Whatcom family has taken a bite out of a local niche market — and developed a family trade
|Ron, Jeff, Tony and Brady Hansen – with cousin Ethan Albachten – are all smiles. The family is deep into the world of teeth, and have been since Ron started as an apprentice for a dental technician in 1955.|
It seems the Hansen family trade has an addictive quality: every family member that tries it keeps coming back to it.
For a while, Tony Hansen stayed away. He started in high school, working for his father. Then he left, he said, to “sow his wild oats.” More than a dozen jobs and several years later, he was back working for his dad. That was approximately 12 years ago. Last year, he opened his own business in the trade his family has been involved with since the 1950s.
Tony’s wife, two brothers, father, mother, uncle, cousin and grandfather are all involved in the tooth industry in some capacity. Eric Hansen (Tony’s uncle), Ron Hansen (Tony’s grandfather) and Tony are all denturists.
Jeff Hansen (Tony’s father), Brady and Jason Hansen (Tony’s brothers), and his cousin, Ethan Albachten, are all dental technicians.
Tony’s wife, Marnie, is the manager at Tony’s clinic, and Tony’s mother, Susan, manages his father’s clinic. Even the Hansen family dogs — Bella, Emma and Stubby — wander around clinic office space. In an age when family members often do their own thing, the Hansens are an example of keeping a family trade close to the belt — or, in this case, the molar.
The Hansens admit it’s hard to keep track of all the details. What is a denturist? What’s a dental technician? And what is the difference between them?
The Washington Denturist Association’s Web site defines denturists as a “recognized health professional who constructs, inserts and adjusts removable dentures as well as over dentures on implants.”
“Most licensed denturists have served many years fabricating dentures,” states the Web site. “A denturist is trained not only in the construction of dentures but also educated in microbiology, physiology, oral pathology, head and neck anatomy and more. Denturists are an important part of the community of dental care providers.” In other words, patients who are missing any or all teeth could see a denturist.
Dental technicians, on the other hand, provide back-office support to dentists. After the dentist has taken a mold of a patient’s teeth, the dental technician uses the mold to create a wax replica of the teeth, from which he constructs any needed crowns, bridges, or false teeth. And dental technicians, unlike denturists, don’t deal with patients or go inside mouths.
However, the common denominator between the two occupations is of course, teeth.
For the Hansen family, this commonality has bonded them together since Ron started in the industry in the mid-1950s. After he got out of the Air Force in 1955 on the GI Bill — which provided for vocational education for returning war veterans — he went to work as a dental technician apprentice for four years.
After working as a lab technician at a dentistry for several years, he and a partner, Spence Putnam, started Hansen-Putnam Dental Lab in the mid-1960s — at which time Jeff came to work for him. In the early 1970s, that partnership split up and Ron started Bay Dental Lab in Bellingham.
Not long after the business split, Jeff took over operations of the partnership’s former Burlington operation. With Jeff established in Skagit County and Ron in Whatcom County, it wasn’t long before the family business started booming.
“My uncle was a dentist in Canada, so my dad kind of pushed me into this,” said Ron. “He was kind of the one that got me started.”
Ron’s father, who was the former owner of Cap Hansen’s Tavern in Bellingham, established a connection with the owner of a dental lab while he was serving in the military, and the owner agreed to take Ron under his wing to teach him the trade when he returned.
“(The owner) would go over and drink beer with (my dad), so when I got out of the service, I got to know him and he took me on as the apprentice,” Ron said.
Today, the family is firmly rooted in the industry: Eric Hansen, 46, owns Northwest Denture Center in Bellingham, and Ron, 74 — who sold Eric the business — has “un-retired” and also works at the center; Jeff, 52, owns Progressive Dental Lab, where Brady, 28, Susan, 52, and Albachten, 26, are employed; and Tony, 35, owns Hansen Denture Center in Bellingham where Marnie, 34, and Jason, 32, work. Finally, there is Ron’s grandson, Tyler, 23, who is currently training to become a dental technician.
Work done by dental technicians and denturists share similarities with sculpting in that they require a good eye and attention to detail.
“I think it’s more the craft,” Jeff said. “We’re kind of driven to build. It’s an odd business.” He said it requires both art and mechanical skills, in addition to medical know-how. “At the end of the day, we’ve actually helped somebody,” he said.
“Every case is different,” added Ron.
And sometimes funny, said Jeff.
“A guy came in with a missing front tooth, and he wanted a gold star on his front tooth. And we said, ‘Yeah, we can do that. We can do anything you want. We’ll do it.'” A month or two later, one of the man’s friends approached Jeff with a request.
“His buddy comes in and says, ‘I want to get my front tooth pulled so I can have a tooth with a star on it like my friend.'”
Brady is the youngest son in the business. Before he started working with his father, he said, he never expected to work in the industry. But…
“After seeing what it is, and what he did every day, I had no reason to ever want to do anything else,” he said. “It’s like being able to paint and sculpt – all in one.”
“A lot of times, people that know me come in and (say), ‘You’re always working with teeth,'” Brady said. “But like Grandpa says, there is not one that’s the same. You might find similarities, but there is never one that is exactly the same.”
In the end, it’s a question of pride and good business sense, said Tony.
“With a family business, it’s different,” he said. “It’s one thing to have pride in your work, but it’s (also) like you’re backing up someone else in your family’s reputation.”
For Jeff, one challenge of working with family is keeping the two roles — family member and employee — segregated.
“It’s sometimes hard to separate family from work,” he said. “It’s something that, for me, I find really important. It’s OK to throw a temper tantrum in the living room, but it isn’t so good here in the dental lab. It’s hard to separate those two sometimes.”
Brady said communication issues are easier when working with family members — especially concerning matters of efficiency.
“In some situations in other businesses, I could see it would be really hard to communicate what it is you’re wanting to say,” he said. “But when it’s your family, you can turn around and say hey, here it is. It makes for your working environment to be, I don’t know…”
“Cohesive,” Jeff added. “Sometimes you don’t have to say anything to know what each other means.”
“(Although) it might have something four-lettered in it,” Brady said, grinning. “But it usually ends up being a good thing.”
Ron said his sons and grandsons were always good employees.
“I always got more work out of the kids than I did having somebody work for me,” he said. “When I told them to do something, they’d do it. Maybe it was respect. Maybe they knew they had to do it.”
Family involvement in the trade may continue to grow: Tony has a 5-year-old boy and an 11-year old girl.
“They’re always very inquisitive. They love coming into the lab,” Tony said. “It’s like play time. They make plaster hands and those kinds of things. I could see my kids wanting to do it.”
The potential of the future seems to be smiling on the family — or at least showing a toothy grin.