Way up in Alaska, the
Libbys are the first family of dentistry. And they’re just getting started.
BY Alexandra Levine
ANCHORAGE, ALASKA, population 301,000: Somewhere amid all that natural splendor resides the Libby family. Four of them are dentists, one an orthodontist. Among those five, the Libby clan has created something of a dental dynasty in Alaska’s largest city; their family has treated and brightened an enormous
number of smiles there.
The first to become a dentist was James “Jim” Libby, who graduated from Loma Linda University School of Dentistry in California in the 1970s. He worked his way up in the field as an associate in Anchorage, gradually purchased a number of practices around him and eventually opened his own shop, which he named
the Libby Group.
Next up: his brother, Stephen, and nephew, Warren. Like Jim, both graduated from Loma Linda, Stephen becoming a dentist and Warren an orthodontist. They, too, would go on to build practices in Anchorage.
Finally came Jim’s sons, Justin and Landon, both of whom finished dental school at Loma Linda in 2011. “It was a highlight going through dental school with my brother,” says Landon, who is two years older. “We lived together and sat next to each other in class. We’ve been on the same wavelength our whole life. We’ve always been best friends and still are.” ‘
After graduating, Justin set up shop as a dentist in Anchorage, while Landon broke the family pattern by starting his career in San Diego. “I’m a big believer in the power of mentorship, and I committed to going anywhere in the country to find a mentor to work with,” Landon says. He found that mentor in Southern California. “I was drawn to the style of dentistry he was doing, his mastery of the business practice and patient experience, and his ability to lead a dynamic team. He had created that office that everyone looks at and goes, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’ That’s what brought me to San Diego, and I wouldn’t have changed a thing.”
Can you blame him? That’s also where Landon met his wife, who’s now the one hygienist in his office. Their daughter, Olivia, was born in June 2015, and the couple started Libby Dental in San Diego together just one week later.
Still, family is calling: Joining the ranks of Libby dentists up in Anchorage is undoubtedly in the cards, Landon says. “I have a strong desire to work with my brother and my dad. There’s nothing better than the idea of the three of us getting into an office together, creating an awesome energy and collaborating on cases to make people feel happy and healthy.
“My dad has practiced there for 30 years, so there’s also a ton of name recognition, and that always helps,” he adds. “Southern California is one of the most competitive places to be a dentist, and it’s tough being in a new spot where nobody knows your name. Practicing in a place where your relatives have already created that path for you is definitely a positive.”
“Practicing in a place where your relatives have already created a path is a positive.” —Landon Libby
More than just family ties are tugging Landon back to his native land, however; the Last Frontier itself has defined who he is as a person and a professional. Born and raised at the foothills of the mountains, Landon did manual labor and ran heavy-duty machinery from a young age. He remembers spending countless hours rummaging through his father’s garage, taking things apart and putting them back together just for kicks. He even flew planes. Growing up with that backdrop and pursuing those activities, in which he always used his hands, had a profound impact on his dentistry.
“It all stemmed from being a tinkerer as a kid,” he says. “Growing up in Alaska, you’re exposed to a lot of creativity. There are so many ways to do clinical dentistry, but people blossom in dentistry when they’re able to think outside the box. For me, the two go hand in hand.”
The great outdoors are still very much a part of all the Libbys’ lives: The whole clan does double duty as commercial fishermen for one month each summer. From mid-June to mid-July, they leave their practices behind and migrate en masse to Bristol Bay in western Alaska, where they run a large operation called Libby Family Fishing. Their wives, kids, aunts and uncles go, too.
Each Libby mans his own boat and the 1,000 feet of netting hanging off the back: Landon estimates that collectively, they catch between 40,000 and 60,000 salmon over the month; they then sell their haul to processors, who pay the dentists-turned-fishermen by the pound and distribute the fresh catch as far and wide as New York.
Like dentistry, commercial fishing has been a family tradition for generations, beginning in the 1950s when their grandfather first moved to Alaska. Landon bought his first boat in 2000, when he was 19; he hasn’t missed a summer of fishing since.
Landon, his brother, their father and other relatives trained for the same trade in the same place. But their experiences have nonetheless varied greatly. Jim Libby was one of the first dentists in Anchorage to make use of traditional marketing: He created a practice logo and hung a sign out front to distinguish himself. Technology is a whole different ballgame now, of course: A generation later, in Southern California, Landon engages with patients online, relying largely on word-of-mouth Yelp and Google reviews to promote his practice.
He and Justin now use technology such as 3D milling machines. “My dad hasn’t quite embraced that,” Landon says. “He bought his machine 25 years ago, before the technology was predictable, and he still has it sitting in his garage.”
The most useful technology in the Libby family’s toolkit, though, has always been the simplest of all: the human touch.
“My favorite way to distinguish myself is just by shaking hands,” Landon says. “I call it high-fiving: I want to shake five people’s hands outside the office every day and invite them in. When you create that hand-to-hand trust, that’s how you develop a strong upper hand. So maybe I’m taking it back to the old school like it was for my dad a generation ago,” he pontificates. “Going full circle as a Libby.”