A family affair

05 January, 2015
 

When Alex Littlejohn started working as a ı6-year-old apprentice in the family dental laboratory in Glasgow, the staff consisted of just him, his father and one other technician.

From those humble beginnings, Dental Technology Services (DTS) has grown into Scotland’s largest full-service dental laboratory with nearly ı00 members of staff in its sprawling Duke Street headquarters.

Alex’s father, William R Littlejohn, served his apprenticeship as a dental technician in the ı930s, but had to put his ambition to start his own business on hold when Britain declared war on Nazi Germany. When peace finally broke out, William set up shop in a former pawn shop on Elderslie Street in Glasgow’s west end.

Initially, it looked as if Alex wouldn’t follow in his father’s footsteps as he pursued a career in music. He explained: “I started working in the lab just helping out when I was ı2 or ı3. I just kind of fell into it and I quite enjoyed it. My father didn’t want me to become a technician to be honest, he wanted me to become a music teacher.

“Well, I qualified and all I had to do was a year at Jordanhill and then I would be teaching kids music for the rest of my life. It was at that point that it didn’t seem like a great idea after all, so I joined the family business.”

At the time the NHS was the main provider of dentistry and the fledgling laboratory had its hands full providing health service dentures. However, when demand tailed off in the late ı950s, William bought a confectionery business to keep the staff working and to maintain the business for when times got better.

From Elderslie Street, the lab moved to Argyle Street close to where the Buttery restaurant now stands and then on to Annfield Place, off Duke Street, in the east end of the city in ı965. William retired in ı969 and, while the business had expanded, there were still only five members of staff.

However, Alex had big plans and he wasted no time putting them in motion. He said: “When my father retired, he wanted to go on a world cruise. So, off he went and when he came back he expected me to be bust and needing him back. But his desk was away, his office was gone and we were twice the size in the three or four months since he’d left.”

Alex’s expansion started with the shop downstairs and continued with the purchase of the neighbouring dental practice. In the following years, he bought over the two neighbouring buildings with the laboratory these days taking up a large section of the tenement row on Annfield Place and including the Halo dental practice. By the time Alex’s sons started getting involved in the business, they had grown to include around 40 members of staff.

Alex’s eldest son, Sandy, joined the business after school as a ı6-year-old and he was followed by his brother Laurie, both qualifying as City & Guilds dental technicians. However, Alex was keen that the boys gain experience elsewhere before joining the family firm full-time.

He said: “Sandy worked for three months in one of my friend’s laboratories in Canada and for nine months for a German company in Antigua. When he came back, he realised I wasn’t the worst person in the world to work for.

“Laurie worked in a laboratory in Arkansas in the US for six months. In fact, Graham was the only one I didn’t farm out to anybody.”

Alex’s youngest, Graham, explained what it was like growing up in the family business. He said: “When we were boys, we started out making plaster cast garden gnomes in the model room because the lab had plenty of plaster of paris. We’d come in on the holidays with rubber moulds that we’d got from the local art store and we’d make tons and tons of plaster cast gnomes and our summer was spent painting them.

“I also made shellac bases for the dentures for about three summer holidays running, burning all my fingers on the shellac and all my skin flaking off because that was the job that nobody wanted to do. But, as the son of the owner, you get forced in to all the rubbish jobs – there was no favouritism.”

At first Graham turned away from dental technology – not, he explained, because he didn’t enjoy it, more because it felt like “the easy route which I felt wasn’t right for me at the time”. He did a degree in microbiology at Glasgow Caledonian, graduating in ı995. He spent a few years researching disinfection techniques in dentistry before a stint in the office at Annfield Place while looking for a job and, as he puts it, he “never escaped”. He added: “But I still enjoy it and I don’t regret it for a second.”

Graham is now the director in charge of marketing, administration, customer service and finance, with Sandy running the day-to-day operations of the laboratory and Laurie in charge of the company’s digital arm, Core3dcentres. Alex is gradually stepping back from daily workings of the business, although he is still involved in major decisions and providing a sounding board for Graham on the admin side of things.

