Whatcom Dental Lab is featured on TruAbutment’s YouTube channel!

We had the privilege of being featured on season 2 of TruAbutment‘s YouTube series, InTRUview.

Check out our interview below, and get to know where we came from, and where we are going!

Jeff:

Just a few miles south of the Canadian border is a town called Ferndale, Washington. Now Ferndale got its name because of the ferns that once grew around the original schoolhouse. See i’m just full of fun facts today!

We’re going to Whatcom Dental Lab which started as a family business back in 1976 and today it still continues that tradition.

All right Nate, Rick, I appreciate you guys sitting down with me. This has been a family-run business for many many years. Rick started this business back in 1976 you have been there from the very beginning. Tell me how this all came about.

Rick:

Well I had no idea actually what I was going to do with my life. I did become a christian back in the military and when I got out I actually prayed and said, “Lord, you give me what you want and I’ll do that.” And it lined up for me very clearly. So I was hired by a man, doing pickup and delivery. He told me the very first day, he said, “I hate this business. I’m going to sell it in one year. If you want to buy it, I’ll sell it to you.” A light went on inside me and I thought,  that’s for me thank you {Lord}. And so I did that. I saved my money, sold everything I had and I bought it. 

Jeff:

Your son, obviously, now the tradition of keeping it in the family. Did you have any other thing else in mind that you really wanted to do or did you know that you know this is how it’s going to be? I’m going to work in the dental lab with my dad.

Nate:

You know there’s a few other career paths that I tried to go down, but none of them really panned out. I always had this, you know, as a fallback plan. He started me working here when I was 11 years old. I started doing opaquing,  and cleaning, and all sorts of little little odds and ends jobs. As I got older I just started liking the art of it, and my dad was very encouraging, you know. When I created something cool I’d bring it over and he’d be like, “Good job son, that looks awesome, keep going!” So it just kind of inspired me to keep going and keep going.

Jeff:

Well good good for you. You’ve got to be pretty proud. When you do decide to retire, you’ve got to be pretty proud and know that this you know the company the business is going to continue to thrive.

Rick:

Yes, very much.

Jeff:

So how did you build your team what do you look for? What’s your process of hiring?

Rick:

We have two guys out here that have been with us since they’ve been 18 years old. They are guys that have great attitudes, and they are willing to learn and do the best that they can. And so those kinds of people, with those attitudes are really rare. And lord willing when we find them, we try to treat them well because they’re just awesome people.

Jeff:

Do the doctors you work with, those relationships, do they come into the lab? They sit with you? Is it a close working relationship?

Rick:

Oh yeah a lot of docs will come in on a real complicated case and they’ll  at times stand over Nate’s shoulders, or Tom shoulders, to get what they want out of it. It’s very personal, yeah. They care about their patients and we like that.

Jeff:

The digital side for you, is that something that excites you?

Nate:

Our lab is very unique in the sense that we’ve learned and developed how to do things old school. Moving into the technology has really opened up a lot of doors for us. Not just with production, quality as well as gone up.

Jeff:

Continued education. How do you stay on top of the technology? What’s your go-to to get that education to continue to learn more?

Nate:

Just being curious, and looking into what…

Jeff:

That really is a secret, you have to be curious.

Nate:

Yeah. We’re just curious and we want to know. Like when we see things in magazines we’re like, how do we do that? And we dig into that.  We call technical support and we figure out a way.

Jeff:

Is that how the TruAbutment relationship started? Like how did that all come about?

Nate:

We went from doing nothing but UCLA style abutments. We ended up going down to Seattle and getting a course on CAD/CAM and we decided to purchase the CAD/CAM software. And from there we learned how to develop custom abutments and utilize the ti-base system. And so since then we started looking at all these different companies on how are we going to get these ti-bases, you know, and where are we going to source these from? We ended up getting a hold of Peter and,  it was like, you know, the rest is history.

Rick:

He took care of us. Yeah, he took care of us. He was just there, and his team.

Jeff:

So what do you feel like your dad has shown you or taught you over the years that really has taken this business to the next level to where now you can catapult it even further?

Nate:

He’s done a really good job over the years making this lab feel very welcoming to new clients and developing relationships with them. I mean he’s got relationships with doctors in California and Maine who you know you’ve been working with for 30 years and are super good friends with. When I work with new clients I put everyone through that lens.

Jeff:

Yeah I could tell just by chatting with you guys. Starting with you, but you guys have created such a really cool environment, So those relationships must come pretty easy for you. You guys make it very fun to chat with, and I appreciate you guys chatting  to me about all this.

Jeff:

So you guys. I mean starting a business coming together and really building a business is a dynamic that somebody wants to be good at, but it is a challenge that many fail at. But you two came together about six years ago. Tom, obviously you know Rick and Nate were together doing this for a long time. What’s that dynamic been like with you coming in? You bring a totally different style and expertise as well.

