In a profession whose practitioners are portrayed in pop culture as everything from milquetoast to sadistic, Bill Dorfman may be the closest thing the dental industry has to a sex symbol.
Dorfman is a regular on the ABC series "Extreme Makeover" as well as the best-selling author of a new consumer guide to cosmetic dentistry and his busy Century City dental office reflects it.
The walls are covered with framed autographed magazine covers featuring past celebrity patients such as Brad Pitt and Rosie O'Donnell. He's also recently married to a former Miss America contestant 20 years his junior, and in his bachelor days "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno set him up on a date with "Desperate Housewives" star Terri Hatcher at her request.
But at his core, Dorfman, a father of twins, still has a lot of the little boy who was fascinated with dentistry ever since a childhood accident required him to have restorative and cosmetic dental work.
It's the kind of focus that has led him to juggle a third life: as the founder and public face of a Culver City dental supply company called Discus Dental Inc., which has thrived with a hit line of dental whitening products. The company may go public next year.
"Instead of being afraid at the dentist, I was intrigued by the whole process as a little guy, and I never wanted to be anything else," said Dorfman, who looks far younger than his 48 years and whose own teeth are capped, veneered and chemically whitened like his patients.
The Los Angeles native has bona fides. He's a graduate of UCLA, the University of Pacific School of Dentistry and a prestigious residency in Switzerland. But most of the public knows him as "America's dentist" from his three seasons of improving the smiles of "Extreme Makeover" participants after they had been lipoed, augmented and Botoxed.
Within his profession, though, he and his partner, Discus Dental Chief Executive Robert Hayman, have had to endure being dubbed the bad boys of the dental supply industry. Their sin? Throwing a little Hollywood marketing into the mix.
They launched their flagship in-office teeth whitening product 13 years ago replete with upscale packaging and a provocative marketing campaign featuring models wearing little more than their shiny NiteWhite smiles.
These days, though, many of those once critical dentists are now grateful for the exposure the television show has given to the cosmetic dental industry and refer to the increased cosmetic business they have gained as "Dorfman dollars."
"It has been advantageous to the entire industry because all the other procedures that Dr. Dorfman performed on the show exposed the public to what can be done, in a very warm and non-threatening way," said Dr. Marty Zase, president of the American Academy of Cosmetic Dentistry.
Indeed, as "Extreme Makeover" rode the wave of popularity for makeover shows a few years ago, Dorfman even contributed to popular slang after he began using Discus's whitening process, Zoom, which is activated by light, on the show.
Though "Extreme" has been downsized from weekly series to periodic TV special, Zase said patients still come to his dental office in Connecticut asking to be "zoomed."
"Discus has an enormous amount of competition in teeth whitening and other products they sell, yet they've been able to turn one of their products into the verb for in-office whitening," Zase said.
Dorfman's medical career, celebrity status and entrepreneurial ventures have blossomed in symbiotic fashion that requires strict time management and the ability to function on only four to five hours of sleep each night.
A not atypical 24 hours for him last week included staying up late at his Beverly Hills home to return phone calls and spend some quality time with his new wife. That came after he supervised the homework of three daughters, including twins, from a previous marriage. (He shares custody with their mother.) The next morning, a scheduled staff meeting at Discus was short-circuited by the need to race to perform an emergency procedure. Then a planned photo shoot had to be shoe-horned between patients and his need to catch an afternoon flight to the East Coast to promote his book.
"Basically since the twins were born nine years ago I've been sleep deprived," he said. "My motto is: you can rest when you're dead."
Of course, Dorfman brought it on himself.
He was approached about joining the "Extreme Makeover" team a little over four years ago on the recommendation of a patient who knew show producer Howard Schultz, and a colleague, Beverly Hills plastic surgeon Dr. Garth Fisher, who already had agreed to be on the show.
Dorfman said he was leery at first, concerned that the show might both exploit the makeover participants and cast a negative light on his profession and his company. "The thing about television is that you never can predict how they're going to project you," he said.
But after talking with Schultz and other show creators, he became excited about the potential to demonstrate how cosmetic surgery can change people's lives for the better.
