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Dr Vyla Ellis: A head for business

Her entrepreneurial spirit has seen dentist Dr Vyla Ellis buy not one, not two, but three dental practices in rural South Australia.

  7 minutes



When it comes to buying rural dental practices, you have to grab opportunities when they come along. Even if they’re not very convenient. So when Dr Vyla Ellis saw a dental practice had come up for sale in Bordertown, SA, she had to ignore the fact that she was already busy with running one practice and doing an MBA, and just jump at the chance.

“The dentist in Bordertown had just locked the door and walked away,” she explains. “He decided to retire in a very short period of time. I ended up calling him and asking him what his plans were, and he said he didn't have any. So we came to an arrangement that I would buy the building from him.”

Just to make it all a little more challenging, she also embarked on a full renovation of the new practice. “So it was hectic,” she adds.

Although she didn’t really have an image of herself as an entrepreneur, she had always been open to the idea of purchasing more than one practice. “I had in my head from the start that I would perhaps end up with three, and now I'm thinking that I might end up with a few more than that. They're all rural practices and when a rural practice comes up it tends to be that whoever purchases it keeps it long-term, and there are only one or two in each town. So when the opportunity arises you either take it or leave it, knowing that you may never get the opportunity in that town again.”

Yet it was being nominated for the InDaily 40 Under 40—a celebration of local entrepreneurs run by Adelaide’s independent news outlet—that helped her embrace her business acumen. “I only completed the entry for the awards because I admired the person who nominated me and she really wanted me to complete it. I wasn't interested in the awards at all because I didn't understand their value, but being part of it made me think, ‘Well, how do I deserve to be here?’

“That was what prompted the purchase of the third practice. Because I refocused on the business that I ran and what the next step was and how we were going to continue to be a state-of-the-art practice and what that meant.”

So earlier this year, when she got a phone call from one of her dental equipment suppliers saying there was an opportunity in Naracoorte, about an hour away, she jumped at the chance. “The local dentist in Naracoorte wanted to step away from his practice and so I drove down there two days later,” she recalls. “I had a look at the practice and bought that practice as well.”

Natural progression

Growing up in Bordertown, Dr Ellis’s mother dealt with severe dental anxiety. “So she made a point of trying to make going to the dentist fun for us,” she explains. So dentistry wasn’t a scary option when she arrived at university—although she admits it wasn’t until her third year of study that she realised she’d fallen into a career that was perfect for her.

“I was always quite artistic as a child,” she says. “I was always sitting around the house doing crafts. And the hands-on aspect of dentistry really appeals to me, combined with the science required. I also really enjoy having a job where I get to chat to a whole range of different people every day and learning about their lives.”

For her first job out of uni, she worked for a dentist who owned a practice in Rundle Mall in the centre of Adelaide’s CBD, and another at Keith, not far from her hometown. “I enjoyed working in Keith so much,” she says. “The team there were absolutely sensational. Their local hygienist had been there for 20 years and showed me the ropes. I really enjoyed the patients and the team. My favourite part of the week was the two days that I spent there. A year later my boss decided that it was time to sell that practice and wrote me a letter asking me if I'd like to buy it. So I bought it the second year out of uni.”

While some recent graduates may have found that experience intimidating, Dr Ellis saw nothing but positives. She was already the main dentist in the clinic “and the team environment was fabulous”, she says.

“When my boss announced that he had sold the practice to me, the face of the receptionist at the time just lit up and she jumped out of her chair and gave me a big hug. And I knew from that point that the team was onboard, and it would be fine. But, of course, there was a whole world of business that I didn't know anything about.”

She set about learning everything she could about everyone else’s job. When she didn’t have a patient, she would sit with the receptionist and ask about the filing system or with the dental assistant and ask about ordering consumables.

“That really helped because I already had a really good understanding of how the practice worked when I took it over. I had an excellent accountant who taught me the basics of bookkeeping. And I did my own bookkeeping initially which really helped in understanding where the money was coming in and going out. Then I started reading lots of articles online from dental publications about running a dental practice, and that progressed to listening to podcasts and last year I actually finished my MBA.”

There from the start

When it came to financing the practices, BOQ Specialist had always been her first choice.

“When the first practice came up, I didn't have any money,” she says. “I'd just come out of university. I'd bought a car to get to my job in Keith and I didn't have any savings whatsoever.

“So I called BOQ Specialist. They'd done a presentation at the university in my final year, and they just made everything work. They made everything possible. Nothing was too difficult. And every time I needed to purchase something new I went straight to BOQ Specialist, they made it simple for me and it was good to have all my finance at the same bank. They also financed my first home.”

The process of buying practices also became easier because of the systems Dr Ellis has developed over time.

“We have really good systems,” she says. “From the first practice that I bought, we started formalising our systems in an online document that we edit on a weekly basis, updating with new policies and procedures. That really helped in opening the second practice.

“By the time I got to the third practice, we had a formula. Also, the whole way along I've had a consistent team. The receptionist who was at the first practice when I first started working there is my practice manager.

"We’ve been through the process before and when we got to the third one it really wasn't intimidating for anyone on the team. Everyone just knew what to do. So the third one was a lot easier than the second, that's for sure.”

“Supporting Dr Ellis with the opportunity to buy her third practice has been a great experience” says Darren Tomlinson of BOQ Specialist. “Owning a regional practice comes with certain challenges, owning three even more so, and the success Dr Ellis has had to date is a testament to her sound business abilities”.  “Regional practices require a bit of specialisation in some ways, and the relationship with the patient base is critical,” he says.

“In Dr Ellis’s case, she had the opportunity to buy the practice and the property as well. Those opportunities don't come up that often. We helped her purchase the building through her self managed super fund (SMSF), which is a great investment tool for her long term, and something that we understand very well.

“The reason we can do this is because we're banking on the profession and the individual based on their history and their ability to manage the other businesses.

"It was really very easy for us to understand the transaction, and it made sense.” 



Thinking about starting or growing your dental practice? BOQ Specialist provides tailored dental finance solutions for setting up a practice.

Ready to take the next step? Contact us to find out how we can tailor a practice finance solution for you, or call us on 1300 160 160.

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