Taking a risk granted Dr Neil Sikka a huge reward – Versha Miyanger speaks to the dentist about how his tactical, commercial and business skills paid off
Dr Neil Sikka comes from a long line of doctors and surgeons. He was one of the first dentists in the family. ‘My father came over to the UK from India. Having a medical background in an Asian family – there is always a pressure. He was an eye surgeon and my mother was a GP – I just didn’t fancy the medical field,’ he recalls. ‘I really enjoyed working with my hands. I played the violin and the piano and I loved woodwork at school. Dentistry leads to a more practical vocation and I felt that would suit me better,’ he says.
After qualifying from Leeds University, Neil felt there was a lot of opportunity in London. ‘I wanted to try something new and have a fresh start,’ he explains. ‘My first job was in an NHS practice in the East End of London, Bethnal Green. I worked in a tiny room where there was barely room to breathe! To be honest, I wanted to provide good quality dentistry and it’s tough in the NHS. I wanted to the best I could for the patient. In those days, the landscape for dentistry was very different. NHS practices dominated the UK and private practices were predominately in the west end of London with a few dotted around the regions. I also realised that to set up a dental practice it would take in the region of 20 years to build a list of patients. In my eyes, I thought private dentistry was quite elitist. My belief was that quality private dentistry should be accessible to everybody.’
With Neil’s trait of being slightly impatient and incredibly ambitious, in 1990, he walked out of his surgery and saw the tower at Canary Wharf being built. It was at that moment that Neil had his lightbulb moment. ‘I had an idea – instead of spending 20 years building a practice, I approached the Canary Wharf group and suggested I set up a practice in their grounds. I wanted to contact all the companies in Canary Wharf and persuade them to send all their employees to me. My aim was to make visiting the dentist a seamless part of the working day.
‘When I talked to them, they asked how old I was and how much experience I had. It was when I answered 25 and none, they said ‘we don’t think you’re quite ready for this yet.’ Undeterred, the young Neil didn’t give up. It was this determination that was the making of his career.
‘I still had my vision and was determined to pursue it. Employees would be seen on time and back at their desks in less than an hour. If anyone had a dental emergency, they would know that we would move appointments to accommodate them. I felt I could build a business out of my idea, so I persevered and eventually I found that Canary Wharf were building a medical centre and they were planning a dental area within a multi-disciplinary unit. I discovered that they were approaching a medical company to set it up so I got in touch with them. There were based in the Barbican and they suggested I join them. So I set up with a partner, who I bought out a few years later.’
Non-elitist private care
Neil set about approaching companies in the Barbican area and got them to send their employees to the practice. ‘I realised that there was more that I could do for companies so I created a corporate dental plan whereby companies would pay on behalf of their employees an agreed monthly fee. For £10 a month, they would be entitled to a menu of services including preventative and minor restorative treatment .’ Neil’s idea was that his business would receive a payment every month and the company would provide the practice with a list of members. ‘They would come in, have their treatment and there wouldn’t be anything else to pay,’ explains Neil. ‘If there was anything additional to that for more advanced treatment, they would pay us direct. There was no onus on the company apart from the monthly payment,’ he adds.
‘The whole concept proved to be very attractive to corporates. It was set at a level that was accessible to everyone in the company from the CEO to the cleaner. I liked the idea of a non-elitist concept with treatment being accessible to all employees . As the model grew I set up in Canary Wharf and over 20 years opened ten practices in London. These included practices in buildings of large firms – law firms, investment banks and accountancy firms. .’
It was deemed so successful that the business was acquired by Bupa in 2014. ‘It was very attractive to Bupa because it linked a product to provision. You would sell the product into the company and deliver the provision on the back of it,’ explains Neil.
And Neil still has a link with Bupa, despite selling his business to them. He is employed by them as a relationship director/consultant two days a week. ‘I help to streamline the journey for the customer and to design dental insurance products that are fit for companies and their employees. I help to ensure the customer journey is smooth from the minute they sign on to the minute their treatment ends. I also help with corporate sales at Bupa,’ he says.
‘I think that a business that stands still is a business that goes backwards. I felt like I had grown it as much as I could. Bupa have been brilliant partners. They put patient care first before profitability which is very admirable in this day and age,’ adds Neil.
Variety of work
In addition to this, Neil practices dentistry on Mondays in Moorgate. ‘I look after a thousand patients one day a week, which keeps me extremely busy. I see very few new patients as I have so many existing ones. My week has real variety and I love it. I am also a mentor for the Prince’s Trust and I’m involved with many community projects.’ In addition, Neil runs seminars and invests in principals who run their own practices.
‘My belief is that there are a lot of principals out there that are increasingly struggling to run their practices as businesses with all the regulations imposed upon them. It doesn’t matter if you have one employee or a hundred – the HR rules are still the same. There’s a lot of pressure. I run seminars to try and help principals to understand what they are trying to achieve and how to get there. It’s a holistic approach and it aims to empower principals to be better at what they are doing.’
Charity is a huge part of Neil’s life, in particular the Lifeline Express. It is essentially a train that travels all around India and parks up around four to six weeks at local railway stations. ‘It provides medical care to the public and it is all free to the community,’ explains Neil. ‘They call it the ‘Magic Train’ as it provides free ear and eye surgery, orthopaedic surgery and operations on cleft lips and palates, all on the train. I thought it was a wonderful concept so I wrote to them and suggested a dental carriage. Initially they didn’t believe there would be the need for a dental unit.
‘However, six months later they contacted me again. They had run some mobile dental camps and realised that there was a massive need . I sponsored the dental carriage and travelled to Jabalpur, India for the inauguration and to run the first clinics. Now dentists all over the world who want to work on it can do so for a few weeks. We sometimes liaise with hospital dentists near where the train in stationed.’ With communities involved, the Lifeline Express has treated over 100,000 dental patients. ‘It’s really well run and they make good use of funds. Railways are the backbone of India so the people can relate to it. It’s a lot more daunting to go to a hospital. Trains are easily accessible and patients feel a lot more comfortable within that environment,’ says Neil.
When asked about his best decisions, Neil is clear on his answers. ‘My decision to choose dentistry as a career has been my best choice. I enjoy the ability to mix a professional vocation with commercialism and I love working with my hands and communicating with people,’ he answers. ‘I like running a business with a vocation – it’s a mixture that works well for me.’
‘I enjoy the interaction with the patient. Trust is the most important aspect of patient relationships. Patients are customers and patients. Dentistry is a retail business, but once they get into the chair you treat them as a patient. Anything related to the clinical environment – they are a patient not a commodity. My biggest achievement is that I provided a practice environment that wasn’t elitist.’
‘I am lucky that I have found something that I love and enjoy and it doesn’t feel like work. I am self-motivated and can’t see myself retired. I cherish being valued and while I am being of value to the community, which ever way it is, I want to continue to provide a service. Whether it is as a mentor, as a clinician, working in a charity or helping a business. I want to continue, grow my investment in dental practices and work with Bupa. I’m not good at sticking at one thing and need diversity in my day to day life,’ he adds. Variety is indeed the spice of life – especially in Neil’s case.