"It not only was a positive, uplifting experience for the patients, it also showed the public what could be done," said Dorfman, adding that he particularly enjoyed the impact he had on the individual patients' lives.
Meanwhile, Dorfman has had to deal with a growing Discus, which is now considered the largest direct-to-dentist distributor of tooth-whitening, oral hygiene and aesthetic dental products.
The company has the uncommon distinction of making both the largest and fastest-growing private company lists compiled by the Los Angeles Business Journal this year and last. Discus had $130 million in sales last year, and expects at least 25 percent growth this year.
Hayman, fresh from orchestrating a recent series of acquisitions designed to diversify the product line as well as increase its teeth whitening market share, said he's content to let Dorfman be the public face of Discus.
"He's our Col. Sanders," said Hayman, who cut his mass marketing teeth working in the Giorgio Beverly Hills fragrance and retail empire built by his father, Fred Hayman.
The company got its start with Dorfman's dissatisfaction with the whitening products available in the late 1980s, prompting him to form Discus in 1990, even though he did not yet have a product. Not long after, Dorfman met Hayman at a UCLA charity event and they became friends.
As it turned out, it was a serendipitous match. Hayman, from his experience in the fragrance industry, knew chemists who assisted in developing the company's first whitening product, NiteWhite, in 1992. Its big breakthrough: a flavored whitening gel that was more palatable to patients.
Hayman said Dorfman convinced him to come on board to manage the business end of Discus, with the company initially based in Hayman's tiny Beverly Hills consulting office suite. The business gradually expanded to adjacent offices and even the building's cafeteria before the company eventually moved its corporate headquarters to Culver City and manufacturing facility to Ontario.
"We had a lot of white-knuckle moments getting the company started," said Hayman, recalling that he and Dorfman funded the company on their credit cards before it grew large enough to attract a large bank line of credit.
Even with a dental practice, lecture commitments and book tours to promote "Billion Dollar Smile," which came out in September, Dorfman still puts in a couple of half-days a week at Discus working on product development and strategic planning.
But the growing company may soon require more of his time. This year Discus acquired two endoscopy companies, whose products for root canals are scheduled to be re-launched under the Discus name in early 2007. The company also acquired for $35 million most of the assets of Brite Smile Inc., a once high-flying publicly traded competitor that was weakened by management mistakes and an unsuccessful lawsuit against Discus over patent issues regarding Zoom.
The acquisition gave Discus almost 90 percent of the high-margin, light-activated whitening market, where the cost to patients can range from $400 to $600 for a treatment that can last anywhere from a couple to several years. In comparison, dentists typically charge $250 to $300 for the typical in-office and take-home tray whitening package.
In addition to its tray and light-activated whitening products, Discus also markets a line of dental instruments, dental impression and composite material, dental practice management software and a prescription treatment for canker sores. From its line of oral hygiene products, once available only in dentist offices, the company this year spun out its BreathRx line to become the first comprehensive bad-breath kit of its type sold in retail stores.
(Don't look for an over-the-counter version of NiteWhite, DayWhite or Zoom on drugstore shelves anytime soon, however. Dorfman is evangelical in his conviction that dentists should perform whitening.)
Reluctant sex symbol
The company has managed to avoid outside investment that would dilute insider ownership, with the BriteSmile acquisition financed by a loan syndicate assembled by Bank of America, Hayman said. But Discus has reached a size where future growth might better be financed on the public markets through a traditional initial public offering, possibly in 2007.
Meanwhile, Dorfman goes about his business, bemused by his sex symbol label.
He admits to being amazed that Cindy Crawford, a fan of the show, actually appeared more excited after being introduced at an event than he was about meeting the former supermodel. And when he met his future wife, 2004 Miss Oregon Jennifer Murphy, at the Miss America pageant, he initially considered her more a candidate for company spokeswoman than a potential girlfriend.
They eventually connected after he offered to get her a plane ticket to San Diego to try out for Donald Trump's "The Apprentice," rather than have her make the long drive to the audition. Murphy was chosen for the cast, and even received a job offer from Trump after being "fired" during the shoe. But she turned him down to be near Dorfman.
"She actually had to ask me out," he recalls. "I had figured she's way too hot for me."
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