John Hughes DDS – Founder of Southern Arizona Endodontics
Go get a cup of coffee and find a comfortable place to sit, because you are about to hear Dr. Hughes tell the funny story about how he chose dentistry in the first place.
“Sometimes you end up doing what you do because you just bet you can do it.
I planned to get a PhD in chemistry. That’s where I was headed.
Walter Baisley, I’ll call him, to protect his innocence, was a year ahead of me at Oklahoma Baptist University. One night he came waltzing into the dorm waving an acceptance paper for dental school. Pompous beyond words, he said, “Hey, I got into dental school. Five hundred people apply. They just accept 80. I was one of them. Aren’t I neat?”
I said, “Walter, you’re so full of hot air. Anybody can get into dental school.” He said, “I bet you $100 you couldn’t.” I said, “I bet you $100 I can.”
That was $100 I didn’t have. Walter made a big deal out of it. A bunch of people were there to watch the scene go down. I had no choice. I applied to the University of Missouri Dental School in Kansas City. I got accepted without even going back for an interview. Waving my acceptance letter, I made a big deal out of telling Walter in front of these same guys, “I got in. Where’s my $100?” He wrote me a check for $100. The acceptance letter said they required $100 to hold the seat, so I forked that $100 over to the University of Missouri in Kansas City.
“I got in for all the wrong reasons, but after the first year there, I felt it was good for me, and I just went ahead with it.”
Dental school was great for John, but it wasn’t easy. He found himself working at three jobs in order to make ends meet: He tended bar, moonlighted as a phlebotomist, and since that wasn’t enough he also cleaned the building for his landlord. John recalls a particularly tough night when he sat on the steps contemplating his situation. He was cleaning up after another party to which he was not invited. It’s not that his buddies didn’t want John there, they just knew asking him was futile. John was simply too busy. “I won’t have to do this forever,” he consoled himself. But man! I am exhausted! … and I still have to study for a huge test tomorrow! ”
In the midst of it all, he had met the girl of his dreams. A wonderful girl with a cool name – Thompson. John couldn’t believe it. Thompson had agreed to become his wife, even though he hadn’t finished dental school, didn’t have a job lined up, and hadn’t even signed up to take his boards. John and Thompson were wed on June 25, 1966, right after graduation.
As eager as he was to be a practicing dentist, Dr. John Hughes worked as a roofer for the first 6 months after the wedding. What looked like a delay in their future actually turned out to be a blessing. Working just one job, getting to come home to his beautiful young bride with no studying to be done or midnight shifts to work, John was able to decompress after years of burning the candle at both ends and sometimes in the middle!
John took his clinical boards the following January and was soon working full time as a general dentist in Kansas City, Missouri. He went into practice with Eric Johnson, his long time friend from dental school. John worked as a general dentist in and around Kansas City for the next 15 years.
But the time came when John was ready for a new challenge. He describes it this way.
“I’ve never been a typical 8-5 dentist. When I was a general dentist, what I enjoyed most were the emergency calls. I would drop everything, go to the office, and do whatever it took to get the patient looking and feeling okay again. While I really enjoyed general dentistry, I didn’t enjoy the routine of it. I really got excited when I was able to help somebody out of a bind.”
One day, he was describing his frustration to his friend Eric who suggested he look into endodontics. Eric said, “John, with endodontics, pretty much every case is an emergency, you might like that.” Even though John was 40 years old, an age when most men settle into whatever they are doing, John seriously considered his friend’s suggestion.
About that same time, John was lining up speakers for a dental conference in Kansas City. “He had scheduled endodontist, Dr. Herb Schilder, from Boston University to be one of the speakers. If you don’t know Dr. Schilder, he pioneered an endodontic procedure immortalized in the film Finding Nemo. In the movie, Nemo and Peach, his starfish friend, live in a dental office aquarium. As they watch the dentist perform a root canal, Nemo’s friends says, “Now he’s doing the Schilder Technique.”
During the conference, John spoke with Dr. Schilder expressing interest in endodontics and the groundbreaking advances he was making at Boston University. When Dr. Schilder returned home, he called John and said he had an opening for a residency. Time was short and he told John he’d overnight the application. John completed the application and flew to Boston for an interview. At age 40, he was accepted into the two year endodontic program at Boston University.
John and Thompson leased their Kansas City home, fully intending to return after the two year residency. They rented a home in Boston for their growing family. A beautiful, old, drafty home on a harbor with a delightfully green common area out front where the kids played soccer during the warm months. John describes the time spent there as a magical time for his family. The one hour commute from the University allowed John to get home by 5:30 every evening.
While in Kansas City, they had over committed themselves with civic duty, volunteering at church and work. In Boston they found a balance they had come to cherish. As their time there drew to a close, they knew they had to choose. If they went back to Kansas City, they would pick up right where they left off and become over committed again. On the other hand, the frigid Boston winters deterred them from wanting to stay in the northeast. A good friend suggested they check out Tucson, AZ.
After more discussion and research, John and Thompson hopped on a plane to Tucson.They liked the Old Pueblo very much. An endodontic practice here offered John a position and they moved to Tucson. They agreed they would commit to a year and then re-evaluate. If it was a good fit, they would stay. If not, they would head back to Kansas City. But their hand was forced when after only three months, John was asked to either buy in or move on. They were not convinced buying into the practice was the best option. But they liked Tucson enough to try a different approach. John walked into Union Bank and borrowed $75,000 to open his own practice. Soon Southern Arizona Endodontics (SAE) opened its doors at Wilmot and 5th in Tucson. Arizona.
