Center Stage – DSO Influencer, Steve Bilt

For the past eight years, Group Dentistry Now has been committed to the success of emerging dental groups & DSOs and the people who work for them. 

In January 2019, we began recognizing DSO influencers with our annual ‘DSO Influencers to Watch’ list. Since then, we have pivoted from an annual list to a regular featured article, Center Stage, which highlights an individual DSO influencer. 

Who is a DSO influencer? Someone who impacts and influences not just their dental group, but the DSO industry at large. With well-honed leadership skills, they inspire positivity, exhibit vision, and display entrepreneurial energy. Outside-the-box thinkers, they have extraordinary business acumen and philanthropic interest.  

Steven C. Bilt is the co-founder and CEO of Smile Brands, Inc., a leading Dental Support Organization with nearly 700 affiliated dental offices across 30 states. He co-founded the company in 1998 with just 11 locations and charted the organization’s rapid growth through a combination of acquisitions and de novo practice openings. Steve also serves as Chairman of the Smiles for Everyone Foundation, which has delivered over $30 million in donated dentistry across seven countries since 2011. He is the chief architect of the company’s award-winning culture and has been recognized as a Glassdoor Top CEO multiple times and was named Best CEO and Best CEO for Diversity by Comparbly. He has also received many honors for his philanthropy, including; the 2022 Real Leaders Impact Award, 2020 Pepperdine University Graziadio Business School Notable Alumni Award, and 2019 Association for Corporate Growth Founders Award. Steve also serves on the boards of THINK Together and the Young Presidents Organization and is a founding member of the Association of Dental Support Organizations.

GDN: What is your background? How did you get into the dental space and what did you do before you entered it? What prompted you to enter the dental support market – which was new at that time?

SB: I began my career in finance & accounting. I spent the first five years of my career at Ernst & Young leaving to become lead finance for one of my clients in the rehabilitation services sector. Then, after that organization was acquired by the second largest dialysis company in the U.S., I became their VP of Finance.  That company was publicly traded and diversified into many different healthcare businesses. After it was successfully sold, I had the opportunity to investigate a variety of sectors across the healthcare landscape. The dental space was particularly appealing to me based on two factors: 1) Payor Dynamics–patients chose their own provider and the felt qualified to select based on their perception of quality, value, and convenience and 2) Under penetration–less than half of the U.S. population went to the dentist in any given year. Those two factors added up to an opportunity to offer a revision to the traditional business models.

GDN: Smile Brands has had a lot of female executives for years and is always winning diversity awards. Can you speak to this?

SB: We have been blessed with a lot of talented people who’ve made it easy to support their dreams and watch them fly. We have always worked to support a respectful culture where we help one another succeed and rise as one. In more recent years, we have worked to sustain an open dialogue around issues relating to diversity and inclusion and have introduced a platform that we call Safe.Smile.Space.™ to help codify our mutual expectations in this area.  We continue to work of late on improving our sourcing channels to be sure that we are exposed to a wide variety of candidates as positions become available.

GDN: Who are some leaders that you look up to (past or present) and why? What book has provided you the most inspiration?

SB: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for consistent and compassionate messaging in the face of such incredible adversity; John F. Kennedy for his ability to shape a message and create a shared vision. Both men encapsulate for me the characteristics of leadership I value most; vision, courage, and the ability to inspire change.

A New Brand World by Scott Bedbury and Stephen Fenichell is one of my favorite books for its push to simplify, without leaving anything behind, what one ultimately hopes to accomplish with their business. Great brands are about who we are, and I’ve always attempted to make that my mantra at Smile Brands. I’m also a big fan of The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge, and its vision of learning organizations. The history of the DSO space continues to be written, but one truth reigns supreme – evolve or get out of the way. When we get all Team members to embrace learning and change, great things follow.

GDN: What advice would you give a new dentist? A newly formed emerging DSO?

SB: My best advice for a new dentist is to commit to both expanding your skill set to all four corners of your license and to regularly check-in with the reasons you became a doctor in the first place. Write them down now and visit the list every week to be sure you are getting those experiences and connecting with them.  I’d give the same advice to a newly-formed emerging DSO. Why did you want to become a DSO? What makes you special? Are you realizing your vision or are you executing someone else’s playbook because you think you are supposed to? The groups that have grown large are very, very different from one another. If you look at the four largest, the businesses are more different than alike. Hopefully, that helps smaller groups to know that they can do it their way if they stay true to their vision and continue to evolve and reshape it every day to make it even better.

GDN: What do you think the next five years looks like for the DSO industry considering consolidation has been so active lately?

SB: The sector is still largely solo practices but consolidating. There are many years of that consolidation left to go and even then, independent practices will have an important place in the care continuum. At the same time, scale advantages have increased in recent years and owners are becoming savvier about their expectations from affiliating with a DSO. Whereas in the early days it was all about business transitions, today owners are seeking DSO affiliation to simplify and grow their operations and so they’re looking for partners with proven business support expertise and broader purpose. At the same time, capital sources have grown larger, and there are a significant number of small and mid-sized DSOs (one list says 4,000 DSOs), so that will simultaneously lead to consolidation of the groups. It won’t be just one trend but several.

GDN: Any personal info that you’d like to include? 

SB: Sorry out of time, just got a new lab puppy who wants to play!

Previous DSO Influencers:

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