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20 November 2012

Featured Business: Smiles Dental

Posted By: AIB Business

General dentistry company Smiles has its roots firmly in the boom years, when tooth whitening was popular but expensive. When Smiles founder Emmet O’Neill realised there should be a less expensive tooth whitening option, he started his own clinic on Dublin’s South Anne Street in 2005. The company now has 17 clinics on the island of Ireland and a further 74 Clinics in the UK.

In 2011 Smiles reached a target of 150,000 customers through transparent pricing. This was introduced as a means of survival, following a loss of 40% of its customer base due to the 2010 changes to medical card benefits.

In August 2012 the company launched a new portal for patients to log into and check their own charts. Having a finance background – and knowledge of cashflow management and P&L – has benefited Emmet in growing the business. He also adds that having a strong network of experienced people to talk to, a supportive board and an excellent operational team are key to growth. O’Neill’s future plans for Smiles include getting further established in the UK, rolling out the new Smiles software there and to keep innovating.

Interview with Emmet O’Neill

What was the inspiration for setting up your business?

 Vanity. I wanted to get my teeth whitened and I realised it was quite expensive to get done and figured there had to be a better way and that’s how it started.


What have been the highlights to date?

In 2010 the company was nominated as part of the Entrepreneur of the Year programme with Ernst and Young. That was a highlight. Last year we treated 150,000 patients in Ireland – a pretty huge number, which we had targeted early on as a goal to achieve.

How did you initially fund your business?

I had a house I had bought and sold and made a few bob on. That was really my equity, if you like. Thereafter it’s been a mixture of debt and equity.


What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?

Flexibility. Knowing you can wake up, have an idea and implement it. Not everyone can say that.



Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?

Look at the likes of Leinster Rugby, Brian O’Driscoll, Katie Taylor – all these kinds of performers and athletes who stay at the highest possible level. Regardless of what your job is or what you do, if you look at people who are performing at peak level that’s a great thing to try and live up to or achieve.

Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?


The only thing that I try and do is spend time on the clinic floor with patients, talking to them. You actually need to speak with them directly and hear what they want. I really enjoy this aspect of the business.



What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?

 Probably when the government stopped the medical card payments in 2010. We faced effectively 40% of our business being turned off overnight. We knew that there were cuts coming, but we didn’t realise how severe it would be.


What part of running a business comes to you naturally?

 I enjoy being around people, definitely, and we’re in the people business – that’s what we do. Obviously, I did a finance degree, so I’ve a good understanding of finance, but there’s not one specific thing, I think, that is my USP [unique selling point]; I think you have to have a bit of everything in order to grow and innovate.


What has been the best reward in running your own business? W

hen you see a friend or someone you know who’s had some work done and they’re very happy and, in some cases, it’s a bit of a life changing result for them. That’s seriously powerful and that feels great. That kind of makes up for the general challenges you might have on a daily basis.



What was the main catalyst for growth?

 I think when the cuts happened in 2010, we took a decision: we can either be defensive here, or be aggressive and reduce our own prices. I think being quite aggressive in terms of price structure has worked well for us and has helped us grow.

How did you scale/grow your business?

 I think having a supportive board is very important. Having the right team operationally is key to growth; you cannot grow if you’re reliant on however many hours you’re willing to work in a week, you need to have multiples of people with the same level of buy-in and so we’ve been able to do that.

How do you get ideas to further your business?

 Reading everything and looking around and trying to apply things that don’t necessarily translate to your own market; looking for new ideas and so on.

What’s your vision for the future?

 To secure our place in the UK, get properly established over there and then rollout our own software and keep developing new ideas and grow the business over the next few years.



Do you have a mentor; do you find this has positively impacted on your success?

 I have no formal arrangement with anyone, but I’ve a lot of people that I can speak to who have more experience than I do – to bounce ideas off people and make sure they sound right. I’ve a really, really good network of people.

What’s the best business advice you’ve received?

 That there are no shortcuts and that ‘average is over’.

What would be your advice to businesses starting out? 

Just do it. Go for it. No rehearsals. Do it.

What, if anything, would you do differently?

 I’d say, be more focused. In the early stage focus on your core business.


Name: Emmet O’Neill, CEO of Smiles, a provider of general dentistry services in the UK and Ireland
Industry: Dental
Employees: 1,100 across Ireland and the UK
Since: 2005
Lifestage: Growing


Interviewed by: Web Content Partners

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