With CEO of Diplomat Dental on global success

With CEO of Diplomat Dental on global success

24.October 2022
Written by
Diplomat Dental
Behind the global success of Diplomat Dental, a Slovak company that is the world's innovator in the high-end dental unit industry is mainly hard work and determination. Its current achievements are the continuation of an inspiring family story and, in particular, the belief that the key to sustainable success lies in own research and development above all. This is evidenced not only by thousands of satisfied dentists and patients around the world but also by the world's most prestigious awards they have won for their Model Pro smart dental units that can be easily controlled via a tablet app. We talked to the CEO of Diplomat Dental Tomáš Nerád about how a company from Slovakia that is known more abroad than at home succeeded in this and also about new digital trends in the demanding dental business.

In this interview, you’ll find out:

  • How to scale a family business to become a successful global company
  • What are the development, design and technology solutions for a 21st-century dental unit
  • What are the specifics of the company’s global business and supply chains
  • How is the corporate culture at Diplomat Dental and what are their plans and visions
  • How a successful group of top experts from Piešťany, Slovakia sees the future of dentistry

What position did you have in Austria and how were your beginnings in the company?
In Austria, I worked for an Austrian company that was building a factory in the town of Krupina, Slovakia. I assisted the project manager and was in charge of communication with the municipality and the construction team. Later on, I became the project manager and I had a new project on my desk. However, I was needed in Piešťany, so starting a new project in Austria was no longer an option for me. I immediately became a managing director at Diplomat Dental. They just threw me in at the deep end (laughter). You either swim or you drown. Fortunately, I managed to do the former. I worked together with my father for the first two years. Gradually, I was going deeper not only into the subject, research, production and sales, but also into the social relations within the company.

What are the specifics of a globally operating but still family-run and owned company?
I think that any company, regardless of whether it’s family-owned or not, aiming to be successful with the desire of taking its production to a higher level, has to have the drive to become global as soon as possible. The necessary scale for sustainable success in our industry cannot be achieved within a regionally limited space.

What role models did you look up to when starting as a senior manager of Diplomat Dental?
When I started, it was fresh out of the 2008 crisis and several issues needed to be addressed. So those early years were mostly spent putting out fires. At that time, it was just a patient journey from solving smaller problems to bigger ones. At the same time, the company was just going through a generational change. That’s probably one of the biggest challenges within a family business.

It wasn’t just at the level of the managing directors but of the entire management team. Within a few years, there was a change of generations that practically redefined the whole company. In retrospect, of course, I see differently what was done right and wrong, what succeeded and what failed, and what could have been done differently.

“The entire production is turn-key and done right here in our company, from the first production to the final assembly. We control, manage and implement the whole process here in Piešťany.“

What is your company’s production?
We have always exclusively specialized in the field of dental units. Within this segment, we cover the whole range from the simplest to the most sophisticated and high-end units. The entire production is turn-key and in-house, from the first production to the final assembly. We control, manage and implement the whole production process here in Piešťany, Slovakia. For a company of our size, i.e. up to two hundred employees, we cover a huge range of processes that must be precisely set up and robust enough to be able to perform well and react flexibly. I think that defines us as a company.

How were the first technical designs and how has been the evolution of your dental units?
Dental chairs used to be made in Piešťany before but not the entire units. It was a new product that had to be introduced. At that time, there was practically no independent development. My father started the business by selling already existing products with his brother. They were very successful in that and they were able to build up supply networks all over Europe. This cooperation ended up in the mid-1990s when the market conditions changed. The investment into a new dental unit has therefore evolved from the market situation. My father ran the risk and created his own product. Today’s development team had to be rebuilt first. Smart people joined in and pulled us forward with their ideas.