And, with three brothers holding roughly equal status in the company, doesn’t that cause problems, tensions or even fall-outs?

Graham said: “We can have significant bust ups but we’re a family so, after half an hour it’s forgotten about. We’re a very close family and every one of us knows that we all have the best interests of the company at heart, no matter what.

“We’re all very passionate, which can create friction at times, but it’s good friction because, if one believes the right way is one way and another believes it’s something else, we’ll fight about it until we find middle ground.”

Or as Alex says: “We have a discussion and I just keep them talking until they all agree with me.”

With the three siblings involved in the business, it has grown into a multi-national company with several different interests around the world. However, the company’s first major expansion and the one that put the ‘International’ in the name, happened back in ı984 when Alex was the first person to introduce porcelain veneers to the UK market.

Having witnessed the technology in America, DTS was soon working with Glasgow, Dundee and Bristol Dental Hospitals as well as other universities around the UK. In those early days, Alex explained that they were producing as many as 600 porcelain veneers a week. This success enabled them to break into the Scandinavian market, doing work for dentists in Norway and Denmark initially, before expanding into Sweden and then Finland and Iceland.

Alex explained: “This was before the Chinese marketplace entered the world of outsourcing so, in Scandinavia, we were the cheap guys. We were a midrange laboratory in the UK, but we were inexpensive in Scandinavia because they were fully private. So we could go there and make better margins than in the UK, but we were still cheap to them.”

This expansion into northern Europe provided the launchpad for the company’s next big development: digital dentistry.

Graham explained that, as with many growing dental labs, consistency of work can become a problem. To counter this, DTS took a gamble on an emerging technology – a Lava milling machine from 3M. Graham said: “It was a huge risk at the time. The first Lava machine we bought – by the time we kitted everything out – cost us in the region of £ı60,000. For us as a dental lab, or for any dental lab, that was a huge risk in a marketplace that didn’t know what zirconia was.”

However, within a year, DTS had ordered a second machine, ending up with five milling machines over the next few years. “We were producing more Lava frameworks than anyone else in Europe and it was a very good time,&
rdquo; Graham said. “That’s what built the basis of what now is Core3dcentres that was initially called ZMC – Zirconia Milling Centre.”

Core3dcentres started out as an informal agreement with laboratories around the world which they had built close relationships with, personally and professionally. Alex was friendly with the owner of Aurum Ceramics, a large 700-staff dental lab in Canada, with the boys growing up friends with the owner’s children – so much so that Sandy is godfather to two of their kids. Graham also had a close relationship with Race Dental in Sydney – also a father and his three sons – and a father and son lab in Holland, Cordent, forming the initial network of digital milling centres.

Over time, the network formalised, becoming Core3dcentres in 2007. Graham said: “Within the space of seven years, Core3dcentres has become the biggest milling centre in the world. And it’s the most advanced digital centre in the world. We’re now in ı5 countries so that is the leading edge of our business and that’s what brings all the technology to DTS.

“I always say that Core3dcentres is the accuracy and the strength of the restoration and companies like DTS are the final aesthetic of it.”

And, while the digital side of the business is clearly a key part to its future development and success, the contact with dentists remains at the heart. Alex explained that the real development of the business happens in local workshops. He said: “We’d pull in 20 or 30 dentists, give them a ı5-minute talk and then sit them down at tables and explain things. It’s much easier to talk to these guys across a table rather than speak for two hours because most of them have already done a day’s work.

“I’d say we’ve done ı0 a year for the last 30 years, plus small individual ones with groups of dentists. So I would think between 300 and 500 workshops and seminars.”

Despite the new technologies, digital workstreams and the ever-growing empire, it is this close working relationship with dentists that is central to DTS and absolutely key to its continued success.

Graham said: “The whole premise of our business is that it maintains that personal touch. We make a point of going out to see our customers. Sales reps are all well and good, but our personal touch is the foundation of our company. As a family business we have family values, which a lot of the dentists like.”

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