John Pantazis learned a lot about leadership in law school and in his subsequent legal career. But part of the experience he draws on to make intelligent, forward-looking plans as executive vice president, general counsel, and secretary at Heartland Dental comes from the gridiron.
“So much of success in business is about building a good team,” says Pantazis, who played defensive end at the University of Northern Iowa. “Football and other team sports are a helpful analogy because everyone is truly working toward the same goal. We push each other, and it isn’t always perfect, but we’re all pointed in the same direction.”
A Period of Rapid Growth
At Heartland Dental, that direction is advancing the art and science of dentistry, which remains somewhat of a cottage industry. Many dentists manage everything in their practices, including bookkeeping, marketing, and personnel. Heartland Dental is leading a shift in that industry, serving as a one-stop, back-office resource for supported practices—and the appeal to dentists is clear. With Heartland Dental’s support, they can focus more on their patients and less on the day-to-day administrative aspects of managing a practice.
The potential of this market is massive. Founded in 1997 by dentist Dr. Rick Workman, Heartland Dental had about five thousand employees when Pantazis joined the company in 2012 as its first general counsel. The organization has doubled in size since Pantazis arrived, and now has more than 8,700 team members who support 1,200 dentists at more than 775 offices in 34 states. More than 600 employees work at its headquarters in Effingham, Illinois.
Heartland Dental will continue to grow, Pantazis says. Despite rapid growth and the fact that the company is the largest player of its type in the United States, he says that the company serves just 1 percent of the market.
“Doctors are demanding our service because they like the freedom it gives them,” Pantazis says. “We have more room to grow than we know what to do with. We like to say we’re in the second inning of a nine-
Gathering the Right Team
Pantazis is confident that he can help Heartland Dental play a winning game. He enjoys that both the business and his job are constantly evolving as the company grows. At this point in the company’s evolution, his focus is on people.
“We’re working on building world-class legal, corporate compliance, and employee relations departments,” says Pantazis, who also oversees Heartland Dental’s dental insurance administration department.
He says part of the draw for potential hires is getting to solve problems that no one has had to deal with before. From a legal perspective, that means designing legally compliant architecture for different states and dealing with anticompetitive regulatory challenges.
The legal team isn’t the only group that solves problems. As part of a progressing dental support industry, every team at Heartland Dental has the opportunity to take on challenges. Above all, Heartland Dental team members get to make a real impact in an industry that mostly continues to operate the way it did decades ago.
“We don’t just shuffle paper,” Pantazis says. “We solve problems that need to be solved, and our employees have an opportunity to create an impact at the organizational level. You don’t get that everywhere, but you do at a growing company like this one.”
Focus on the Future
That opportunity to break new ground every day keeps Pantazis and his fellow Heartland Dental team members motivated and focused, and those opportunities should keep coming. Heartland Dental is growing on two fronts: building new dental offices and affiliating with existing ones.
“We’re always learning new things as we grow, so we always have to be open to new ideas,” Pantazis says.
That dynamic fits in perfectly with Pantazis’s management style. His strategy is to be the right type of leader for any given moment. This allows him to adapt to the individuals he works with. For example, someone with proven ability gets more delegation, while newer, more inexperienced team members receive more directing and coaching.
“When you deal with growth, you have to accept the fact that there will always be problems to be solved, and that’s OK,” Pantazis says. “You stay focused on what needs to happen, find the right solutions, and you have to be strategic.”
And of course, you need a great team that’s focused on the same goal. That’s “Team-Building 101,” whether it’s on the football field or in the boardroom.