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Three Million Dollar Woman

Sharon Trahan, DMD, is not bionically engineered, nor has she been genetically enhanced by the infusion of artificial intelligence. She is simply a woman who has, amidst her own career and personal developments, acquired a keen business sense. This deft confluence of vocational achievement and business acumen has positioned her for unprecedented success and prosperity. In the paragraphs that follow, I have cited several of the key elements of business, and how she has applied them.

This article is focused on Dr. Trahan as a woman dentist and senior partner in a practice which she purchased and revitalized. From a personal perspective, she also became our primary contact during the development of the new physical plant; whereby I garnered the most visceral insight to her remarkable intuition. For those reasons, her partner, Donald Pierce, DDS, will receive less direct recognition for many of the accolades that follow. However, it should be acknowledged that theirs is a highly functional and interdependent professional partnership and Dr. Pierce is equally deserving of recognition for his synergistic and congruent role in the success of a practice that has emanated from their profound due diligence.

My association with Dr. Trahan began in March 2001, when my business associate, J. Michael Lloyd, and I were hired to design a facility for Dental Associates, a burgeoning family dental practice in Attleboro, Mass. In an effort to assess the needs of a practice, we provide a rudimentary checklist, which aids in establishing sizes and quantities of space, as well as the general short- and long-term goals of the practice. However, since many responses to that practice data survey read like an ad in a personal column, I have learned that attentive observation is the key to discerning the core objectives and the client’s commitment to bringing those aspirations to fruition. It was evident from the very beginning that Sharon Trahan was a woman who said what she meant and meant what she said. I can honestly say that she is one of the most focused businesspersons I have ever encountered, yet remains socially conscious and genuinely congenial.

Although I will cite many other more distinctive examples of her adroitness, I was most impressed with the more subtle endorsements that I observed. When she expressed her appreciation for her dedicated staff — as most do — it was brought to my attention that she actually made the effort to negotiate the lease of space in the basement of an adjacent multifamily home to afford her deserving staff a refuge from their respective office duties. The basement had been used as a staff lounge by founding dentist, Dr. Gerry Rosenthal, who owned the property at that time. When the house was sold to a private party subsequent to Dr. Rosenthal’s passing, Sharon tactfully facilitated an agreement to lease the space for continued occupancy as a staff lounge. 

What is particularly distinctive about that effort is that most of the same staff have remained with the practice and are now enjoying an abundant lounge replete with kitchen, private lavatory and changing area. This is, of course, a small factor in the overall appreciation that she fosters. But the message remains the same: A happy staff stays, and the staggering alternative induces the need to advertise for, train, and acclimate patients to new staff members, and is dauntingly costly and nonproductive. Although her efforts are profoundly sincere, this is business savvy at its best.

Interestingly, these expressions of appreciation would never surface without earned effort. Therefore, the opportunity for achievement must first be established. That can only be created by the discriminating delegation of responsibility which, in turn, can only be achieved with an absence of ego and an instinctual and unwavering trust. Sharon Trahan has effectively combined those characteristics with her exceptional ability to attract and select people who mirror her own dedication to the respective tasks at hand. Besides her discerning decision to single out Don Pierce as her partner in clinical practice, the most visible and notable example of her extension of her own manner is through her retention of Dr. Rosenthal’s former chairside assistant, Dale Koehler, and office administrator, Lynn Robinson.

Besides being extremely personable and charming, Dale is — as Sharon states — “the glue that keeps the clinical practice together.” Having been with the practice since 1984, she brings a wealth of knowledge about the evolution of the practice and has been instrumental in the effective assimilation of clinical innovations and new technologies, as well as the symbiotic and seamless integration of the growing clinical staff. In Sharon’s words, “I feel extremely fortunate to have her on my team and working without her would not feel right.”

