Heartland Dental's CFO on pandemic leadership, the advantage of failing forward

Heartland Dental CFO Travis Franklin has been with the Effingham, Ill.-based DSO for 18 years, overseeing several aspects during its journey to become one of the largest DSOs in the U.S. 

With the organization's goal of increasing its de novo practices and affiliations this year, Becker's spoke with Mr. Franklin on how he and his team are positioned to support the DSO's growth, his priorities during and coming out of the pandemic and the most important traits of a leader.

Note: Responses were lightly edited.

Question: What are your top challenges as a CFO?

Travis Franklin: We're very fortunate that we get to service the dental industry. The dental industry is large. People need to have their teeth cleaned, need fillings, crowns, dentures,  Invisalign, bridges, all of those things happen, and it's been a very stable industry. We probably support practices that represent about 2 percent of the whole market, but with being such a big industry, probably the biggest challenges that I face are where do you focus the company and where do you focus your time, effort and resources because there is so much opportunity in the space. So probably one of my biggest challenges on a monthly, quarterly, yearly basis is how do we focus on the right things? Not only for the business, but the right things to continue to build out additional services and things that we would do to support dentists and their teams. I think you're probably seeing that broadly in all of the servicing industry around healthcare. 

Q: What are Heartland Dental's goals for 2022 and how do you ensure you are prepared to achieve them?

TF: Last year we saw over 40 percent growth. This year's goals are around continuing to digest the growth from last year, and you have to continue to figure out ways to do more, whether it's attraction of dentists or even IT-related issues or accounting issues around supporting all of those practices. It's that next level. This year, we'll do over 100 new offices where we build them, and then we'll continue to do more affiliations. That 100 de novos is almost 100 percent growth from what we did in 2021. Outside of that, it's always going to be around also some additional themes, especially around supporting specialty dentists and then a focus on how we make sure the practices we support are world-class in attraction and retention of existing providers, as well as existing team members.

The way we do it is a little unique to other companies. We do a 'bottom up' business goal process where we ask: what are the top 10 to 15 opportunities for the business, as well as the things we really need to work on? We start that from the dentists we support and roll that all the way up in the organization.

So we have a good pulse on what people believe are the best opportunities or things that could really help our dentists and their team be better, and so then that rolls up to the overall top 10 company goals. This process takes about three months [starting in September], and we probably have five to six different meetings to continue to aggregate up the feedback from the ground up every year. We've been doing the same process for a long time, and I think that's how we really keep a pulse as to what's going on and what things are important to the dentists and the teams we support.

Then we will create specific strategies around what we need to do in the next 12 months, and then even more strategically, is there something we need to really think about or an additional service or something that we could add additional value [for] our customers? 

Q: How are you and your team positioned to tackle some of the top challenges facing the dental industry, such as supply chain disruptions and staffing shortages?

TF: When COVID hit, we created a strategy around safety first. So safety was our No. 1 goal. No. 2 was protecting the goodwill associated with our dentists and their teams. Because of that safety feature, we were very aggressive right out of the gate. We have really big relationships with suppliers that allow us to be able to get access to those things on behalf of our network. It's because of this size and the fact that we're the leader that allows us to have that advantage. We have over 100 people in our talent acquisition function. We didn't focus on financials and all those types of things. We focused on safety and people. Because we did that and because we made sure our providers were taken care of and paid through that period, what we found is coming out of COVID, our retention actually got substantially better. So we finished 2021, we have more providers in the offices than we had during that period of time. We also have more doctors, hygienists, dental assistants and more business assistants. So while there are perceived staffing shortages in the industry, the supported offices for Heartland aren't experiencing that because we have the teams, we have the technology, we have the know-how and ability to do them. 

We also focused on how you become just nice and kind, check in and have a nurturing and loving relationship with the people who you get to lead. We did go back to those things, and on every one of those calls, we just continued to remind our doctors that the No. 1 reason why people leave businesses is because of the leader and extreme leadership traits. So just continue to be kind, continue to check in with folks, back to basics, and just be a good human. Today, a Heartland-supported office is not experiencing as much of this change that's out there. As you're trying to attract talent, you have to do a good job of retaining, because your best recruiting is retention. 

Q: How have your priorities changed since the start of the pandemic? How do you expect it to change post-pandemic?

TF: I think in any crisis, one of the things I would say pre- and post-pandemic is to understand your mission, vision and core values because that is what guides you through whenever there's big big shocks to the system. The other lesson learned is we also need to be thinking about those scenarios. We've even taken additional steps to make sure that we keep inventories readily available to our providers so should something like this happen again, we're prepared. 

Q: What's one piece of advice you'd give to future finance leaders in dental?

TF: As you progress up in any organization, especially if you're a financial leader, you have to start with your basics, your ability to do your job, your commitment skills, but over time as you're moving up in organizations, you have to really think about your personality skills and your ability to foster relationships with others and work as a team and have an operating mindset. I can't stress that enough. As you grow in organizations, your commitment and your technical skills actually become less important. Those personality skills are what actually get you to become that future leader and open that opportunity for you. You also have to constantly build yourself. Great leaders build great businesses, so a focus on yourself is critical and making yourself a better person. Invest in leadership coaching, take advantage of feedback, incorporate that feedback, get better  — because those are some of the key ingredients to advancing your career quicker. If you can fail forward and continue to be better for yourself as well as your family [and] business, it feeds all those things. Those are key insights I would give anybody.

Copyright © 2022 Becker's Healthcare. All Rights Reserved. Privacy Policy. Cookie Policy. Linking and Reprinting Policy.

Featured Learning Opportunities

Featured Webinars

Featured Whitepapers

Featured Podcast