One of the biggest decisions in your life is retiring. While it may be tempting to sell out and move to the country, it’s not always that simple. Many dentists prefer to disengage slowly from their practice instead of quitting cold turkey. This gives them a chance to become accustomed to the retirement lifestyle while an associate dentist can take on more responsibility as they work towards a complete takeover. Dropping from full-time employment to just a few days a week can certainly makes the process less stressful for all concerned.

While it sounds simple, there are complications. Is it time to bring in a partner who will eventually take over the whole practice? Is it easier to sell the practice to a corporation? Can the retiring dentist still work for a set number of days once the practice is sold?

Dr Paul Nichols, a 63-year-old dentist, sold his solo practice, CBD Dental Care in Sydney’s CBD, to Dental Corporation (DC) six years ago with a five-year contract to manage the practice then retire. Last year, he had the opportunity to “walk away”, and leave the surgery to Dental Corp. Instead, he merged his practice with another DC practice, Sydney Dental Surgeons, in the same building, and now works just one or two days a week as an associate.

“The merger was a wonderful move for both dentist and patients, as the four dentists all have special interests and skills—from implants to surgery and cosmetics—so most patients can be managed in-house,” explains Dr Nichols. Also, the practice’s two hygienists have relieved Dr Nichols of the “onerous oral hygiene duties”, freeing up his time to enable semi-retirement and to focus on his interest in dento-legal reporting.

Semi-retirement and empty-nester status has prompted a huge sea change for Dr Nichols and his wife, Kerryanne. They have moved from a six-bed home to a two-bed semi on the beachfront in Manly. This enables the dentist to focus on his other interests, surf-ski training and racing (he is a member of the Surf Club at Palm Beach), as well as travel to see their grandchildren (one in Brisbane and one in Singapore). It’s also an easy walk to his second haunt—the Manly Golf Club.

Under the Dental Corp banner, Dr Nichols is enjoying his transition to retirement, although many solo dentists prefer to keep their total independence. Dr Nichols argues that there was no loss of independence for him as DC are hands-off managers—”the dentist makes the decisions, Dental Corporation provide the support to implement”, he explains.

Meanwhile, Dr Tim Johnston, an independent dentist who runs iKids Specialist Paediatric Dentistry in North Fremantle, Western Australia, decided to open his own practice in July 2013 after working in partnership with a local dentist for 19 years. “When my partner retired, I saw it as an opportunity to run the practice my way,” explains the paediatric dentist, who turns 50 this year. “I knew this would be my practice until I retire.”

Now that the practice is going gangbusters, Dr Johnston hasn’t had a chance to cut back on work. “Certainly, I have colleagues who have retired at my age but I’m working harder than ever. I may have to put on another dentist to handle the work load.”

Despite the pressure, Dr Johnston enjoys the challenge and finds satisfaction running the business and utilising his specialist skills. “I tried to cut back for about 18 months, having every Friday off, but I sometimes felt—not depressed—but a bit useless. I thought I should be at work because I’m just sitting around doing nothing. Now that I’m working a full week again, I feel better and Fridays are my busiest day—though I’m stuffed at the end of the week!”

While retirement is still some years in the future for Dr Johnston, he’s made sure his finances are in order for when that day comes. “I would love to cut back tomorrow but I now have quite a large bank mortgage to service. I purchased a commercial building that can house a three-chair surgery—and I have built it so I can put in a fourth—and then fitted it out from scratch. That’s some serious money. I should hope that in 10 years’ time, the mortgage will be down and I can consider not working as hard.”

Problems can easily arise as the retiring principal dentist begins to work less days while handing more responsibility to an up-and-coming associate. That’s why Dental Corporation has simplified these issues for their associates. Their two-day Associate Development Program, run in conjunction with Prime Practice, helps associates gain the skills they need to step into the role of practice principal.

“Clearly there’s an identifiable need to help those associates improve in all areas outside of clinical,” says Gordon Towell, DC’s strategy and development director. “When the practice principal moves on, associate dentists need to be capable of taking over. They should be able to continue to run the practice and manage that practice effectively. It works extremely well when the principal dentist reduces hours and the associate begins to take over.”

As the average age of dentists continues to creep upwards, a lot of baby boomer dentists will be retiring over the next decade. “We need to ensure that we have high-calibre associates that can step up to the plate,” says Towell.

Dr Abraham Thavamani, who’s been an associate dentist at Sanctuary Dental in New Zealand for the past six years, joined the Associate Development Program last year. “It helps me to understand the details of the business side of things so I can actually offer more to the practice,” he says. At the age of 32, he’s already confident at dealing with administration and finance, as well as clinical work. “Having a personal coach really made a difference,” he explains. “I’m well equipped if a principal is ready to retire—and I’m more productive with better planning skills.”

Dr David Norcross, practice principal at Kelmscott Dental in Western Australia, had a baptism of fire when taking over the practice a year ago. “The business of running a practice is hugely different to practising dentistry,” he admits. Since the practice is under the DC banner, he had plenty of help when dealing with payroll and HR issues.

With two associates on board now, Dr Norcross is embracing the DC model. “The idea is to bring in more associates as you build the practice, allowing more time for continued education and to spend more time doing the aspects of dentistry I have a passion for, such as cosmetic and implant dentistry.”

The transition to retirement is undoubtedly a complex issue. It takes time and commitment to make it happen smoothly—for both the about-to-retire dentist and an associate about to take over. As Towell points out, “Some dentists want to leave and retire while others want to spend a couple of days a week still working. Either way, preparation and more preparation is the only thing that is going to make it work.”