A New Leader Takes the Wheel
An exclusive interview with Richard Laube, the new CEO of Nobel Biocare, on his plans for how to drive the customer-driven company back on track.
Inside Dentistry: You’ve worked at Roche, Proctor & Gamble, and Nestlé. You have a very strong executive background in consumer product companies. Because Nobel Biocare’s consumer is ultimately the patient, how do you think your background will impact the way you form your own vision for Nobel going forward?
RICHARD LAUBE (RL): The 30 years I’ve spent in companies like P&G, Roche, and Nestle definitely gave me a unique perspective on how to think about customers whether they’re consumers, as you would call them, or patients, the way they’re thought of in the dental industry. Coming to Nobel Biocare, that mindset of just looking outward and trying to understand what the customer is looking for is what drives me and is starting to drive the organization. We’re constantly asking ourselves: What is our customers’ experience, what we can do to improve that experience, what advantages do we offer, and how do we, every day, think of that relationship and that customer experience to make it better? That’s just in my DNA.
ID: What attracted you to Nobel Biocare?
RL: Nobel Biocare is a very special company. It’s done some great things. In the past 40 years we have pioneered our industry and introduced many innovations in implant dentistry that have become a standard in the industry. It’s a great professional challenge for me, to build on our legacy and help establish Nobel Biocare again as the true leader in our industry.
ID: When many in North America think of Nobel, they think of its very rich, storied history in paving the way in research, development, and quality. The challenge, perhaps, is to figure out where it’s a little bit off the tracks. Your market share is still pretty outstanding in the implant world. You are facing some challenges with the economy. How do you forge a new path for Nobel and still pay homage to that rich history?
RL: By studying our rich history you will find that what made Nobel Biocare the leader was innovation, dedication to our customers and their patients, as well as providing superior quality in everything we do. I’ve been in business long enough to know that a company is not going to grow if the customer is not being served properly through innovation, quality, and a solid relationship with customers such as is unique to Nobel Biocare. Today, we can’t do it the way it was done in the 1980s and the 1990s, but we can capture the same spirit and move forward. And that is what we are working on.
ID: You’ve been the CEO since April 2011. How’s it going so far? What is your assessment of Nobel’s core strengths? What do you think are the real strengths of the company?
RL: We look for an open dialogue with our customers and also get a lot of feedback from them. We know that our core strength is our superior product quality. I think virtually every customer I’ve spoken with is with us because of the products we have today. We have products that can do things that others cannot yet. We have outstanding people. They are—and I say this with great comparison and lots of experience—they are bright, dedicated, and go the extra mile. But looking ahead we need to bring the organization together in a way it hasn’t been brought together in the last 5 or 6 years, and that is to renew the spirit of serving customers in a unique way. Those are the two main elements. The brand Nobel Biocare consists of its products and how customers use it, and our people, and both of them are not on the balance sheet. Those are intangibles. You hardly can measure the value of those assets but they are business critical. So the direction is set. It shall be a pleasure and rewarding experience to be connected to Nobel Biocare.
ID: What are your top initiatives for 2012 and 2013?
RL: As I mentioned before, customer focus and product innovation are our two key priorities. Superior customer satisfaction is key to us and, therefore, we are in the process of designing an organization to better respond to customer needs. As a first important step we have established a global sales and customer development department under the leadership of Melker Nilsson. We will be adding more value for our customers and their practices, whether it’s a laboratory or a surgical specialist or a restorative dentist. And speaking of innovations, we have plenty of ideas, we have more ideas than we can act on, but we have to act on them in a systematic way. Innovations from Nobel Biocare shall be meaningful and help our customers treat their patients more safely and more effectively while offering them more treatment choices at different price points. I think we have some good examples that are emerging right now with the NobelReplace Conical Connection, the NobelReplace Platform Shift, and NobelActive 3.0, as well as the new NobelClinician on the Mac. Those are innovations that serve a clear market demand.
ID: You just mentioned that Nobel Biocare has introduced three new implants. Why does the market need three new implants? What is the real new benefit to clinicians and patients?