Lynn, who joined the practice in 1992, is a diminutive dynamo who brings energy and vitality to the practice with an unmistakably sincere warmth and personality. However, she is also tactfully tenacious when the need arises. If there’s a job to do, she gets it done, with the authority that was imparted to her by Dr. Trahan. There’s no room for micromanagement. If that includes diplomatically but assertively righting an injustice, she gets the job done with authority. Essentially, she’s a mirror of Sharon Trahan’s discriminating and measured approach to effective people management.

So, for starters, Sharon has mastered a few of the most vital skills of business administration: She’s insightful, trusting, delegates well, and demonstrates appreciation for those in whom she has entrusted a responsibility. I speak firsthand by observation as well as through personal experience in my role as a design professional. Clearly, our best work has evolved in an environment of trust, with an open line of communication. Intrinsically Sharon knew this, made her goals understood, and allowed us the liberty to create what she envisioned. Besides understanding the precepts associated with the delegation of responsibility, she also knows that her time is better spent doing what she knows and loves — dentistry. Professional passion aside, she also recognizes the value of “chair time” in contrast to performing a non-revenue-producing task or intervening unnecessarily with responsibilities that she has assigned to others. Now, let me see — was her appellation “DMD” or “MBA”?

So, how did Sharon Trahan earn my esteem as businesswoman extraordinaire? Philosophically, most of us comprehend the tenets of good business and many of us apply them with some consistency. However, very few will hold to their convictions when the chips are down and the costs go up — particularly the latter.

If I may digress, I would like to share an experience that I had with a motivational speaker who offered a simple challenge: Place a $10 bill at the end of a 12-inch wide wooden plank that was supported on each end by 8-inch concrete blocks. The task was to simply walk across the plank, pick up the bill, and walk back. Not a single person balked at the challenge. The offer was then enhanced with a $1,000 bill. However, the plank was proposed to be suspended end-to-end between two buildings six stories above the ground. There were no takers. The element of risk increased exponentially, and abruptly leveled the playing field. Theoretically, Sharon Trahan approaches business with an unfettered focus on the goal. She’s not reckless, and is intellectually aware of the risks. However, metaphorically, “If the board was an adequate means of conveyance to retrieve the $10 bill, it will work as well to seize the larger prize.”

We can all perform those low-risk tasks under ideal circumstances, particularly with a predetermined outcome. However, it takes an unusual individual to maintain the same composure and unfaltering commitment when the equation is compromised by uncertainty, intensified by risk, or clouded by cost. These are the factors that separate the “talkers” from the “walkers.” Sharon Trahan is clearly a “walker.”

Case in point: When we began the planning process to transform a former single-family home into professional office space for the rapidly growing practice of Dental Associates, we familiarized ourselves with the needs and objectives of the proposed practice relocation. It became apparent that a portion of the cramped conditions in the existing space was self-imposed. Clearly, Dr. Trahan had purchased an aging practice in a physically encumbered, bi-level structure with limited parking and no room for growth. However, despite these conditions, she had hired cosmetic dentist, Don Pierce, DMD, while retaining Lynn Robinson in her position as administrator.

As a result, she and Don were each relegated to the use of one operative treatment room, and resilient Lynn was confined to a “closet,” which she shared with a multifunction phone, fax, scanner, copier, and printer. Some would question the rationale of these decisions. However, in my mind, any true businessperson would deem this to be insightful decision-making, and another prototypical trademark of a true entrepreneur. 

Certainly, Sharon could have generated a comfortable living working out of two rooms, hired a bookkeeper, and remained status quo. After all, one must consider that the new salaries impacted the revenue stream, as well as diminished her own chairside production. However, she had greater aspirations, not the least of which was to create a facility that projected a professional image that reflected the high level of dental treatment and the “whole patient” philosophy of her patients’ dental health. In brief, she accepted the challenge of a short-term compromise in an effort to achieve a long-term goal. This is a huge key to her personal success as well as that of the practice itself.