An excellent team was created in cooperation with people who were already working in Piešťany and knew the dental industry. This all combined resulted in our today’s production. Having a team that can carry out good projects is one of the most important and complex things that determine a company’s success or failure. It took us two to three years to get the team to where we are now. It has been a very difficult process due to the limited pool of relevant experts in Slovakia. In Germany, for example, it’s common even for smaller towns to be home to several companies doing their own product development and also universities involved in the development. I don’t perceive this to be of sufficient quality in Slovakia yet.

“Even our older product generations are still among those of very high quality in terms of design. Nevertheless, we decided that we would take it even further. As a result, our new dental units rank among the most globally praised now.“

The emphasis on design was present from the start, though, wasn’t it?
Even the first unit they designed and manufactured back then had a nice design. I think that was something that no one had ever seen on the market before. The demands are high. We are not satisfied with just anything. Today, I can see three generations of units that are extraordinary in design. Even the older generations of our products are still among those of very high quality in terms of design. Nevertheless, we decided we would take it even further. As a result, our new dental units rank among the most globally praised now.

How did the collaboration with a design company from the automotive sector come about?
Working with good designers is in our blood, so to speak, and honestly, we were also lucky. I came across the people from Werkemotion who designed our new Model Pro product line by seeing their profile and contacting them directly. I was intrigued by their work and the way they approach design. We met and gradually the cooperation became excellent. With them, we were able to create exactly the product that my team and I had in mind.

What role do comfort and ergonomics play in the design of dental units?
It has multiple levels. First of all, we have the historical experience and a track record of about twenty thousand sold units before the making of our latest models. We already know what customers want and how the patients feel. Doctors work a little differently in every country, so there is no single formula or one working style in this segment. Someone works alone, someone works with an assistant, so we have to take into account all the requirements that may arise globally. The next step we have taken to improve ergonomics is a collaboration with experts who have previously focused on the optimisation of car seats in particular.

We combined all this with our engineers and designers and the perfect mix was created. We then began to test the dental unit with different types of doctors and patients to select what works best. Doctors and especially dentists very often suffer from various chronic diseases as a consequence of repetitive and ergonomically inappropriate movements. Back, neck, arm or hand pain is common already at a very young age. In design and ergonomics, we also focus on this aspect. Unlike many other manufacturers, we do not only take the scientific recommendations of the European Society of Dental Ergonomics into account but also incorporate them into our products.

“Our Model Pro is the only dental unit in the world to win both the design ‘Oscar’ in the form of the Red Dot Design Award and the prestigious iF Design Award.“

How do you feel about the design awards your company has won? Anyone from the design industry knows that it puts you on the same stage as the most successful global designers.
The awards are something that of course warms our hearts and delights us a lot. In a way, it is an external confirmation that the work we’re trying to do has worked out. Our Model Pro is the only dental unit in the world to win both the Red Dot Design Award and the prestigious iF Design Award. Among our awards is also the Big See Product Design Award but we also appreciate the domestic National Design Award, especially since, paradoxically, far fewer people know us at home than abroad.

However, the everyday appreciation from our customers is just as valuable to us, which arises from real practical situations. To quote just one anecdote from our test line, we gave the customer a new upholstery to test, for which they asked back at the end of the testing period because patients were asking them where the comfortable padding went (laughter). In terms of direct feedback from dentists and their patients, this is the best recognition we can get.

As a company, how did you deal with the key production scaling phase during the expansion?
I think that with specific challenges some limits surface naturally. When your production is the size of fifty to two hundred units, it requires a certain type of organization. But when you move into the production of hundreds of units, it needs much more sophistication in production and production systems. Our long-term set-up is that the processes are so robust that there are no issues with supply chains.

Whether we produce five units a day or ten to twelve is purely a question of the number of people we employ. Technically and process-wise, we are prepared for larger numbers. Today, our average production is eight to nine units a day. If necessary, we simply increase it by increasing the number of people or adding a whole additional shift. However, the style of our work concerning our suppliers does not change in any fundamental way with any of this.