RL: The major clinical themes we are addressing with new products are long-term treatment success, osseointegration, soft-tissue management, and minimally invasive treatment concepts. We are probably the most experienced company in these fields but I’ve learned over 30 years at other companies that customer expectations are continually changing. What was considered acceptable in the 1980s in terms of osseointegration is no longer the acceptable expectation in 2012. Customers are now expecting higher survival rates. Now it’s other dimensions that define success within the industry. You’ll see that with every industry—whether it’s software, cars, diapers, detergent—you have to continually innovate because the standards that the customers are expecting are continually changing. There will be a never-ending stream of innovation in implants, abutments, prosthetics, software, scanners—the tools that are going to perform the restoration. I think one of the great innovations most recently is NobelActive, and we continue to innovate even this unique and very successful implant family. The latest introduction is NobelActive 3.0. It is the two-piece implant that goes where others cannot. This small-diameter implant you need for narrow spaces. It is specially designed for the placement of single-unit maxillary lateral incisors as well as mandibular and central incisors and made of the strongest type of titanium. There are very few competitors out there that can deal in these small, narrow, highly esthetic zones. It allows us to properly present the entire NobelActive line-up, particularly for customers who may not have used the product, but understand the merits of the 3.0. Another example is our new NobelReplace Conical Connection. It offers the proven implant body of NobelReplace that delivers excellent initial stability with an advanced third-generation internal conical connection. The new connection is designed to preserve marginal bone by minimizing micro-movements and potential micro-leakage. It also withstands higher torque and lateral loading stress and thereby minimizes forces on the retaining screw and prosthetic component. The implant has been designed with an integrated platform shift to increase soft-tissue volume for higher esthetics.
ID: What are NobelClinician’s main advantages? How is it unique?
RL: As the standards and expectations of implant procedures increase constantly, a craftsman approach by feel and look is no longer the standard of care today. When you see the complexity of many procedures and the increased expectations in treatment results, to do that without the best possible planning involved is simply not within the best interests of the patient over time. Here is where NobelClinican, the diagnostic and treatment planning software, comes into play. That kind of planning software is going to be the standard in the industry. NobelClinician with guided surgery enables safe and minimally invasive implant surgery that results in less patient pain, reduced swelling, and shortened healing times. When you see that an increasing number of dentists in the United States are using a Mac and we’ve come out with NobelClinician on the Mac OS X and Windows, and it is the only planning software for both Mac and Windows available today, that’s a real advantage.
ID: Nobel has a significant investment and very strong relationships with a number of schools. What are your plans with the university partner program? Are you going to continue to maintain those relationships? Will you add more schools?
RL: At this stage, for me, this is an investment with customers and I think in principle we definitely want to be working with universities, because they are the foundation of training and education. I think our emphasis in the future will be more on our expertise in implant treatment concepts. We will be more specific in our cooperation with the universities. We are very much going to cooperate with universities going forward, but I think it will take a different form. I think it will be much more specific and tailored to our business and the university’s needs.
ID: Nobel has a significant investment in CAD/CAM, and you were one of the early leaders with Procera. Talk a little bit about what role CAD/CAM and NobelProcera plays in the future of the company. How much of an emphasis is it going to have regarding the restorative side of the business?
RL: CAD/CAM-based prosthetic solutions are a big part of our strategy. Many customers who are working with NobelProcera are also some of our heaviest implant placers, so our expertise in implants and CAD/CAM prosthetics go inextricably together. Currently we are doing very well with our high-precision solutions such as implant bridges, overdenture bars, and individualized abutments. These products are amongst the best you can get on the market in terms of quality, strength, precision, and fit. I don’t think anyone can construct a 14-unit implant bridge the way we can, and I look at some of the overdenture bars that are coming out almost as science fiction. However, the business has become significantly more competitive. Much of the business has become chairside, or in-house milling at the labs. Quite possibly we are not caught up to all of the developments that have occurred over the last 5 to 10 years. We’re in a catch-up phase that started in 2009, and now we’re at the stage of the program where we’re generally very comfortable with what we put out onto the market. There are a few areas, a few modules and products that we’ve got to bring back up to the next level, so we’re going to use the next 12 months to really make sure that what the customer gets is the best product available today.
ID: A common theme seems to be around innovation, around customer service, about really bringing Nobel Biocare back to its strengths and keeping that on track for the next few years. Can you share anything that you might have in the pipeline right now?
RL: Not specifically, but we have discussed a way forward in very, very different terms where we’re moving away from what is a cool product feature to what are the benefits of the customer for the patient. We talk much more about soft-tissue management, minimally invasive treatments, ease of use, long-term success, affordability, or what sort of solutions could we offer the edentulous patient? We still talk about osseointegration and some of the fundamentals of what is essential in the industry. It may sound very subtle to move away from “Wow! This is a cool thing!” to “This is the benefit.” What I mean is success drives innovation. We don’t want to be coming out with just a nice idea if it doesn’t make sense for the customer and the patient, and we don’t want to come out with an idea that isn’t rigorously and thoroughly tested. We want to be sure that when the product hits the market, that it is absolutely the best in quality and that the customer’s experience is a fabulous one.
ID: One of the key things that everybody thinks about and talks about is enhancing collaboration between specialists, GPs on the restorative end, lab technicians, lab technology, and getting all of them to work together for a better result for the patient. How will Nobel Biocare support that big need in the marketplace?
