Everyone is expendable, but that's OK

By Teresa Yang, DDS, DrBicuspid.com contributing writer

January 10, 2020 -- The first time I sold my practice, at the cusp of 40, one of the prospective buyers told me I would regret this decision. He was a little older than I was. I thought, "What does he know?" He wasn't a mother, drowning in the quicksand of guilt with every passing Saturday and evening that I worked.

Of course, the prospect was right. I should have just cut back my work schedule. My husband told me, and so did my quieter, more rational self. But I only knew how to approach life at two speeds: on or off. I did regret my decision.

Teresa Yang, DDS
Teresa Yang, DDS.

Giving scant thought to legacy, I sold my practice to the first person who made a credible offer. I was too young to care about the wisdom and impact of legacy. Fortunately, it worked out. Although the new doctor almost immediately fired my overpaid front desk employee, better known as Mimi with the "attitude," she turned out to be a good clinician and, eventually, a colleague.

I hated being at home. I fell asleep most afternoons watching "Robin Hood" or "The Lion King" with my preschooler. I volunteered to coach boys' soccer, knowing nothing about soccer and little about young boys. I ingratiated myself to the other moms, discussing ad nauseum whether pink or green was a prettier color for the open house decorations. I thought how lucky I am to be able to enjoy this, yet despised myself for being bored.

I discovered gardening, learning the importance of sun versus shade in the life of a happy plant. My husband said gardening must have reminded me of work. I was digging holes in the brown dirt and filling them with pretty things, pulling weeds out, and creating instant satisfaction upon seeing the roots.

Nine months later, I was back at work at a dental school.

But I missed practicing dentistry, including the messiness of patient interactions. Having agreed to a five-year noncompete clause and knowing that my young children precluded a commute beyond the geographic requirements, I waited patiently. On a September day, a week or so after 9/11, I started from scratch again. In the ensuing months, regret might have been one of the few visitors in the waiting room. It might also have touched my buyer, who, after all, had purchased a practice from someone too young to retire.

I spent the next several years establishing a practice, shedding the PPOs like outgrown clothing one by one in favor of a relationship-based practice model. I leased and built a new location, just blocks from my old one. It was like moving from the starter house to the dream home. I had a concrete idea of office design and how I wanted to practice dentistry. I continued to volunteer for soccer and being the treasurer, a necessary job that no one wanted. I stopped worrying about what other mothers were doing and figured out how to advance my children.

In the end, it wasn't the challenges of running a business that caused me to sell again. I wasn't bored doing my crown preps or treatment plans. Like an evolving virus, there's always more to learn and adapt to for the earnest general dentist. In truth, it was the decades of being in customer service. As much as I liked almost all the patients, I grew tired of being "on" all the time. I wanted to try the off mode.

This time, though, I was very particular about my successor. My financials were solid and there were many interested parties. I wanted to say, "There's no secret. Don't hire a plumber every time the toilet backs up. Buy a plunger and snake first. Don't let your office manager pay the bills and collect the money. Lift your head up from your class II composites once in a while. Learn about technology." Instead, I kept quiet.

I tried to pick someone the patients would like. It's impossible to know though. Like a blind date, it's easy to eliminate the guy with the dandruff or the one who doesn't at least offer to pay on the first date. It's much harder to predict if the handsome man might be too good-looking.

It's only after the accepted offer proceeds into escrow that you begin to know the buyer. At that juncture, there's so much momentum to consummate the transaction that it's almost like calling off the wedding once the invitations have gone out. The buyer has invested time and money. The broker, for obvious reasons, wants this deal to happen. Yet I had two aborted escrows and one broker change.

This time, I was old enough to understand legacy. I knew things weren't right. Yes, we're all vain. I wanted my patients to miss me and greet me with, "Oh, Dr. Young and New is nice, but he's not you." But I wanted more than that. I wanted my patients to say, "Thank you. We'll miss you, but you left us in good, capable hands."

The whole process took about a year. In that same time, we remodeled and sold a house. We sold an empty lot. We purchased a condo. At times, I longed to tell the staff. At times, it was hard to keep motivated. Yet, day follows night and night follows day. We persist.

My buyer was a man relocating from Chicago. He was experienced and respectful. He said he had been looking for a long time, too. He didn't start panting when he learned I referred out the molar endos, simple implant placements, or that I didn't do Invisalign. He had a wonderful equanimity about him. When issues arose, we discussed it reasonably and came to agreement. I liked this man.

The thing to remember is that we are all expendable. I first discovered this with my children. They need you and need you until, one day, I realized chillingly that they didn't. Possibly, probably, I cried a little. But then I remembered my relief as my son's separation anxiety turned into requests for sleepovers or when my daughter's confidence to travel alone in Southeast Asia. My role as a parent has always been to raise independent adults. It doesn't mean my children don't love me. It means I've done my job.

I never contacted the buyer to ask if he had questions. As with my children, I (usually) don't offer advice unless it's solicited. I know he's made some changes, like installing new software and a panoramic radiography system to enable placement of implants. A year later, my staff still works there. My front office manager says he's the male version of me, which is a compliment that I will accept.

I drove by the office the other day and the DS part of the DDS in the exterior overhead sign had been removed. On the front door is the logo of the new doctor, in bright red and blue. It's good, I think. It saves me the trouble of reminding him that one year has transpired, and he no longer has legal use of my name. Not that he needs it. I've done my job well, and he's doing just fine.

Best of all, this time, I have no regrets.

Teresa Yang, DDS, graduated with distinction from Stanford University and cum laude from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Dentistry. She started two practices from scratch -- and sold them both. She has also worked as a clinic group director and a fixed prosthodontics instructor at UCLA. Dr. Yang currently serves on the California Dental Association Foundation Board. She can be reached by email at yangter@gmail.com.

The comments and observations expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the opinions of DrBicuspid.com, nor should they be construed as an endorsement or admonishment of any particular idea, vendor, or organization.


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