Speaking of supply chains, have you experienced any issues as a result of the pandemic or the war in Ukraine? Is it even possible to prepare for such things?
It is virtually impossible to properly prepare for these situations. The problems that car companies, which are billion-dollar corporations, are facing today with the lack of components or chips, it is clear that we face this type of problem as well. It requires a great deal of energy to be able to maintain production, even though we do not suffer from a lack of demand. We didn’t have to be shut down yet but the shortage of certain components is a daily struggle for a production company. It considerably complicates the planning process as well.

Things you knew you would normally buy within three weeks, today, you don’t know, if you’ll get them next year. Some suppliers are only willing to confirm supply dates as late as 2027 or even later. These are things that nobody was prepared for and it will certainly be a long-term situation. Instead of developing the next generation of control boards, we are redesigning the existing ones just because there is a shortage in the market of the most technologically advanced components.

“The goal is to keep our whole technology open enough to be developed further to respond
to new instruments or dental technologies.“

When did the idea of turning a conventional dentist’s unit into a smart one that can be controlled via a tablet arise?
That was about five years ago. We did it gradually alongside the development of our next-generation control system. I had a strong need and vision to get it onto independent platforms where apps are commonly downloaded around the world today. I see a great future in this. A lot of things can be continually added to it for the greater satisfaction of our customers and their clients. We launched the initial phase of implementation in less than two years in one small segment of our units. We actually launched them in the market, tested and tuned them so well and stable that we started deploying them across the board.

This has been a targeted process that has been running for almost five years across the entire company. The goal is to keep our whole technology open enough to be developed further to respond to new instruments or dental technologies. The team working on the development of our smart dental units is founded on close collaboration between our development department and our product managers. Our Diplomat Connect app, which is available on the largest application platforms, is again an example of another of our successful external collaborations that have resulted in an exceptionally well-tuned and user-friendly interface.

What makes the Model Pro line specific? How do you view its evolution for the future?
It’s a basic platform that we’ve created and today it is very easy to develop further as it’s an open system. It’s possible to add functionalities, add preventive maintenance processes that are common in other industries, but not yet in ours. A system like this is of great benefit to dental practices. The possibilities are virtually endless. But the primary goal is for dentists and their dental teams to get the job done faster, more efficiently, with less effort and less stress.

Nowadays, it is much easier for us to deploy new functionality or an upgrade across the board because they don’t require the physical presence of our technicians but can be done remotely. The flexibility this gives us is tremendous, and I’m personally very excited that we’re now going to develop it further.

Insider dentistry question: where do you see the future – in the lift or self-supporting units?
It is a matter of taste. Every product line has its benefits. It’s like when someone likes a sedan and somebody likes an SUV. It doesn’t mean something is better or worse. Those are two preferences according to what kind of work the particular doctor does, how they work with their assistant, where they need more space around the unit and so on. It is often about personal taste and cultural factors. Everyone is free to choose what is more appropriate for them. We generally work in a way that we try to give the doctors functionality above all, so they can fine-tune their practice exactly the way they need. There is always room for tailor-made requirements.

“We have a cutting-edge and award-winning technology product and we want to communicate our achievements and the quality we offer in the global competition in a more centralised way.“

How and on what criteria do you build your sales network?
Historically, we are strongest in Central and Eastern Europe. We have built on some of the bonds from the past. More recently, roughly in the last five to six years, we have managed to build a robust distribution network also in the Middle East and throughout Western Europe. We are now in the launch phase of the new Model Pro. That is a unit that is particularly suitable for Western Europe.

Eastern markets are now paralysed to a large extent. In terms of the sales system itself, we don’t sell directly but through distributors. They determine their market strategy very independently. We support them intensively through marketing. This is also an area that we are now focusing on more intensively. We have a cutting-edge and award-winning technology product and we want to communicate our achievements and the quality we offer in the global competition in a more centralised way.

