Molar Mavens

Drs. Edward Nawotka and Robert Boyd preach the value of an ounce of prevention at Champlain Dental Group Ltd.

by Portland Helmich

In business, as in marriage, successful partnerships are often made up of two dedicated individuals who not only share core values, but also possess qualities their partners lack. Dr. Edward Nawotka and Dr. Robert Boyd of Champlain Dental Group Ltd. in South Burlington are prime examples of such a complementary pair.

Their approach with patients often differs, but Drs. Robert Boyd (left) and Edward Nawotka almost always make the same diagnoses and suggest identical treatments at Champlain Dental Group Ltd. in South Burlington.

Nawotka, a Detroit native, is a 59-year-old retired Army Reserve colonel who is not afraid to speak his mind. He admits that his frankness can feel like abruptness to some. "I have a hard time with college kids because they don't take much responsibility, but I like elderly people. I guess because I'm becoming elderly myself," he laughs.

Jennifer Templeton, Champlain Dental's business manager, acknowledges that Nawotka attracts older patients. "He's great with the elderly," she says, "because they tend to appreciate straightforward communication." She and the office's five other staff members (two dental assistants, two hygienists, and a receptionist) also pass time-crunched patients Nawotka's way. "If there's a businessman with a busy schedule, he'll probably go to Dr. Nawotka," she adds.

Boyd agrees that his partner is quick to get to the point. "Ed doesn't mince words. In terms of dealing with his patients," he explains, "Ed tells the truth. I've never known him to be uncaring, though."

Caring is Boyd's specialty. When children or those with dental phobias enter the Dorset Street office, they are more than likely sent to the Maplewood, N.J., native. Having graduated from dental school 21 years after his partner, it might not be surprising that Boyd, 41, views his patients as chief participants in their treatment plans. "I tend to give my patients a lot of information because I want them to make informed decisions," he says.

Nawotka, on the other hand, has two more decades of experience under his belt and does not feel the need for lengthy explanations. "I'm a little quicker in my assessment. I pick and choose the information that's worthwhile for the patient. Robert will start with the history of dentistry back to the pharaohs," he quips, prompting Boyd to nod and chuckle.

"Ed takes the tunnel through the mountain, and I take the winding road around it, but we both get there," says the younger partner.

While their approaches differ, their training and philosophies are almost identical. Both graduated from dental school in Michigan -- Nawotka from the University of Detroit in '66 and Boyd from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in '87 -- and they say they almost always make the same diagnoses and suggest the same treatments. "We bounce things off each other all the time," remarks Boyd, "and it's rare that we differ on opinions."

Templeton offers, "They're both perfectionists. They're willing to do what's best for their patients, and they care a lot about each other."

Boyd also points out that he and Nawotka share similar religious beliefs. "We both have the same basis for our faith," he says. "Ed's a devout Catholic, and I'm a Pentecostal Christian. I think that helps up to deal with everyday problems. We try to be honest and take good care of our staff. That's what the Christian faith teaches you: to think of other people like you think of yourself."

Champlain Dental Group was called Dorset Dental Associates when it was owned by Drs. Jeffrey Druck and C. Thomas Gerner, who put the practice up for sale after Boyd joined in '87 and shortly before Nawotka joined in '89. Boyd and Nawotka put an offer together to buy it and Champlain Dental Group came into existence in April 1991. "We wanted the security of being our own bosses," says Nawotka.

At first, Boyd had some trepidation about becoming a business owner. "I'd never run a business before, but Ed had, and the fact that we were going to do it together was helpful. I knew at least that I wouldn't be making bad business decisions on my own," he jokes.

The son of a dentist, Boyd came to Vermont in October 1987 to interview at Dorset Dental Associates, after seeing the company's advertisement in the Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA). "I could have gone into practice with my father in New Jersey," he admits, "but I wanted to get out on my own and develop my own dental personality."

Nawotka's journey to Vermont was more circuitous. After spending five years as a military dentist in the U.S. Army, he was on the staff of Wayne County General Hospital in Detroit for 12 years. He says the city was becoming a more difficult place to live in the late '80s due, in part, to its shaky economy. Thus, Nawotka began looking into other possibilities. He interviewed for a position at the Vermont Public Health Department in 1985, but was not offered the job. At the time, however, he left his resume with the Vermont State Dental Society, the local arm of the American Dental Association. "A year later I got a call out of the blue from Vermont Dental Care asking me if I'd like to work in Vermont," he remembers. Unfortunately, the veteran dentist did not have a Vermont dental license; by the time he obtained one, the position was no longer available.

While Nawotka was taking the North East Regional Board exam to become eligible to apply for a Vermont dental license in May 1987, Boyd -- a stranger to him at the time -- was taking the same exam in the same room. They didn't meet until two years later.

Another year passed, and Nawotka received a second "out-of-the-blue" call from Dorset Dental Associates' broker, whom he had contacted earlier in response to a classified advertisement in JADA. "He asked me if I'd like a job in Vermont," says Nawotka, "and I sold my house and came here in June of '89."

Boyd and Nawotka refer to Champlain Dental as a general restorative dental practice because they restore teeth with fillings, crowns, and dentures. "We do a little bit of everything," says Boyd. They do not, however, do orthodontics or perform complicated root canals or wisdom teeth extractions.

"It's not cost-effective for us," explains Nawotka. "If I do a molar root canal, it could take 21/2 to three hours. Why should I do that when I can send the patient to my endodontist buddy who can do it in an hour and a half?"