Tom:

Right yeah I came up from a lab in southern Idaho, that was when I left about the size that we’re growing to now. So I had a different perspective on how a lab could run. And I just tried to offer advice when I could, and over time I feel that they came to value that enough that they started including me in making some decisions. Things like that. And eventually became a manager and now, at this point, part owner. We have a shared faith. We have shared values. It’s just helped us to get on the same page in terms of what we see this company doing, and where we want to go in the future,  and how we care about our employees. And so it hasn’t been as much of a challenge as people think it can be because we’re just so united in where we want to go, and what we see ourselves doing.

Jeff:

Anytime you add on a co-owner a partner in a business it’s scary. The strengths are what you’re really looking for. What are his strengths that have been brought to the company?

Nate:

Well it’s actually easy. His strengths are my weaknesses.

Jeff:

Perfect!

Nate:

He tends to do a really good job just with the work, managing, and and thinking through problems and whatnot. Whereas I’m constantly, you know, five years down the road in my head; dreaming about bigger picture ideas. And so we balance each other out really well that way.

Jeff:

Tom, would you consider yourself to be technology driven?

Tom:

Yeah definitely, it’s one of the things that I love about what we do. I remember the first time that I had access to a 3Shape system just being able to move a model in 3D -something that I at that point had been holding in my hands for a dozen years or so- and suddenly there it is. Moving it with a mouse, and seeing what it could potentially become, and knowing like this is the future. This is going to be great. And just throwing myself into it. And then when I came up here, trying to get them on board too. They were ready; they just needed a little push.

Jeff:

 I mean when you bring technology in a digital driven industry, at this point things move so, so fast. Where would you like the business to be, in your mind for you to say, “This is it. This is where my specialty comes in, and this is what I’m truly excited about.”? 

Tom:

Like Nate mentioned, we balance each other out so well. He is the big dreamer, and I’m a little more nuts and bolts. And so sometimes I start out a little bit pessimistic about that, but he really picks me up and gets me excited and helps me see what we can do, and what we can become.  And so far he’s been right every time,  so  it’s pretty easy for me to just say, “You think we can do that? All right, Ii’m all in. We talk a lot about being community driven here. And so we want to fulfill all the dental needs of our clients around here. We don’t think there’s any  reason that they should have to outsource anything. We want to be kind of a one-stop shop. So we call ourselves community driven and quality focused.

Jeff:

When it comes to education, who handles that? With the employees that are here, the family that’s truly here. Who handles that between you two?

Tom:

So it’s a pretty good mix, really an even split. We both have  more than 20 years of experience doing this. We also both kind of started at the bottom and worked our way up. I was hired for pick-up delivery and model work 21 years ago. Nate  started, like he said earlier, with little simple tasks like opaque at 11. So we both have a lot of knowledge and share it as much as we can.

Jeff:

Relationship wise, with the doctors, who initiates that?

Nate:

One of the things my dad and I have done very intentionally over the last five years is transfer the relationships between him to me. Now we’re kind of doing the same thing between Tom and I. We’re trying to transfer relationships, and kind of hold those relationships 50/50 instead of it  just all being on my shoulders.  So when the dentist calls they’re not just like, “Hey is Nate there?” Now they ask for Tom for certain things and me for other things. We want to keep that small lab feel as we grow. That’s very important to us.

Jeff:

So we’ve talked about work. You got to have a work life balance. You Nate you got a little bit of a green  thumb. You know during Covid you really picked up,  you know putting together these planter boxes, right? Explain that.

Nate:

Well it was actually my wife’s idea.  She’s the one with the green thumb. I just like to build things and create, okay. And so it was her idea and I built one for her and started getting requests from other people. Her friends, and people on facebook,  and got a lot of orders in. We sold- oh man- we probably sold about 300 boxes in two months. It was pretty crazy.

Jeff:

Tom, you are an outdoors guy. What do you like to do?

Tom:

We play softball together actually. We’re on the same team. We like to involve everybody else too. We try to go out once a quarter, after work,  to take everybody out and just like, “Hey let’s go have a beer together!”,  to have a more intimate relationship with the staff and the employees, rather than just seeing them nine to five.

Jeff:

You two really complement each other. The strengths, the weaknesses, but really the communication between you two, it’s fantastic.

Jeff:

Rick, Nate, I  appreciate you showing me around the lab, telling me the story. I mean from 1976 until now, you can be pretty proud about having this guy take over.

Rick:

For sure.

Jeff:

And then for you, over the next couple of years I  want to come back and see where and how the business has grown.

Nate:

Yeah, well you’re welcome anytime.

Jeff:

Perfect. We’re gonna go hike around the mountains up here. Let’s do it. All right guys, thanks a lot. I appreciate it. Well a couple of great guys right there. It’s a great company in a small town, but this company here does a lot of big work. I’m Jeff Kraff,  join us next time. See ya!

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