Dentist fills gap in market for time-poor staff

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Trips to the dentist can have a similar effect to opening a credit-card statement: cold sweats and a slow churn in the pit of the stomach. Thoughts of soulless waiting rooms and scary-looking drills add to the unease, but now a burgeoning London dental chain called Neem Tree is trying to change all that with a mission to kill off the fear factor. 

“Dentistry seems a necessity, but I don’t think it should be like that,” Neem Tree’s co-founder Smita Mehra says. “It should be a want-based industry. You come here because it’s desirable. The by-product is we get your teeth sorted and you get looked after.” 

Mehra, who works as a dentist but also gets nervous pangs as a patient, has just launched the latest incarnation of the brand in a small surgery near the Royal Courts of Justice in Fleet Street.

It’s the fourth site since the brand was founded in 2004, and the first since she teamed up with Zayba Sheikh. Sheikh is the daughter of Caretech co-founder Haroon Sheikh, and helps run the family’s investment group Sheikh Holdings, which invested in Neem Tree two years ago. Mehra met Sheikh, who is also a dentist, when she was looking to ramp up Neem Tree, which is the name of a tree whose branches were used as toothbrushes in ancient times.  

By a happy coincidence, Sheikh was looking at investment prospects for the family office when a colleague who worked at Neem Tree said she should meet Mehra. 

Sheikh says: “We look to invest in special brands and take what we’ve learned from CareTech and replicate the model. Growing smaller businesses to a larger scale. 

“I needed someone else’s experience and know-how of the dental side and that entrepreneurial flair and I was lucky enough to meet Smita. We can grow this business into something pretty substantial and special, something quality driven and patient focused.”

The new surgery is designed to attract time-poor City workers and opportunist passers-by with a mixture of speed and comfort. The duo plan to roll out 10 more Neem Tree sites over the next five years through franchises but putting patients at ease is top of the priority list.

“When we’re recruiting staff, I interview them as if I’m a patient and I ask myself: ‘how would I feel with you?’ It’s everything from the initial handshake to sitting down and talking with you. A lot of it is to do with feeling, because it’s such a personal experience,” Mehra said.  

Inside, the surgery looks like a health spa or high-end salon. Dark wood panelling and exposed light bulbs dot the reception, although the lead-lined x-ray and decontamination rooms in the back remind you why you’re here. 

Neem Tree was born in Wandsworth in 2004. At the time, it was not the only new kid on the block for Mehra, who was eight months pregnant when the surgery first opened. She worked up until the baby was born and took a month off before heading straight back to the dentist’s chair. 

“I was a little bit like a rabbit in the headlights. It was very tough. At the time we didn’t have the business acumen we have now. It was a bit crazy but I wouldn’t have it any other way because that was the start of where we are. If that didn’t happen, we wouldn’t be here,” she said. 

Supported by her accountant husband Arun, the company started to turn a corner about 18 months after opening. Most of their patients were professionals in their 30s and 40s, with a kid or two, and the long opening hours — some days from 7am until 9pm — sparked another idea. 

“One or two of these City workers were in the chair, and they said: ‘We work in Canary Wharf, I’d love to have something like this. In Canary Wharf, the practices only open 9-5 and they don’t offer the service you offer’. One thought led to another and before you know it, we opened a site in 2010,” says Mehra. 

The surgery opened at the bottom of Barclays’ tower in Churchill Place, offering appointments six days a week 8am-8pm. It ran on a strict timetable, in keeping with the suited and booted make-up of its patients.

“We were very much about punctuality. Offering flexible times, making sure the phone was picked up within three rings. You could not run a minute later because someone will have their boss from America waiting for them,” Mehra says. In 2013 the Canary Wharf surgery was sold to Bupa. Another, opened in the commuter-belt hub of Esher in 2006, is still operating. 

“My dream has always been to open something much bigger and not just have a dental practice but have something more special,” Sheikh says. Plenty to chew on, then.

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March 22, 2016 |
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