Etobicoke’s Park Lawn Dental keeps their community smiling
Park Lawn Dental is a family business in every sense of the word. Walter Yim’s father opened the practice in 1972 and Walter joined him in 1988. He eventually took over the practice completely and continues to serve generations of families in his Etobicoke community. Park Lawn Dental’s friendly, welcoming approach to dental care has made it stand out in an increasingly competitive and commercialized industry. We sat down with Walter to learn about what inspired his unique approach to dentistry and how the right people – from staff to patients – can make all the difference.
Rogers Business: Tell us a little bit about your business.
Walter: We’re a dental office in South Etobicoke with a close staff of around eight. It was originally my dad's practice; he started in 1972 and I joined him in 1988. We moved to our present location in 2003 and we've been in the immediate neighborhood for 50 years now.
We're a family dental practice. That's always been our focus, but it has changed a little bit over time. Typically, as dentists get older, their patient base gets older, too. I have a new associate and she's younger, so she's starting to see more families. We’re also a general practice and we try to offer as many procedures as we can. We start with preventative care and do regular checkups and cleanings. We also do fillings, extractions, root canals and dentures. We try to do as much as we can to serve the community.
Rogers Business: What makes your business unique?
Walter: I think what makes us unique are the people who work here. My principal hygienist has been in the office since 1996; my office manager was my second child’s nanny. I’ve known her for 22 years and she’s worked for me for 20 years. Our receptionist has been with us for 19 years. We’ve all been together a really long time. My second hygienist was originally a patient when she was nine years old. She liked us, so she went to school to become a hygienist, and now she’s part of our team. That’s the feel of the place. It’s a serious business, but we have a pretty good time most of the time. We like each other enough to stay together.
A lot of our patients have been around for a long time; I still have some that were my dad's patients. We've had patients come to the practice for 30 or 40 years. The business is about dentistry, of course, but it’s also a sense of community and family.
Rogers Business: Where did the idea for your small business begin?
Walter: When we moved to the new space in 2003, it gave us a chance to evolve the practice. We had 700 square ft² and three operatories at our old location, and now we’ve grown to 2600 ft² and five operatories. When we had the opportunity for a larger space, we talked about what we wanted it to look and feel like. We have a front area that looks like a living room; there’s a big bookshelf with books that we all bring in. Before COVID, we’d encourage people to take a book, kind of like those pop-up neighbourhood libraries. We used to offer fruit, water, tea and coffee as well. It was better before COVID, but we’re searching for ways to get back to that while staying compliant with health and safety guidelines. Our office has warm colours and we have a lot of nice artwork displayed — the idea of the business is to welcome people in the way you would welcome someone into your home.
Rogers Business: Is there something that inspired your dad to start this business or something that inspired you to take it over?
Walter: It's inspired by my dad's idea of what a dental practice is supposed to be like. It's the old fashioned idea of a doctor with a bag doing house calls. It’s not simply a business; you really are trying to provide something to the community. I get a lot of stories about how my dad was with people who couldn't afford things, and he would say, “Well, I'll do it now and you pay me when you can, because I trust you to come back and do that.” Times have really changed. When you were in a small neighbourhood like that, you knew where people lived. You knew they’d come back. We want to keep the feeling that this is more than a business, that it’s not simply about money. Dentistry has changed quite a bit and you can see practices that are more commercialized with advertising and promotion. It feels like a business. We try not to do that because it’s not the feeling we want. The inspiration is to take a more old-fashioned approach.
Rogers Business: What made you choose your current location?
Walter: We love our neighborhood. We didn't want to move out from the neighborhood that we were in and this building was originally a local bank, so people knew the location. It's on a major street, The Queensway, but right behind it is a small neighborhood full of homes. We’ve been at this location for almost 20 years.
Rogers Business: What was the biggest lesson you learned as a small business owner?
Walter: There’s been so many. I think the thing is to try to think in five and ten year cycles and not in quarters. Don't worry about each month or each quarter. I used to always worry about things like cash flow and paying the bills, or whether we were going to be okay quarter to quarter. Now, I try to think of the bigger picture without sweating little things as much. I think that’s a really hard lesson because bills come monthly and the rest of the commercial world wants to work on short cycles, but you have to fight that and think about the big picture.
Rogers Business: Who or what was your biggest source of support when you started?
Walter: My parents and my family were the biggest support. You can't do any of this stuff without that kind of support.
Rogers Business: How do you get the word out about your business or how have you in the past?
Walter: The most successful thing has been word of mouth. We've tried all kinds of other things, like newsletters, fliers and the Yellow Pages, and we've had some good success with search engine optimization. Our Google reviews really help, but that only gets backed up by word of mouth. The best referrals are people who come to the office and enjoy the experience, then send people in with the same information about what the practice is and our business philosophy.
Rogers Business: What is your best selling product or service?
Walter: Our most common service is preventative care. I think that's what we're really good at, actually. I’ve always wanted to track how many patients of record we see by emergency, because if you’re seeing a whole lot of your own patients by emergency, then something’s wrong; you’re not doing the preventative work. We do have patients of record come in for emergencies, but usually it’s for something catastrophic — they’ve bitten down on something, they’ve had an accident or they’ve got a bad infection. But I think we’re pretty good at truly preventing issues. We have people that have come in for years and they’ve never had a filling. We’re all doing our job; the patients are doing theirs and we’re doing ours. That’s great!
Rogers Business: What is your vision for the future of your business?
Walter: As I get older, the vision is trying to have new, younger dentists come in and carry on the practice as we envision it. Dentistry is one of those things where apprenticeship and mentoring are really important. It's not done in any kind of formal way. As a young dentist, you really need to find a practice where you're comfortable and where you can achieve what you want professionally, so it’s about finding the kind of dentists that want to do that and sticking around to develop long-term relationships with patients. It's not always easy to find. It's a little bit like getting married; you just have to find the right person.
Rogers Business: What advice would you give to someone looking to get started?
Walter: Understand that hard work pays off. In the beginning, it’s really hard to start a business. You can be a genius and you can have all kinds of smarts and ideas, but really, it's mostly hard work. It's mostly being present, being conscientious and putting in an effort to show up every day, physically and mentally. I think that's the key to success.
Rogers Business: And what is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a small business owner? How did you overcome it?
Walter: The hardest thing is finding good people, but it's hard figuring out what it means. What is a good employee? What are good staff? I think what I realized over time is that the most important thing is attitude and not skill. We always look for skills on resumes, but I've learned to look for attitude in interviews, as in, “What is your attitude towards this work?” I'll take being a compassionate person over a very skilled person. If they're conscientious and they're compassionate, then they're going to work on skills themselves, but you can't teach attitude. You have a good one or you don't.
Rogers Business: What is the greatest reward you've gotten as a small business owner?
Walter: Seeing multi-generational patients has been the biggest reward. I have the kids of patients coming in, but I also have the grandkids of patients coming in now because we've been around so long. Seeing three generations of a family coming in is so rewarding. That's really nice to see.
Rogers Business: Where can we find your business online?
Facebook: Park Lawn Dental