How an Orthodontic Practice Changed Ownership Despite Tragedy and COVID-19

Ever since she can remember, Dr. Sheila Phelan says her dream has been to own her own dental practice. This year that dream became a reality in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic and some other unforeseen and tragic events that would unfold and change the timeline of her professional plans.

Dr. Phelan, an orthodontist at J. Bunkers and S. Phelan Orthodontics, says she’d discussed with her mentor, colleague and friend Dr. Jeffrey Bunkers, the plan that someday she would take over ownership of his orthodontic practice. In fact, she says, they had a timeline in place for that transition. Then, this spring, Dr. Bunkers became ill and suddenly passed away. It was a shock for family, friends, patients and staff.

Dr. Phelan found herself in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, mourning the loss of her dear friend and business partner, while knowing she had to somehow move forward with their original plans that she would one day own the orthodontic practice.

GJM Managing Partner Kevin Gilmore, who has advised Dr. Bunkers, his family and his orthodontic practice for many years, was able to be there as a liaison between the Bunkers and Dr. Phelan at such a difficult and emotional time.

“I’ve handled Jeff’s work for many years and saw him build his practice into the success it is today,” says Gilmore. “I considered Jeff not only a client, but a good friend. I’m glad I was able to be there for him when he needed my help with the sale of the business to Sheila. And I have no doubt she will have great success as she moves forward. She had a great teacher.”

“Kevin is a great person,” Sheila says. “I truly don’t think that I would be owning this practice right now if he hadn’t been that mediator and friend between me and Jeff.”

Dr. Phelan says she studied hard for 12 years, working toward her goal of one day owning a practice. A Michigan native, she completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan. From there she attended dental school at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia and did her residency at the University of Iowa.

“But there was a bigger dream than becoming a practice owner,” she says. “It was more about a place to call your own and a place to call the shots, especially as a female. I’m the first kid in my family to be a doctor. There were a lot of hurdles to jump through.”

For example, she recalls the times that patients would see a young woman enter the room and ask when “the real doctor” would be there. She says transition of ownership of a dental practice typically takes years. This transition happened in 2 months-time. At 31-years-old she found herself sole owner and was ready to put her own stamp on the practice.

“One thing I knew I wanted to do was automate the office. There seemed to be many opportunities to run things a bit more efficiently from a managerial standpoint. I want to be involved. Judy has been really good at teaching me some of the basics, like how to automate and streamline systems.“

Judy is Judy Anderson, a GJM partner and member of the GJM Healthcare Specialist Team. She also leads GJM’s Outsourced Accounting service line, working with clients who prefer to have a team of experts handle accounts payable, bookkeeping and many of the other financial management tasks involved with running a busy business or healthcare practice. She’s worked closely with Sheila to implement some changes at J. Bunkers & S. Phelan Orthodontics. They’ve transitioned accounts payable and automated some other accounting services. The COVID-19 pandemic has further reinforced the importance of automation in managing a healthcare practice, as the virtual practice has become a reality. Software applications allow Sheila access 24/7 to all the numbers, so there’s continuity, flexibility and transparency. The GJM team also helped to secure a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program, assisted with tax planning and has taken over administering the retirement plan.

“Outsourced Accounting isn’t the right fit for every business, but we have found that it works extremely well in certain industries, including professional services, the nonprofit world and healthcare practices, to name a few,” says Anderson. It also removes the need to hire someone internally to handle practice finances. “With our team in place, the owners can turn their focus to other priorities. In Sheila’s case, caring for her patients and developing her staff.”   

“My staff are phenomenal,” says Phelan. “When I hired each one, I saw something in them that matched the mission of the practice. That means a lot to me. The practice and owning it is a material thing. It works because of the people. I just want to keep making people happy. My goal in life has always been as a manager to create a setting where everyone likes entering. I try to make that happen every day.”

Dr. Phelan says she’s grateful for the opportunities Dr. Bunkers provided to her and has written a tribute to him housed on the practice website. The final line of the online tribute seems to capture her outlook:

“When I walk the halls of our office, I hope he is walking with me and I hope I can make him proud.”

Established in 1996, Gilmore Jasion Mahler, LTD (GJM) is the largest public accounting firm in Northwest Ohio, with offices in Maumee and Findlay. Locally owned, GJM offers cloud-based accounting and provides comprehensive services including assurance, business advisory, tax, risk advisory, healthcare management and outsourced accounting. The Firm’s professionals specialize in industries including construction & real estate, healthcare, manufacturing & distribution and utilities.

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