Some folks told John there were already too many endodontists in the area. But John knew he was going to offer something no other practice offered. True 24/7 service. No other endodontist in the area was available after hours. John was delighted to do what he had long wanted to do: be available to help people when they really needed help. Because John met a need no one else was meeting, his practice flourished. Within a year, he was overwhelmed with patients. Now, he needed help.
Thankfully, along the way, John met other dentists who were interested in pursuing endodontics. He would recommend the program at Boston University where he had attended. Upon their return to Tucson, he invited some of these highly skilled, like-minded doctors to join his practice. The first three were Dean Hauseman, Steve Chipman and David Burros. Those partnerships built and still form the foundation of SAE as we know it today.
Looking Back on His Own Solid Foundation
John says his father was by far the most influential person in his life.
“We were raised with an extremely strong work ethic. My father made sure we learned many different kinds of skills. One summer I worked for a plumber. The next summer I worked for an electrician. The summer after that I worked for a carpenter. My dad was a
hard worker and he expected no less from his children.
I worked all the way through school. I enjoyed working and still enjoy it. I don’t sit around too well and that’s partly because my father always expected us to stay productive. He also expected us to help people. We were always doing something for somebody in the church. Helping them paint a house or fix a roof. Growing up we just didn’t have idle time. I guess I still don’t have a lot of idle time. I don’t golf. I’m a project guy. I always have some project I’m working on.”
Doing What is Right vs Doing What is Best
Hard work and helping others. These are the two strongest aspects of John’s character and therefore became the foundation of his practice.
“What I enjoy most about being an endodontist is to look at the emergency schedule and see we’ve got 15 people scheduled after 3:00 pm that didn’t have an appointment with us this morning. These are people that have been up all night with a toothache or for whatever reason have issues that say they need to be seen on an emergency basis. I enjoy that aspect of this practice more than anything else. I enjoy coming in a room and meeting someone who is hurting and knowing that within minutes I can make them comfortable. I like that, I like being able to do that.
There’s the book called, “The Five Love Languages.” My love language is acts of service. I enjoy serving people and if you’d asked anybody around me who knows the five love languages, nobody has to try to figure out what I am. They know I’m an “acts of service” kind of guy. Which fits perfectly with the profession I practice.
I was raised by my parents not to do what’s best, but to do what’s right. Doing what is best gives a lot of wiggle room and begs the question, best for whom? However, if you ask yourself, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’, there’s no wiggle room. Knowing what is right is much more clear cut than knowing what is best.”
Intentionally Defining and Living by His Values
According to Dr. Hughes, living by your values is not a fly by the seat of your pants matter. It must be an intentional activity. So, he took time to write them down. He knew his values would be key as he set out to establish the culture of his practice. They would form the foundation of every decision made, every word spoken, every action taken. For instance, if one of the values is that every customer matters, that will be evident in the culture of the business and will permeate every aspect of customer interaction. It will also be evident in how it treats employees because they matter too.
Dr. Hughes realized that if he was going to establish the values and culture of his practice with his whole team he would have to be intentional about that as well.
“When we were first developing and there were just 7 or 8 of us trying to get this all figured out, we took a half a day every month and a full day every quarter and we would meet off site. We’d reserve a boardroom at a local hotel and we’d gather together to brainstorm. Meeting away from the office imprinted the importance of the meeting more than if we just met in our own little conference room.
We go in there with an agenda to work through whatever was needed to make our practice better. Now all 70 of us go usually to La Paloma for a half a day every quarter.”
These Round Table Events, as they are now called, are chock full of not just brainstorming sessions, but also team building exercises. The team participates in an activity to define their own personal values as John had done on his own so many years ago. They also explore the Five Love Languages as they apply in the workplace which helps them work more effectively as a team. These are just two of the many different activities the team participated in over the years to keep focused, motivated and on target with their values.
Another aspect of the office culture the team focuses upon is giving thoughtful responses to their patients. The responses given should reflect the culture of the practice and therefore require some preplanning. Even slight variations in wording can make a huge difference in how it makes a patient feel. For example, instead of asking a patient, “Have you ever been here before?” our team members will ask, “When was the last time you were here?” The wording of the first question could make the person feel forgettable, but the second approach gives the patient more acknowledgement as a person.
It is the attention given to these seemingly small details that has insured that the non-negotiable values John embraced early on have been been infused into his practice. Quarterly revisiting how these values are exhibited in the daily operations of SAE is what keeps them alive, fresh and at the forefront of every decision and patient interaction.
What the Future Holds
After devoting much of his life to building Southern Arizona Endodontics, Dr. John Hughes knew the time would come that he would step down. But he had faith that the practice was built on time tested values, and would continue to grow and flourish after he was gone.
“We’ve got such a great mix of people. I used to sort of run the place, but now I don’t run it at all. We’ve got a very strong culture and our team knows our values. If we start getting off track a little bit, somebody will say, “Wait just a minute! That’s not who we are, or that’s not how we do things.” Then we will revisit the issue in light of our values and come up with a great solution.
I used to be on the executive committee but now there are others taking over. Men like my first partner Dean Hauseman, Tom Kramkowski, Dan Funk and my son, Justin Hughes. They are an extremely eclectic group of men with differing approaches and personalities, and yet the common values of our practice run deeper than all their differences. Between the four of them, they make great decisions about the future of the practice. Southern Arizona Endodontics has a strong foundation and a strong enough team to continue on without me. Our core values are not going to change.”
Dr. Hughes may say he got into dentistry for all the wrong reasons, but all of us here at Southern Arizona Endodontics would say, “Dr. John, we don’t care so much about how you got started, we celebrate where it has taken you … and us.”