After graduating from University of California, Los Angeles in 1989, Stephen E. Thorne IV found himself in a tough job market, so he began working at his father’s dental practice in Victorville.
“My father asked me to put a computer system into his practice, and since I was pretty good with a computer, he asked me to computerize his practice,” Thorne said.
That initial step led Thorne to get an in-depth look into how a dental office works. In 1994, he started Pacific Dental Services, which is based in Irvine.
The company, often known as PDS, has been on Inc. Magazine’s 5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in America for 13 years in a row.
It now has more than 12,000 employees and generated $2 billion last year. It’s become a pioneer in what nowadays is known as a DSO, or dental support organization, which runs the back offices of dental shops nationally.
Thorne was one of five honored at the Business Journal’s 21st annual Excellence in Entrepreneurship Awards held on May 26 at the Irvine Marriott.
“When we started, there really didn’t exist a dental support industry,” Thorne told an audience of almost 300 at the Irvine Marriott hotel. “Now it’s about 30% of the dental market in the United States. We are disrupting the industry.”
Besides an economics degree from UCLA, Thorne also has a master’s degree in health services administration from Chapman University.
Through the years, he’s had to convince dentists about the value of his company handling managed care contracts to billings to collections. His firm would handle just about anything for the dentists, except for the actual dentistry.
“The essence of the Pacific Dental Services business model is simple: enabling clinicians to focus more on the patient and worry less about the business,” the company’s website says.
PDS says it was the first dental organization to implement Epic, the most widely used comprehensive health records system, into its supported dental practices. Organizations using Epic can exchange patient data for improved patient care, allowing PDS-supported dentists and specialists the ability to coordinate care with other clinicians who serve their patients, closing care gaps and reducing duplication. Patients can see dental health history all in one place, which helps them connect oral problems with the rest of their bodies.
Thorne led the company’s efforts on a one-of-a-kind dental-medical practice in support of whole-body health with the opening of three healthcare practices in one convenient location: Union Village Modern Dentistry, Union Village Kid’s Dentistry, and Union Village Medical Group in Henderson, Nevada.
This concept increased access to comprehensive care and enables patients to be seen by clinicians who understand the critical link between oral health and whole-body health.
He’s also started three schools to help dentists learn more about the industry, business and leadership.
Orange County has become a center of the American dental industry.
Besides PDS, Irvine-based Glidewell provides custom dental restorative services, Brea-based Envista Holdings Corp. (NYSE: NVST) has jumped to a $6.8 billion market cap by providing a range of dental products, and Irvine-based Smile Brands Inc. has 8,000 employees with $1 billion in annual sales.
Dr. John Pham, founder of the dental products maker InBrace, which provides braces that are almost invisible, also won an Excellence in Entrepreneurship Award (see story, page 4).
It wasn’t always easy for Thorne, such as during the 2020 pandemic when dentistry was declared nonessential and only 5% of dental practices were open.
Thorne started off 2020 believing his company could grow sales 25% to $2 billion. Two months into the pandemic, he thought sales might fall as low as $1 billion. He had to temporarily lay off 8,000 of his 13,000 employees.
“At certain stages in your career where you wonder if you’re going to make it,” he told the May 26 audience.
As it was, sales rebounded in the second half of 2020 and were down 1% to around $1.6 billion.
PDS currently provides business support services to over 850 dental practices throughout 26 states. It plans to open 100 new dental practices within existing markets in 2022.
Thorne is also active in the community. He was instrumental in forming the Association of Dental Support Organizations (ADSO), which represents some of the largest DSOs in the world; he served as the founding president for the first three years.
Thorne is a member of the Dean’s Advisory Board at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine, and at A.T. Still University Arizona School of Dentistry & Oral Health.
He’s also on the executive committee for the CEO Leadership Alliance Orange County.
Additionally, PDS provided $8 million in donated dentistry and 53,584 volunteer hours in 2021.
The organization was recognized by the Business Journal as a 2021 Companies that Care honoree.