Industry Disrupter

Heartland Dental’s purchasing chief, Brandon Belford, has ignited a strong movement to cut costs in the dental supply industry

In 2016, a single request for bids from a small, rapidly growing firm that supports dental practices shook up the dental supply industry. The document requested bids for the largest contract that the industry had ever seen for a wide-array of commercial supplies and equipment. Representing several hundred dentist offices in the US, Heartland Dental was using its market clout from a growing stable of clients to secure better prices on dental office necessities.

“Suppliers were taken aback because this was something completely new,” says Brandon Belford, Heartland Dental’s vice president of procurement. “It put suppliers on notice that the dental industry needed to change.”

Indeed, Heartland Dental’s action echoed upheavals in other industries where major buyers leveraged their market heft to obtain better deals from suppliers, which in turn drove changes in the customer-supplier equation. The prior decade had seen such a phenomenon in the medical industry. It was now dental’s turn.

“Suppliers had to figure out how to be more efficient,” Belford says. Heartland Dental’s gambit paid off, resulting in competition among the industry’s two major suppliers. The result was long overdue.

Brandon Belford, VP of Procurement, Heartland Dental

Constant pressure for dental offices to operate more efficiently drives initiatives to cut costs without sacrificing quality of care. “Insurance companies are always looking for ways to compress margins on what dental practices are being reimbursed for,” Belford explains. “Anything we can save can be passed on to patients. Overall, the industry is stronger as a result.”

Heartland Dental is now the largest Dental Support Organization (DSO), and the largest U.S. commercial consumer of dental supplies, services, and equipment. As such, it is able to catalyze new developments in dental care. A recent example: the company ordered 1,000 intra-oral digital scanners, a new technology that improves the way crowns and bridges are measured and processed.

The machines take digital images of a patient’s tooth for fabricating implants. The digital process replaces a more cumbersome method in which the patient bites down on a gel-infused mouthpiece that creates a physical model. That model has to be mailed to the lab for production of the implant. When this process is performed by a digital scanner, the images can be transmitted instantly to the lab. This cuts out several days from the process, and produces more accurate results.

The old way results in about an 8 percent error rate, requiring a second visit for measuring; the new way cuts the error rate to two percent. Heartland Dental is accelerating adoption of this more efficient technology by offering it to its dentist clients at a reasonable price, and has created a team of dentists and dental assistants to advise and train dentists how to best use them.

With support and guidance from Heartland’s leadership, including Dr. Rick Workman (founder and chairman), Pat Bauer (CEO), and Mark Greenstein (EVP of strategy), Heartland has been instrumental in paving the way for such initiatives. Formerly a manager of supplier management and procurement at Boeing, Belford was attracted to Heartland Dental by a considerable professional challenge. At that point, Heartland Dental, on a sharp growth path, had not devoted much attention to refining purchasing tactics and processes. Belford had the opportunity to build a procurement department from the existing team which was providing tactical clinical operational support to Heartland’s supported practices. This would be a much different experience than working at Boeing, which had an entrenched, regimented purchasing operation.

One of the team’s first accomplishments was the institution of a “spend cube”—an analytical tool used to track spend and indicate where the procurement team should concentrate. “We first looked at the largest areas of spend, which told us where we should first focus,” he says. It was “a bit of an unconventional approach,” he adds, as this activity preceded the usual first step of putting operational systems in place for day-to-day activity. But, it made sense when they saw how much money could be saved by putting the largest categories of purchases out for bid.

The effort has enabled the company to acquire “brand name products at private label or generic prices,” Belford says. “By driving healthy competition, our team ensures Heartland is realizing our scale and receiving market-leading price, quality, and service,” he says.

Another critical initiative was, in strong partnership with Heartland’s legal team, implementation of a contract management system that tracks Heartland’s contracts including costs and expiration dates. This was essential for the company to monitor its various procurement deals and scale up purchasing operations as the company continued to grow quickly.

Over the past four years, Heartland’s Procurement team has added talent from a wide array of backgrounds, some with industry experience and some from other industries. Anneliese Werner joined Heartland in 2016 bringing strategic sourcing muscle; Angelina Davito, a project management professional, came from IT in a university setting; in addition to a CPA, former police officer, and clinically trained and experienced dental hygienists and assistants who provide industry expertise that is especially critical when assessing new products.

Belford’s move from the bureaucratic, slower-moving government contractor, Boeing, to a more freewheeling, less risk-averse culture was refreshing. “Mark Greenstein and really all of our leadership have helped me learn how to be more entrepreneurial,” he says. The formation of a partnership with the company’s main supplier, Patterson Dental, to train dental practice team members, proves the point. “Instead of a traditional vendor-customer relationship, it’s more of a true strategic partnership,” he says.
While Patterson works with Heartland’s supported dental office teams to save money by implementing more cost-effective purchasing practices, Heartland Dental will reinvest the savings in growing its business, Belford says. “That will translate into more business for Patterson.”

It’s a unique arrangement in the dental industry, and one that Belford is proud and excited to have been a part of launching. It’s just the kind of opportunity he envisioned when he signed on, and there will be plenty more of them, propelling more robust growth for Heartland Dental.

“3M congratulates Brandon on his successful career at Heartland Dental and wishes him continued success in his role. We’d like to thank Heartland for their strong partnership as we continue to work towards our mutual goal of helping to improve patients’ lives through promoting lifelong oral health.”—Shawn Gregg, 3M Oral Care, Director of Strategic Accounts and Channel

Vision, leadership and dedication are the driving force behind Heartland Dental’s digital transformation. With a fully digital workflow, including the combination of Align Technology’s Invisalign® clear aligners and the iTero Element® intraoral scanners, Heartland Dental is paving the way to a new future for orthodontists, dentists and patients.

National Dentex Labs congratulates Brandon Belford and Heartland Dental on this well-deserved recognition. We share in Heartland Dental’s commitment to quality dental care for patients all around the country, and we sincerely appreciate the opportunity to work with such a high-performing group of dental professionals.