Dental supply and distribution used to be diffuse, inefficient and inconsistent—a tale this 1932 giveaway calls to mind.

THIS SIMPLE six-inch wooden ruler has a story to tell that’s far more interesting than just its now-provocative company name. Back in the early twentieth century, before the days of UPS and FedEx, there were small dental-supply companies in every decent-sized city in the country. Larger distributors in major metropolitan areas employed a hub-and-spoke system that placed branch locations in the “boondocks.” Climax, in downtown Philadelphia, was one of those larger players.

The owners of Climax, it turns out, were very creative. They brought together four larger regional distributors, merged them (issuing stock based on the relative size of each company) and then took the whole thing public: an early version of what would now be called a corporate roll-up.

Some of our older readers might remember the other four players: Tampa’s Anderson Dental; Davidson Dental, out of New Orleans; Knoxville’s Keener Dental; and Tri-State Dental, in Phoenix. In the early 1980s, this first-of-its-kind distributor consolidation was baptized Codesco (a corporate-speak name that kind of makes you pine for Climax). Codesco did well for a while, the owners sold their stock and rode off into the sunset, and then other, less-talented managers took over. Codesco was eventually folded into another large conglomerate.

Other consolidators followed: Sullivan Dental, Saslow Dental and, of course, the largest, Healthco, which at its peak had over 100 storefronts and, believe it or not, 100 individual inventories. Healthco, too, is history, as are hundreds and hundreds of small dental suppliers and the consolidators mentioned above.

The good news—I vouch for it personally— is that the dental supply and equipment market today is more competitive, more efficient and more service-oriented than in the years when we had 500 inefficient distributors roaming the country. There might not be any Climax, but today is actually considerably better than the “good old days.” •

LARRY COHEN, Benco Dental’s chairman and chief customer advocate, has over the past half-century collected hundreds of unique dental artifacts, which reside at Benco’s home office in Pittston, Pennsylvania.