Patient education is one of Champlain Dental's missions. Nawotka says the best service he and Boyd can give patients is to show them the value of having a healthy mouth. "If they don't recognize the value, they aren't going to take care of it," he remarks. "When I graduated dental school," he goes on to say, "90 percent of our work was reactive. Basically, we drilled, filled, and billed. Today, 60 percent of our work is proactive. We do more preventative dentistry." This means teaching and motivating patients to brush and floss "every surface of every tooth correctly every day."

Since dentistry is less reactive today, Boyd and Nawotka can concentrate on maintaining patients' dental foundations longer by addressing issues such as gum disease. "We do a fair amount of non-surgical periodontal work, which involves deep cleaning in between the teeth and gums," says the older owner. Moreover, both have noticed requests for cosmetic dentistry are on the rise. Some patients want to eliminate rough edges or spaces between teeth; others want to have them bleached. "Still, this isn't New York or Montreal," says Boyd, "so cosmetic dentistry remains a small part of our practice."

When Robert Paris came to Champlain Dental 21/2 years ago, his needs were cosmetic and medical. A customer service representative for KBA North America, Paris had not seen a dentist in almost 13 years due to negative memories of visiting his childhood dentist. Not only was he in pain as a result of an abscessed tooth, but he had missing teeth, and some were ground down to the nerve. Embarrassed by their appearance, he smiled without showing his teeth.

His experience at Champlain Dental alleviated his pain, eliminated his fear of dentistry, and improved his self-esteem. "With Dr. Nawotka's help, I have the smile I've always wanted," he says. He has learned how to floss properly, and he actually enjoys going to the dentist. "I have so much trust in Dr. Nawotka that I don't feel nervous anymore. I know this probably sounds corny," he divulges, "but I sometimes miss not going there. Sometimes I drop in just to say 'hi.'"

Business manager Jennifer Templeton (left), pictured with registered dental hygienist Samantha Randall, focuses on running the business. "I've made it my priority to take care of the business details so that they can do dentistry," Templeton says.

Gemma Berte has seen many dentists over the years, but believes Boyd is the best of them all. "He's built four permanent bridges for me," she says. "The first time I went in he explained exactly what he was going to do. That gave me a lot of reassurance. He welcomes questions, and he's very patient. He takes the time he needs and doesn't finish until he gets it just right."

Cindi Cousino, another of Boyd's patients, would agree. "Going to the dentist can be stressful, but it helps that he's calm," she adds.

While Boyd and Nawotka concentrate on dentistry, Templeton, who started as a dental assistant with Dorset Dental Associates in 1986, focuses on running the business. "I've made it my priority to take care of the business details so that they can do dentistry," she explains. Her responsibilities run the gamut from accounting to coordinating schedules.

"She's got her finger on the pulse of everything," says Nawotka, "so we delegate a lot to her. We don't micromanage, though."

Templeton appreciates their faith in her. "They're not the types that have to flex their boss muscles," she remarks.

Boyd and Nawotka say their greatest satisfaction comes from working with people, yet one of their challenges can be getting patients to understand the value of dentistry. "Some people don't understand that dentists are doctors," Nawotka stresses. Boyd feels that governmental regulations can be a challenge. Nawotka agrees, adding that 20 years ago dentists could throw extracted teeth in the trash. "Today it's considered biological waste," he says, "so it has to be packaged accordingly and picked up by the appropriate people."

Another industry concern is mercury-bound fillings. Nawotka and Boyd are satisfied with the American Dental Association's research, which concluded the mercury bound in dental fillings is not hazardous, but the vapor being released when mercury-bound fillings are being removed is undesirable. Champlain Dental is very nearly a mercury-free practice, less, however, because of the owners' concerns about mercury and more because of their preference for composite resin fillings, which are tooth-colored and bond more intimately to teeth.

Both also share concerns about insurance companies, which they say are not keeping pace with the cost of dentistry. "Thirty years ago," says Nawotka, "if someone had a $750 maximum benefit, they could get seven crowns for that amount. Today they might get 11/2."

Boyd chimes in with another concern, "There's a trend among dentists to try to minimize contact with insurance companies because it can almost get to the point where they're dictating treatment. They can become the doctor, in effect." Moreover, he says, many dentists do not want to wait for payment, preferring that patients pay upfront and be reimbursed by insurance companies later. This is not Champlain Dental's policy, however. "We have positive relationships with insurance companies," says Boyd, "and hopefully that will continue. At some point, though, we may have to reevaluate."

Champlain Dental Group's business has grown about 10 percent every year, prompting Nawotka and Boyd to feel the need for an associate. "We're basically looking for a part-time, Midwestern-trained dentist with a work ethic," explains Nawotka.

"Yes," Templeton injects, "we'd like another person so these guys don't have to work so hard."

After nine years as partners, it might be no surprise that Nawotka and Boyd have rubbed off on each other. "I came here with a big-city attitude," admits Nawotka, "and Robert's settled me down. I'm not as abrupt as I used to be."

Boyd has benefited from Nawotka's influence, as well. "I've learned to be more direct with patients and staff," he says, "which comes easily for Ed."

The reciprocal nature of their partnership likely extends to the relationships they have with many loyal patients. "If you take care of your clients," says Nawotka, "they're going to take care of you."

Portland Helmich is a free-lance writer who produces programming about wellness and spirituality for Oxygen Media Inc., a new women's cable television network in New York City.