from the two-bedroom terraced house he grew up in with four brothers and sisters. Never one to make things easy for himself, he graduated from Guy's in 1999 – six months after most others in his year, having failed his finals on the first attempt. Unfazed by the setback, he hit the ground running, working in four practices in quick succession before striking out on his own.

After his VT, he started his first job proper in Erdington, but that wasn't enough for him – or his bank account: ‘I was working at two other practices during evenings and weekends; putting in 18 hours a day… I had a lot of student debt to pay off!'

It wasn't long before he felt the urge to put his quickly amassed experience into practice, but soon found that the rest of the world didn't share the faith in his abilities. He says: ‘I couldn't afford to buy anything because banks wouldn't take me seriously without three years of trading accounts, and dental agents wouldn't take me seriously only being six months out of VT. So I found a shop that had been shut down and started there.'

The ‘shop' was an old dental practice that had been closed for several years. In dire need of renovation, it did at least benefit from being leasehold and having no goodwill to buy (even though the old dentist had left all his notes; all Saaqib needed to do was send out letters to the old patients).

One month, a lot of DIY, and £40,000 later, Goodall Dental Practice opened its doors to the Walsall public. Despite a shoestring budget (he couldn't afford to employ experienced nurses so the team consisted of three girls who were all under 18) and Ali's comparative inexperience, the new practice was a success.

But less than two years – and one divorce – after that, and Ali was ready to try his hand again.
He says: ‘I had been offered Eddie Crouch's practice in Hall Green. My wife didn't want to buy it, but after we split up, I contacted him again. Eddie was still in the process of selling it – four months down the line and the people who were supposed to be buying it from him hadn't even sent a surveyor round.'

Ali stepped in and offered to have a surveyor round within a week, and from there things moved quickly. Finalising the purchase – and in doing so giving Eddie Crouch the opportunity to concentrate on orthodontics and a spot of political campaigning – Ali became the owner of two practices at the tender age of 27.

Fresh challenges
‘Once I'd bought it, I found myself stretched between the two practices,' he says. ‘Because I was concentrating on trying to sell the Walsall practice, Sherwood started to nosedive.'

Ali found himself struggling to cope. He says: ‘I aged so much in that one year – I was working all day in Walsall, then I would drive down the M6, eating my tea. When I got to Sherwood, I would work until 11 at night, then drive back to Walsall in time for midnight. I was getting divorced at the time, too. It was a terrible time for me – really stressful.'

When the drawn-out sale of his Walsall practice fell through, landing him with £18,000 in legal fees, it was the final straw. ‘The landlord came in and told me to either sign a new lease or get out. So I shut it down – I picked up all the notes, walked into a friend's practice, and said: “Look after my patients for me.” There was something like three or four thousand patients on the list – it was worth £4,000 a month in capitation scheme payments alone.'

On the edge of bankruptcy, Ali rethought everything and started dedicating himself to Sherwood anew. Putting Walsall behind him, he started renting the house next door to the practice; cutting a three-hour commute down to 60 seconds. He jokes: ‘My nurses used to come and wake me up! Even aside from the environmental considerations, I hate commuting – my house now is as close to the practice as I can get.'

The path to recognition
Sherwood's success at the Dentistry Awards didn't come along overnight. He explains: ‘I had to borrow so heavily to buy the practice that I had to do the refurbishment all in stages – I didn't just go to the bank and ask for a lot of money, because it's ultimately very difficult to pay it back. Instead, I invested in things carefully, over the years.

‘I designed the reception counter myself and had shopfitters build it – which was a third of the price of using a dental supplier. Put the word “dental” in front of something and you can add a couple of zeroes onto the price!'

The chaotic ordering systems in place in the new practice saw him implement central stock control early on, but that wasn't the only shake-up Ali brought with him; he was forced to sack three people in the first month.

He soon found himself arguing with the practice's dental supplier over their prices too: ‘He claimed he couldn't offer me any better deals, and told me to take or leave it. So I left it – it's a saying I absolutely hate! We went with someone else who gave us a much better price, and a week later the old dealer was back offering to match it. I sent him packing.'

But, despite the difficulties in the early days, the practice is flying in 2009. And he must be doing something right; the practice has patients from literally all over the world. ‘Expats living in America, South Africa – even Australia – have ties with the area, so they come to see us when they're back here visiting. American dentistry is allegedly ahead of UK dentistry, but we still have people coming back here for their treatment, and I'm very touched by that.'

The quality of the dentistry on offer undoubtedly has a lot to do with that, but there's something to be said for the way in which Ali has positioned his practice within the local community, too. He eschews going overboard on national advertising in favour of appearing in local directories, and tries to play as active a role as possible in supporting local businesses. The practice even
sponsors the Hall Green women's Gaelic football team as a concession to the area's large Irish community (not to mention the practice's Irish associate!).

Looking forward
So, the question begs itself – where to next? It seems the future is Ali's oyster.
He has already dipped his toe into the public speaking circuit with a talk at the Young Dentists'
Conference in February. Titled Dentist or entrepreneur, it gave him the chance to preach his vision to the masses: ‘I think in the future you'll have three types of dentist. Associates working in practice, principals – who are entrepreneurs and make their money from running their business – and then those who work for the corporate bodies.' He admits it's something he'd like to do more of, but first there's the matter of expanding the business.

He plans to start offering more cosmetic procedures – things in the vein of implants and facial
rejuvenation – and has recruited people to deal with it. Crucially, he doesn't see this detracting from the NHS side of his practice: ‘I think there is a demand for these cosmetic procedures from all people, so it's nice to have the option to offer them.'

Of course, he still needs to fit in his passion for cars (specifically Mercedes; his pride and joy recently graced the cover of Mercedes Enthusiast magazine) and property development, alongside everything else. The only question mark really hangs over how he'll find time to get everything done. But when you consider that the man hasn't taken a holiday in more than 10 years, it's not worth betting against it.

 Posted on : Thu 19th - Mar - 2009


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