RL: Thank you for that question, because that is one of the reasons we brought Melker from North America to our global operation, because in the United States, that is a big effort of the added value that Nobel Biocare is already starting to bring to these teams together with the surgeon, the restorative dentist, and the laboratories that have to work together in unique ways in order to provide quality patient care. Now, some of those teams have become real, physical teams, but much of the market is still working in virtual mode, where we’re bringing them together for study clubs and other educational initiatives. We’re extremely well placed to do that. That needs to be expanded in many, many more markets where we operate, and that’s the kind of value-added service that we can bring back into the market. It’s very difficult for individual customers—the restorative dentist, the surgical specialist, the laboratory technician—to find the energy and step out of their usual patterns to bring themselves together in unique ways. We can help do that, and I think that we are, on an increasingly bigger scale.
ID: Can you talk a little bit about what is your biggest market in the world right now, and what do you think are your top one or two emerging markets?
RL: The biggest market is the United States, and I have a very clear picture of a strong position here—it’s getting stronger every day and it is the priority market for me. I see much innovation coming out of the United States; I see its competitive mindset, and the nature of the customers is extremely important for us to learn. There are a couple of European markets that also offer that. Germany and France have different systems but are very important markets to study, learn, and master. We have a very strong position in Japan, even while it’s taken a bit of a step back, unfortunately, since the tsunami. It’s starting to come back nicely and, in a very unusual way, this disaster has allowed us to step back and ask where the market is there—how is it forming, how is it shaping, and we are reinvigorating our activities there accordingly.
In emerging markets, we’ve been doing extremely well in China recently. We have a very, very strong team in place in China and we’re seeing very robust growth rates. India is possibly 10 years behind China, but it too is an emerging market. Clearly the need is there, but the patients who can afford implant treatment are now emerging and we’re gaining a good toehold there.
We’re heading in the right direction again in Brazil and Russia as well. In emerging markets, we’re probably in a better place than anyone that I can think of.
ID: Will acquisitions be an important part of your growth strategy? How is the global economy impacting Nobel’s operations? Other global companies that were not previously involved in implants are now moving into implants in a significant way. How do these factors affect your planning and long-term outlook?
RL: Since the global economic slowdown began in 2008, Nobel Biocare has been hurt, and in some ways disproportionately. We had a business that was increasingly driving toward high esthetics, really cutting-edge treatment. We’ve had to adjust, and I personally believe that while esthetics are critical, function is as well. If you look at our market share, we own the anterior, and we’ve been hurt in the posterior. We’re adjusting our innovation, our thought process around that. We have to get the organization configured to the realities of the marketplace. We’re no longer dealing in a market that’s growing 15%, 20%, 25%; we’re dealing in a market that’s growing in mid-single digits. That requires a different discipline in expenses, in reviewing investments, and making choices, while it is very clear that we will not be able to do everything the way we envisioned 3 or 4 years ago. Acquisitions for Nobel Biocare have been along the lines of accessing important technology for our future. Procera is a good example. It was acquired back in the early 1990s, and it’s at the stage of many years of growth. We acquired Biocad in 2008, and that’s an important component for NobelProcera with overdenture bars in our software development. It is coming into place and I believe it is a very important acquisition for us. We’ve acquired Alpha Biotech, primarily to access NobelActive. That has proven to be a very, very important acquisition for us. We will continue to look at the ideas involved in the acquisition, and if we see an idea that is an important piece of our strategic innovation puzzle, we’ll look at it. We will not go after acquisitions just for sales or because companies are available unless we find something special about a company that says, “we need to partner now.”
ID: Let’s talk about your customer’s customers. Let’s talk about clinicians as customers and patients as customers. How can Nobel assist with patient education, case acceptance, and successful outcomes for both clinicians and patients?
RL: We have reorganized internally quite a bit and we have moved sales support and what we call marketing into this organization of customer development. We can help customers attract patients, and there are three behaviors that are critical for a dentist to master. The first behavior is the ability to get patient flow into their office, and we’re working with an increasing number of dentists in helping with direct patient marketing activities. This is not Nobel Biocare doing it; it is the dental practice doing it. We are helping them partner with certain suppliers that have skills in that and help set up websites, help set up direct patient advertising, patient seminars and much more. Some of our US customers are very effective at driving patient flow—what we call leads—to their practice. The second behavior is that once the patient is in the practice, how do you assess and diagnose whether implant treatment is the right treatment for that patient? We’re not advocating one way or the other, but there are a lot of diagnoses that can qualify for an implant restoration and achieve longer-term benefits for the patient. The third behavior is if an implant restoration is the right restoration, how does the dentist convince the patient, because it’s often not reimbursed and it’s not the cheapest thing the patient is going to have to pay for, so what can a dentist do for the patient to get that case acceptance, and here we help the clinician with our expertise too. A good, long-term restoration creates good value for money over a period of 5 to 10 years relative to other restorations. If you can effectively highlight the benefits, not “sell” them, the patient will understand and the acceptance for the treatment will increase, and so will your productivity.