In any case, a property was selected for development, approximately one mile from the existing office. Our research determined that the site was abundantly sufficient to support the practice, as well as the required parking. We immediately began the design process. I won’t wax on in detail, but after two years of design revisions requested by a myopic group of local bureaucrats who repeatedly “raised the bar” following the review of each “appeasement” that was submitted, it was clearly time to walk away or engage in a potentially endless legal battle. Despite expending $12,000 on design fees and $4,000 on fees associated with the numerous public hearings, the decision was made to cut their losses and move on. Time and money had been spent and the clock was still ticking. Yet Sharon and Don never broke stride, and patiently and methodically spent the following months searching for another site that offered greater potential.

As the opportunity arose to develop a facility at the present location in Attleboro Falls (an affluent suburb of North Attleboro, Mass.), numerous gut-wrenching decisions had to be made, the greatest of which was the selection of the contractor to develop the site and construct the building. In short, there remained a $135,000 discrepancy between the low and high bidders. Again, Sharon’s business logic took over. She and Don opted for the higher fee simply for the reason that the contractor of choice had a proven track record of being on time, and had promised completion within nine months. The low bidder had proposed an eighteen-month period of development. Besides realizing a savings in interest from the lender, the hastened occupancy of the facility promised a greater potential to generate revenue. True to form, the projected increase in production and enhanced efficiency would prove to comfortably offset the cost differential.

So, if I had to select one factor that sets Sharon Trahan apart from her peers and colleagues, it is her innate ability to assess a challenge, discern its positive and negative values, and decisively and unwaveringly strategize its resolution. Perhaps Kenny Rogers had Dr. Trahan’s methodology in mind when he wrote the lyrics espousing the benefit of “knowing when to hold ’em and knowing went to fold ’em.” So, one year later — in a new, stand-alone building — with the help of a new associate and two part-time specialists, Attleboro Falls Family Dentistry turned a profit and Sharon earned her “wings” as a reluctant and unassuming business prophet.

True to form, it is noteworthy that Sharon’s sagacious business sense transcends general enterprise. As a staunch advocate for continuing education, Sharon recently sought training with Joseph Carrick, DDS, a noted dental specialist from Houston, Texas. When she reviewed the time, travel, and expense associated with attending his training session in Texas, she contacted Dr. Carrick and asked him to quote a fee to hold another session at her office in Attleboro Falls. She then weighed the costs and benefits, and engaged the specialist for a hands-on training session in her own office. Sometimes it pays to “bring the mountain to Mohammed” — another noted prophet.

The bulk of effort that Sharon puts forth is pointedly proactive, and that requires forethought and decisiveness. However, she wields as much power under circumstances in which she must be reactive. Above and beyond the hold ’em/fold-’em theory, there’s a point where one has to accept that there is a price to pay for everything — money, time, emotion, etc. It’s simply a matter of refusing to allow these “obstacles” to stand in the way of your success. Above all, Sharon has mastered the art of letting go.

If I may digress once more, I would like to share a story about a friend of mine — a self-made businessman — who, by his fortieth birthday, had earned a million dollars. As a dedicated family man, he proudly shared his achievement with his mother-in-law, who was an accomplished businesswoman herself. She lovingly told him: “You’re nothing until you owe a million dollars.” Although humored by the response, he felt a little deflated by her audacity and obvious disregard for his achievement. I ran into him a few years later, as he was constructing a new building to house his ever-growing business. He beamed as he told me that he finally pleased his mother-in-law — he now owed over two million dollars.

With sincere respect for Sharon Trahan’s business acuity, I would like to close with a quote (author unknown) that epitomizes her demeanor: “Work like you don’t need the money, love like you’ve never been hurt, and dance like you do when nobody’s watching” — all the way to the bank.

Garrett Ludwig founded Diversified Design Technologies Inc. in 1971. The company has specialized in the design and construction of private-practice, health-care facilities since 1975. During that time, he has designed more than 250,000 square feet of professional office space. He has a U.S. patent on his emergency services “crash cart” design. Ludwig has shared his experience in dental office design in numerous trade publications, and continues to lecture on the subject throughout the United States. He can be reached at (800) 622-5563 and garrett@designrx.biz. Visit his Web site at www.profitbydesign.us.