Nov 8, 2017, 1:39pm
Fifteen years after joining her family’s Plymouth Meeting-based company as a product manager, Julie Charlestein in 2016 took over as Premier Dental Products Co.’s CEO — a position previously held by her father. Founded in 1913 and led by the family for four generations, Premier sells dental products, from drills to cheek retractors, in 75 countries around the world. Charlestein sat down with the Business Journal recently to talk about her first year in the chief executive’s chair.
Was your first year as CEO what you expected?
Charlestein: It was not at all what I expected.
I naively thought it wasn’t going to be much different. I was already basically running the company, but the minute that day came and I became CEO everything absolutely changed. There was a much heightened level of responsibility, accountability, urgency, excitement and fear. I was not anticipating that.
How did you react?
I just kept going. I just thought, ‘OK this is what the landscape is and this is what my role means,’ and I am very privileged and ecstatic to have it.
What’s been the toughest decision you’ve have had to make?
I don’t know that there has been one paramount, difficult decision. I’ve have been making changes, and sometimes it’s been at speeds people are not used to. I want to say to them, ‘I’ve been here for 15 years and I have been thinking about this forever.’
One of your major initiatives has been a rebranding of the company; can you explain why you’ve embarked on that?
We’ve been in business for more than 100 years. In order to stay successful and relevant in any business in any industry you need to constantly be revolutionizing and re-inventing yourself. Another part of it has been looking to have a closer relationship with our end users. We don’t sell directly to dentists. We sell to our distributor partners who sell to dentists. We want to garner a closer relationship and greater loyalty with the end user.… My grandfather always said, ‘Remember who you are.’ We’ve always known who we are, but we were never able to succinctly say, in a quick statement, who we are. With our rebranding we created that. We are “Premier...inspired solutions for daily dentistry.’ That tagline clearly explains who we are. Along with that, there have been a lot — operational and system changes, bringing in new people, marketing automation, CRM [customer relationship management] changes — that we’ve done to build the brand and build more recognition not just in the industry, but with dentists worldwide.
How has your relationship with dentists changed?
We are seeing a lot more connectivity with them. They are looking at the videos we are positing in greater numbers. We are being interviewed a lot in industry journals and we are seeing people react to that. We are doing podcasts now on other people’s platforms and we are getting huge responses.
You are the fourth-generation of your family to lead the company, but the first female CEO. Has that created any issues?
To me it has not been challenging on the business front. More of a challenge is being in the family, as opposed to being a women. That’s why I am glad before I came to Premier I worked outside of the company and outside of the industry [in lobbying, polling and telecommunications]. It is very important to be validated by people other than your family.… I want to make sure I am not being judged simply for being a family member, but instead for the work I do and the value I bring.
How has the industry changed during your time at Premier?
The industry has consolidated a great deal among the manufacturers. All of our main competitors are multibillion-dollar public companies, for the most part. On the distribution side, the distributors are garnering more and more power and control. There has been a growth in [dental service organizations] and corporate dentistry. There are also technological advancements, nothing that has revolutionized the industry in any great way, but more incremental change.
How do you compete with the larger publicly traded manufacturers?
In meetings I say, ‘Don’t forget for every dollar we have, they have $500,000.’ But the size we are and being privately held gives us many advantages. We are able to take a longer-term view and we are able to spend and utilize our money the way we believe is the most correct. Also important is the brand, It is well known and has a wonderful reputation in the industry. Dentists do ask for our products. We are also always bringing on new products. That will always drive the relevance. As long as we are bringing new, needed technology to the marketplace, and our name is out there, we are driving the relevance. We are able to compete with these large companies because we know what we are doing. We’ve been in this business for a very long time. We have outstanding relationships and we keep strengthening those and growing others.
What’s on your drawing board for year two?
Right now it’s strengthening the branding and marketing processes. We have the look and feel. We have the messaging. Right now we are looking at what processes we have to elevate that and ensure it is being translated into our work in the marketplace in terms of market share and loyalty. We recently hired a [chief marketing officer], a position we never had before, a gentleman named Chris Helle, to help us do this.
So are you having fun?
I love it. I totally, totally love it.… It’s unusual for businesses to get to a fourth generation, especially a successful business. I am so lucky for the stewardship and vision and leadership of my father and his father.
Was there ever any doubt in the family you would one day be taking over as CEO?
There was never pressure on me. There were never expectations. I always knew who I wanted to be, but not what I wanted to be. I knew I wanted to be fiercely independent and a leader. I didn’t know what that would look like.… I was the only [sibling] who was ever in the business, so it was a natural progression. I had been here 15 years full time. I started as a product manager and worked my way up. I worked through all areas of the business. About two years ago or so, my father started talking about not wanting to be in the CEO role much longer and from there the transition planning began.