Calgary, AB
Married to Gina, father to Brayden, 14 and Helena, 12
BA, MSC, Finance, MBA
Career Highlights
5 years as chartered financial analyst with Merrill Lynch in London, UK; 5 years with a Florida based hedge fund
www.aurumgroup.com markm@aurumgroup.com

When a teenaged dental lab apprentice named Hans Maier first landed in Calgary from Germany during the early 1960s, his ambitions were modest: to make his way professionally in his adopted country and, hopefully, to thrive.

How did he manage? Pretty darned well, as it happens. A born go-getter, Hans wound up in charge of his employer’s dental laboratory by 1962. Within 10 more years, he had bought out his boss and partners, renaming the company Aurum (Latin for gold) Ceramic, after the primary components of tooth reconstruction at the time.

Along the way, he met his future wife and teamed up with a trusted associate named Richard Charlebois, who is now the vice-chair of the Aurum Group of Companies. Through decades of growth, some organic and some by acquisition, the Aurum Group has mastered a series of innovative technological improvements and currently specializes in every conceivable aspect of comprehensive esthetic and implant dentistry.

Most recently, company founder Hans Maier kicked himself upstairs to the position of board chair, while installing his son and longtime right-hand man Mark as chief executive officer of this family-oriented business group. Mark’s siblings, Grant and Tatyana, are also involved executives with the company supported by an outstanding group of long-term executives and staff..

An MBA who built a successful financial career in England and Florida prior to coming to work for his dad in 2004, Mark oversees a corporate group that does business throughout Canada and the U.S. Based in Calgary, the team employs about 550 technicians and administrators and consists of six member divisions that represent the best possible value in today’s dental market: From Root to Tooth, All Under One Roof.

At the moment, Team Maier is particularly excited about the Aurum-sponsored Dental Technology and Growth Summit, an industry-wide event scheduled for Oct. 1-3 of this year at the Banff Centre. Summit organizers have assembled an elite list of guest speakers that includes Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield and entrepreneurial superstar Arlene Dickinson from TV’s Dragon’s Den.

1. For those unfamiliar with the industry, how would you describe the Aurum Group?

We’ve really evolved into a broadly based dental company from what began as a full-service dental lab company, doing the full-service crown and bridge, as well as orthodontics, removables and dentures. At one time, the industry silos used to be well-defined. You were a materials manufacturer, you were a distributor, you were a dental lab, you were a supply company or whatever. Today, everybody is in everybody else’s sandbox. It’s just the way it is. That’s a function of many things, including off-shoring, which became predominant in the early part of this century. You had big corporate groups sending to China and the Philippines to get cheaper work. Plus technology has really exploded. Computer-assisted design and manufacturing became particularly prominent five or six years ago. Technology, software and new materials have evolved to the point where the industry is rapidly automating. All the traditional rules have been broken. Our story is an evolving one. We’re not the biggest player on the continental scene but we’re more than holding our own in the marketplace.

2. What was the impetus behind the Dental Technology and Business Growth Summit that your company is putting together in Banff this fall?

There doesn’t seem to be much interest in going to dental trade shows any more. But there are a lot of big capital decisions to be made in this industry, especially considering how quickly technological advances are coming along. You need good business skills to understand what the economic implications are of each decision you make. There hasn’t been a lot of industry leadership, not a lot of discussion about the economics surrounding these new technologies. We felt it was time to create our own summit, inviting some of the leading thinkers, even to step outside the dental envelope and discuss sound business practices in a general way. Then as the conference continues, we’ll narrow our focus to issues that pertain specifically to those of us in the industry.

3. Your dad strikes me as a guy very much involved with the present day. Does he ever reminisce about his early days in Calgary?

I ask my dad these questions all the time. I’ll ask, “How come you got bigger than most?” He’ll say, “I had ideas, I had a lot of energy and I had some luck. I was at the right place at the right time.” He took risks, he opened labs in many places, eventually. Calgary was a small, growing town when he got here, and demographics were on his side. It was a good time to be in the dental business, and he took advantage of that.

4. Since he was fresh out of school, I’m guessing he had to start on the ground floor. What was his first order of business, once he got to Calgary?

He went to work for another German who owned a dental laboratory. He was a ceramist, so he was building crowns every day. He worked long and hard and did well. By 1971-72, the owner wanted to move on to California. So my father bought him out. The technology of the day was ceramic-fused precious metals.

5. Where did things go from there?

He worked very hard and recognized early that the business needed to embrace the revolution in technology, procedures and materials that was going on at that time. He saw that the business needed to become a full-service laboratory, not just crown and bridge, for example, but to include orthodontics, removables (dentures and partials) and so forth. He was able to scale up the business quite rapidly, opening multiple locations in Canada: Vancouver, Victoria, Vernon, Kelowna, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Toronto, Ottawa and Charlottetown, plus Spokane and Las Vegas in the U.S.

6. Were there further changes to come in the 1970s?

Well, the ‘70s were pretty comfortable. By then, there were lots of companies manufacturing precious-metal-based alloys for the purposes of dentistry, and lots of ceramics companies. On a local level, the proprietor of the dental laboratory was a key driver. He was the guy who made the dentist comfortable, who did each case on time to the right standard and esthetics.