Which professional events are key for you and your potential customers?
For us, the key event is the IDS Dental Congress in Cologne, Germany which takes place every two years. It’s a huge global event. Another key event for us is the annual AEEDC Dental Trade Show in Dubai. We are always present there as well. The smaller but highly professional congresses in the field of ergonomics are also important for us. These are special events in a closed circle of experts, of which our experts have been part for a long time.

“When setting up a production process, our people raise the bar by working with the best
in the business. I find this to be the most effective way of employee development.“

How do you view employee care and lifelong learning?
The most effective way of natural lifelong learning, which has worked well for us, is real collaborations on specific projects, for example, on the development of or re-organisation of production. In practice, it means that a top expert working for companies like Bosch or Siemens comes to our company and stays with us in Piešťany for half a year. The expert works with our local team of five to six people who work on a given project and that’s when the most effective transfer of know-how happens organically. People are learning and they don’t even realize it.

When setting up a production process, our people raise the bar by working with the best in the business. I find this to be the most effective way of employee development. Of course, as part of the generational change, we have had a lot of new people joining us from outside the company and bringing their know-how that has pushed us all forward. We have, especially in production, people who were apprenticed here and have worked here since the 1980s and they are still top leaders in their field and we wouldn’t trade them for the world.

And how do you educate yourself in terms of the management of the company?
These hands-on collaborations with top experts are also great lessons for me. The other thing is that you learn best when you are thrown in at the deep end. When you need to solve a problem, you have no choice and you grow very quickly as you are solving it. Another thing is that I try to consciously expand the ‘bubble’ that I live in. In Austria, where I have another company – a startup focused on the development and production of mobile cooling systems – the work dynamics are different. I work there with different types of people from whom I learn a lot. And when I need to completely ‘reset’, I go skiing (laughter). I clear my head and come up with many new things or improvements that I then try to put into practice.

Global companies usually have a strong bond with their headquarters, is it similar for you with Piešťany?
Quite a lot of the people who work within the company also come from Piesťany or somewhere nearby. The relationship with the city is naturally very strong there, as is my own. We also try to improve our space and its surroundings within the city. In cooperation with the local community, we support local basketball. We helped with the construction of the sports hall that today serves not only the local women’s basketball team of ‘Piešťany Gulls’ which, by the way, won Slovakia’s Women’s Basketball League for the very first time this season.

Are you in touch with your distributors in Ukraine?
Of course, we are in touch with them but only in a personal way, commercially the business there has naturally completely closed down. We had very good relations there. In Ukraine, we had our strongest distributor. We also had distribution companies in Russia. These were all long-standing relationships that have now been severed as a result of the Russian aggression against Ukraine and we do not currently know whether and how they will be restored.

“The main trend that is very present in dentistry today is the technology of 3D imaging. Our units are, of course, already fully prepared for this technology.“

In which direction will the digitalization trends in dentistry develop?
The style of work of dentists is changing a lot over time. Dentists today are much more collaborative and communicative with patients when it comes to technology. The main trend that is very present in dentistry today is three-dimensional imaging technology. This is a topic that is very much alive in our field today, and it is also a topic that is being discussed a lot. Our units are, of course, already fully prepared for this technology.

What are your plans for the future and what are you planning to launch next?
By the end of the year, we want to have upgraded our entire product portfolio. This year, we will be launching three to four new products. The innovation cycle that we have been going through for the last ten years has started so intensively with the Model Pro that it has naturally spilt over into other models too. We’ve done a lot of work and now we will be launching our new products from July to December this year. We are now very well set for the coming years and we can test products that we don’t have in our portfolio yet and that we would like to introduce. However, we will naturally try to expand what we do best, i.e., expanding and complementing our dental units with new elements and accessories. That is the way we will take it. In a few years, we and everyone else will see whether we have succeeded but are taking up this challenge, so keep your fingers crossed.

For more information on the latest line of the Model Pro high-end smart dental units, click here.

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