7. What was the nature of the market at that time?

For the operator of a dental lab, life was pretty simple for a long time. The market was stratified in the usual way: there were cheap guys, there were middle-priced guys and there were expensive people. And so life went on.

8. But things began to change rather dramatically when the 1990s came along, didn’t they?

Some of the big materials manufacturers figured out they could make all-ceramic crowns. They were monolithic. You didn’t have to layer or build up using different materials, and that changed the esthetics. Prior to that, a crown was either full gold in the posterior; or full gold, semiprecious gold with porcelain overlaid on it for both posteriors and anteriors.

9. Were precious metals pretty much eliminated from the process by that time?

These all-ceramics meant you didn’t need to include metal in the process. Patients didn’t wish to have a gold margin visible between the crown and the gumline. All-ceramic crowns enabled them to have something in their mouth that very much looked like a real tooth.

10. Did that development signal the onset of the boom in cosmetic dentistry?

With the affluence that was prevalent in North America at that time, combined with the evolution of ceramic technology, cosmetic dentistry exploded. Today it’s not as big a business as it was at its peak, say around 2008, but it’s very big nonetheless.

11. What was happening with your dad’s business at this particular time?

It was booming. Absolutely booming. It was hard to find technicians, so we were bringing in technicians from overseas. It was always difficult to find people who combined skills with productivity. Some people had decent skills but couldn’t work quickly enough to satisfy the demand for our products.

12. What contributed to the lack of good technicians?

There weren’t a lot of dental education programs at the time. There still aren’t. For whatever reason, there aren’t a lot of dental technician schools. I think in Canada there are only three, or possibly four, left and not many more in the U.S. But such schools were relatively abundant opening up across Europe, Eastern Europe and Asia. Dental technologists were learning the trade overseas and figuring out that once they graduated, they could make more money by moving to North America. Lots of them ended up working for us.

13. The Aurum Group seems to have grown exponentially since those early days. Has the company grown by means of acquisition or has it been primarily a matter of organic growth.

Mainly organic growth. Although, sometimes we’d find a small lab with a competent technician and maybe one or two other employees. We’d buy them, they would all stay on board, and then we would use our resources and ideas to help them scale up and build their location locally. Through good luck and good fit, we have bought some larger laboratories. We just bought one in Moncton, N.B., last year. This is an enterprise that has been around since 1942 and very well run. The existing partners were looking for another partner, so we assumed a majority stake in the business and they kept the minority. It was just serendipity, good fortune and good timing. The same applies to our newer locations in Charlottetown and Lethbridge.

14. Why did you join your dad’s team back in 2004?

I was working in finance at the time and he called to say the world was changing and business was getting more complex. By the early 2000s, the business was getting much more corporate. You were getting hitched to companies with big brands and you became their main channel to the market. Technology was changing rapidly. So he made the pitch and I thought it sounded great. The plan was for me to focus on technology and change while my dad looked after the side of the business he was most familiar with.

15. Are you and Hans the only family members on the team?

My brother Grant is a dental technician. He is two years younger and he has been working with my dad since the early ‘90s. He is reponsible for our U.S. operations and GM in Calgary. My younger sister Tanya Penalbva is the company’s legal counsel.

16. What was the situation of the Aurum Group when you came aboard in 2004? Was the company facing challenges?

Business was good; it was booming, actually. Still, we could barely get the work out the door. There were lots of moving parts. It was a matter of scaling up and adopting the new technologies and figuring out how they fit within the organization.

17. What was the Next Big Thing in the dental business?

By 2009, a process known as CADCAM (computer assisted design/computer assisted manufacturing) was becoming much more than a novelty. It was a reality within the business and it was becoming very clear that it would change the entire process. Basically, instead of people doing things by hand, they were able to design the product online with software and then that file would get sent electronically to a mill, which would create the crown to be finsihed by a technician.

18. When did this development become standard practice?

It started in the late ‘90s with the introduction of zirconium, a material that was being successfully used in hip replacements. It was white, super-strong, tissue-friendly, non-allergenic and it came into our industry only as a sub-structure. At the time, precious metal prices were going crazy. Instead of building up a tooth on precious metal, you could build it on something white, put a layer of porcelain on that white sub-stratum and you would have something super strong and super esthetically pleasing. Up until about 2009, zirconium substructures was were the story. Since then it has been full contour zirconium because its cheap and white, albeit with continously improving aesthetics.

19. Did that coincide with the onset of CADCAM technology?

By 2009-10, the software had evolved to the point that you could design virtually anything in dentistry. And multiple new materials had evolved, including wax, polymers, different ceramics, chrome cobalt and titanium. So the material sets, the software and the machining techniques that became available were perfectly tailored for dentistry.

20. Were these new materials, software and techniques readily available to North American dental labs?

Originally, a company such as 3M or Wieland, which has a major dental division, developed their own zirconium material, they developed their software, they developed their scanner, so you would scan the traditional plaster model and design the crown from that. They designed the machine as well. Lab operators bought this closed-end system from them, in its entirety. By 2009, we saw an evolution toward what was called open architecture. You no longer had to buy a closed-end system. You could choose your ownamong several softwares, choose which scanner and which mill you wanted to use. Plus you could buy materials from any number of branded or generic companies. And that’s where we are today.